Saturday, November 26, 2016

Starving in the Jura and Sipping Vin Jaune in Chateau Chalon

(October 2016) Reminder to self: do not visit the Jura wine region on a Saturday at the end of October. It was Halloween weekend when I decided to visit the Jura wine region, one-hour drive south of Burgundy. For years I’ve wanted to travel here to taste the famous “yellow wines” or Vin Jaune of Jura. In addition, I’ve read repeatedly of the miraculous match of this wine to the Bresse chicken cooked in a cream and mushroom sauce. Little did I know that the week of All Saints Eve is a time when many restaurants and domains decide to take a short vacation in the Jura.

Jura Wine Ad on Back of Van

With tantalizing thoughts of a decadent meal of Bresse chicken and Vin Jaune on my mind, I started one week in advance to attempt to book reservations at wineries and restaurants. I was successful in booking a restaurant in Arbois for lunch – I thought – only to have them cancel the morning I departed. In terms of domains, all were closed with the exception of the tourist wine shops in Arbois. Thankfully Stephane Tissot invited me to visit their tasting room, where I had a fabulous experience.

Beautiful Vineyards of the Jura

Starving in Arbois

Departing my gite in Vosne-Romanee around 9:30 that morning in a hopeful mood that all would work out, I arrived in the small village of Arbois (the capital of the Jura wine region) just before 11am. My first stop was the Tourist Office to obtain a map and some recommendations for lunch. They were very friendly and gave me two suggestions for local restaurants. Therefore, I happily completed my tasting at Tissot (see below), and then went in search of the restaurants around noon.  Alas both were closed, and the few that were open in town were completely booked.

“Desole, desole – I’m sorry,” I heard repeatedly, until I began to hate the phrase.  Eventually I remembered that my friends had suggested I stop at Hirsinger chocolate shop. So feeling faint from lack of food and hiking what seemed miles around Arbois in search of an open restaurant, I stumbled into the shop around 1:30 and ordered a quiche and piece of chocolate for lunch.  The dream of chicken with mushrooms and Vin Jaune is still that – a dream.

Hirsinger Chocolate Shop Where I Had Lunch in Arbois

About the Jura Wine Region and Its Famous “Yellow Wine”

Nestled in the hills between Burgundy and Switzerland, the Jura is 80 kilometers in length, with six wine appellations (AOCs). They specialize in five grape varietals: Savagnin, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Poulsard and Trousseau – the later three which made a lighter style red wine.

The most famous wine is called Vin Jaune, or “yellow wine” because of its yellow color due to long aging. This wine must be made from Savignon grapes – a rather neutral grape with notes of straw and lemon. After fermentation, it must be aged 6 years and 3 months in oak with no topping. While in barrel it develops a white mold on top to create a unique, fresh oxidized wine similar to sherry. It is sold in a shorter squat 62 ml bottle, because 38% of wine disappears in barrel so there is not enough to fill 750 ml bottle – or at least that is what I was told.

Vin Jaune is a unique tasting wine that I really enjoy.  It is said to pair best with the local Comte cheese (hard cheese similar to Swiss, but with a lighter more nutty taste – can be young or aged).  It is also delicious with nuts, and the famous Bresse chicken with mushrooms and cream sauce (sigh!).

Castle with Wine Museum in Arbois

In addition to still wines, the region also produces sparkling cremants, Vin Paille - a dessert wine made by drying grapes on straw, and Marc Vin - grape juice blended with marc.

Most of the producers are very small and it is necessary to book appointments in advance to visit the domains. However, the main town of Arbois now has some open tasting rooms for tourists, including the very famous Stephane Tissot. The other legendary domaine is Macle, located in the village of Chateau Chalon.

Visiting Stephane Tissot in Arbois

Stephane Tissot is considered to be one of the top winemakers in the Jura, and was on the list of all three people that I asked for recommendations on where to visit.  The domain is known for producing very natural wines, using organic farming practices, and unique winemaking methods such as amphorae. In addition to their winery outside of town, they have an open tasting room for tourists on the main street of Arbois, which makes it quite easy to visit them – even on an off weekend when most wineries are closed.

Stephane Tissot Wines in Arbois, Jura

They were expecting me when I arrived, and I was welcomed warmly and treated to a tasting of 8 wines. All were extremely well made and showed distinctive personalities. In general, the reds were quite light, so I found myself favoring the whites. Top scoring wines for me included:

NV Blanc de Blanc Cremant – 52 months on lees, no dosage. Biscuity nose, lemon and yeasty brioche on palate. Full, textured, and long. Delicious. 17 euros.

2015 Chardonnay Patchwork – toasty nose, lemon and tart apple on palate with a sweet edge. Refreshing with high acid, clean and zesty. Saw one year in oak. From clay and limestone soil.  After spending 3 months in Burgundy, I thought this wine was very well made and a great value for only 14 euros.  I immediately bought a bottle.

2015 Trousseau in Amphora – fermented in amphora with skins for 4 months. No filtration or sulfur. Fresh, light bodied red wine with earth and cranberry notes, grippy tannins.  Fascinating.  27 euros.

2009 Seis Savagnin – named “Seis” for 6 in Spanish, the wine spent 6 years in oak and is designed to be similar to a Spanish manzanilla – not a Vin Jaune.  Lighter style but smells like Vin Jaune with apple, mineral, mushroom nose and a slight cheesy note.  A bit of sauerkraut on finish.  Seemed like a cross of an amontillado and fino.

2009 Chateau Chalon – nutty, cheesy, fresh apple cider, with complex spice and herb notes.  Very high acid, medium body, and very long finish. Extremely satisfying. 54 euros. Purchased this one.

2012 Vin Paille – made with chardonnay and sauvignon grapes that are dried on straw mats for 3 months so they become like sweet raisons before being pressed.  Next they are aged for 2 years in small oak barrels.  They produce a very sweet, light bodied wine that tastes like honey and dried pear with a refreshingly high acid.

Church in the Hilltop Village of Chateau Chalon, Jura Wine Region

Scaling the Heights to Chateau Chalon and Sipping Vin Jaune

The drive from Arbois to Chateau Chalon takes about 30 minutes, and the scenery is charming as you wind your way between small villages and pastures with cows grazing in green grass. Every once in a while you pass a small vineyard. As you get closer to Chateau Chalon the elevation begins to climb and the road twists and turns until you see an ancient castle ruin, which is Chateau Chalon – the name of the small village that is famous for producing Vin Jaune.

No one had told me that it was situated on the top of a cliff with a breathtaking view of the valley and vineyards below. It reminded me a Montalcino in Italy, with very steep cliffs plunging down to the valley, which was a patchwork of golden yellow vineyards and tiny villages with church steeples – truly magical.

View of Vineyards in the Valley Far Below from Hilltop Village of Chateau Chalon

I wandered around the narrow streets and was disappointed to discover that they have several very good restaurants set on the edge of the cliff with view of the valley below. If I only had known in advance, I would have driven to Chateau Chalon first!  Alas, the lunch hour was over, and all of the restaurants were closed. I had to beg one restaurant to let me order a cup of espresso, while I stood at the bar for five minutes.

Continuing to wander around, I saw the sign for the famous Macle winery, and decided to ring the doorbell. Eventually a woman came out and told me they were closed. I asked if there was a possibility to purchase a bottle of Vin Jaune, and she nodded yes and invited me inside a small warehouse area. Disappearing for a minute, she came back with a bottle of Macle Vin Jaune in her hand and charged me 42 euros. Even though I did not get to taste there, and was not received in a warm manner, I was still pleased to be able to purchase a bottle of the famous wine.

Domaine Macle - One of Most Famous Wineries in the Jura for Vin Jaune

Eventually I stumbled upon the tourism office that sells glasses of local wine for only 3 euros, including a presentation. I was greeted by a smiling girl, who served me a glass of Vin Jaune, while I sat at a table on a balcony overlooking the valley far below. She provided a perfect explanation of how the wine was made and why the Jura is so special. So even though I did not get to enjoy the lunch I was dreaming of, the afternoon still ended with a relaxing pause and a glass of yellow wine that I sipped with delight while overlooking the golden vineyards far below.

My Delicious Glass of Vin Jaune Overlooking the Vineyards Far Below


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