Notes from a recent tasting of the sometimes odd and often wonderful wines of the Jura. The region's vineyards run roughly parallel to those of Burgundy's côtes but lie about 80 km (50 miles) to the east-southeast. As tradition dictates, we tasted the reds before the whites. The vin jaunes were accompanied by slices of walnut bread with 18-month and 30-month raw milk Comté, which really brought out the best in the wines.
All prices are in Canadian dollars (C$1.00 = US$0.90 these days) and include sales taxes. Key: L3S stands for Les 3 Sommeliers, a private importer; LCC for LCC/Clos des vignes, another private importer; SAQ for the Société des alcools du Québec, the provincial liquor monopoly.
FLIGHT 1: REDS
Poulsard and Trousseau are the Jura's traditional red (some would say dark pink) varieties, though pinot noir has been gaining ground in recent years, especially in the southern part of the region. Poulsard wines are traditionally paired with the local charcuterie and smoked meats, trousseau wines with game.
>Poulsard 2003, Arbois-Pupillin, Domaine de la Renardière ($24.52, L3S)
Pale ruby, orangish toward the rim. Nose of red berries with mineral/earth notes and some green herbiness. Fluid and light on the palate yet not lacking intensity or savour. Not quite bone dry, the residual sugar providing a bit of roundness. Long, tart finish. Yum.
>Poulsard 2000, Les Bruyères, Arbois, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot ($32, LCC)
Medium red-maroon with ruby glints; by far the darkest wine of the tasting, leading some of us to guess it was one of the 2003s. Deeper, earthier nose of red fruit with hints of wood, dried herbs and merde. More fruit than in the other wines but heavier too and a bit flat despite the streaky acidity. Tannins light but raspy. Sourish finish. Overambitious?
>Poulsard 2002, Émmanuel Houillon, Arbois-Pupillin, Domaine Pierre Overnoy ($35.36, L3S)
Pale red core fading to an almost transparent orangish rim. Cloudy. Sour cherry, cranberry and a volatile aroma some pegged as green olives and others as mosquito repellent. Tart. Tannins light but present, especially on finish. Initially one-dimensional but opened to reveal good structure and balance. Quite long, with the olives really coming out on the finish.
>Trousseau 2003, Arbois-Pupillin, Domaine de la Renardière ($27.47, L3S)
Pale ruby, little orange, less cloudy. Nose of red fruit and merde. Light in the mouth with a fine tannic frame and bright acidity. Flavours dominated by red fruit and merde ("Yes, but it’s good s**t, Mrs. Prinski!"). Faint sweetness. A bit simple, though it gained complexity as it breathed.
FLIGHT 2: CHARDONNAY
>Chardonnay 2002, Côtes du Jura, Rolet Père et Fils ($21.60, SAQ)
Not particularly chardonnay nose of honey/caramel, minerals and a hint of "jaune." Rich and bright in the mouth. Oats, corn and some nutty-vanilla sweetness. Pleasant enough.
>Chardonnay 2004, Émmanuel Houillon, Arbois-Pupillin, Domaine Pierre Overnoy ($37.08, L3S)
Nose of wet oats and minerals with a dash of jaune nuttiness. Richer, sweeter, spicier, more up-front than the other wines in the flight. Jaune-ish note on the finish. Good length but ends rather abruptly.
>Chardonnay 2004, La Mailloche, Arbois, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot ($37.75, LCC)
Nose dominated by toasted sesame seed against a backdrop of yellow fruit and smoke/ash. Light on the attack, heavier on the finish. Brisk acidity. Oats and sesame seeds, hints of lemon and minerals with apple chiming in on the long finish. Pleasant if you can get past the sesame.
>Chardonnay 2004, Les Bruyères, Arbois, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot ($38.50, LCC)
Wonderfully complex bouquet, full of minerals, oats, tropical fruit, butter. Light and fleet on the palate but packed with fruit, especially of the tropical variety. Enlivening acidity, excellent balance and long minerally finish. Just lovely.
FLIGHT 3: SAVAGNIN
Savagnin, the Jura's flagship grape, is thought to be identical to the Traminer variety (and Alsace's gewurztraminer may be a musqué mutation). It is the only grape used to make the fino Sherry-like vin jaune. Regular savagnin has traditionally been vinified like vin jaune: aged in barrels and not topped up ("non ouillé"), creating a head space that allows the wine to oxidize and be covered by a veil of flor-like yeast, both of which give it a nutty/corny flavour. A few winemakers have begun making a new breed of savagnin wines that are not allowed to oxidize, which preserves their fresh grapey character.
>Arbois 2000, Cuvée Béthanie, Fruitière Vinicole d’Arbois ($22.80, SAQ)
A 60-40 blend of chardonnay and "jauned" savagnin. Acidic but balanced by a faint sweetness. Oats and preserved lemons with a dash of caramel and nuts. Long dry finish. Lacking some of the Tissot Savagnin’s breadth and depth but a fine wine, especially at the price.
>Traminer 2004, Arbois, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot ($27.60, LCC)
Savagnin vinified in vats and kept topped up ("ouillé") to prevent the yeasty veil and nutty jaune flavours from developing. Pale lemon yellow. Fresh nose of minerals, spice and herb flowers. Dry but rich and intensely white fruity with bracing acidity and a bitter almond finish. A bit simple, perhaps, but appealing in its vibrant purity.
>Savagnin 1998, Arbois, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot (2004 available @ $44.50, LCC)
Vinified in barrels and not topped-up, allowing the veil to develop and take the wine a step toward vin jaune. Slightly cloudy. Nose of corn, nuts, celery seed and caramel. Medium bodied with brisk but not sharp acidity. Mouth-filling but far from overpowering flavours (nuts, straw, hints of lemon and caramel). Dry but with a sweet edge from mid-palate through finish. A bit over the hill (1998 wasn’t a stellar vintage) but still enjoyable.
FLIGHT 4: VIN JAUNE
After conventional and malolactic fermentation, savagnin is transferred to old Burgundy barrels that are only partially filled. The barrels are stored in a well-ventilated "cellar" (which may, in fact, be above ground) subject to temperature fluctuations. A yeasty veil forms, protecting and flavouring the wine. After six years, the wine is racked and bottled in clavelins, squat 620-ml bottles (620 ml said to be the amount left from a litre of wine after six years in a barrel, the rest being lost to evaporation). The vin jaune selection process is rigorous and wine that doesn't make the grade is often sold as plain savagnin or blended with chardonnay.
>Vin jaune 1996, Arbois, Rolet Père et Fils ($69.00, SAQ)
Fresh, complex, deep, a noseful of herbs, spices, minerals, nuts, maple sap and caramel. Light but infinitely layered, complex and long. A complete wine.
>Vin jaune 1997, Arbois, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot ($75.00, SAQ)
Lovely nose: caramel, walnuts, corn silage. Drier than the Rolet, nutty and pleasant but lacking the other wine’s depth. Not particularly long.