Now unless you have had the great pleasure of spending time on the alpine slopes on the southern shore of Lake Geneva, you may have never heard of the region of Savoie (pronounced “Sav-wah” and often anglicised to Savoy). A mountainous, isolated wine region with a handful of rare, light-bodied varieties. I have spent the last few days based in this idyllic location, and so today we will learn a little more about this oft-forgotten district of eastern France. CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE
So why are the wines of Savoie not better known? Well first up, the region is very small, coming in just under a puny 2,100 hectares (one-fifth the size of Beaujolais), so not much wine can actually be produced- 0.5% of French total vintage to be precise. To make things more difficult, the mountainous terrain means many of the vineyards are separated by huge peaks- there are very few homogenous valleys of vines anywhere here, meaning vineyards (much like in Burgundy) are smallholdings farmed plot-by-plot and there is only one cooperative. This means it is very difficult to summarise what ‘classic’ Savoie wine should taste like (something the big cooperative actually does quite well). Finally, this part of the world is a fairly secluded holiday destination; a place for summer mountain climbing and winter skiing. And what better thing to do when holidaying in a beautiful alpine resort town than drink beautiful alpine wines perfectly matched to the local fare! That’s right, one of the main reasons we don’t see Savoie wines too often is because most of it doesn’t make it out- a good problem to have for local producers!
So what are these wines? Well as you might guess from the high-altitude cold climate, Savoie makes a lot of crisp whites- around 70% of yearly production is white wine. The most-grown variety is Jacquère, a very neutral cold-climate specialist. It accounts for 50% of all plantings and produces early-drinking, low alcohol, lively dry wines. Flavours range from white flowers and fruit (pear, white peach and grapefruit) to mineral and flint notes. The next most grown is also considered the best local variety, Altesse (also called Roussette, local slang for ‘redhead’, due to the occasional pink-blush berries in many bunches). In its youth, flavours range from fresh almonds and bergamot to pineapple, peach and quince. With age, the wines develop aromas of honey, toast, nuts and white truffle. In reds, Gamay and Pinot Noir, imported from the north a few centuries ago, do fairly well, though are always thinner and lighter than those of their home regions- many go into making pleasant summer Rose. The most exciting local variety is Mondeuse Noire, which can achieve deep colour, peppered spice and strawberry aromas even in the cold. This is an ancient variety native to the region, and genetic testing shows it is a cousin of Syrah/Shiraz, which you can taste in the peppery spiced nose and chalky, dense tannins. Records show it was cultivated by the Gallic tribe of Ancient Gaul (known as the Allobroges) prior to the Roman invasion. Columella, the famous roman writer who wrote extensively about farming and agriculture, referred to Mondeuse as “the grape variety that ripens amidst the snow”- well suited to Savoie then!
Despite its small size, isolation and difficulty to traverse, Savoie has an abundance of sub-regions or ‘Crus’ within it; these have shown enough individuality and quality to be recognised as their own designated production region, and as such can have their names appended to their labels. These distinctions take into account which direction the hillside is planted to, but mainly is due to the differences in soil type- some valleys were created millennia ago by a river, some by glaciers, and some by shifting tectonic plates, while others by a rockslide, all of which will give different soils to the hillsides. Across all Crus there are 3 quality distinctions that must be on every label;
-Vin de Savoie is the basic entry-level quality level and covers red, white, sparkling and Rose wines from all available grape varieties. There are 16 Crus that fall under this quality banner, most of which specialise in one style of wine and using only one or two varieties that work in their specific territory.
– Roussette de Savoie AOP is the next quality level up, like a Premier Cru, and can be put on white wines made from 100% Altesse grapes, and can only come from one of 5 Crus; Chautagne, Frangy, Marestel, Monthoux and Monterminod.
-Seyssel AOP is the top quality designation, like a Grand Cru and can only be dry whites or sparkling wines made primarily from the Altesse and Chasselas varieties and can only originate from the Seyssel and Corbonod Crus.
Sparkling wine has shown some serious growth in this region, so much that in 2014, Savoie was awarded its own appellation for quality sparkling wines which will show the words Crémant de Savoie AOP on the label. This title is only awarded to sparkling wines made in the traditional method (like in Champagne) made up of at least 60% local quality grapes (Jacquère and Altesse), with a minimum 40% Jacquère making up the final blend.
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