Nothing about Jura’s legendary Vin Jaune, or yellow wine, makes any sense. It doesn’t look yellow and is certainly not orange. Rarely chilled, many believe the wine tastes downright weird. But the unusual bottle may attract curiosity and so will the vintage, which will be from at least seven years ago.
The story goes that if it wasn’t for the top French chefs in New York, who wanted good Vin Jaune for their kitchens, the Jura craze in the U.S. may never have kicked off in the late 1990s.
The very mention of poulet au vin jaune, or chicken in Vin Jaune, causes French gourmands to emit deep, breathy sighs. In the book “50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste,” by Edward Behr, he explains that as an accompaniment as well as in the dish, “Vin Jaune from the Jura intensifies the chicken taste in combination with the cream and, if you have them, morels.”
Why it’s special
Vin Jaune is an oxidative white wine, meaning it has some deliberate exposure to oxygen, contrary to most wines. Savagnin grapes are fermented normally, then the wine is transferred into small old oak barrels, usually incompletely filled and stored somewhere with quite wide temperature fluctuations.
In the barrel, a layer of yeast forms on the surface of the wine, known as la voile, the veil, similar to Sherry’s flor. This veil protects the wine from the worst of oxidation and adds complexity, depth, and flavor. The alcohol will have risen too as the water in the wine slowly evaporates.
The wine may not be drawn out of barrel until six years and three months after the harvest and is traditionally bottled in a 62-centiliter clavelin (22 fluid ounces); for the U.S. market, normal, half-sized bottles are sometimes used. Alcohol levels vary from 13.5% to 15.5%.
Terroir plus winemaking
Vin Jaune is available from four appellations: Côtes du Jura, Arbois, L’Etoile, and the most famous of all, Château-Chalon from vineyards below the bijou hilltop village of the same name. A clavelin from Château-Chalon does not actually state Vin Jaune on the label but sometimes you will see the older term “Vin de Garde,” wine to age, instead.
With the notable exception of star producer Stéphane Tissot, who in recent years has released five different terroir selections of Vins Jaunes, most producers believe terroir differences take second place to the varied cellar aging conditions.
Arbois Vin Jaune tends to be more powerful than others, with a dominant walnut flavor when young; the barrels are often stored in an attic, where temperature fluctuations are huge, dropping down to below 32 degrees Fahrenheit in winter and up to 86 F in summer. L’Etoile and Château-Chalon show more elegance and spicy curry flavors emerging from cooler, below-ground cellars with smaller temperature fluctuations. Some vignerons use a mixture of barrel storage locations to provide greater complexity.
Vin Jaune may taste shockingly bone dry and acidic when young, but the latest release, 2015, emerges from a sunny, dry, and very warm vintage and will be ready to drink sooner than more classic, recent vintages. The current offerings on the market like 2013 and 2014 have aging potential stretching into many decades.
Sébastien Bulle, the former sommelier for Michelin-starred restaurant Château de Germigney, says that older vintages on restaurant wine lists can be of excellent value. It’s best to call ahead of time, if possible, as the magic begins the day after the wine is opened.
“There is a big and growing demand on the export market. Not only in the U.S., but from Germany, Belgium, and even Japan.”
Nicole Dériaux, who runs Domaine de Montbourgeau in L’Etoile with her sons, says, “There is a big and growing demand on the export market. Not only in the U.S., but from Germany, Belgium, and even Japan.”
Clémentine Baud, who runs her family wine estate in Côtes du Jura with her younger brother Bastien Baud is also excited about exports. “We have just shipped 600 clavelins of our Château-Chalon to South Korea — that’s a big order!”
Demand in France is steady. La Percée du Vin Jaune, the festival, established in 1997 and held in a different Jura village each year in early February celebrates the release of the latest Vin Jaune vintage. For 2022, dates have been pushed back to April.
Despite the weather being wintery, the Percée attracts tens of thousands over the weekend and has given a boost to the understanding of Vin Jaune, also acting as promotion for the whole Jura region.
With a range of events including an auction of old wines, a cooking competition, and with countless street performers, as well as around 70 wine producer tasting spots in the village cellars, the Percée is effectively a glorious wine lovers’ carnival with Vin Jaune center stage.
For those who cannot travel, but must judge the wine in the glass, it’s well worth the indulgence. As Jura only produces 100,000 to 200,000 clavelins annually, it is perhaps no bad thing it remains an acquired taste. The unique and almost mythical Vin Jaune has been little imitated and never matched.
3 Vins Jaunes ideal to cellar:
Domaine Baud Génération 9 Château-Chalon 2013 (~$42)
The Baud family own a substantial six acres of vineyards in En Beaumont, one of the greatest sections of the Château-Chalon appellation. Bottled in April 2020 this Château-Chalon remains very young, showing green walnut flavors linked with mineral notes and weighs in at below 14% alcohol. If you don’t have 50 years to wait, it should be transformed in another five to 10 years and represents a real bargain.
Domaine de Montbourgeau L’Etoile Vin Jaune 2014 (~$105)
This recent release is a restrained Vin Jaune from a vintage that combined excellent ripeness with good acidity. The Savagnin was aged first in large oak casks for a few months, and then transferred to small barrels, which are stored in a cool cellar with only modest temperature changes. This leads to an elegant Vin Jaune, full of finesse and minerality from the fossil-laden limestone in the L’Etoile vineyards. It will evolve very well.
Jacques Puffeney Arbois Vin Jaune 2013 (~$137)
Half a century of expertise has gone into making and maturing this quintessential Arbois Vin Jaune, which offers the second-last chance to buy Vin Jaune from Jacques Puffeney. His vineyards were taken over after the 2014 vintage by Domaine du Pélican, following Puffeney’s retirement. Renowned for remembering the details of every vintage, Puffeney believes 2013 is a superb vintage for aging. Power combines with spicy walnuts, huge complexity, and length. Put this away for a special event.