An introduction to the French Jura

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They weren’t just rock formations. They were dinosaur footprints.

Thibault has always had a passion for dinosaurs, and he was sure what he was seeing “were old tracks, …millions of years old,” he said. Although her parents dismissed her discovery as a childish fantasy, years later the footprints were verified by a scientist.

The Jura region – as in the Jurassic era – is home to the largest fossilized tracks in Plagne, as well as others through Coisia and Loulle. On the train from Paris to Arbois, it is easy to imagine tyrannosaurus rex and pterodactyls instead of cows and sheep. But now, another group reigns over the terroir of the region: the winemakers. And they are fully aware of their background. These fossils affect their wine.

Françoise Ratte’s vines have traveled through her family for generations, having originally been cultivated by her great-grandparents. She works in different types of terroirs – the natural composition of the land in which the wines are produced – each influencing the aromatic profile of the final product. But in his case, it’s not just limestone or clay.

“The fossils are still full of salt and iodine. It’s going to play a role in the taste of the wine, because they’re in contact with the roots,” she said. “They will create acidity and give a smoky, flinty taste.” Chardonnay, for example, is “very, very smoky.”

Françoise pulled out a bowl of fossils she found in her soil over the years. It mainly finds Gryphaea, ancestors of the oyster, but it also has ammonites, belemnites and water lilies – all ancient inhabitants of the sea. Indeed, around 150 million years ago, this region of the Jura, today characterized by its mountain ranges, was covered with water.

“In the Jurassic, the Jura was on the edge of a warm and shallow tropical sea. It’s hard to imagine, but in reality it wasn’t mountainous at the time,” explains Emmanuel Fara, professor of paleontology at the University of Burgundy and director of the Biogeosciences laboratory. “So it’s normal that we find a huge amount of marine organisms.”

After examining the fossils, we jumped into Françoise’s truck and drove to her vineyards a few minutes away. She looked at the landscape, remembering the time spent running through those vines as a child.

The Jura is home to five varietals or varietals—Chardonnay, Savagnin, Pinot Noir, Trousseau, and Poulsard (also called Ploussard)—which are picked, crushed, and vinified into whites, reds, and even Vin Jaune, the region’s fame. Louis Pasteur, a 19th century French chemist and microbiologist, lived in Arbois for many periods of his life and often conducted experiments on its wine. Today, the mere mention of the Jura plunges the customers of the capital‘s most famous wine bars into a state of euphoria. This is why, when I arrived in Arbois, I had a mission: to drink.

In the central Place de la Liberté, vaulted passageways frame the square, the smell of burning wood wafting through the air against a mountainous backdrop. Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville gives way to a waterfall that flows into a stream running below, and jade-colored moss decorates the water pipes of the buildings along its route. After taking a moment to absorb it all, I turned around. It appeared that my prayers had materialized in the form of a bar across the street, The Archives. When I sat down the bartender asked me if I wanted a drink or a bottle. I decided I liked it here.

One morning, after getting to know the five varietals well, I met Christine Villet of Domaine Villet, another local wine brand, in the tasting room right across from her house. It soon became apparent that Françoise was not the only winemaker in the region with a collection of fossils; Christine’s smile widened as she pulled out a box from across the room and dumped dozens of fossils on top of a barrel of wine. She pointed to the stem of a water lily, which looks like a star.

“Let’s talk about the star – L’Etoile [star in French] The appellation in the Jura has this name because they have a lot of these types of fossils,” she explained.

A stone’s throw from Domaine Villet, Le Bistrot des Claquets dominates rue de Faramand with its coral-coloured facade. Inside, dried chillies hang overhead. Owner Rachel Gariglio greets guests by name. I was having lunch – a rare steak and crispy fries – with a winemaker I had met the day before. He looked out the window, pointing to another winemaker, Alice Bouvot of Domaine de l’Octavin, who was walking outside.

On my last day in town, I went to meet Alice. Its reputation precedes it; virtually everyone I met in town praised her work, complimenting her commitment to natural production methods. After bursting inside, Alice emerged with a bottle called Ivre de Vivre: drunk with life. Sitting at a bright blue table outside, she was talking softly, petting her dog, Pistache.

While throwing pebbles for the dog to chase, Alice explained that she works biodynamically, paying attention to lunar cycles, and without additives or sulphur, to keep the wines “emotional and alive”. Besides the five traditional Jura varietals, she also negotiates grapes with other winemakers to keep things playful.

“We too have the right to have fun,” she said with a smiled shrug. “It drives our curiosity.”

When asked how she sees the future of her profession, her piercing blue eyes gaze into the distance. She paused for a long time before speaking.

“When you’re working 14, 15 or 16 hour days, we don’t always have time – or we don’t take the time, maybe – to think,” she said. “It’s about opening your eyes. We talk a lot about wine, tastings and all that. But the vine and our terroir, … what do we want to leave to our children? Polluted rivers? Of course, you have to work to earn a living. But you can work cleanly. It’s obvious.

On the train back to Paris, I imagined the surrounding mountains flattening out before my eyes and giving way to warm seas and marine life splashing in the water. I wondered how this land, so dear to the region’s winegrowers, would change in the next 150 million years. But perhaps some traces of the Jurassic era – and today – would still remain. According to Fara, the paleontologist, the dinosaurs did not completely disappear; their descendants still fly above.

“Today, if you want to go see dinosaurs in the Jura, you can go bird watching,” he said. “The dinosaurs are still there.

Radziemski is a Paris-based writer. Find it on Twitter and instagram: @lilyradz.

37 Rue de Courcelles, Arbois

011-33-6-86-37-69-02 and 011-33-6-16-93-07-93

This 18th century winegrower’s house near the city center is run by the couple Corinne and Yves Lecoq. It is away from the road with a view of the garden. The apartments are spacious and well equipped. Breakfast included. Rooms start around $75 a night.

33 Rue de Faramand, Arbois

This lively place is the meeting place for local winemakers. Treat yourself to the dish of the day at lunchtime and charcuterie platters in the evening while enjoying bottles of Poulsard. Reservations recommended. Open Tuesday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dish of the day from around $11.

A few steps from the Louis Pasteur monument, Au Petit Jurassien serves local cuisine in a warm setting. Try the regional specialty, chicken in yellow wine, or chicken cooked in yellow wine, and wild boar stew. Open Sunday and Tuesday to Thursday from noon to 2 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from noon to 9 p.m.; kitchen closed Friday and Saturday from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Closed on Monday. Appetizers start around $15.

1 Rue du Vieux Chateau, Arbois

This late night hangout has an excellent selection of local wines at modest prices. You will be able to taste the grape varieties of the region and the famous county cheese. Open Sunday and Tuesday to Thursday from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.; closed on Mondays. Meat and cheese boards starting around $9; glass of wine from around $5.

Place called Le Bois aux salpetriers, Loulle

Visit the outdoor dinosaur site to see over 1,000 fossilized tracks dating back approximately 155 million years. During the winter, the footprints are often covered in snow. Open every day, all year round. Free.

Tuff waterfall at Planches-près-d’Arbois

39600 Les Planches-pres-Arbois

The Cascade des Tufs waterfall crashes through rock formations covered in emerald moss into the clear, pale blue water below. Access by a path through the woods. Open every day, all year round. Free.

83 Rue de Courcelles, Arbois

Visit the home of 19th-century French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, which is preserved as it was when he lived there. Download a free online audio tour and bring headphones. Open daily in February, March, April, October and early November from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. and from May to September from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Admission approximately $8 per person.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.

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