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Vin Nouveau: La Première Partie

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This is part one in a four-part series of new-to-me French wine regions, brought to you by the Tour de France.

Now that the World Cup is over (sniff, sniff), we’re watching a lot of the Tour de France at our house.  I’m starting to think Phil Liggett is narrating my life.  The Mr. Armchair Sommelier and I have been doing a fair amount of our own cycling lately — on our tandem bike.  I’m the stoker (the backseat driver), which is an exercise in pure trust.  I have no steering (my handlebars are purely decorative), no brakes, no gears, and I can’t see in front of me.  I guess that last one is kind of a perk — if we crash, at least I won’t see it coming.

I now have a whole new appreciation for hills.  You can’t truly appreciate a hill from the inside of a car.  True appreciation can only come from the saddle of a bicycle.  Hills are a bear.  And estimating the steepness of the hill you just climbed is a lot like a fish story.  Once you get to the top, conversation goes something like this:  How steep would you say that hill was?  Oh, it was at least a Cat 3 climb, probably Cat 2.  And going down some of those hills??  Borderline terrifying. We’ve hit 37mph (I realize this pales in comparison to Tour downhill speeds of 60+mph, but I’m a neophyte cyclist, so indulge my fear).  And btw, 37mph isn’t a great time to start thinking about the only thing between me and becoming a road pizza:  nothing.

The other day, I was looking at a map of this year’s Tour stages (because maps make me happy), and I noticed the Tour passes through just about every major wine growing region in France.  Not a difficult feat in and of itself — you can throw a rock from just about anywhere in France and hit a major wine growing region.

But Le Tour also passes through some of France’s lesser known regions — at least lesser known to me (I’m obviously not ready for a cameo role in SOMM II).  So I decided to make myself a wine assignment:  learn something about the new-to-me French wine regions on Le Tour, and try some new wines.

I left Burgundy off this list because it looks like most of the tour passes just to the southeast of the region proper, but you could just as easily include it.  Geography can be squishy sometimes.

  • Champagne
  • Alsace
  • Jura
  • Savoie
  • Beaujolais
  • Rhone Valley
  • Provence
  • Languedoc-Roussillion
  • Jurançon (part of Sud Ouest)
  • Bordeaux
  • Bergerac (part of Sud Ouest)

There are four regions on this list (in bold, italics) that I know almost nothing about.  And by almost nothing, I mean I’ve heard of them.  That’s it.  So guess what that means?  You get to read a four-part series on new-to-me wine regions of France.  Read in Napoleon Dynamite’s voice:  Lucky.

I’m going to start with Jura.

In the eastern corner of France, sandwiched between Burgundy and Switzerland, there is a tiny stretch of real estate (about a 50-mile stretch) called Jura.  It’s a mild-climate region and most of the grapes are grown at altitude (it is right next to the Swiss alps).

Jura trivia:  Both Louis Pasteur (father of microbiology) and Louis Vuitton (father of luggage) were from Jura.  The Jurassic Period (the age of dinosaurs) is named after the Jura Mountains. Jura is also home to Comté and Laughing Cow (yes, that Laughing Cow) cheeses.

There are main five grape varieties used in Jura:

Savagnin (white):  This is the grape used to make the special oxidative wines from Jura, and is the only grape permitted in vin jaune.

Chardonnay (white):  Most of the lighter, fruity white wines from Jura are made with Chardonnay; it’s known there as Melon d’Arbois and Gamay Blanc.

Poulsard (red):  Jura’s native grape.  The color of wines made with Poulsard is very light and often compared to rosé. 

Trousseau (red):  Wines made with Trousseau have intense black fruit flavors and are capable of aging.  Trousseau wines are also lighter in color.

Pinot Noir (red):  Pinot Noir in Jura is lighter and more acidic than in Burgundy.  It’s used in Jura’s sparkling wine, Crémant du Jura.

Jura produces some light, fruity white wines from Chardonnay and some lighter reds from Poulsard and Trousseau, but Jura is best known for these wines:

Vin jaune:  Made from the Savagnin grape, Vin jaune (yellow wine) is Jura’s most well-known wine.  After fermentation, these wines are aged in barrels that aren’t quite filled to the top. This gives the wine space to oxidize and age under a crust of yeast (called flor).  The wine ages for about six years, and it’s never topped off.  The wines are Sherry-like, with a distinctive nuttly flavor.  Vin jaune has its own special bottle called a clavelin.

Vin de paille (straw wine):  Vin de paille is made with grapes that are picked and then laid out on straw trays to dry.  The wine is usually a blend of Chardonnay, Poulsard and Savagnin, with concentrated sugars and flavors of honey and nuts.

Cremant de Jura:  These are Jura’s sparkling wines.  At least 50% of the white blend must be Chardonnay, and the remainder is Savagnin.  The rosé version is made with Poulsard and Pinot Noir.  The wines are made in the methode traditionelle.

Macvin du Jura:  This is a fortified wine made by adding Marc du Jura (a brandy-like liqueur) to unfermented grape juice.  All five of Jura’s main grape varieties are used in the production of Macvin du Jura.  Most Macvin is white, but some red versions are also produced.

There are six AOCs for Jura (dates of AOC status are in parentheses):

  1. Arbois (1936) — the most productive of all Jura appellations, wines are made here from all 5 grapes.
  2. Château Chalon (1936) — only Savagnin based wines made in the vin jaune (yellow wine) style.
  3. Côtes du Jura (1937) — red and white wines from all 5 grapes.
  4. Crémant du Jura (1995) — sparkling wines.
  5. L’Étoile (1937) — tiny quantities of almost exclusively white wines, made with Chardonnay, Savagnin and Poulsard (only for color in vin de paille).
  6. Macvin du Jura (1991) — Vin du jura fortified with marc du jura.

I ordered some Jura wines from the Internet (I threw a dart to make my choices) and sat down with a cheese board to try them:

DSCN5369Domaine Rolet Savagnin Jura Arbois Vin Jaune 2005 ⭐⭐⭐/87
100% Savagnin.  This is definitely Vin jaune (yellow wine). Turmeric yellow, in fact.  And if someone handed me a glass and asked me to identify the wine, I’d swear it was Sherry.  The nose is a bowl of walnuts and a hot summer sidewalk (yes, that’s a smell in my world).  A super unusual wine.  It’s not sweet at all.  Dense and acidic, but balanced. I’m struggling a bit with flavors.  Walnuts and a distinct earthy note.  Mushrooms?  An otherworldly match with the Comté cheese.  Very good with the Gruyere, and meh with the Raclette.  14.5% ABV.  $35 for 375ml.

DSCN5365Domaine Berthet-Bondet Cotes du Jura Rubis 2012 ⭐⭐⭐/86
45% Trousseau, 45% Poulsard and 10% Pinot Noir.  I’m blown away by the pale color on this wine.  It looks like Rosé’s big, angsty brother.  The nose is whole mess of barnyard funk.  A surprising amount of structure given the lightweight mouthfeel.  Some plum and cranberry flavors. A knockout with the Gruyere and Comté cheeses.  Again, meh with the Raclette.  I made fried okra for dinner and you know what?  Not a bad match.  12.5% ABV.  $22.

DSCN5363Chateau D’Arlay Vin de Liqueur Macvin du Jura Rouge NV ⭐⭐⭐/87
Roughly 75% Pinot Noir blended with 25% brandy (Marc du Jura).  The color on this wine is borderline weird.  There’s a ton of sediment zooming around in this bottle — it looks like a glass of prune juice.  And the nose?  Open a bag of Sun-maid raisins, throw in a handful of tobacco, shake and inhale.  Surprisingly pretty mouthfeel, soft and delicate . . . yet intense flavors of raisin and Riccola (the herbal cough drops).  Comté is the cheese winner again. Not sure I’d seek it out again, but so glad I tried it. 17% ABV.  $24 for 375ml.

I learned some new things new today, and Score!  I got to add three new grapes to my Wine Century tally:  Savagnin, Trousseau, and Poulsard.

Bucket list supplement:  Visit Jura and sit in an Alpine café, drinking Vin jaune and eating Comté cheese, while watching Le Tour climb by!

Stay tuned for La Deuxième Partie:  Savoie.

A votre santé!

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