While you ski, I’ll slope off to the vineyards…
The Jura abounds with unexpected pleasures, for both thrill-seeking families and wine-lovers, discovers Nina Caplan
No, I said. I don’t want a holiday in the cold. I haven’t skied since I was 17. It’s expensive. And there’s nothing decent to drink except hot chocolate. But, said my partner, Craig, the children love winter sports. And as for nothing to drink… I have an idea.
This is how we ended up in the Jura. This mountain range on the FrenchSwiss border is just two hours’ drive from Geneva, or less than three from Lyon, and while the latter is famous as a gastronomic destination, the Jura isn’t terribly well known for anything. Yet this is the home of Comté, Morbier and Mont d’Or cheese, with delicatessens where the perfume of cured meat hits you when you walk in the door, and is becoming known as a region making lovely wine from indigenous grapes – the light, cherryish reds, poulsard and trousseau – and from the better-known pinot noir and chardonnay. There is also the delicious vin jaune, a style of wine made only here, from the local savagnin grape. I’d always wanted to come and taste these wines in situ, as Craig well knew. I just hadn’t planned for his four children, none of whom had any interest whatsoever in wine, to accompany us.
But above the vine-carpeted lowlands, there’s snow, and while the highest peak is just 1,720m – much lower than the Alps – there is snow during February half-term, and an amazing range of child-friendly activities, from downhill to crosscountry skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing. There is also hiking, which the children, aged between nine and 16, dislike almost as much as vineyard visits.
We’ll need snow tyres, said Craig, as we negotiated with Sixt for a car big enough for six. I rolled my eyes and muttered about snowbound drama queens, then had to retract everything when we ended up on an icebound overpass on our drive from Lyon.
Fresh snow had fallen when we arrived at our 16-suite hotel, Les Rives Sauvages, in Malbuisson, on the lakeside with fabulous views and a spa, just 10 minutes’ drive from the resort of Métabief.
Thierry and his staff at Métaski found us the kit we needed and stored it for us between sessions on the slopes; the shop’s location meant we could ski to the door. The Jura is cheaper and friendlier than the Alps, and if the runs are fewer and the snow less deep, the skiing is still terrific, with incredible views down to the lowlands full of wineries I was trying hard not to think about.
The sun shone; the snow sparkled. And I grew grumpier and grumpier. I couldn’t even buy great wine, much less organise a tasting: the best wine shops would be near the vineyards. Just an hour down the hill… and here I was, stuck in an admittedly excellent ski resort.
Then the weather helped me out: it rained. Cosy in our nine-seater van, snow tyres and all, we headed south along the mountaintops, parallel with the Swiss border, a scenic if scary 90-minute drive south-west, to La Pesse. This was the wrong direction for my purposes – I wanted to head west, to Arbois, wine capital of the Jura – but nonetheless, I felt optimistic. We wanted to try tobogganing – the Jura is proud of its year-round toboggan runs, claiming to have the longest in Europe and slopes with a gradient of up to 37 per cent.
There is tobogganing at Col de la Faucille, a mountain pass used by the Tour de France, and at Mijoux, where the slope is lit up at night until 9.30pm (weekends only outside school holidays). But we were distracted in the shop by snow-tubing: overgrown inflatable rings, like posh tyres (“it actually was tyres when I was a kid,” muttered Craig, who is Canadian). Each whooping child (or, ahem, adult) whirled in turn down a slide carved out of the snow: not fast enough, was the verdict from Reuben, 16, but everybody else enjoyed themselves despite the tedious ascent, hauling the tubes back to the top of the slope.
At last, said the children, lunch. At last, muttered the adults, wine. At L’Auberge des Érables we tried a fondue – a melted pool of the local Comté, served over a portable stove – matched with a glass of pleasant, cherry-ish poulsard. It was a welcome opportunity to expand my knowledge of Jura wines, if with some restraint, since the afternoon’s activity was dog-sledding. Part of the Jura Mountains Regional Natural Park is exclusively reserved for dog-related activities: you can ski with dogs, sled with dogs, or learn to be a musher – master of the dog-sled.
Two full teams of huskies pranced and panted in the traces as we glided through the park, dog’s height from the ground. It was magical, the only sound the shushing of runners in snow, the pant and yelp of the dogs and the shouts and whistles of our mushers, two sturdy young women.
The Jura maintains its tradition of truly superb food. I suspect this is partly thanks to its relative remoteness: the hypermarkets haven’t got the critical mass here, and so butcher shops and local markets can still make a living. The excellent wines don’t hurt either: people who love wine tend to love good food, and there are fantastic restaurants at every price point, from fondue joints up to Michelin-starred temples. There is also the region’s ancient status as a purveyor of salt. We visited the salt factory at Arc-et-Senans, an imposing complex that’s now a museum. What resonated with our lot was the salty water in the pool at Salins-les-Bains’ 19th-century thermal baths.
The next day, the weather improved but the vineyards were calling me. “Wine-tasting again?” said Reuben,
ICE WINESA young snowboarder hits the slopes of the Jura, above, where vines, right, yield the grapes used for light cherry-ish red wines, below