Jura does an excellent job of holding France’s best-kept secrets. The smallest wine region in the country, it makes some of Europe’s rarest (and most delicious!) wines. It’s nearly as famous for its cheese production, and the entire area is filled with highly regarded restaurants, bistros, and chocolatiers. If that weren’t enough, Jura is rooted in science, the arts, and history and is known for having some of the prettiest villages in France. Plus, it’s a fantastic year-round destination and offers easy access to French and Swiss mountains in winter. So why isn’t it overrun with tourists?
The simplest answer might be that there are many regions of France whose claims to fame are even more arresting than those of Jura. It’s hard to compete with the museums of Paris and the wineries of Bordeaux! Additionally, while Jura has many small-to-medium-size towns and small cities, it’s not home to any of the big names that visitors instantly recognize. And, on a map, humble Jura in the far east of France looks a bit out of the way for visitors who are short on time. Unfortunately, they don’t know how much they’re missing!
Jura is located between the French region of Burgundy to the west and Switzerland to the right. The closest major airport is located just across the border in Geneva. Lyon and Dijon are practically next door to Jura, and both are convenient transportation hubs. Finally, while Paris is comparatively much farther away, the easy train connections make Jura a great place to visit on a long weekend.
Regardless of how you arrive, you’ll be grateful to have a car to help you explore. Local public transportation is limited.
Here are just a few reasons to visit this underrated region of France.
Jura’s Vin Jaune Is Remarkable (And Colorful!)
Jura produces vin jaune, or yellow wine. One of Europe’s rarest wines, vin jaune is similar to a dry fino sherry. The wine matures in a barrel under a film of yeast known as voile. Wine and yeast? It may sound a bit unusual, but the results are heavenly!
Fans of French wine know that you can only get true champagne from the region of Champagne. This rule is the most famous example of an AOC, or appellation d'origine controlee standard. The AOC is France’s geographic indication standard for wine and other agricultural products like cheese. Vin jaune is subject to AOC. As such, it can only be officially produced with Savagnin grapes in four Jura regions: Chateau-Chalon, Arbois Vin Jaune, Cotes du Jura vin Jaune, and Vin Jaune de L'Etoile. Unofficially, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bad bottle of wine -- of any color -- in Jura.
Producing vin jaune is a serious business. It must be aged for six years and three months. It is always bottled in funny-looking, squat bottles called clavelins that hold just 21 ounces. And, ideally, it is served at 55 to 60 degrees. If you’re not particularly keen on drinking wine but still want an authentic Jura wine experience, head to a local restaurant. Vin jaune is frequently used in the region’s savory sauces, especially in chicken dishes.
The Vin Jaune Is Just The Beginning
If you can only sample one wine in Jura, it has to be the vin jaune. The locals won’t forgive you if you don’t! However, vin jaune is just the starting point when it comes to exploring Jura’s wine scene. The region is also home to vin de paille, which is also known as straw wine or raisin wine. Traditionally, vin de paille production required hand-harvested grapes to be carefully laid out on straw mats to dry in the sun for at least a week or up to three months. Today, the straw mats are likely to be plastic, or they might not be used at all.
Whether it’s produced the old-fashioned or modern way, the result is similar to a warm-weather ice wine, ranging from sweet to extremely sweet. And just like ice wine, vin de paille is very expensive. Thankfully, a little goes a long way, and it’s well worth the effort to experience a tasting.
Jura isn’t just unique for its methods of wine production. Even the grapes themselves are one of a kind! For instance, the local red grape is the Poulsard. This dark-skinned grape is also remarkably thin-skinned and makes very pale red wines. Jura is also the place of origin for Trousseau grapes. Unlike Poulsard grapes, these grapes produce dark wines. And Jura is one of the few places in Europe where you can actually drink a traditional red wine made with Trousseau grapes. Elsewhere, they are usually reserved for making port!
There’s Great Cheese To Go With That Wine
Jura isn’t just an outstanding wine destination. It’s also home to four AOC-designated cheeses: Comte, Morbier (which is famous for having a line of ash running through each wheel of cheese), Mont d’Or (available only at Christmastime, since it’s made with summer milk), and Bleu de Gex. Comte, in particular, is regarded as the regional favorite and can easily be found in most towns and markets. However, if you want the full cheese experience, La Maison du Comte in Poligny will walk you through everything you wanted to know about Jura’s cheese scene, and every visit ends with a tasting.
Fun Fact: The reddish-brown cows you’ll see all over Jura are a breed called Montbeliarde, and their milk is in many of the region’s cheeses.
Science And Art Go Hand In Hand
The small city of Dole has the distinction of being a French City of Art and Culture. However, the city is also associated with science. Dole was the home of scientist Louis Pasteur. Today, the scientist's birthplace is a museum that highlights Pasteur's scientific research and most important achievements. It somehow seems fitting that a region demonstrating such expertise in wine production was home to the father of microbiology!
Dole is also home to the Collegiale Notre-Dame, a late Gothic church with an amazing bell tower. You can see it, as well as the Pasteur museum, by following the Circuit du Chat Perche. Tiny triangular brass markers featuring a stylized cat are embedded in the cobblestones, making the area easy for visitors to explore.
Caves And Charm Await
Just how pretty are Jura’s towns and villages? One in particular, Baume-les-Messieurs, has been named one of France’s most beautiful villages. This lovely community boasts the Abbaye Imperiale, a Romanesque abbey that dates to the ninth century. The abbey church has a stunning gilded 16th-century Flemish altarpiece. The village also features historic homes, sweet little cafes, and a stunning surrounding countryside. The Grottes de Baume-les-Messieurs, which is estimated to be 200 million years old, is a 1,640-foot-long cave filled with stalagmites, stalactites, and waterfalls.
It’s Lively In Winter
A lot of places grow quiet in the winter, but not Jura. February, in particular, has a lot going on. France’s most famous long-distance cross-country ski race, La Transjurassienne, takes place every year in February. Don’t worry -- if you’re not exactly a world-class skier, it’s still a lot of fun to watch. Also in February is La Percee du Vin Jaune, a festival celebrating the newly bottled varieties of yellow wine. Outside of these special events, noncompetitive cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, and snowshoeing are popular.
It’s Got A Great Foodie Scene, Too
While there’s nothing wrong with a steady diet of local cheese and wine, Jura has a tremendous food scene, especially in Arbois. Arbois is home to Maison Jeunet, a restaurant with two Michelin stars. Menu favorites include razor clams with parsnips and seaweed, pigeon with leeks, and figs with wild fennel seed ice cream. A little more rustic -- but by no means less delicious -- is the La Finette tavern, which is famous for its local cheese fondue. They make an incredible French onion soup using Comte cheese, too. For dessert, Jura chocolatier Edouard Hirsinger is considered one of the best in France, serving up homemade chocolates alongside pastries.