The wines of the Jura, a mountainous region on France’s border with Switzerland, are one of a kind and well worth getting to know.

This fact—known since antiquity—has prompted all kinds of speculation about what may be, at bottom, the thing that gives a particular wine its character. The soils? The vineyard’s altitude or its proximity to large body of water? Unique populations of microorganisms?

Each of the examples I’ve cited would no doubt exert an influence of some kind, but in our search for the source of originality in wine, we tend to overlook something very basic and very simple: the human factor.

As in the practice of any sort of craft, a winemaker takes what nature gives as a starting point and goes on to create something that nature by itself would not be capable of. A particularly brilliant case of how this works in the wine world appears in the French region known as the Jura, due east of Burgundy and making a frontier with Switzerland.

One of the things we most appreciate about Jura wines—both red and white—is the way they shine with food. They seem to possess a kind of ideal temperament for the table: less interested in calling attention to themselves than in enhancing the overall gastronomic experience.

The Jura has a kind of Galapagos quality among France’s wine regions. Native grape varieties, rather than those imported from elsewhere, still comprise the largest percentage of vines here, and traditional winemaking practices are embedded. All the wines we tasted for this radio segment were from Caves Jean Bourdy in the mountain village of Arlay. The lineup was as follows:

  • 2011 Bourdy Cotes du Jura Rouge (around $25)
  • 2009 Bourdy Cotes du Jura Chardonnay (around $25)
  • 2011 Bourdy Cotes du Jura Savagnin (around $30)

You’ll notice that the order here is a little unusual in that we tasted the red before the two whites. This is because this is a distinctly light-bodied blend of pinot noir and two local grapes, Poulsard and Trousseau. The Jura reds I’m acquainted with all have this airy, fresh character Chris experienced when we recorded this segment. They’re not what you would call fruity or juicy. On the contrary, the effect is savory and rather dry.

This profile is the result of multiple (in this case, four or more) years of barrel-aging that tends to take some of the zip out of the fruit and confer a softer, rounder, more earth-toned character. The varietals involved have something to say about the temperament of this wine, but those four years in the barrel are the real story—a winemaker's decision and entirely a matter of technique.

Although Jura reds are distinctive, it’s when we get to the whites that we see what the region is really all about. I told Chris on air that the chardonnay he was about to taste would be like none he’d ever tasted before.

Chardonnay is widely planted in the Jura, and there is limestone there, so you might think that stylistically wines based on this familiar varietal would resemble what’s typical in neighboring Burgundy. There are some that do, but this slightly antique style of chardonnay is achieved by putting the wine into barrels that are never quite filled. And instead of periodically refilling the barrel to maximum capacity—elsewhere a routine procedure designed to keep oxygen from reacting with the wine and known as “topping up”—the barrel remains only partially full.

The result is chardonnay where the fruit seems to have receded a bit into the background. This unusual combination of very high acidity with dry, savory (think brown apple rather than green apple) character makes a startling contrast with modern, commercial-style chardonnays where all efforts are directed at preserving the pure, bright fruit flavors of fresh grapes.

Bourdy’s amber-hued chardonnay is a big favorite at Formaggio Kitchen, particularly as a match for the Jura cheeses that Formaggio Kitchen is famous for.

With our third wine we entered the realm of the exotic. It’s made of 100% Savagnin, a vine variety native to the Jura with a very special talent for attracting yeasts that bloom on the surface of the maturing wine. Thus protected from the worst ravages of oxygen, these wines can rest safely for years while the yeasts consume some of the alcohol and nearly all of the glycerine until they wine reaches a state of exalted dry, tangy nuttiness, at which point it is drawn off, bottled and sold at very high prices as vin jaune.

But sometimes the yeast doesn’t hold out as long as is required. And if at some point short of the six-plus years required for vin jaune, the yeasty bloom known as voile fails, then the wine must be quickly bottled. That product is sold simply as Jura Savagnin—but there’s really nothing simple about it. It shows much of the same exotic citrus, spice and Sherry-like zing of vin jaune, but at a somewhat dialed-down intensity and for much less money.

There will always be arguments about what makes one wine different from another, and the mystery of how a single region, slope or individual vineyard is able to express a persistently identifiable character. The Jura offers an unusually clear example of how human ingenuity combined with a unique terrain and a historic selection of well-adapted varietals can together produce wines that please, serve and even thrill.

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