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Savagnin: Grape & Wine of the Jura

To better know the wines of the Jura region in France, you must start with Savagnin (pronounced sav-an-yan). This is a white wine grape that can produce a range of wines. Exciting, extraordinary and unusual, these wines are some of the most remarkable whites in France — and the world.

Savagnin wines, in particular the long aging Vin Jaune, are not for everybody. Their taste is different than most white wines and may not appeal to the casual wine drinker. But whether you immediately fall in love or decide it’s not to your liking, you will never forget your first taste of Savagnin.

There are three main dry white wines produced from Savagnin, with examples of each pictured below: Naturé, Savagnin and Vin Jaune. All are made entirely from Savagnin grapes.

The key term to know when talking about Savagnin is “ouillé.” This is a French word that describes the process of topping up a barrel with wine to replace the liquid lost during evaporation. When the barrel is not topped up it allows the air to mix with the wine and affect its flavors — similar to how your glass of wine develops different flavors over time as you sip.

Wines from the Jura that have been topped up will say Ouillé on the label or Naturé in the case of wines from the AOC Arbois. When the wine just says Savagnin that indicates the wine is “non ouillé,” or not topped up. Vin Jaune is non ouillé.

Naturé and Ouillé wines show Savagnin in its purest form. They are light, elegant and refreshing, with floral and citrus notes. Think Sauvignon Blanc minus the grassy notes, or a non-oaked Chardonnay. You’ll taste flavors that may include white flowers, honeysuckle, orange, lemon zest, apricot, pear, white peach, white grapefruit and anise.

Ouillé wines are meant to be enjoyed while young and should be served chilled, between 50°F and 55°F. They can be served as an aperitif or with fish, chicken, fruits de mer, smoked salmon or foie gras.

It gets a little more interesting when you move on to Savagnin (the wine) and Vin Jaune.

As anyone who has ever tasted a day-old glass of wine knows, air changes the taste. Because oxygen has been allowed to mix with the wine in the barrel, the wine develops an unusual flavor. The longer the Savagnin spends mixing with air, the stronger these flavors will be.

In talking about Savagnin and Vin Jaune it is important to note that these wines are oxidative, not oxidated. This means the flavors are desirable and have been specially cultivated and controlled through aging in barrels. The wine has not “turned” or gone bad. You can tell this because even though you get some wild and gamey notes you still get fresh fruit flavors.

Savagnin wine spends around 2 to 3 years aging in oak barrels. During its time mixing with oxygen the wine develops slight oxidative flavors that are reminiscent of ripe soft cheese and dried fruits. Flavors you’ll find in Savagnin include apricots (and dried apricots), yellow or green apples (and dried apples), Meyer lemon, orange, guava and white pepper.

Savagnin can be served with fish, white meats, cream based dishes, mushroom dishes or Comté cheese, which is also produced in the Jura. Winemakers in the Jura suggest uncorking Savagnin at least 15 minutes before serving it.

Continue with Lifting the Veil on Vin Jaune

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Lifting the Veil on Vin Jaune

Continued from Savagnin: Grape & Wine of the Jura

The prized wine of the Jura region in France is Vin Jaune. Meaning yellow wine, this is wine made entirely from Savagnin grapes and aged for at least 6 years and 3 months in oak barrels. Vin Jaune is non ouillé; the barrels are not topped up with wine to replace the liquid lost during evaporation.

What sets this wine apart from any other long aging wine is “le voile.” Meaning the veil in English, this is a layer of yeast that forms on top of the liquid over time as the wine mixes with air. Wine for Vin Jaune is aged above ground, not below in caves. This is best for cultivating the yeast that forms the veil.

It may not be the prettiest thing to look at with its grayish-brown color and bubbles, but le voile is what makes Vin Jaune — and the Jura region — so special. The veil is something that can only happen with Savagnin, and only with the yeasts that are naturally occurring in the Jura. It is a tradition of winemaking that goes back many generations.

Why go through this long and somewhat unusual process? Think of Vin Jaune like a dry aged steak. When beef is dry aged it develops a layer of mold on the outside, similar to le voile. The meat shrinks in size as moisture evaporates, just like wine aging in barrels. But when it is finally time to eat that dry aged steak the taste is phenomenal.

Like a dry aged steak, Vin Jaune has savory nutty and ripe cheese flavors. Yet at the same time Vin Jaune is dry, with bright acidity and fresh citrus notes. The combination of these seemingly opposite flavors is what makes Vin Jaune so exciting to drink. You could spend hours discussing this wine.

Vin Jaune can range in color from straw yellow to gold. The wine is clear and is 14% alcohol.

Savagnin wine is like a baby Vin Jaune because its aging ends sometime before the mandated 6 years and 3 months. Because of Vin Jaune’s longer aging its flavors are similar to those in Savagnin wine, only more intense.

Flavors in Vin Jaune can include ripe Camembert cheese, green and golden apple, candied orange peel, lemon and lemon peel, ginger, nutmeg, curry, vanilla, sandalwood, almond, hazelnut and walnut. There’s a touch of rancio, a wine term often used with Cognac that describes the mix of woodsy, earthy and musty flavors.

Oxidative flavors are present in Vin Jaune, yet the acidity keeps the wine fresh. This acidity makes Vin Jaune great for aging. If you taste a Vin Jaune that is 5, 10 or 20 plus years old it will still have those fresh notes.

A traditional way to enjoy Vin Jaune is after a meal with Comté cheese and walnuts. Other pairings include curry or saffron based dishes, foie gras, coq au Vin Jaune, trout, shellfish or morels. Vin Jaune should be served chilled, between 57ºF and 60ºF. Winemakers in the Jura suggest uncorking a bottle of Vin Jaune an hour before drinking.

The finest Vin Jaune comes from the AOC Château-Chalon, located in the heart of the Jura. A picturesque perched village gives the AOC its name.

Related Articles:
Savagnin: Grape & Wine of the Jura
An Introduction to the Jura
Harvest in the Jura Video

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An Introduction to Jura

France’s wine regions are some of the most famous in the world. Casual wine drinkers could likely list several off the top of their heads, as well as grapes grown in these regions.

Ask casual or even well-versed wine drinkers about the Jura and the response will be much different.

Though smaller and not as well known, the Jura produces exceptional whites and reds that deserve to be recognized.

The Jura department is located within the Franche-Comté province in eastern France, between Burgundy and the Swiss border. Americans may know the Jura best for its cheese: Comté and Morbier. The Laughing Cow cheese is also based there.

Sloping vineyards and rolling hills extend in every direction. To the east are the forested Jura Mountain range, after which the department (and the Jurassic geological period) was named.

Near the northern end of Jura is the town of Arbois. It has the honor of being the first place in France to be named an AOC, a designation it received in 1936. Arbois is also where Louis Pasteur grew up; his childhood home is now a museum. Fifteen miles southwest is the perched village of Château-Chalon, home to the most prized Vin Jaune and some of the most celebrated vineyards in France.

Meaning “yellow wine,” Vin Jaune is made from Savagnin grapes. The wine is aged at least 6 years and 3 months in oak barrels, during which time a thick layer of yeast called “the veil” forms.

In addition to Savagnin, Burgundian varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are grown in the Jura, as are local red grapes Poulsard and Trousseau. Winemakers in the also produce Cremant (sparkling wine made in the traditional Champagne style), Vin de Paille (sweet wine), and Macvin (fortified wine made from marc, grape juice and spices).

In the Jura you’ll find a unique camaraderie among the vintners. In part it’s due to the small size of the region, but mainly it is because they share a real passion for their grapes, soil and terroir. Family and tradition are important too; wine estates are passed down through sons and daughters and relatives work together to produce wine.

You can’t help but be passionate about wines from the Jura, with their marked acidic and oxidative flavors. These are conversation-starting wines; Vin Jaune especially is the kind of wine you could spend hours sipping and discussing.

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