As we drove along the Route de Trousseau, which is named for a wine grape that originated in Jura, my guide Loïc Lamy said, “You know, there’s also a Route de Poulsard in the next town over.” Another grape. As he spoke, we flashed by a bus shelter where someone had spray-painted SAVAGNIN POWER! next to a raised fist, celebrating yet another wine grape. Behind the bus shelter lay vineyards, russet and gold under the gunmetal-grey November skies. Never let it be said that the residents of Jura don’t know what matters. By Ray Isle
Jura is not exactly a forgotten corner of France, but it’s close: of the roughly 89 million people who visit the country each year, only a minuscule fraction find their way here. As a result, in a world where almost nowhere feels untouched anymore, this tiny slice of eastern France truly does. Tucked between Burgundy and Switzerland, it’s a patchwork of vineyards, rolling hills, and farmland. On its eastern border, the land gradually rises into waterfall-strewn outcrops and crags, bucolic and dramatic all at once.
All you need to know about Juro – the French secret wine region
I had been invited to Jura by the New York-based wine importer and distributor Neal Rosenthal, who wanted me to experience the region on a trip arranged by his travel company, Mad Rose Journeys. Back in the late 1970s, Rosenthal was one of the first importers to create a portfolio of wines tied to a specific sensibility or philosophy. He hunted for small, family-owned vineyards in France and Italy, most of which were being farmed organically or biodynamically. Rosenthal was looking for wines that embodied the character of the place they came from — the terroir, as the French say. The concept is familiar now; back then, at least in the USA, it was something entirely new. Later, he founded Mad Rose Specialty Foods, in order to import artisanal products that spoke to this concept: sun-dried tomatoes, flower-specific honeys, ancient-grain flour, and more. With Mad Rose Journeys, he’s completing the circle by bringing people to visit the producers and artisans he’s scouted over the years, many of which don’t typically open their doors to the public.
I’d never set foot in Jura before, which was a giant omission, since its wines are among the greatest in France. They’re expressions of a tradition that’s continued for centuries, untainted by the lures of industrial production and international style. Yet for decades, almost none of these wines were bought by anyone outside the region — particularly strange when you consider that Beaune, the heart of Burgundy, is only an hour away by car. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, two of the grapes of Burgundy, are both used to make world-class wines in Jura and often sell for far less than Burgundy bottles of similar quality.
Plus, the wines made from Jura’s native grapes — the ones that get political graffiti and streets named after them — can be remarkable. That’s partly due to the approach traditionally used for making white wines, in which the vintner allows a thin film of yeast to grow over the surface of the wine in the barrel as it ages. “Sous voile” wines, as they’re called (literally, “under a veil”), have a savoury, saline, oxidative character that is utterly distinctive.
Rosenthal was one of the first American importers to really champion this French region’s wines back in the mid 1990s, and he kept at it even when the average reaction from the sommeliers he was trying to sell to was, basically, “Sorry, man, these are just too damn weird.” (Admittedly, sous voile wines do take some getting used to.)
The Jura vigneron Michel Gahier, whose wines Rosenthal imports, recalled that era when I visited him in the tiny, rustic village of Montigny-lès-Arsures. It seemed perfectly reasonable for Gahier to take the long view; his family, he said, has lived in the village since 1525. His modest winery lies behind a simple wooden door on the main road of the town (“main road” used loosely — the place has a population of 275). Once inside, I took a step to the left and entered a small, stone-walled room with an old table and chairs. Empty bottles were lined up on top of a small cabinet. On one wall was an old poster advertising Absinthe Parisienne, which showed an elderly roué in a freak-show pointy hat and ruffled collar reaching for the rear of a pretty, red-haired, absinthe-drinking girl in a low-cut dress. It was captioned “Bois donc, tu verras après,” which loosely translates to “Drink it and you’ll see.”
“Twenty years ago, no one wanted my wines,” Gahier said. “I only kept going because I was younger then, and I was very lucky to meet a few people like Neal who would taste them and think, ‘Hmm, what’s going to happen to these wines in twenty to thirty years?’ He knew they would last. I knew they would last. I make real wines that can age, not Mickey Mouse wines that die after four years.”
Gahier, lean and professorial, with round, black-rimmed glasses and curly grey hair receding from his high forehead, has a forceful gaze, though his manner is quiet. He farms about 20 acres of vineyards, using no chemical fertilisers or pesticides of any kind and working by hand. “I don’t follow any sort of label,” he told me the day I visited. “It’s not organic. It’s not biodynamic. I follow the moon, and I do it my own way.”
Gahier’s Les Follasses Chardonnay, brilliant with green apple and quince notes, edged with hazelnut and honey, is made in the sous voile style, like all his wines. “You can drink it in its youth, but it also ages well.” Its grapes come from vines that grow in white marl; the vines for his Les Crêts Chardonnay, by contrast, grow in red clay. “The clay retains water, which helps the wine’s acidity.” No argument there: the wine was electrically bright on the palate, a citrusy zap of pure vinous energy.
My home base was the town of Arbois, where Rosenthal owns a bed-and-breakfast, La Closerie les Capucines. Set in an elegantly furnished 17th-century stone mansion, it’s home to another of Rosenthal’s travel concepts, Chef Nomade — a quarterly residency for visiting chefs. They create dishes and pair them with wines for the guests of the Closerie. When Rosenthal told me he was planning a Chef Nomade event that overlapped with the trip, I booked my tickets that very day.
This iteration of Chef Nomade was called “Jura Meets Langhe.” Langhe, in the heart of Piedmont, is the home of Italy’s great Barolo and Barbaresco wines, not to mention amazing food. Christian Milone, a chef visiting from the region, prepared agnolotti with butter and sage and a sirloin with a red-wine sauce. Everything was liberally covered with shaved white truffles from Tartuflanghe, a company founded by Paolo and Veronica Montanaro. It’s another of Rosenthal’s finds.
I love truffles, but I love morel mushrooms even more, and the forests that cover the eastern slopes of Jura are one of the world’s great sources of them. Foragers pluck the ruffled cones from the earth and deliver them to restaurants like Café de L’Abbaye, in the town of Baume-les-Messieurs, about 40 minutes south, where Lamy and I had lunch the next day.
Baume-les-Messieurs, tucked below dramatic limestone cliffs at the head of a narrow valley, has a ninth-century Benedictine abbey and is surrounded by trails leading to caves, streams, and waterfalls. Those streams were the source of the local trout I had for lunch, which was served with morels and vin jaune sauce. It’s a classic dish of the region, and in that stone-walled restaurant, at a rustic table, surrounded by local families debating in French, I felt very, very far from New York, and very glad of it.
After lunch, Lamy drove us a few kms to Domaine de Montbourgeau, just outside the village of L’Étoile. Two stone pillars mark the entrance to the property, and from them, a winding road leads to a red-shingled country house, both a winery and the home of owner Nicole Dériaux and her family. As Dériaux and I sat in the tasting room (or, really, dining room — it was right off the kitchen), I asked her why the town was called L’Étoile, which means “the star.”
“Ah!” she said, getting up to retrieve a small cardboard box from the windowsill. From it, she tipped a handful of small, grey, star-shaped stones onto the table. They looked like prizes a child might find in a box of cereal, but they were in fact fossilized echinoderms from an ancient era, something like 170 million years ago. These had come from the soil in Dériaux’s vineyards, but the stones can be found all around the area. “So now you see,” she said.
The ancient seabed her vineyards were planted on, she explained, was largely responsible for the character of her wines. “The L’Étoile appellation is full of elegance and minerality,” she said, pouring some of her Domaine de Montbourgeau L’Étoile En Banode. A blend of Chardonnay and the local Savagnin grape, it was spicy and savoury, ending with a saline note. “My neighbour likes to spread salted butter and shaved truffles on a piece of bread,” Dériaux noted. “It’s perfect with this wine.”
I wondered, as we drove back through the gates, exactly what sort of wine wouldn’t be perfect with bread, salted butter, and truffles, but the pine trees silhouetted against the sky distracted me. I rolled down the window, breathed the clean air, and gave it no more thought.
Over the days I was in Jura, I found, again and again, a mixture of directness and humility that was characteristic of the place, and incredibly appealing. Consider Édouard Hirsinger. He’s the fourth generation of his family to make chocolates in Arbois, and if you tour his shop, with its century-old patisserie hirsinger sign still above the doors, you can visit the tiny museum downstairs. This small space is full of mementoes of more than a century of chocolate making: moulds, copper pans, an ice cream vending machine from decades ago — distributeur automatique de glaces — still with sample cups inside.
Upstairs, you’ll find the pure Willy Wonka–ness of the store itself, with its trays of marzipan fruits in pastel colours, squares of nougat studded with almonds and pistachios, bars wrapped in red foil, and, of course, chocolates. But not just any chocolates: just one tiny square had precise, individual layers of nougatine with buckwheat, caramel beurre salé ganache, and apple compote. “I make complicated chocolates,” Hirsinger said. “It’s my vision. It’s like being a chef — flavour, texture, colour. Each one is like a dish in a restaurant.” Hirsinger has been awarded the MOF — the Meilleur Ouvrier de France — an honour extended only to France’s greatest craftsmen. But ask him about it, and you’ll hear that Jura modesty: “I just want to remain small and make my chocolate.”
Two doors down from Hirsinger is Essencia en Arbois, one of the best cheese and wine shops in town. Comté, the great cheese of Jura, becomes nutty and caramelised the more it ages. Essencia en Arbois sells a 43-month-aged variety that is absurdly delicious. I walked out with a whacking big slab. It was my travelling companion back to New York, and large enough that I probably should have bought it a seat of its own.
On my final day, I visited Emeric Foléat, winemaker and proprietor of Vignerons les Matheny, located in Mathenay (yes, spelled differently), 10 minutes from Arbois. He too follows the direct-but-self-effacing Jura rule. “You have to be humble at all times,” he said at one point. “If someone tells you that you’re making amazing wines, you have to remember that it is still just wine.” A moment later he was waving a hand in exasperation and saying, “The moment I started seeing organic wines in supermarkets, I thought, This is insane! People want labels. They should want authenticity instead!”
Foléat is nothing if not authentic. He follows no rules in his wine-making and hates dogmatism. He harvests and produces every parcel of vines separately. Some develop a veil of yeast, some do not; some he allows to age for years, some not. It’s near impossible to generalise about Foléat’s approach, except to say he works using his intuitions, and his intuitions are often remarkable.
Foléat can also be incredibly blunt, but perhaps that runs in his family. After pouring his Poulsard — ordinarily a wispy, light red, but in his hands a forceful, earthy wine, full of dark berry flavours — he told a story about his grandfather, who fought in the resistance during World War II.
Foléat was in his teens, helping his grandfather chop wood. After a few hours, he said, “Man, I am dying of hunger.” His grandfather, who had spent weeks during the war hiding from the Germans, promptly grabbed a stick and whacked him with it, yelling, “You have no idea what it’s like to feel hunger!”
“It was a good lesson,” Foléat admitted with a shrug. “We make our own problems too often.” With that, he poured us each a final glass of wine. Or, at least what I thought was a final glass of wine, because just as I got to the door, beyond saturated, he added, “Perhaps you would like to try a marc du Jura? A brandy? Très formidable — it’s twenty years in the barrel. I keep it in the cellar down below.”
Don’t miss a thing in Jura, the secret French wine region
Where to stay
La Closerie les Capucines: An elegant B&B set in a 17th-century mansion in the heart of Arbois. Breakfasteach morning features local preserves, charcuterie and cheeses, baked goods, and extremely good coffee. There’s also a swimming pool and sauna.
Where to eat
Café de L’Abbaye: Traditional Jura cuisine is served in a rustic room in the stunning small town of Baume-les-Messieurs. Order anything with morels and vin jaune sauce.
Essencia en Arbois: The aged Comté at this excellent cheese and wine shop in Arbois should not be missed — it can be vacuum-packed for travel. The wine selection includes all of the top producers in the area and many small up-and-coming names, too. 44 Grand Rue, Arbois
Hirsinger: Édouard Hirsinger is one of the most acclaimed chocolatiers in France. Visit his shop in the centre of Arbois. There’s also a small museum of his family’s chocolate making. Try and walk out without buying anything. It will never happen.
How to book
Mad Rose Journeys: The tour company offers small-group trips to the regions in France, Italy, and Switzerland where importer Neal Rosenthal has discovered great artisans, from winemakers to food producers. Bespoke itineraries can also be arranged. Mad Rose also offers the Chef Nomade program, which includes classes, meals with winemakers, and tastings. A different chef cooks for each experience.
A version of this story first appeared in the September 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline “French Pastoral.”
This story first appeared on www.travelandleisure.com
(Main and Feature Image Credit: Guillaume Megevand)