Sunday, July 17, 2011

JURA & SAVOIE: Mountains of Difference

These are mountain people whose homelands on the eastern boarder straddle Lake Geneva.  It is their nature to struggle, to bond tightly in their remote enclaves, and to persevere.  Even as these relative isolationists  remain uniquely different from our notion of French winegrowers, they still can produce wines that wine lovers become passionate for.
Vineyards of Jura
 In the hills east of the Beaujolais, a buttress to the Swiss border and French Alps, sit the long isolated wine French regions of Jura and Savoie. Among France's smallest wine regions, Jura has a distinctly continental climate; its hills and meadows composed of mostly marled clay soils with limestone prominent at the higher elevations. Current planted vineyard acreage in the Jura is 1/10th of what it was pre-phylloxera(late 19th c.) in its once prominent terraces. Even as there are Burgundian grape varieties here among this regions traditional grapes, everything here on the western face of the Jura Mountains remains uniquely different. Producing a lighter version, Chardonnay has been grown here since medieval times, but it is the green-skinned Savagnin(Traminer) that dominates Jura's plantings of white wine grapes. Allowed red varieties include Pinot Noir, the light pigmented and often blended Ploussard, and the rustic, old variety of Trousseau.

First recognized in 1936, today there are six(6) AOC designations for the more than 200 winegrowers in the Jura. The broad Cotes de Jura AOC is the regional appellation applied to still wines from any of the regions approved (5) grapes. Cre'mant du Jura AOC is designated to any traditional method sparkling wine produced within the region from any of the Jura's grapes. And, Marcvin(vin de liqueur) du Jura AOC is the fortified wine produced from, again, any of the regions approved grapes. In the center of the region, L'Etoile earned its white wine AOC in 1937, and today produces still wines and the other specialties from Chardonnay plus the same regional grapes.

North of L'Etoile is Chateau Chalon AOC, which most notably produces sherry-like Vin Jaune exclusively from the late-harvested Savagnin grape. This 'yellow wine' is allowed to evaporate under a veil of yeast(voile) during its 6 years in barrel prior to bottling in the traditional clavelin. Go north and historic Arbois AOC, the home of Louis Pasteur,  produces some of the regions best wines, including Vin Jaune, and the sweet vin de Paille, a rare, highly regulated blended product of regional grapes which are air dried to meet a minimum alcohol level of 14.5! 
Vin Jaune with voile
Annexed by France in 1860, Savoie is located in the Rhone-Alpes region, in the foothills of the French Alps south of Jura. The Romans found wine grapes already growing in this alpine region when they arrived. For much of its written history this strategic region laced with mountain passes was part of the Italian House of Savoy. Today Savoie is more famous for its alpine tourism and cows than its distinct grape varieties. Perhaps that is why the lions share of its wine production is consumed locally. Widely planted in this white wine dominated region is Jacquere, producing a light and flowery fresh white wine. The Swiss grape Chasselas, plus Gringet and the higher quality Altesse(the Rhone's Roussanne, or Roussette or Bergeron) are also popular whites, producing light, crisp wines; and red Mondeuse(Marsanne Noire) clings to the regions steep hillsides to make dark, peppery wines. There is widespread Gamay plantings here too and even a little Pinot Noir. Unlike the Jura which is more Burgundian, Swiss, Italian and Rhone influences can be felt here.

In the west of the region, above the southerly flow of the Rhone River, sits Seyssel AOC. Regulated in 1942, it is a fine white wine appellation of Altesse and neutral Molette wine grapes.  Roussette de Savoie AOC is the broader appellation here which permits Chardonnay in its white wine blends, and covers much of the western region. Cre'py AOC sits in the extreeme north of the region on the southside of Lake Geneva, and produces light wines from the widely planted white grape, Chasselas(whose synonyms take up a full page). The all encompassing Vin de Savoie AOC is a catch-all for permitted grape variety wines from anywhere in the region. As in Jura, the technique of adding sugar to un-fermented grape must to boost its alcohol, called chaptalization, is allowed and utilized in the Savoie.

Summers around France's largest lake, Luc du Bourget, and winters in the resorts of Albertville or Grenoble produce thirsty markets for these local specialties. In the Jura it is small production of its rare wines and their lofty cost that limit their export market. Savoie's production from its aging vines is generally not transported because the market traditionally migrates here into their mountain enclaves. Should that rare opportunity present itself, the quality wines of Jura and Savoie are certainly worth seeking out. I've put them on my list of wines to seek out, if only because the specialties of these isolated regions continue to be as uniquely different as are mountain people.

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