A few years back I visited a well known domaine in Burgundy. The proprietor asked me where I’d been before. I told him I’d been to the Jura. His response surprised me: ‘Why did you go there? It’s just a minor region.’
Until recently, the Jura was dismissed by many as a quirk on France’s viticultural map. Wine students learned about Vin Jaune - the famed Savagnin aged under flor (sous voile) that comes in smaller than standard bottles - but that was about it.
Things have changed though. The Jura has become a hot spot for natural winemaking in particular, and some of the star names here and their hard-to-get wines have ignited interest in the region and its grape varieties. To an extent, the same can be said of neighbouring Savoie.
It's a small region, with just 2000 hectares under vine - for context the Côte d’Or has around 8,000 - but Jura was almost ten times the size before phylloxera hit. Located to the east of Burgundy, towards the border with Switzerland, it shares limestone as the main soil theme, along with varying amounts of clay. And there are five grapes that excel here. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as in Burgundy, but also Savagnin (a white variety) and two distinctive red grapes – Poulsard (sometimes called Ploussard) and Trousseau.
In the natural wine world, Pierre Overnoy is legendary. Pierre took over his family's farm in Pupillin in 1968, and switched from polyculture to growing just vines. He went to study oenology in Burgundy, but when he applied the new ways of winemaking he learned, he recognized that something was missing from the wines. A meeting with natural wine consultant Jacques Neauport led him to start to make wine without adding sulfites, and he’s not added any since 1986, which was early days in the natural wine movement. Pierre is still involved in the domaine, but in 2001 he handed over his to nephew Emmanuel (Manu) Houillon, who’d been working full time with him for four years. Such is the legend of Overnoy that these wines are now cult, selling for silly prices on grey market internet sites. But this is a fairly recent phenomonen: a decade ago you could buy these wines at more down to earth prices.
Jura legend Pierre Overnoy studied oenology in Burgundy, but when he applied the new ways of winemaking he learned, he recognized that something was missing from the wines.
Manu’s sister Adeline Houillon, together with her partner Renaud Bruyère have their own domaine which they began in 2011 with a small parcel of 0.7 hectares. Adeline worked with her brother, and Renaud also worked with Manu for three years before spending seven years with another Jura pioneer Stéphane Tissot. They have grown their holdings to four hectares and work naturally in the cellar.
Another Jura legend is Jean-Francois Ganevat, who makes a range of domaine wines as well as running a negociant business with his sister - Anne et Jean-François Ganevat - a range of juicy, eye-catchingly labelled bottlings, which commonly blend together wines from different regions, and are labelled Vin de France.
Until 1976 the Ganevat family raised cows as well as growing vines, but since then all the attention has been on the vineyard and cellar. Jean-François, began working alongside his father before heading to wine school, followed by a nine-year spell working with Domaine Marc Morey in Burgundy. Since his return to the family estate in 1998 he’s grown the vineyard holdings to 13 hectares, and started to farm biodynamically. The winemaking is mainly pretty natural, with no sulfur dioxide used during vinification since 2006, and just small additions to Florine and Les Billats at bottling. The whites spend a long time on lees and are aged for extended periods in barrel and amphora. Typically, more than 30 cuvées are released each vintage, and they are highly sought after.
I visited Ganevat in 2017 and it felt like a pilgrimage. The reds are fantastic, but it’s the whites that are, to me, the standouts.
Both Chardonnay and Savagnin sing here. It is astonishing how these wines, vinified for at least two years without any added sulfites, can have such purity and concentration.
Philippe Bornard is another natural producer who has developed a cult following. Based in Pupillin, near Arbois, he took over his father’s vineyards and was advised by Pierre Overnoy to begin making his own wines. He farms biodynamically and his Point Barre Ploussard is a gem of wine.
Stars of the Savoie
Savoie is less fashionable than the Jura, but similarly it contracted in size dramatically post phylloxera, and a group of natural producers are showing that it has the right combination of terroirs and grapes to make compelling wines. My favourite producer is Belluard, who is based in the distinctly alpine Haute-Savoie. Dominique Belluard converted to biodynamic farming and specializes in an obscure local variety called Gringet, which he ferments in cement eggs.
Another Haute-Savoie star is Dominique Lucas, who owns Les Vignes De Paradis, with vines planted in Crépy and Marin, as well as 2.5 hectares from a family domaine in Burgundy. He opted not to work on the family estate because he wanted a be more freedom than you get under Burgundy’s strict AOC rules. He’s making an array of compelling and textured wines in Savoie, where he specialises in Chasselas, but also grows Chardonnay, Savagnin, Pinot Gris and Chenin Blanc, as well as Gamay.
The ranks of natural/authentic winegrowers of note in both the Jura and Savoie are growing, which is a good thing, because such is the interest in these regions that the small production wines from the best known growers can be extremely hard to get hold of.