The Wines of Savoie

combe de savoie
Vineyards in the Combe de Savoie, hugging the Bauges mountains.

Twenty years ago, the wines of Savoie were often thin and acidic, and good mostly for cutting through cheesy dishes such as the local fondue and raclette. On a recent ski trip to Chamonix, I was intrigued by some complex and unusual wines, and took a few days out of skiing to visit some producers and find out more.

Even before the Roman conquest, the vine was being cultivated in Savoie by the Gallic Allobroges. The region’s 2,100ha (versus 120,000ha for Bordeaux) are dispersed across four French départements: mostly Savoie and Haute Savoie, but also Ain and Isère. Ain also contains the even smaller Bugey wine region, which is fairly similar to Savoie in terms of terroir, varieties, and styles. You can see a map of the region on the Vin de Savoie website.

Although Savoie’s wine producing areas are fairly disparate, they are united by their common Alpine landscape, with the vine cultivated on sheltered south-facing slopes and along moderating water bodies such as lakes Geneva and Bourget. Stony soils provide good heat retention and water drainage, and I spotted the odd almond or apricot tree amidst the vines.

The vines of André et Michel Quenard at the foot of the Savoyarde in the Bauges. This slope was first planted by the Romans but had been abandoned in favour of higher yields.

White wine accounts for 70% of Savoie production, followed by red wine (20%), rosé (6%), and sparkling wine (4%). Only 5% of total production is exported, so the wines, though generally good value for money, are fairly hard to source.

By far the most important appellation in Savoie is Savoie AOP. The other still wine appellations are Roussette de Savoie AOP (for the crus of Frangy, Monthoux, Marestel, and Monterminod) and Seyssel AOP (for the cru of Seyssel), although it is not clear even to the producers themselves why these two appellations are not subsumed under Savoie AOP. Interestingly, in 2009 growers in Crépy had their AOP demoted to cru status to be able to market their wines as Savoie AOP. A fourth Savoie appellation was created in 2014 for Crémant de Savoie, which is becoming increasingly important. Broadly speaking, Crémant de Savoie is at least 40% Jacquère, with any remainder being Altesse and Chardonnay, although Chardonnay cannot account for more than 40% of the blend. The style is already winning medals in Paris.

The Savoie wine region counts some twenty crus, from Ripaille and Marin on Lake Geneva in the north to Apremont, Les Abymes, Chignin, Montmélian, and Arbin in the south. The heart of the region is to the south, between the Bauges and the Chartreuse mountains in the valley of the Isère, in the so-called Cluse de Chambéry and Combe de Savoie. The soils here are predominantly limestone scree from crumbling mountains, including the picturesque Savoyarde in the Bauges and Mont Granier in the Chartreuse.

Mont Granier in the Chartreuse, as pictured from the Bauges. The valley is the Combe de Savoie.

Over twenty grape varieties are cultivated, but the most important are Jacquère, Altesse (Roussette), Bergeron (Roussanne), and Chasselas for the whites, and Mondeuse and Gamay for the reds. The high-yielding Jacquère accounts for half of plantings, while Chasselas is found, as you might expect, in the north towards the Swiss border (see my article on the wines of Switzerland). The Gringet grape is only found in Ayze, where it is made into a sparkling wine. Some of Savoie’s indigenous varieties are on the verge of disappearance: there are, for example, just nine hectares of Persan left.

Jacquère wines are dry, crisp, and mineral, with notes of citrus fruits, pear, white flowers, and wet stone. Some of the best, most ‘Alpine’ expressions of Jacquère come from the aptly named crus of Apremont (‘Bitter Mountain’) and Les Abymes (‘The Abysses’), which lie on limestone scree from a 13th century landslide of Mont Granier that killed thousands of villagers.

Altesse underlies the Roussette de Savoie AOP, and is richer than Jacquère, with notes of honey, apricots, tropical fruits, and aniseed, among others. According to local lore, the variety was brought back from Cyprus as a royal dowry, whence the name ‘Altesse’ (‘Highness’). Whatever the case, Altesse is capable of serious complexity, and, unlike Jacquère, improves with age, developing notes of toast and nuts. The Seyssel AOP is reputed for its floral sparkling wines made from Altesse, Chasselas, and Molette.

The cru of Chignin-Bergeron (not to be confused with the overlapping cru of Chignin, which consists of Jacquère) is the only cru with a grape variety in its name: Bergeron, or Roussanne, as it is known in its native Rhône Valley. Chignin-Bergeron is rich and honeyed, although more fresh and mineral, and less alcoholic, than Roussanne counterparts from the Rhône. It is capable of serious finesse and complexity, as, for example, in Louis Magnien’s Grand Orgue cuvée.

grand orgue.jpg

The first century writer Columella referred to Allobrogica, which is most probably Mondeuse, as ‘the grape that ripens amidst the snow’. In 2000, there were just 200ha of Mondeuse left in France, although the variety has since recovered somewhat. Mondeuse has often been compared with, and mistaken for, the Piedmontese Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso. It is deep in colour with notes of cherry, plum, violets, and spice, crisp acidity, and substantial tannins. Like Altesse and Bergeron, Mondeuse is age-worthy, and on my trip I tasted a 1998 Mondeuse from Louis Magnin that could still be counted as fresh. The finest examples of Mondeuse are arguably from Arbin, and I also loved Fabien Trosset’s 2015 cuvée Avalanche.

20yo Mondeuse.jpg

Recommended producers: Louis Magnin, André et Michel Quenard, Fabien Trosset, Domaine Giachino, and Les Ardoisières (IGP Vin des Allobroges, just outside the Savoie AOP).

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