Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Jura: land of Comte cheese and wildly wonderfully weird, wacky wines

So I found myself in the Jura the other day, one of the more obscure, unknown, and, dare I say it, under-appreciated winegrowing regions of the world. Indeed, even in its own country, the wines of the Jura are unknown, ignored or at best relegated to curiosities. But these wines are quite complex and delicious, and shrugging them off would leave one's life devoid of a singularly unique experience (and, I might add, pleasure).

Only an hour away from Beaune, centered on the city (town, really) of Arbois, this area is composed of rolling hills covered in leafy vines that seem to undulate as the eye wanders over the landscape. It's quite beautiful in an almost poetic, visually sing-song way.

Looking out over the rolling hills

Some of the grapes planted here are unlike anything else in France, or the world for that matter. They grow five varieties here: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as in Burgundy, then three other unique types only found here, Trousseau and Plousard for reds, and Savagnin for white (this makes the famous Vin Jaune). The region's wines have been known for their quality since the time of Pliny, yet somehow they rarely get much mention these days in any wine publications (though Eric Asimov does a great job of trying to get folks to pay attention to them, both on his blog The Pour and in various articles in the New York Times). Yet they remain under the radar for most wine lovers.

More Rolling Hills

Different terroirs accomodate different grapes, and geologic upheaval has given the area many different strata for growers to choose from. As in Burgundy, over the millenia, people discovered that some soils were better suited to a specific type of grape than others.

An example of terroir

The wines made here have a unique taste quality that can not really be compared to anything else. The reds, even when young, are somewhat like older Pinot Noir or older Nebbiolo, with a light, almost rose color, hints of tea and red flowers and fruits buttressed by a lovely smokiness in some cases, and bracing acidity. The Chardonnays have a nuttiness that's completely different from CA fruit bombs, the minerally steeliness of Chablis or the honeyed complexity of Cote d'Or Chards. And the Vin Jaune, well that's just a beast in and of itself. To make it, the Savagnin is held in casks for a minimum of 6 1/2 years, and are never topped off. What does this mean? Well, as the wine evaporates slowly (a normal process, this loss is called La Part des Anges, or the Angel's Share), a yeast settles onto the surface and forms an airtight film, known here as La Voile (the Veil). The interesting part about this is that while it's pretty airtight, reducing the oxydation of the wine, this veil does allow water molecules to escape, concentrating the alcohol content. So, what does this mean?

The Town of Arbois' main clock tower

Well, this means that what you end up with is a deeply yellowed wine that tastes almost like a super dry Sherry, but saying this in front of a winemaker will most likely get you tossed out onto your ass. I might add he'll then send his dogs after you. And, to be sure you get the point, he'll grab his rifle (many people in the area are avid hunters). So, dear reader, be sure to observe, sniff and taste in silence. Jura winemakers bristle at this comparison because Sherry is fortified wine, while theirs was made naturally, by the combined action of La Voile and time. In addition, it has a bracing acidity that makes your mouth pucker in surprise. This is not your average white wine, for certain. That said, the wine does have a very Sherried aspect to it, no matter what the winemakers want to think. Such a quaintly French way to look at the world.

So this was my first time in the region, I had come to learn about the wines and the people making them. I visited a few cellars, realizing quite rapidly that as usual there was a lot of bad wine being made (I still can't fathom why, with all the advances in winemaking, one would be so lazy as to make bad wine, but that's just me). I had researched the wines of the area while still in New York (ie I drank them with friends in Central Park) and found them to be to my liking. And, if you know me at all, you know that if my interest is piqued by something, well, then nothing short of Armaggedon will stand in the way of my finding out more about it. And so I found myself tasting various Chards, Trousseaus and Plousards (also spelled Poulsard), as well of course as everyone's Vin Jaune. They're all very proud of that wine, which is really what the Jura is known for, but frankly few wineries have both the means and patience to make it correctly. So after several hours of biting my tongue to make it forget what it just tasted, only two wineries really stood out: Domaine Rolet and Lucien Aviet.

Both could not be more different. Rolet is a large firm, owning 60 hectares (148.26 acres), with a large facility with stainless steel vats and modern equipment. Still, it had a nice family feel and attitude to it. Lucien Aviet, on the other hand, is a tiny winery, owning only 6.5 hectares (16.06 acres). All of Mr. Aviet's work is done in a converted barn, in old wooden casks in which the wines are fermented (very little if any wood notes are passed on to the wine due to the age of the casks). Yet both managed to make lovely wines, with personalities of their own, reflecting where they're from and who made them.

My tip of the hat would go to Mr. Aviet, however. His wines had an extra "oomph", a je ne sais quoi that made me want to keep revisiting them. The highlight of my visit there was when he showed me the cask where his 2005 Savagnin was still fermenting. The wine was still sweet from the grape sugars, with a bracing acidity and lovely freshness, and almost none of that nuttiness one associates with Savagnin. There was even the taste of the yeast! All of his Vin Jaunes were amazingly complex, just lovely and for me a surprising discovery.

Needless to say, I'm going to do everything possible to bring him into the US.

Yum, 24-month Comte cheese

Before heading up to see Mr. Aviet and after my visit chez Rolet, I stopped at a local cheesemonger to pick up the region's signature cheese, Comte. Fresh and lively when young, aged Comte takes on a nuttiness that's just fantastic when paired with Vin Jaune. As it ages, it gains minerally grains of deposits from the dehydration process, adding a slightly salty tang to its nuttiness.

24-month old Comte is difficult to come by anywhere, so I took advantage of my situation and grabbed a huge chunk. Guaranteed, it will be gone within a few days, I tend to munch on this stuff the way others reach for potato chips.

Here's the full gallery of pictures (click on the photo, no need to register):

Jura pics

Tomorrow, the Maconnais.



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