Into the unknown, France’s smallest wine region

The joy of a road trip through the Jura on our way to Brussels from Annecy, is matched only by the knowledge that there is so much more to discover of this fascinating and relatively unknown region. Here, close to the Swiss border, is a region of historic towns and villages scattered amongst rolling valleys, dramatic limestone escarpments, and hillsides covered in vines producing mysterious grape varieties and delicious wines. All in the shadow of the Jura mountains.

It’s not exactly undiscovered – one of France’s most beloved cheeses, Comté, comes from the area around the village of Poligny – but the region feels overlooked. As Jura wines become better known outside France, and word spreads of the outstanding landscapes, that will change. The wine region itself is the smallest in the country, and while it produces several grape varieties, the ancient white Savagnin grape is the most renowned.

Château-Chalon, Jura Region, France
Vineyards, Jura Region, France
Vineyards, Jura Region, France
Vineyards, Jura Region, France
Vineyards, Jura Region, France
Le Vernois, Jura Region, France

Savagnin grapes produce the region’s Vin Jaune, which has similarities to Spanish fino sherries. It goes perfectly with hearty local cuisine. We tried several varieties on our trip through the region, but one that sticks in my mind was a glass that accompanied local cheeses and charcuterie in a tiny cafe-cum-cheese shop, in the beautiful village of Château-Chalon.

The uninspiring Lons-le-Saunier is the regional capital and southern gateway to the Jura. We stopped on our way north, but the town felt a little unloved. The town centre was only enlivened by a statue of Rouget de Lisle, the man who wrote the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. It’s all the more notable for being designed by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor who includes the Statue of Liberty amongst his credits.

We stocked up on local goodies, and headed to the unremarkable village of Le Vernois. Unremarkable, that is, except for the fact that the village sits in the midst of a landscape of vineyards and is home to several cellars where you can taste and buy local wines. It is also home to Le Relais de la Perle, a wonderful chambres d’hôte with gardens that are perfect for an al fresco meal on a warm summer evening.

Le Vernois is also a handy location for exploring the delights of the this part of the Jura. You could meander in the surrounding countryside for days, but historic Château-Chalon, perched on a cliff edge overlooking the vineyards that date back to the Romans in the valley below, is a must visit. As is nearby Baume-les-Messieurs, home to the 9th century Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Baume-les-Messieurs.

To get there we drove on narrow lanes through pleasant farmland, before taking a steep and winding road into what seemed like a secret valley overlooked by towering limestone escarpments. A fabulously beautiful place. Leaving Le Vernois behind, we continued north through the rich pasture land surrounding Poligny where you pass fields playing host to bell-wearing cows.

We eventually stopped in Arbois, a pretty town that boasts a host of ancient buildings and its own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée wine classification. Yet, if it is known for anything outside of France, it is that Louis Pasteur, one of the most important medical scientists in history, had a laboratory here. His house and laboratory are open to the public.

Baume-les-Messieurs, Jura Region, France
Poligny, Jura Region, France
Château-Chalon, Jura Region, France
Abbaye Saint-Pierre, Baume-les-Messieurs, Jura Region, France
Arbois, Jura Region, France
Vineyards, Jura Region, France

A little further north, almost at the end of the Jura wine region, is another incredible place and UNESCO World Heritage site, Salins-les-Bains. The fortresses overlooking the town give a sense that this was once an important place, but only underground do you learn why. The town’s salt deposits were worth their weight in gold (almost literally) and the town became a valuable possession from Roman times onwards.

We just had time to spend a couple of days in the wonderful town of Besançon – a place with a rich history and a vibrant cultural scene that seems all but overlooked by mass tourism – before finally making the long trip back to Brussels. Jura, we will return.

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