On a warm summer evening 20 years ago, an 11-year-old boy made a discovery that would put his tiny French village on the map.
These weren’t just rock formations. They were dinosaur footprints.
Thibault had always been wildly passionate about dinosaurs, and he was certain that what he saw “were old tracks, … millions of years old,” he said. Although his parents dismissed his discovery as a childish fantasy, years later, the prints were verified by a scientist.
The Jura region — as in the Jurassic era — is home to the largest fossilized tracks in Plagne, in addition to others across Coisia and Loulle. On the train from Paris to Arbois, it’s easy to imagine Tyrannosaurus rex and pterodactyls in place of cows and sheep. But now, another group rules the region’s terroir: winemakers. And they are keenly aware of their antecedents. Those fossils affect their wine.
Françoise Ratte’s vines have traveled down her family for generations, after being originally cultivated by her great-grandparents. She works in various types of terroirs — the natural composition of the land in which wines are produced — each influencing the flavor profile of the final product. But in her case, we’re not just talking about limestone or clay.
“The fossils are still full of salt and iodine. That’s going to play a role in the taste of the wine, because they’re in contact with the roots,” she said. “They’re going to create some acidity and give a smoky taste, a flint stone taste.” The chardonnay, for instance, is “very, very marked from the point of view of smokiness.”
Françoise pulled out a bowl of fossils that she’s found in her soil over the years. She mostly finds Gryphaea, ancestors of the oyster, but she also has ammonites, belemnites and sea lilies — all ancient sea dwellers. That’s because, about 150 million years ago, this region of the Jura — now characterized by its mountain ranges — was covered in water.
“In the Jurassic period, the Jura was on the edge of a hot, shallow tropical sea. It’s hard to imagine, but actually it was not mountainous at the time,” said Emmanuel Fara, a professor of paleontology at the University of Burgundy and director of the laboratory Biogeosciences. “So it’s normal that we find a huge amount of marine organisms.”
After examining the fossils, we hopped into Françoise’s truck and drove to her vineyards a few minutes up the road. She gazed out into the landscape, reminiscing about her time spent running through these vines as a child.
The Jura region is home to five cépages, or grape varieties — chardonnay, savagnin, pinot noir, trousseau and poulsard (also called ploussard) — which are plucked, crushed and vinified into whites, reds and even vin jaune (yellow wine), the region’s claim to fame. Louis Pasteur, the 19th-century French chemist and microbiologist, lived in Arbois throughout numerous periods of his life, and often carried out experiments on its wine. Today, the mere mention of the Jura sends patrons in the capital’s most renowned wine bars into a state of euphoria. That’s why, upon arrival in Arbois, I had one mission: to drink.
On the central Place de la Liberté, arched passageways frame the square, the scent of burning wood wafting through the air against a mountainous backdrop. The Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville gives way to a waterfall crashing down into a stream running below, and jade-colored moss decorates the waterlines of buildings along its path. After taking a moment to soak it all in, I turned around. It appeared that my prayers had materialized in the form of a bar across the street, Les Archives. When I took a seat, the bartender asked whether I’d like a glass or a bottle. I decided that I liked it here.
One morning, after becoming well-acquainted with the five cépages, I met Christine Villet of the Domaine Villet, another local wine label, in the tasting room directly across the street from her home. It quickly became evident that Françoise wasn’t the only winemaker in the region with a fossil collection; Christine’s smile widened as she brought out a box from the other end of the room and emptied out dozens of fossils on top of a wine barrel. She pointed out the stem of a sea lily, which resembles a star.
“Talking about the star — the L’Etoile [star in French] appellation in the Jura is named that because they have a lot of these types of fossils,” she explained.
A few steps away from Domaine Villet, Le Bistrot des Claquets commands the Rue de Faramand with its coral-red facade. Inside, dried peppers hang overhead. The owner, Rachel Gariglio, greets patrons by name. I was having lunch — rare steak and crispy fries — with a winemaker I had met the night before. He looked out the window, pointing out another winemaker, Alice Bouvot of the Domaine de l’Octavin, who was walking outside.
On my last day in town, I set off to meet Alice. Her reputation precedes her; virtually everyone I met in town praised her work, complimenting her commitment to natural production methods. After popping inside, Alice emerged with a bottle called Ivre de Vivre: drunk on life. Sitting at a bright-blue table outside, she spoke softly, petting her dog, Pistache.
While throwing pebbles for the dog to chase, Alice explained that she works biodynamically, paying attention to lunar cycles, and without additives or sulfur, to keep the wines “emotional and lively.” Besides the five traditional cépages of Jura, she also trades grapes with other winemakers to keep things playful.
“We have the right to have fun, too,” she said with a shrug, smiling. “It pushes our curiosity.”
When asked about how she sees the future of her craft, her piercing blue eyes gazed into the distance. She took a long pause before speaking.
“When you work 14-, 15-, 16-hour days, we don’t always have the time — or we don’t take the time, maybe — to reflect,” she said. “It’s about opening our eyes. We speak a lot about wine, tastings and all of that. But the vines and our soil, … what do we want to leave for our children? Polluted rivers? Of course, you have to work to make a living. But you can work cleanly. That’s evident.”
On the train back to Paris, I envisioned the surrounding mountains flattening before my eyes and giving way to a warm sea and marine life splashing in the water. I wondered how this land, so cherished by the region’s winemakers, would change in the 150 million years to come. But maybe some traces of the Jurassic era — and today — would always remain. According to Fara, the paleontologist, the dinosaurs haven’t totally disappeared; their descendants still fly overhead.
“Today, if you want to go see dinosaurs in the Jura, you can observe the birds,” he said. “The dinosaurs are still there.”
An earlier version of this story stated that Thibault Mottet was 8 years old when he found fossilized dinosaur prints in Coisia. In fact, he was 11. The story has been updated.
If You Go
Where to stay
37 Rue de Courcelles, Arbois
011-33-6-86-37-69-02 and 011-33-6-16-93-07-93
This 18th-century vineyard house near the center of town is run by couple Corinne and Yves Lecoq. It’s tucked away from the road with garden views. Apartments are spacious and well-equipped. Breakfast included. Rooms from about $75 per night.
What to eat
Le Bistrot des Claquets
33 Rue de Faramand, Arbois
This lively spot is where local winemakers hang. Feast on the plat du jour during lunch and charcuterie boards for dinner while sampling bottles of poulsard. Reservations recommended. Open Tuesday to Friday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Plat du jour from about $11.
Au Petit Jurassien
73 Grande Rue, Arbois
Steps from the Louis Pasteur monument, Au Petit Jurassien serves local fare in a homey setting. Try the regional specialty, poulet au vin jaune, or chicken cooked in yellow wine, and the boar stew. Open Sunday and Tuesday to Thursday from noon to 2 p.m., and Friday and Saturday noon to 9 p.m.; kitchen closed Friday and Saturday 2 to 7 p.m. Closed Monday. Entrees from about $15.
1 Rue du Vieux Château, Arbois
This late-night hangout spot features an excellent selection of local wines at modest prices. You can try the region’s cépages and the famous comté cheese. Open Sunday and Tuesday to Thursday from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.; closed Monday. Meat and cheese boards from about $9; glass of wine from about $5.
What to do
Loulle dinosaur site
Lieu-dit Le Bois aux salpêtriers, Loulle
Visit the open-air dinosaur site to view more than 1,000 fossilized tracks dating from about 155 million years ago. During the winter, the footprints are often covered in snow. Open daily year-round. Free.
Tufs waterfall in Les Planches-près-d’Arbois
39600 Les Planches-près-Arbois
The Cascade des Tufs waterfall crashes down through emerald moss-covered rock formations into the clear, pale-blue water below. Access via a trail through the woods. Open daily year-round. Free.
Louis Pasteur’s house
83 Rue de Courcelles, Arbois
Visit the house of 19th-century French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, which is kept as it was when he lived there. Download a free audio tour online, and bring headphones. Open daily in February, March, April, October and early November from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., and in May through September from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Entry about $8 per person.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.