My father likes a challenge. So, last spring, at the grand old age of 72, he decided to walk the Via Francigena, a 2,000km pilgrim’s route that runs from Canterbury to Rome. It took him 107 days, and he walked much of it alone. But I joined him for a stretch in the Jura, an astonishingly beautiful part of France full of limestone gorges, picturesque villages, azure rivers and vineyards. By day, our rations were meagre, but in the evenings we’d feast ravenously on Jura pork sausages and Comté cheese, accompanied by lashings of vin jaune, a local speciality that tastes a bit like dry sherry.
Bordered by Burgundy, Alsace and Switzerland, the Jura is prime wine country. Yet as one of France’s smallest wine regions, it is still not that well-known in the wider world. Among sommeliers, though, Jura’s nutty whites – which are typically made from Chardonnay or the local grape, Savagnin, in tiny amounts – have a cult following. Esoteric, hard to come by and staunchly artisan in spirit, vin jaune and its ilk have become the secret handshake of the wine world.
Back in London, I went in search of more wines from this region, a hunt that recently led me to Jérémie Cometto-Lingenheim, co-founder of the fashionable Westerns Laundry restaurant in north London. His wine list – which is co-created with sommelier Francis Roberts – features more than a dozen Juras from sought-after producers, including Jean-François Ganevat and Jacques Puffeney.
“I discovered Jura about five years ago and was so struck by the distinctive, slightly oxidative style of many of the whites – that nutty style goes so well with cheese, they’re wonderful food wines,” he says. “The Savagnins in particular age exceptionally well, rather like Burgundian Chardonnay. If people want a Montrachet, we often suggest they try a Savagnin instead.”
Westerns Laundry’s wine list is not for the timid. If grower champagnes, unfamiliar wine regions and the funk of wild yeast ferments take you out of your comfort zone, then you might be better off heading elsewhere. But those up for a bit of vinous adventure will find this convivial, elbows-on-the-table restaurant an absolute joy. Fortified by a giant Le Creuset of squid ink lobster pasta and bowls of oozing rum baba, our party of 10 was soon knocking back Lambrusco Rosato, Austrian Chardonnay, Swiss Pinot Noir and Jura white wines with gusto.
As I stepped out into the night I looked back at Westerns Laundry, ablaze with candles and good cheer. No longer, I realised, would I have to walk 160km to taste my favourite Juras. I could do it right here on my doorstep. Praise the Lord.