One of the airlines used to tell us that “getting there is half the fun.” While that’s no longer the case with air travel, I can attest that it certainly is when planning trips to and through wine country, even to planning such trips. That fact occurred to me as I looked at road maps covering secondary and country roads between Beaujolais and Alsace. The maps sent me to my notebooks and memories to help me recall the delightful wines of the Jura, those mountains that separate eastern France from Switzerland. In the United States we know the Franche-Compte Region for its delicious Gruyere cheeses, but we don’t know the wines or even most of the grape varieties
Before the Autoroute system was in place, we often traversed the region traveling between Germany and the Mediterranean Coast and made frequent lunch stops and occasional overnight dinner stays. We tasted wines from the Savagnin, the Poulsard, and the Trousseau grapes. And we visited the home and laboratories of Louis Pasteur whose scientific contributions brought European vines back from the phylloxera attacks in the nineteenth century.
Our first experience with a Vin Jaune was in a village restaurant perched on the edge of the Doubs River, which provided us the trout for lunch. With the cheese came a Vin Paille. Next day in a one-Michelin-star restaurant we enjoyed a Rouge de Jura, a Pinot Noir, a grape we see around the world, but not from Franche-Compte. They just don’t produce enough of it to share with the rest of us. Beautiful as it is, the Franche-Compte remains so secluded that its vintners refer to it as a “secretive” wine region.
Vin Jaune, a white wine, comes from the Savagnin grape and is left in small barrels for six years and three months without any topping-off, letting as much as will evaporate, the rest to have contact with air. A veil of yeast forms over the surface, which prevents oxydation and causes the development of a nutty flavor. It’s a very dry wine.
Vin Paille, on the other hand is a very sweet wine, produced by harvesting the very best grapes early and letting them dry on beds of straw until they are fully concentrated with natural sugar.
No main highways lead to Franche-Compte, but the Route National 83 connects Besancon with Macon via Arbois without any easy-off intersections. As you have suspected, there will be a stop in the Jura Mountains on our drive to Alsace next fall.
The airline had it right — getting there can be fun, but not by air. However, planning wine stops on the way is lots of fun.