I began visiting the Jura region in Eastern France more than twenty-five years ago. It began as a day trip from our then fairly regular wine visits to Burgundy, and then as a stop-off en route to Geneva by the scenic route. Then a few house rentals followed and Arbois has (I hope) become a regular annual trip for us. I’ve just returned from a week there.
Despite the wine world being full of regions I hardly know, and many I still long to visit, Arbois increasingly seems like paradise, and writing about it doesn’t please all those who would like it to remain a secret. Whilst towns like Beaune are now crowded with wine tourists, and the Côte d’Or’s wine route is likewise one stream of traffic for much of the year, the towns of Jura, a mere hour’s drive away, retain a country calm which once existed further west.
So, over the next week I will write a few articles about this region which I’ve come to hold so dear. Before talking about the wine, and the food, I thought I’d introduce my own little corner of paradise. For Arbois seems to encapsulate everything I want from a relaxing holiday in the countryside. Fantastic walking in forest and vineyard, spectacular scenery, wonderful food and wine, and never being far away from the sensory delights of the scent of wood smoke and the sound of a fast flowing river.
Place de la Liberté from outside the Tissot shop
The town itself contains a surprising number of attractions, not all of which leap out immediately at the casual visitor. One of the best ways to orientate yourself is to pick up a town map from the Tourist Office (located opposite the large edifice of the Church of Saint-Just). There’s a marked circuit, about an hour long, but the most interesting parts of the walk are those which link St-Just with Pasteur’s House (a secluded route by the River Cuisance), and in the opposite direction, that which passes through the old Faramand winemakers’ quarter and over the river by the Tour Gloriette.
Once you have got to grips with the compact layout of Arbois, it’s time to explore. First, its museums. It took me a while to visit them and each one turned out far better than my initial reticence had suggested, though don’t expect The Louvre. Pasteur’s house (Maison Pasteur) is fascinating, both because it’s pretty much as it was when France’s most famous scientist lived there, and because his laboratory upstairs has also been preserved. The Jura wine museum in the impressive Château Pécauld on the opposite side of town is not large, but on two floors there are well thought out displays on local winemaking and its attendant traditions. Then there’s the lovely townhouse which is now the Musée Sarret de Grozon, home to one of the region’s important families during the Napoleonic era and afterwards. Unfortunately it’s only open for a few weeks every year (check website but usually July to September on certain days). They often have temporary exhibitions in the rooms. A tip is that this year, because we’d been to the wine museum, our receipt seemed to get us in gratuit.
Wine Museum, Château Pécauld
After the culture comes the inevitable shopping. Arbois is unusual for wine lovers. Long before Burgundy had much more than the Faiveley shop in Beaune, various local producers opened shops in the town, following the lead of major local negoce, Henri Maire. Over the years the number has grown, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the best of these is right on the corner of the Place de la Liberté, that of Domaine A&M Tissot. Arbois has a good number of Tissots, all originating from one Maurice, who started out planting vines near Montigny-les-Arsures in 1957. Domaine A&M Tissot is now run by Stephane and his wife, Bénédicte and, to most international observers, is the best of them. The domaine is now biodynamic, and one of a handful of the most experimental and quality conscious in the region (I’ll be writing a post on the domaine in the coming days).
The existence of the “producer” outlets in town stifled any more general wine shops for a long while, although the various food shops always stocked a selection of local wines. That changed when the well known sommelier at the famous Michelin-starred Jean-Paul Jeunet, Stéphane Planche, set up Les Jardins Saint-Vincent (49 Grande Rue, just round the corner from Tissot, currently only open Thurs-Sun). Planche specialises in “natural wines”, of which Jura is very much a leading region. I’ve made some exciting discoveries in this shop and, in the region, it is probably only matched by Epicurea in Poligny which is one of the region’s best cheese shops and also specialises in natural wines.
There are a few other shops which really should not be missed. Hirsinger, pretty much opposite Tissot on the “Place”, is (this surprises many people) one of the most famous chocolatiers in France. Chocolate and cakes can be purchased in the shop, or consumed with a beverage at one of a few tables outside.
A couple of doors away is the Cave du Comté, principally a place to buy local cheeses, but they also sell local charcuterie and Morteau sausages, local artisan beers and preserves etc.
A short walk up the other part of the Grande Rue and you’ll soon find Philippe Gonet’s Vins et Vinaigres (at number 16). There are a few local wines and oils, but it’s the vinegars Gonet makes from local grapes which are the stars. Not inexpensive, these are some of the finest French vinegars I’ve tried. The vinaigre du vin jaune is probably the most famous, but we also love the scented poulsard.
Continue up this part of Grande Rue and fine (and good value) local cheeses (principally Comté, Morbier and Bleau de Gex) can also be bought from the delicatessen section of the Arbois co-operative (just up the hill from the Champ de Mars car park).
When I first visited Arbois you had pretty much two options for dining, the aforementioned Jean-Paul Jeunet (with two Michelin Stars) and La Finette on the edge of town, which my memory suggests serves a decent, if basic, selection of dishes around sausage. Jeunet is a fine restaurant, if slightly lacking in atmosphere on a quiet night. However, if you want to sample the local speciality, coq au vin jaune, there’s no better place, and probably no better poulet (de Bresse) in town. The food here is of a standard you’d expect of a two star, if more “traditional” than what you may be used to in London, New York or San Francisco.
But in the late 1990s La Balance (La Balance Mets et Vins to give it its full name) was revived (47 rue de Courcelles). This restaurant isn’t cheap, but it has introduced some exciting, innovative cooking, a vegetarian option (pretty much unknown in much of Franche-Comté), and a great selection of local wines, several of which will be paired with the various dishes so beautifully if you take the “improvisation” menu with the added sommelier dégustation.
There are several new restaurants which have opened recently in the town, and I haven’t visited them all, but the one place I’d recommend in addition to Jeunet and La Balance, is the Bistrot des Claquets (on Place Faramand). They generally have a single “plat” with starter, a buffet and something like a tarte for dessert, and they serve a selection of mainly natural wines. The plates may not match, and service can be a little brusque (maybe it’s me), but the food is hearty and genuine. A sign of this is that, as Wink Lorch so accurately states in Jura Wine (the essential guide to the Jura region), “this is where you should bump into a famous vigneron or two”. Indeed, not just locals – the occasional Burgundy and Beaujolais producers have also paid visits here – it’s a good place to try newcomers’ wines.
One of the town’s nicest domaines, La Tournelle (5 Petit Place, close to the Tourist Office) also has a tasting room and a bistro. Although I’ve had the chance to adore La Tournelle’s wines on many occasions, I’ve yet to find their tasting room open. But in summer, up to around 1 September, weather permitting, their wines can be enjoyed along with small plats in the Bistro de la Tournelle, next door, right by the flowing Cuissance, a beautiful setting in dappled sunlight.
Bistro de la Tournelle
With all this food and wine, you really need to walk off some calories, and as is fitting for paradise, there is some lovely walking. The Tourist Office has a map, well worth the €5 cost, called Jura L’inattendu – Arbois Vignes et Villages (at 1/25,000 – the useful IGN Série Bleu map 33250 for Salins-Arbois is the same scale). The walks I have enjoyed most are listed below:
1. La Châtelaine and the walk to the Fer à Cheval along the top of the Reculée. Castle ruins, mountain goats (if you are lucky) and great views down (so long as you don’t have bad vertigo and it’s not very wet and slippery).
2. The Source of the Cuisance and the spectacular waterfall, the Cascade des Tufs at Les Planches. A short stroll but the waterfall is well worth seeing. You can walk on and clamber up to the petite source and make a circuit back. Sadly the caves here seem to have been closed for some time now.
Cascade des Tufs
3. The walk through the vines from Arbois to Montigny-les-Arsures (home to many of the region’s most famous domaines). If you walk back to Vauxelle from Montigny you can extend this walk by picking up a track which turns, for a short distance, into the GR59 before another lovely track drops down through woodland to the wine village of Mesnay (the IGN map mentioned above is essential for this extension).
Harvest, south of Montigny-les-Arsures
4. The Hermitage and Pupillin. As you wander around Arbois you might notice a chapel sitting half way up on the wooded hill. This can be reached via a steep in parts but not too strenuous walk which starts on the Champagnole road (D469) where, a hundred metres or so after the Pupillin turn, there is a small shrine. There are old steps through the forest and abandoned terraces, a sign (as elsewhere) that man once farmed land now abandoned to the trees.
Above the Hermitage you hit a road and if you turn right at the bins (!) you will see a viewing platform with a perfect view over Arbois (the same can be said for the Croix de Dan which provides spectacular views over Poligny).
Viewing Platform above the Hermitage
Continue from here along the road and you will find the markings for another section of the GR59. One direction goes to the Reculée des Planches and the other will eventually lead you towards Pupillin, on a plateau a few kilometres from Arbois. If you have the energy there are nice walks among the vines here (see the Jura L’inattendu map). The village has its own coterie of famous vignerons (and, in Le Grapiot, an increasingly well regarded restaurant, when open). But if you want to take the easy route back to Arbois, there’s a nice path (the old road). Look out on the right just a way outside the village where it dips into the trees.
If you do happen to visit Arbois in early September, do make sure to have a look inside the Eglise St-Just. One of the region’s special festivals is the Fète du Biou. Taking place on the first Sunday in September, a large constructed bunch of grapes (made up of individual bunches supplied by all the producers) is paraded through the town, and then hung high in the church crossing, where it oozes juice and fermenting smells as a sort of offering for a good harvest. It supposedly echoes the return of the Israelites to Canaan with the “Eschol“, though what came to my mind the first time I saw it was Poussin’s painting “Spies with grapes from the Promised Land” (aka Autumn) in The Louvre. The region’s other famous festival is the Percée du Vin Jaune, the symbolic opening of the first Vin Jaune cask 6 years and 3 months after the vintage. But this takes place in different villages each year on the first weekend in February, when the region is perhaps at its shiveringly coldest.