Jura wines from Château d’Arlay

Castle ruins and vineyards at Château d’Arlay. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

During the autumn I attended a tasting with one of the leading producers of the Jura region in France, Château d’Arlay, led by count Alain de La Guiche himself, who was in Stockholm to promote his wines, thanks to their Swedish importer  Wine Trade. (The castle has a French Wikipedia article, and so does the family de La Guiche.) 

Château d’Arlay has 21 hectares (52 acres) of vineyards.

Some words on Jura wines in general

Map of the Jura wine region (with map legend in French). From Wikimedia Commons.

Jura is a department in eastern France, located at the border with Switzerland and at the foot of the Jura Mountains. It is also a small wine region. At 2 000 hectares (5 000 acres), only slightly more than 0.2% of the total French vineyard surface is located in Jura. This means that Jura is often overlooked, and so are two other nearby wine regions: the similarly small Savoie and outright miniscule Bugey. This is a shame, because Jura produces some rather individualistic wine styles, partly from grape varieties of their own, making it a region well worth exploring for wine drinkers with a degree of curiosity, or anyone who wants to drink something not particularly “mainstream” in an era of homogenised international wine styles. Many of the other Alpine wine regions also grow many “odd” grape varieties, so it seems that mountainous regions tend to favour individualistic wines (or do they just resist most non-local ideas?).

The regional appellationen of the Jura region is called Côtes du Jura, and there are three appellations that are geographically limited: Arbois, Château-Chalon, and L’Étoile. Note that Château-Chalon is an appellation and not a specific producer, despite the “château” part! There are also two appellations for specific wine styles: Crémant du Jura for sparkling wines and Macvin du Jura for fortified sweet wines. Jura mainly produces white wines (as well as a reasonable proportion of red) and many of those show some oxidative notes, which means that I often find notes of winter apples and nuts in these wines.

A vin jaune from Château d’Arlay in the typical 620 ml clavelin bottle. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

The most peculiar wine style from Jura is called vin jaune (“yellow wine”) and has some similarities with fino-type Sherries in its production method. This means that the wines are kept in barrels under a floating cover of yeast, known in French as voile (“veil”), for several years. The minimum requirement for a vin jaune is six years and three months. Unlike Sherry, vin jaune is not fortified (but is still rather high in alcohol, upwards of 14% isn’t uncommon), and is a “regular” vintage-dated wine that isn’t blended  solera-style. Vin jaune shows the same notes from its yeast cover as fino does, but also has a little more oxidised or nutty aromas. Compared to Sherry aromas, I’d classify it as something between a fino and an amontillado.

Vin jaune is made exclusively from the Savagnin grape, and is produced in all the four appellations of Jura. In Château-Chalon it is the only wine style that is allowed. In the other appellations, you have to look for the designation “vin jaune” on the label, but it is probably simpler to look at the type of bottle, since vin jaune is always sold in 620 ml “squat”-shaped bottle called clavelin. Other Jura wines are sold in regular-sized bottles, and many bottles look a bit like a hybrid between a Burgundy bottle and a clavelin. Genuine vin jaune is never really cheap. The budget version would rather be other Jura wines with the designation “tradition” added (such as Arbois Tradition), since these wines are often made from barrels of Savagnin that were intended for vin jaune production but that didn’t develop well enough to be kept for the full time under their yeast cover. Instead, they are bottled earlier, possibly after being blended with a Chardonnay wine.

In particular vin jaune, but also many of the other Jura wines, are quite long-lived. Since they often show some oxidised notes from the start, some additional oxidation from cellaring doesn’t really change much. Since they originate from rather high altitudes and cool sites, they also tend to show rather high acid levels, which adds to their longevity.

Five grape varieties are common in Jura: the white varieties Chardonnay and Savagnin Blanc, and the red varieties Pinot Noir, Poulsard, and Trousseau. Savagnin is a grape variety of the Traminer family where Gewürztraminer (u rather than ü on labels from Alsace) is the most well-known member. Savagnin is a light-skinned and low-aromatic variety, while Gewürztraminer is more pink- or light red-skinned and highly aromatic. Therefore, varietal wines from these two grapes don’t turn out too similar even if they were to be vinified in the same way, and on top of that Jura winemaking is often a bit difference, more so for Savagnin than for other grape varieties. Savagnin should in principle be the same thing as Weißer Traminer or Gelber Traminer in German-speaking countries. There is also an unusual Traminer variety called Savagnin Rose which is pink- or light red-skined but still low-aromatic, thus sharing some properities of both Savagnin Blanc and Gewürztraminer. This variety is used in rare Alsace wines labelled “Klevener de Heiligenstein”.

In Jura, sweet wines are also produced by drying grapes before fermentation, and these wines are designated vin de paille (paille = “straw”), taking their name from the straw mats on which the grapes were put when they were sun-dried, or both sun- and air-dried. Nowadays, some sort of plastic trays are probably more common than straw. The same drying method is also found in Switzerland and Austria, and the German language term is Strohwein. Similar to other Jura wines, vin de paille often shows some oxidation notes.

Fortified sweet wines are produced under the Macvin du Jura appellation. These wines are of the so-called mistelle type, meaning that they consist of a mixture of unfermented grape must and distilled spirits, usually some sort of grape spirit. In the case of Macvin du Jura, the spirits is always Marc, the French designation for spiritis produced by distilling pomace. Grappa, the Italian version of the same type of spirits is probably better known to most people outside of France. The best known French mistelle is probably Pineau de Charentes from the Charentais region, where Cognac is produced, and some other mistelles are Floc de Gascogne (from the same area as Armagnac) and Ratafia (in Champagne and Burgundy). Despite the name Macvin, this wine style is neither connected to a certain US fast food chain nor to Scotland. It is simply a shorter form of “marcvin”, where the r in has disappeared.

The Jura Mountains have also lended their name to the geologic period Jurassic, that occured 201-145 million years ago. The era of dinosaurs covered the periods Jurassic and Cretaceous, explaining how the novel and film Jurassic Park got their name. I suppose the film was the origin of the use of “Jurassic” as a label for things that are old-fashioned or ancient in general, like really old people above 25 years of age. It’s therefore funny that many of the Jura wines actually are a bit “Jurassic” in style. 🙂

Château d'Arlay 20131031 flaskor

Wines tasted

2008 Corail
Côtes du Jura, 85% red grape varieties (Pinot Noir, Trousseau, and Poulsard) and 15% white grape varieties (Chardonnay and Savagnin).

Light red colour. Nose with strawberries, undergrowth, a faint hint of animal notes; light and very Pinot-like nose. Palate with light character and red berries, very fresh and tart impression, light tannins, tart aftertaste with berries. 83 p.

The proportion between the varieties is secret, but it is a (quite light) red wine consisting of all five allowed varieties in the Côtes du Jura appellation.

1998 Corail
Côtes du Jura, 85% red grape varieties (Pinot Noir, Trousseau, and Poulsard) and 15% white grape varieties (Chardonnay and Savagnin).

Pale red colour, almost orange. Nose with strawberries, some oranges, decaying leaves, a hint of spice; a developed and light Pinot-like nose. Palate with strawberries, light sweetness of fruit, clearly tart profile with freshness, some spice, rather light tannins. 84 p.

Compared to the 2008, the 1998 is a bit more full-bodied, shows more tannins and is slightly less acidic.

2006 Château d’Arlay Rouge
Côtes du Jura, grape variety Pinot Noir.

Light to medium red colour. Nose with ripe strawberries and cherries, some spice, a discrete note of undergrowth, discrete impression of oak. Palate with ripe strawberries, sweetness of fruit in the attack that then gives way to a very tart profile, quite a bit of noticeable tannins that are slightly dry, somewhat tannic finish. The nose is more Burgundian than the somewhat “demanding” palate. Could gain by cellaring, 85(+) p.

The producer considered this wine to show a “salty” finish. It is slightly more heavyweight and more tannic than the two vintages of Corail. Possibly, I was a little frugal in my score since I couldn’t avoid comparing it with a red Burgundy and then get stuck on some aspects of the palate. Possibly, one should tolerate more acidity and tartness than in a Burgundy – this being a characteristic of Jura wines – and consider it freshness and additional mineral. I have however a more difficult time not objecting somewhat to the rather dry tannins, but this may also in part be due to the acidity. As mentioned, this wine will probably gain from cellaring, but I wouldn’t be surprised if its development takes place at a very slow pace due to the high level of acidity.

2008 Chardonnay á la Reine
Côtes du Jura, vinified in vats, no oak.

Medium yellow colour with some golden notes. Nose with ripe yellow apples, primarily older apples where the skin is starting to turn soft, some notes of oxidation and spice. Very dry on the palate, yellow apple noticeably “chalky” mineral notes with high acidity, fresh and mineral-dominated aftertaste. The nose actually gives some expectations of sweetness, but the palate is bone dry. 87 p.

Despite being completely vinified in vats (I think it was steel), it shows a very characteristic Jura-style oxidation note. Since it shows quite a but of Jura character without being as “extreme” as a vin jaune, it could be a suitable introduction to Jura wines for those who are curious about them. To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t in any way obvious to me that this was a Chardonnay wine, so I think it would be a very interesting wine to including in a blind tasting of Chardonnays of varying origins.

2000 Château d’Arlay Tradition
Côtes du Jura, 70% Chardonnay and 30% Savagnin.

Light golden yellow colour. Nose with ripe yellow apples, discrete oxidation notes, mineral, some perfume. The palate is dry but shows notes of sweet fruit in the attack, ripe apples, slightly oily character, mineral, high acidity, aftertaste with mineral and some notes of oxidation. 89 p.

Curiously enough, I found this wine to show less oxidised notes than the previous one! A Tradition type wine and eight years older should mean the opposite, but perhaps these notes came across as less pronounced (and more integrated) in a wine with the oily Savagnin character that has been raised in old oak barrels.

1989 Château d’Arlay Tradition
Côtes du Jura, 70% Chardonnay and 30% Savagnin.

Light golden colour with some veil (particles). Nose with yellow apples, clearly smokey, developed notes with cocoa powder and toasted hazelnuts, well integrated oxidation notes. Reminds me quite a lot of the nose of an old Champagne. Dry on the palate, noticeably spicy, pronounced mineral notes, high acidity, and a long and mineral-dominated aftertaste with with fresh acidity. A powerful wine with clearly oxidised nose but still a fresh palate. 89 p.

2003 Château d’Arlay Vin Jaune
Côtes du Jura, grape variety Savagnin.

Medium yellow colour with some gold. Nose with ripe yellow apples, some winter apples, mineral note with a strong chalky character, powerful notes of hazelnuts and typical sherry-like voile notes. Dry, powerful and slightly oily palate, chalky mineral, pronounced spice, high acidity, long aftertaste with mineral. Full-bodied style, but a fresh profile. 90 p.

A classical pairing is vin jaune and powerful hard cheeses, such as a well-aged Comté with some walnuts on the side.

2003 Château d’Arlay Vin de Paille
Côtes du Jura, grape varieties are about one-third Chardonnay, a little less than one-third each of Savagnin and Poulsard, and some Trousseau.

Amber colour. Sweet nose of red berries, spice, some raisins and caramel, rather aromatic, with developed notes. Sweet on the palatae (“Beerenauslese+”), noticeably spicy, with red apples, some red berries, fine acidity; the alcohol makes itself somewhat felt. Comes across as both sweet and spicy with somewhat peculiar developed notes. 90 p.

Château d’Arlay Macvin Blanc
Consists of 1/3 Marc and 2/3 unfermented grape must: 1/3 Chardonnay and 1/3 Savagnin, and spends three years in barrel after mixing. The wine is not vintage dated.

Golden colour. A slightly odd nose of yellow fruit (there was something that I never managed to associated with the right aroma), some banana, oxidation notes, spice, some solvent notes (that don’t really disturb). Sweet palate (“Beerenauslese+”), spice, grape juice, succade, some raisin, good acidity, the alcohol is rather obvious but embedded into the sweetness. 87 p.

Château d'Arlay 20131031 glas

A set of wines that were just as individual as expected, and of high quality. As usual, my ambition has been to score the wines based only on what I think about the wine in each glass, which means that I don’t award the wine any bonus points for being of an interesting style. This means that those who appreciate new and different wine experiences are likely to appreciate these wines more than my scores indicate. In any case, I think that anyone who hasn’t already tasted wines from Jura should do so!

Swedish version here.

This entry was posted in Chardonnay, Jura, Munskänkarna, Pinot Noir, Savagnin, Vin jaune. Bookmark the permalink.

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