Forget about Bordeaux and Burgundy; you’ll find France’s most fascinating wines—and winemakers—in this little-known region on the Swiss border.
In the past year, the Jura has suddenly entered the mainstream. In Stephanie Danler’s smash hit novel, Sweetbitter, Tess’s emotionally charged education is kick-started with a “blur of satisfaction” by a glass of Jacques Puffeney’s troussau. A bottle of Jura vin jaune that was bottled two years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence sold in a landmark auction for the highest price ever recorded.
Jura grapes have even been planted in California and are subsequently cropping up on wine lists everywhere from Plant Food + Wine in Venice Beach to Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern. So why the sudden fuss? How did this little region get plucked from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight to become the coolest kid on the oenological block?
Quite simply, the wines made here are unlike those produced anywhere else. And after years as a whispered secret among bartenders, sommeliers, and intrepid travelers, word has finally gotten out.
Not that you’d know it if you visit the Jura. This remote, bucolic region—scattered with tiny villages and set to a soundtrack of tinkling bells of Montbéliarde cows—is the antithesis of Disneyfied wine country. Days here are spent idling between appointment-only cellar doors, strolling quiet lanes, and gorging on the local cheese, comté.
The other reason the Jura’s popularity has soared is the growing interest in natural wine, even if experts can’t quite agree what “natural” actually means. Technicalities aside, the movement is driven by a desire to shun mass-produced wines for those made on a small scale with passion and little chemical intervention. Nowhere encapsulates this approach like the Jura, which is to wine geeks what Comic-Con is to cosplayers.
Perhaps the easiest entry point to these atypical wines is the sparkling crémant du Jura, the style most produced here. The Jura is one of a handful of French regions to produce crémant, which is made by the same strict processes as champagne. Often only chardonnay grapes are used, making the fizz unusually light and delicate.
Next on the tasting table should be the Jura’s hallmark, vin jaune, aged like sherry under a voile (film) of yeast. This deep-yellow wine is nutty, complex, and intense—and may be the most unusual wine you ever drink. It’s made from the grape savagnin, and each vintage is aged for an astonishing six years in an oak cask.
Still standing? The Jura’s most likeable wines—light yet complex reds—are yet to come. Two signature grapes are planted here: trousseau, a once little-known varietal now making inroads in California, and the obscure ploussard, found almost nowhere else in the world.
The latter is used to make deliciously fruity reds, cherry pink in color and almost rosé-like to the untrained eye. They’re often served chilled.
The other reason for the Jura’s notoriety among wine lovers is its winemakers, who like to occasionally be a little provocative. Perhaps best known is Jean-François Ganevat, whose decision to once use erotic, nude sketches on his labels forced some international distributors to sign waivers. The suggestive line drawing of a woman with her hand down her underwear on his 2014 vintage, J’en veux !!! (translation: I want some), even had to be replaced with a text label in Canada. These days Ganevat labels are a little more serious, mostly illustrated with pencil-drawn landscapes of the region, but many retain a distinctive red wax seal on top of the cork.
Stéphane Tissot has courted controversy in a different way, pioneering little-before-seen organic viticulture back in 1999, then embracing biodynamic winemaking in 2004. The latter is the equivalent of channeling “celestial energy, cow horns and howling at the moon” for some wine writers, but a sustainable, sensitive, and magical way to make wine for others.
Other winemakers keep a lower profile. Michel Gahier might be one of the Jura’s biggest names, but he hasn’t rushed to capitalize on the sudden attention and curious travelers showing up on his doorstep. Yet if you ask nicely, you might just find yourself tasting 10 wines before noon then being sent to help out with the harvest.
Similarly, many visitors don’t discover the Jura’s younger pioneers like Loreline Laborde, one of a small but growing number of female producers making inroads on a traditionally male-dominated industry. Her biodynamic wines, grown on a working farm of less than 10 acres, are among the Jura’s most special.
You’re likely to arrive in Dole, around two hours from Paris by high-speed train. But this isn’t where you want to stay. The heart of the Jura is the pretty little town of Arbois, surrounded by countryside straight out of a French textbook.
If you’re not sure about door-stepping smaller winemakers (many of whom don’t have websites), you can start in the town’s bijou tasting rooms where people are generous with their pours and their time; these include the caves of Bénédicte et Stéphane Tissot, Domaine de la Pinte, and Domaine de la Tournelle, which extend their boutique to a sweet riverside bistro in summer. A superb place to eat is the Bistrot des Claquets, an unpretentious lunchtime-only spot much loved by visitors and vignerons alike.
As you climb in altitude, you’ll also come across turquoise-blue alpine lakes such as Lac de Chalain and Lac de Clairvaux, where you can swim and canoe, the latter close to the impressive Hérisson waterfalls. Further afield, it’s just a few hours’ drive north to the great cellars of Burgundy or across the border to genteel Geneva.
As for when to visit, you’ll find the Jura most pleasant to explore in late summer and early fall before the harvest, when winemakers aren’t yet in the throes of picking. The most earnest devotees arrive in February for the Percée du Vin Jaune, the “piercing of the yellow wine,” a 50,000-person-strong festival marking the opening of the year’s vin jaune vintage.
This is probably best left to the most ardent of Jura wine fans—but you never know: After a first trip you might just find yourself one of them.