Surrounded by rolling hills full of vineyards, the medieval town of Arbois, France lives and breathes wine. Here, visitors can immerse themselves in the famous wines of the Jura wine route or explore the history of the town’s most famous resident, Louis Pasteur.
The town of Arbois is easily traversed on foot, with all its major sites within a ten minute walk. The Cuisance River, which originates in underground caves in the nearby mountains, flows through the town, giving it a bucolic feel. The town center is a small traffic circle with a 19th Century fountain at its center, ringed with small shops and tasting rooms beneath arched walkways.
Towering above it all is the St. Just Church, which is visible from miles away. Founded in the 11th Century, the St. Just Church is decidedly medieval in character, with the central nave dating back to the 12th Century. The wood roof was replaced in the 13th Century with a vaulted stone ceiling, which remains today, and the distinct tower rising above the city was built in 1528.
Arbois was home to Louis Pasteur for much of his life and a visit to his house, now a fascinating museum (83 rue de Courcelles, website), reveals not only the background behind his experiments but his importance to the development of winemaking and wine preservation. The house is full of interesting details including a dumbwaiter used to bring wine up from the cellar and beds made on rails so they could be pulled out and swept behind. Pasteur also planted grapes and the vineyards are still working today, now under the auspices of Henri Maire.
Nearby is the Chateau Pecauld, which includes the 13th Century Tour Gloriette, both formerly part of the city’s defenses. The Chateau was constructed between the 12th and 14th Centuries and has been renovated and converted into a wine museum by the Institute of the Wines of Jura. Vines surround the building, while inside exhibits focus on the region’s winemaking techniques. Another small museum nearby is the Musée Sarret de Grozon (website), housed in a building owned by the Sarret Grozon family and bequeathed to the town. Today it contains a collection of porcelain, furniture and paintings from the 17th and 19th Centuries.
Above the town in a box canyon is La Grotte des Planches (website), an underground cave that the Cuisance River flows through. Visitors can explore the cave on elevated walkways that take them over the river and past massive stalactites hanging from the ceiling. At points, peculiar giant “pot holes” are visible – circular cavities carved into the rock by the river.
Also nearby are the Saltworks at Salins-les Bains. This former salt mine has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and is now open for tours and includes a salt museum. The town is known for its Thermal Center, where you can take a salt bath or get spa treatments.
Arbois is first and foremost a wine town. The streets are filled with tasting rooms such as those from Andre et Mireille Tissot, Jacques Tissot, Henri Maire and Domaine de la Pinte, all of which showcase the famous Jura wine styles right in the center. Smaller producers like Gerard Villet and Domaine de la Tournelle also have informal tasting rooms near the centre.
Jura wines are distinct, made with unique indigenous grapes such as savagnin, ploussard (poulsard) and trousseau. Chardonnay is also prevalent, often in the oxidized style that is popular in the region. The most famous wine of Jura is Vin Jaune or “yellow wine” made from savagnin grapes matured in barrels for six years and three months under a veil of yeast (sous-voile). Vin Jaune is bottled in characteristic 620ml bottles called clavelin. Many winemakers also make a Cremant du Jura, a sparkling white wine, and Vin de Paille, a sweet “straw wine” made from chardonnay, savagnin and ploussard grapes dried on straw mats to concentrate their flavors. Another dessert wine is Macvin, produced by adding Marc du Jura spirit to late harvest barrel-fermented grapes.
When tasting wines, keep in mind that tastings in Jura tend to start with red wines, which are lighter, before moving on to the sous-voile style whites and vin jaune.
Wines to look for:
Restaurants in Arbois and the surrounding areas will feature regional wines almost exclusively Houses to look for include Ganevat, Emmanuel Houillon, Jacques Puffeney, Gerard Villet, Jean-Marc Brignot, Domaine de la Tournelle, Berthet-Bondet, Andre et Mireille Tissot, Philippe Bornard, Domaine de la Pinte, Dugois, Jacques Tissot, de la Borde, Montbourgeau and Baud.
Vin Jaune from the early 2000’s is now coming into its own (although still young and with many years ahead, worth putting away and forgetting for a decade or more) and trying much older vintages is highly recommended whenever possible.
Every first Sunday in September, the winemakers of the Jura region in France gather for a unique cultural event called Le Biou, the blessing of grapes for the upcoming harvest. Winemakers gather the day before to create a giant bunch from the best grapes in the area. Then on Sunday morning, a procession of winemakers carries the bunch through the town and into the St. Just Church. The bunch is then attached to a hook and hoisted aloft in the church while townspeople in their Sunday best sing hymns. Later on, a parade takes place in the town – a secular version of the morning’s events – with marching bands and local dignitaries taking part.
Each February, the region of Jura holds a two-day event around its most famous wine, Vin Jaune. The event, called La Percee du Vin Jaune or the “Opening of the Yellow Wine,” takes place when the area’s winemakers meet and first taste the new vintage. During the weekend of La Percee, more than 80 area producers open their cellars for wine tastings, many of which are not otherwise open to regular visitors.
Eat & Drink
Arbois is also known for its fine cuisine and has a number of great restaurants, ranging from Michelin starred Jean Paul Jeunet to rustic eateries serving regional specialties such as chicken in vin jaune sauce and aged Comté.
Le Bistro de la Tournelle (5 Petitte Place, Arbois) is a lovely seasonal bistro (June – September) around the corner from the tasting room belonging to the domaine of the same name. Take a seat next to the quiet river and enjoy Tournelle’s organic wines as well as snails, rillettes, charcuterie and cheeses, including wonderful artisanal aged Comté.
Jean Paul Jeunet (9 rue de l’Hotel de Ville, Arbois, +33 38 466- 0567, website), part of the Hotel of the same name, offers an elegant Michelin-starred dining experience inside a space reminiscent of a Medieval banquet hall. Excellent wine list. Dinner with wine $150 – $200 per person.
La Balance (47 rue de Courcelles, Arbois +33 38 437-4500, website) specializes in rustic regional cuisine and the wines of Jura. The restaurant is affordable with multiple menu options, including one featuring the famed coq au vin jaune and local Comté cheese or vin jaune crème brulee for only €25. There is also a 3-course “saison” menu with choices for €35 (€19.50 without choices at lunch) and for €55 you can try the 8-course tasting menu (wine pairing €20). A sommelier pairing for a la carte ordering is €17 and a vin jaune tasting is €25.
Le Grapiot is a short drive up the hill from Arbois in Pupillin (Rue Bagier, Pupillin +33 38 437-4944, website). The modern building clues guests in to the modern approach to regional cooking found within. Three-course set menu €25 at dinner, €17 for weekday lunch.
Where to Stay
For overnight stays, visitors can’t do better than the beautiful Les Capucines (7 Rue de Bourgogne, website) in the center of town. Just four years old, the hotel occupies a building dating back to the Middle Ages and features a library, garden with pool and individually designed rooms full of elegant touches. Double rooms from €115 including breakfast and wi-fi.
Hotel Jean Paul Jeunet (9 rue de l’Hotel de Ville, website) offers more old-fashioned rooms above the Michelin-starred restaurant. Double from, €118 – €130, including wi-fi with breakfast additional.