By Wink Lorch
Some might suggest that it would be a close call to choose a favourite wine town in France. For me, in the past few years, it is Arbois in the Jura that has become the town that each time I visit appeals to me more. It would have been easy to choose Beaune instead – a quintessential wine town if ever there was one – but Beaune has become a little too busy and touristy to be my favourite today.
In eastern France, bordering Switzerland, Lons-le-Saunier is the departmental capital of Jura, but it is Arbois that is very much the heart of the wine region (even if its soul might be lodged further south in the hilltop village of Château-Chalon). Childhood home to Pasteur, the scientist so dear to wine lovers and somewhere he returned to regularly for holidays, Arbois is equally home to a growing band of fine wine producers and becoming a great place for wine and food lovers to visit.
The surrounding villages and vineyards are delightful to explore and this is where you’ll find the wineries, but it’s well worth spending some time actually in the charming town of Arbois. In the ten years that I’ve visited on a regular basis, the choice of accommodation, restaurants, and the food and wine shops has really widened.
You can happily while away an hour or two gazing at the window displays of local foods and wine, whilst wandering up and down the streets that branch off from the main square. Careful you don’t trip over the metal cellar entrances along the pavements – some of them hide 100s of barrels of Vin Jaune slowly maturing for its requisite minimum six years before bottling.
As a specialist writer on the wines of the Jura for some years, it is hard for me to name a favourite producer, but there are several larger, decent producers with shops actually in the town. A trend-setter in his time, the late Henri Maire whose company still continues has a prominent shop where you can taste some old Vins Jaunes. Others with a more interesting range include Jacques Tissot, Domaine Rolet, Domaine de la Pinte and André et Mireille Tissot, the latter with a more modern, brighter shop. If you want to find a source for smaller, up-and-coming producers there’s no better shop than Les Jardins de St-Vincent owned by sommelier Stéphane Planche who moonlights from his other job as chief sommelier for the two star Michelin Restaurant Jean Paul Jeunet.
If the very expensive, but fine Jean-Paul Jeunet restaurant is beyond you, another good choice in town is the quite innovative La Balance with several food and wine matching menus and even a vegetarian option (rare in this most traditional area of France). Or for a filling lunchtime snack, venture into La Cave du Comté, the cheese shop and delicatessen just off the square at the back of which you’ll find a few tables for the café named Les Quatre Heures du Crémier.
And, nearly next door, you can’t fail to notice a chocolate and cake shop to die for, with a few tables outside for a snack or coffee. The Hirsinger chocolate shop is simply top class – owner and chocolatier Edouard Hirsinger even makes chocolates to match with the local wine specialities of Vin Jaune and Vin de Paille, as well as some made with the local marc (grape spirit).
In the early evening, walk along the banks of the sleepy river Cuisance which winds itself through the town under old bridges flowing down pretty weirs along the way. When a glass of wine calls, head to the Bistrot de la Tournelle owned by wine producers Pascal and Evelyne Clairet, who also have a wine tasting room and shop. You can sit by the river with a glass of their wine and a plate of charcuterie before heading off to dinner. But, don’t overdo it as you’ll need to save yourself for the substantial cuisine in this part of France.
On our recent visit we tried out what turned out to be a really enjoyable, decently priced new restaurant and hotel that recently opened in a town house that dates back to 1835, very close to the middle of Arbois. Called Les Caudalies, it was named by its sommelier owner, Philippe Troussard (his own name an amusing, but real mixture of the two Jura red grapes Trousseau and Poulsard) for the odd French wine measure for the number of seconds the taste of a wine lasts after swallowing (or spitting). The welcome was lovely and the hotel has five comfortable rooms in the main building, with a further four slightly smaller rooms in the next door annexe closer to the road. Some rooms have a view up to the vineyards including the distinctive Tour du Curon owned by Stéphane Tissot. There’s a lovely garden too.
Needless to say in the Caudalies restaurant, the wine takes pride of place (early on in our dinner all eyes in the restaurant turned to a table next to us who chose a 1947 Côtes du Jura red from Bourdy that had to be carefully served). The wine list is very good, not only from the Jura (with a good selection at all price levels) but from elsewhere too with a total of 500 listings. The food was tasty, well presented, with a local feel, designed to show off the wine choice.
After some discussion with Philippe, we chose a traditional oxidative Savagnin to go right through the meal with a range of dishes and it worked a treat. It was a 2005 from a producer I don’t list on the guides, but who I do have a soft spot for – Lucien Aviet, also known as Bacchus. So, why don’t I include him on the guides? Well I restrict myself and all my contributors to 12 producers in each micro-region guide: this producer is ultra-traditional with a lovely old cellar but with quite traditional wines – I’m not convinced that a newcomer to the region would understand him or his wines much unless guided …. Choices have to be made!
I’ll be updating the Jura travel guides after another visit later this summer and will add in the excellent Caudalies hotel and restaurant then if not before. In the meantime, all eight of our Bordeaux guides and the six Languedoc-Roussillon guides are fully updated with lots of great new recommendations.
YOUR TURN: Have you got a favourite wine town in France? If so, please tell us where and why in the comments below. Thanks!