Despite a steadily rising demand for dry white wines, in place of other apéritifs, most people overlook Jura whites. To be sure, the Jura is a small vineyard today, covering only about 1,000 hectares, but stretched out over an 80-kilometer-long area near the Swiss border.
Before the phylloxera louse devastated the French vineyards, this wine-growing area was nearly 20 times as large and was considered one of the finest in France. Nothing much has changed in the quality of its remarkable wines and perhaps because of current disinterest they remain very reasonably priced at 12 to 20 francs a bottle depending on the type and year.
Winemaking in the Jura goes back to Roman times and this region known formerly as Franche-Comté, was once a province of the Hapsburg empire, until Henri IV captured Arbois in 1595 and became an aficionado of its sherry-like wines.
No one really knows whether Spanish winemaking lies behind the character of these wines, but the resemblance is as striking as the Spanish-style architecture in Arbois and other Jura towns. The dry whites are a deep, golden yellow in color with a nutty flavor that could forgivably cause them to be mistaken for sherry.
Furthermore, they are made the same way, except that brandy is added to sherry, which makes it a fortified wine. Both are deliberately exposed to the air while aging in the barrel. A film of mold, called flor in Spanish and fleur (or voile, veil) in French, forms on the surface of the wine and is untouched until the barrel aging ends.
The level of the wine descends slowly with evaporation but, contrary to other French wines, the barrels are never ullaged, that is, kept full by the addition of more wine. The action of the voile gives the wine its distinct character and long-lasting qualities.
The vin jaune of Arbois and Château-Chalon has been known to age more than a century, as well preserved bottles of 1834 in the Nicolas firm's Charenton cellars prove.
Vin jaune is made exclusively from late-harvested Savagnin grapes, better known as Traminer in Alsace, although this dry wine does not at all taste like its sweet, spicy Alsatian cousin. It is aged in the barrel for 6 to 10 years and consequently costs about 50 francs the 62-centiliter clavelin, or local square-shouldered bottle.
But the regular white wine is must more reasonable at 12 to 15 francs for a normal 73-centiliter bottle, thanks to far briefer barrel aging. It goes under various appellations: Arbois, Arbois-Pupillin, l'Etoile aux Côtes-du-Jura. It is made from the Savagnin (also locally called Naturé, Melon d'Arbois or Gamay Blanc (local names for the famous Burgundian Chardonnay) and Pinot Blanc.
The reds and rosés are also very good and made from a Burgundian grape, the Pinot Noir, called Gros Noirien, as well as the local varieties Poulsard and Trousseau. Of less interest are the reds, rosés and whites made sparkling by the Champagne method of secondary fermentation in the bottle.
A final type of wine once produced throughout France retains a tenuous toehold in the Jura – vin de paille. It can appear under any of the various appellations except Château-Chalon, where only vin jaune is produced.
This is a rich, sweet, almost liqueur-like amber-colored wine exquisite in taste and costing 25 francs for the half-bottles it is usually sold in. The grapes are, or used to be, laid out on straw mats to dry into semi-raisins before being pressed in February or March following the harvest.
Today the bunches are hung on racks to dry but the yield remains tiny because the must is practically a sugar syrup.