For the wine-geeks amongst us (guilty as charged), the Jura has an almost mythical draw. This small, sub-alpine wine region in eastern France has risen from relative obscurity to cult status over the last few decades.
It’s a paradise for lovers of natural wine, with a high number of small estates working organically or biodynamically, and minimal intervention ‘sans souffre’ wines available in almost every local wine bar or restaurant.
I finally spied an opportunity to break my Jura cherry and spend a few days in the region in June 2021. My girlfriend and I planned a short holiday where we’d visit a small number of wineries and intersperse it with hiking and plenty of good food.
But the wine itinerary wasn’t so easy to figure out. We sent out emails to a few winemakers, followed them up with WhatsApp messages and in some cases phone calls. No-one answered, no matter what the means of communication. We knew that French winemakers are not the greatest at communication, but this seemed extreme. What was going on?
The Jura is hurting. 2021 is the third year in a row that its growers have endured huge losses to unseasonal frost and hail. Some producers have lost close to their entire crop in multiple years. One savage hail storm can wipe out the entire year’s work in just five minutes. Many have little or no stock of bottles to sell. Yet that has not stopped the constant demand for the region’s cult wines.
2020 was the year when Kenjiro Kagami’s wines (Domaine des Miroirs) hit €800 a bottle on the secondary market – which is only way of getting hold of them for most of us. The wines of Emmanuel Houillon (Maison Pierre Overnoy) and the rarer cuvées from Jean-François Ganevat are set on a similar trajectory: unicorns which most wine lovers only ever see in other people’s Instagram posts.
As Jura expert Wink Lorch pointed out in a recent article for wine-searcher.com, the pressure this puts on growers is immense. Not only are they battling with an increasingly hostile climate, and an ever more challenging labour market, there are also the constant demands from importers for sold-out stock, and from sommeliers, journalists and bloggers for visits to the domaine.
This is the backdrop to which the death of Pascal Clairet (Domaine de la Tournelle) was announced in May 2021. One of the region’s most iconic winemakers, he was 58 years old. He committed suicide. Clairet is one of four French winemakers who have taken their own life in the last two months. Dominique Belluard in neighbouring Savoie is the latest to be added to this awful roster.
Watching this news unfold, I stopped chasing growers to get an appointment. Instead, we just tasted and bought as much as we could in wine bars or restaurants. But one afternoon, driving into Savoie I spotted the sign for Domaine Hughes-Béguet, a grower I was keen to visit. We stopped the car, and I rang the bell. Patrice Béguet answered and grudgingly agreed to an appointment the following day.
Later that afternoon, we drove the mountain road between Arbois and Poligny. The clouds opened, first with rain and then with hailstones almost as big as golf balls. It was impossible to continue driving, so we pulled over into a lay-by to wait out the storm. Sitting in the car, the sound of the hail was deafening as it pounded every surface. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to be a vine at that moment.
The next day, we showed up for our appointment with Patrice Béguet. After I assured him we understood natural wines and knew what we were about to taste, the ice was broken and we established a rapport. The conversation flowed as we tasted. Later we asked about the previous day’s hail. “I’ve lost everything in those vineyards” he said, completely deadpan.
I asked Patrice why he or other growers didn’t use hail nets. “It’s so much work” he said, “and it’s so expensive”. But his parting shot was more shocking – “Maybe this just isn’t a good place to plant fruit trees any more”. I paused to process what he’d just said. Surely he wasn’t talking about grapes and vines?
I realised he was.