Your guide to the white wines of the Jura

With names like Overnoy, Ganevat and Tissot making it a must for collectors, the Jura's cool slopes are producing Chardonnay and Savagnin to rival Burgundy. Here’s everything you need to know about the region's whites – from the styles made to the producers to watch out for
Your guide to the white wines of the Jura

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The sheer number of distinctive styles of wine that emanate from France never fails to amaze. From the full-bodied, sumptuous Cabernets and Merlots of Bordeaux to the ethereal Pinot Noirs of Burgundy; from the mineral whites of the Loire to the aromatic spectrum of Alsace – everywhere you look there is variety.

The Jura, situated in the remote central-eastern frontiers of France (bordering Switzerland) is another completely unique and distinctive French winemaking region – one which, perhaps because of its limited size and isolation, is not quite so universally known. But in recent years the region has grown in prominence and is now a real point of interest for collectors today – most notably for the quality of its white wines. Chardonnay and the native late-ripening white grape Savagnin produce wines that rival top Burgundy and, in many cases, offer better value.

But it hasn’t been an easy road to recognition for the region. Following the phylloxera outbreak in the late 19th century, the Jura was on the brink of being wiped out altogether. Historically, it was a significant wine-producing region – 10 times bigger than it is today. But, in terms of size, it never recovered. Many of the vineyards were grubbed up, becoming farmland pastures; what remained amounts to just 2,000 hectares (a mere 10% of its original size).

The leftfield oxidative style of the region’s wines also meant that as France’s wine exports grew, the Jura remained largely unnoticed. Traditionally, the region’s uniqueness came from the oxidative style of its white wines – the most famous, distinct and extreme of which is vin jaune. This white wine is made from Savagnin that is aged in barrels for over six years. During this time, the wine evaporates, allowing for oxygen ingress and a yeast film to form on top of the wine – protecting it from oxidation and at the same time strongly influencing the flavour. The process and effect is not dissimilar to Fino or Manzanilla Sherry, but the ageing is typically longer and the wine is neither fortified or blended – remaining single vintage. This style is distinct and, at its best, produces wines of outstanding complexity and fantastic ageing potential, but its intense flavours were never going to create mass appeal.

Over the last 25 years or so, the younger generation of winemakers in the Jura have started to move away from only producing this oxidative style, influenced by their neighbours in Burgundy – whose vineyards are not dissimilar.

The Jura – just 100km directly east of the Côte d’Or – shares similar soils of clay and Jurassic limestone and has the same continental climate, as well as growing both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In fact, many of the Jura’s younger vignerons cut their teeth making wine in Burgundy. Returning to their family domaines, they were more interested in producing wines styled on those of the Côte d’Or, focused on expressing site, rather than the region’s traditional style, dominated by oxidative characters and the influence of yeast. Young producers such as Jean-François Ganevat and Stéphane Tissot started to top their barrels, producing less oxidative, “ouillé” cuvées.

This switch in style is arguably the most important recent development in the Jura. As these modern styles grew in popularity, the region started to attract a wider audience of fine wine drinkers.

Despite the similarities to Burgundy, the Chardonnay (sometimes blended with Savagnin) produced in the Jura brings its own elevated tautness and mouth-watering salinity and has acid-loving Chardonnay fans drooling.

Burgundy producers themselves have even started to buy up land in the Jura; most famously Domaine Marquis d’Angerville set up Domaine du Pélican in 2012. Supposedly Guillaume d’Angerville was served a Chardonnay blind at Paris’s Taillevent restaurant and was convinced it was a top bottling of Burgundy. When he discovered it was from the Jura, he soon started exploring the region and before long had bought vineyards there.

Fatter and richer in texture than Chablis, but more laser-like than the Côte d’Or – Jura whites have found a niche. What’s more, the vignerons’ knowledge of producing oxidative wines has given them the freedom to experiment with both reductive and oxidative characters (without going to the extremes of vin jaune), producing truly original wines. It is another distinct trait of the region that brings a lot of freedom to the winemaking and a lot of variety – even from just one producer.

The Jura’s rise to prominence is also due to its association with low-intervention or natural wine – most notably the influence of Domaine Pierre Overnoy, based in the Jura hamlet of Pupillin. Overnoy is seen by many as the godfather of the natural wine movement – and his wines are today some of the most fiercely collected. The fanfare around this remarkable producer has been hugely influential on other producers in the region, at the same time raising the reputation of the region to an ever-widening audience. Other in-demand stars of Jura, who to one degree or another are classed as low-intervention producers and who make ouillé wines (though not exclusively) include Jean-François Ganevat and Stéphane Tissot.

The difficulty today, at a time when Jura wines have never been more popular, is volume. Of all the regions in Europe, few have been hit as hard by spring frosts than the Jura. Successive vintages back to 2015 have seen production slashed. With rising demand, perhaps it’s time for the Jura appellation to expand once again and seek out sites that are less susceptible to frost.

Domaine Pierre Overnoy aside, the top wines of Jura, for now, remain brilliant value – another reason fans of Burgundy are looking further afield.

The white wine styles of the Jura

Ouillé: Also described as modern or floral. In any other region, this is typically the “normal” style of any dry wine – in that the wine has no overt oxidative character. While traditionally barrels in the Jura might not have been topped up, allowing oxygen to influence the wine, for ouillé wines they are topped up to protect them from this.

Sous voile: Also described as traditional or oxidative, these are the more traditional style of white wines from the region. Literally meaning “under the veil”, the wines are biologically aged with a film of yeast – like Manzanilla or Fino Sherry. Following fermentation, the wines are extensively aged in oak barrels that are not fully topped up. This encourages a film of yeast to form on the top of the wines, protecting them from oxidation and introducing yeast-influenced flavours. Depending on the winemaker, wines can be aged for one to 10 or more years using this method. The longer the wines are aged in barrel, the more oxidative flavours dominate the wine. Vin jaune is the most famous wine made in this style (see below).

Vin jaune: A specific style of sous voile, with an official classification and made only with Savagnin. The wines have to spend over six years under flor before being bottled. Rich and complex, the most famous vin jaune is Château-Chalon. Vin jaune is also always bottled in a distinctive, squat 62cl clavelin bottle. Macvin: This fortified Vin Doux Naturel is produced only in the Jura. It is made from the must of Savagnin which is then boiled – concentrating the must. It is then fortified with brandy to around 16% alcohol. Strictly this is not a wine since there is no fermentation process. Once fortified it is then aged for six years in oak.

Vin de Paille: While not a style unique to Jura, it remains an important style of the region and with quite distinct rules under the appellation. Grapes (usually Chardonnay and Savagnin, and sometimes the red grape Poulsard and Trousseau) are typically picked early to retain acidity and then dried, concentrating the sugars. The wine is then fermented and must reach 14% alcohol. Depending on the grapes’ concentration, the residual sugar of the wine can vary from 60-130g/litre. The wine must be aged for a minimum three years (which includes 18 months in oak). The wines can be made in a fresh or oxidative style depending on the producer’s preference. The wines are always sold in half-bottles.

Domaine Pierre Overnoy: Since he was a boy, Pierre Overnoy was taught how to make wine by his father using traditional methods and without sulphur dioxide. Despite studying modern winemaking in Burgundy during the mid-1970s, he was disappointed by the results. Returning back to the Jura, he adapted his father’s traditional approach to produce wines to his liking – as well as making wines in a fresher non-oxidative style. In 1984, Overnoy stopped using sulphur during fermentation but continued to use a little at bottling. By 1986, he had stopped using SO2 at all. He has been hugely influential in the natural wine movement. In 2001, Pierre Overnoy retired at the age of 63, handing it over to his protégé Emmanuel Houillon, who worked alongside Overnoy from the age of 14.

Overnoy’s almost evangelical following, along with miniscule levels of production, have made the wines highly sought-after. The release dates of the wines are not set, only released when Houillon deems them ready to drink, making it sometimes challenging for collectors. Houillon even bottles the same vintage of a wine at different dates – and only began to note bottling dates on the wine labels from 2018.

Domaine Jean-François Ganevat: Ganevat is the 14th generation of his family to make wine in the Jura, with the family estate founded in 1650. Before joining the family estate in 1998, he worked with Jean-Marc Morey in Chassagne-Montrachet. Although the estate has just 8.5 hectares under vine, the domaine grows 45 different varieties – many of which are ancient, native varieties to the Jura, including two distinct red varieties Poulsard and Trousseau which are the most planted in the region along with Pinot Noir. His best wines however are his ouillé Savagnin and Chardonnay that can be outstanding.

Benedicte & Stéphane Tissot: This is one of the largest and most important estates in the Jura today. Although the domaine name is officially still Domaine André & Mireille Tissot (named after Stéphane’s parents) the bottlings are labelled Benedicte & Stéphane Tissot. The domaine has 50 hectares under vine in both the Arbois appellation (where the winery is based) as well as the Côtes du Jura and Château-Chalon appellations. There is plenty of experimentation going on with the estate producing a wide array of cuvées from the traditional flor-aged Savagnin bottlings of place-designated vin jaunes of Château Chalon, La Vasée and Bruyères to their more modern ouillé single-vineyard Chardonnays. Tissot also produces a rosé made from a rare Chardonnay clone that has a natural pink tinge. Of the top cuvées, their single-vineyard Chardonnays from the Clos de la Tour de Curon, La Mailloche, Les Graviers and Les Bruyères vineyards are the most sought out.

Other top Jura producers to look out for: Domaine Rijckaert, Domaine Dugois, Domaine Pignier, Domaine Montbourgeau, Domaine de la Tournelle, Domaine Labet, Domaine des Miroirs, Domaine du Pélican, Domaine de la Touraize

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Gavin Smith
Gavin Smith is a wine obsessive who has visited Bordeaux and Burgundy every year since joining the wine trade in 2006. Previously a wine buyer, Smith now loves exploring the history and philosophy behind producers.