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The Geology and Grapes of Jura
Charles Neal Selections © 2017
|Charles Neal Selections||
The Geology and Grapes of Jura
My visit to Jura came after a tour of Alsace during the winter 2008 trip. It had been a long voyage — sixteen days covering nearly 6,000 kilometres. Normandy, the Loire, Bordeaux, the Southwest, Provence, the Savoie, Italy, Alsace... we were nearing the finish line.
I had decided to explore Jura a bit on the penultimate day, albeit with some hesitation. A few years earlier, I had imported some wines from the area to mixed results. The wines were the ultimate hand-sells, true to their type but totally foreign to most American tastes.
That being said, strange wines had never stopped me from importing them before. When I first got in this business, many customers felt the wines from southwest France were obscure. Not many people had heard of Madiran, Jurançon or Marcillac.
But nearly a decade and a half later, these wines have become almost mainstream. I mean, the grape Tannat doesn't have to be explained anymore, most people have heard of Negrette, and I have renewed faith that Jurançon will one day be the new Sancerre.
The wines of Jura, on the other hand, are still eclectic, if not downright bizarre. Savagnin, Poulsard and Trousseau are grapes unfamiliar to most wine connoisseurs. They are rarely seen outside the region and all make highly original wines.
So this sojourn through Jura was to give the region another shot, to see a few producers who I had read about, or had heard about through the grapevine. After visiting two distillers and gorging ourselves on onion tart and choucroute, a fellow wine scout and I finally left Alsace in the early afternoon to see a couple of Jura producers a few hours away.
The Jura is located only about an hour east of Beaune, which makes one think that the wines should be more internationally known than they are. These wines that have existed for centuries, but the region where they are grown has become smaller. Before the phylloxera, vineyards in the region totaled 46,000 acres. Today, it is one-tenth that.
Jura's Geologic History
So what makes these odd wines so unique? Like most wine regions: the soil, the climate and the grapes.
On a geological level, the Jura has a long and complex history. During the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods (65-230 million years ago), the Jura was covered with a shallow sea. This sedimentary period saw various debris harden.
At the beginning of the Tertiary period (25 to 65 million years ago), the sea retreated. Caverns formerly underwater caved in and crumbled, resulting in rocks, sand and silt.
At the end of the Tertiary period, the Alps and the Jura mountains rose, folding sedimentary cover over the edges of Bresse. The major features of the landscape were formed during this period.
The collapse of the Jura mountains under the effect of the alpine push at the end of the Tertiary period upset various geological layers, causing a wide diversity of soils. For the last 5 million years, glaciers have covered the Jura and eroded the peaks and valleys.
Jura's Terroir Today
Today the region has two major soil types.
Marl is a soil containing a high proportion of clay sediment that collected at the bottom of the ocean during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. There are different colored marls because of the presence of other organic or mineral elements. In fact, a number of different colors can be found including blue, white, red and black.
In general, marl soils are sticky and somewhat difficult to work. They are naturally rich in mineral and organic elements, although these elements are not easily assimilated by the vine. They do, however, provide slow but regular growth and moderate vigor.
Limestone is a sedimentary rock that dates to the same period as marl. Limestone is often found in pieces, having broken off or eroded from larger chunks. Limestone has good drainage capabilities and, unlike clay, does not stick together when it rains and reheats quickly in the spring. Wines from limestone tend to show a tense minerality and good structure, but can be somewhat dry on the palate.
The climate is one of extremes, often harsh in the winter and relatively hot in the summer with sunny days extending into the autumn. The grapes are normally grown fairly high off the ground to protect them from the humidity rising from the damp soil.
The five major grapes of Jura are Poulsard, Trousseau, Savagnin, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Since most of us know about the last two, here is some information about the others.
Poulsard is also grown a bit in Bugey and sometimes blended with Gamay in the sparkling wines of Cerdon. The large, oval grapes have very light skin, and are normally vinified traditionally. However, even after a 15-day fermentation, the wines arrive with the color of a deep rosé.
These grapes are usually low in tannin, have light red fruit and, because of their proneness to reduction, often display gamey notes. They are commonly served with a light chill, most usually with cold cuts or roast chicken.
Trousseau is richer in color and tannin, and is the major red grape in Jura. Some scholars think its origin might be Portuguese. It can be compared in weight to Pinot Noir from the Côtes de Beaune. It makes a good match for red meats, roast pork and cheeses such as comté or gruyère.
The "flor" of vin jaune
Savagnin is perhaps the noble grape of Jura, used to create the famous Vin Jaune as well as complex and long-lived white wines. Some say it is related to Traminer from the Alto Adige. Savagnin excels on marl soils and does not do well on limestone. Dry Savagnin has an intriguing bouquet that combines citronella, wax and flowers.
The area's famous vin jaune is made from Savagnin aged in 228-liter oak casks, and is neither racked nor topped up for a minimum of six years. During this time a voile or veil of yeast forms-much like the flor of jerez or sherry. The wine is eventually bottled in unusual 620 ml bottles called Clavelin (as approximately 380 ml of liquid evaporates from the original liter over the course of six-plus years).
Back to Our Jura Journey...
We got off the autoroute and passed through Besançon. It was raining and, as usual, we were running late. Our first stop was to see a young producer in a town just outside Arbois called Pupillon. He was a native of the region but without previous wine experience apart from having attended wine school in Beaune. This kid was brave, I thought, choosing Jura to start his career. As many Jura wines are not made using the principles and techniques that he'd certainly learned in the Burgundy capital, he seemed to be on a suicide mission!
We tasted and talked. He had some decent wines, albeit with uneven quality. A late-harvest Savignin was actually really good. The producer told us that we were the first American visitors to his domaine ever, which proved that there still was virgin ground remaining in France!
The sun had gone down and we bid farewell. I had miscalculated the distance to the next appointment and once again called to say we'd be arriving in about an hour. We set off into the rain, fog and darkened skies.