Last Monday was not only the final day of Real Wine 2017, but also the day when Wink Lorch‘s successful Kickstarter finished. Wink now has the funds to go ahead with her (ahem!) long awaited second book project on The Wines of the French Alps.
I have been trying very gently, over the past couple of years, to suggest that the regions which loosely comprise the French Alps (Savoie, Bugey, Isère and the Diois) have the potential to become as exciting as those of Jura, currently one of France’s most regenerated wine regions. Savoie has vines just as dispersed as Jura, and the other alpine regions mentioned above are very small in real terms. Yet there are signs of life, even in that very conservative region of the pre-alpine Revermont, Bugey.
There had always been a number of very good family domaines, making wines like small rocks in a sea of mediocrity. Yet winter sports created an eager and not particularly discerning market in the Alps, and co-operatives and negociants satisfied the demand with undemanding wines. For some reason, the artisan quality path of next door Aosta, over the border in Italian Savoy, was never followed with enthusiasm, but of course Aosta is a tiny region.
The old families, Dupasquiers, Quenards, Grisards and Tiolliers, who did keep the flame alive, have since been joined by enough young growers to bring more than a mere prospect of excitement to the regions. Today the future looks bright. In fact, it does look rather like Jura did in the 1990s in this respect.
This tasting, organised by Wink with wines she’d brought over from her Alpine home, supplemented by a few wines from Joelle Nebbe-Mornod, of specialist Web Merchant Alpine Wines, amounted to fourteen bottles from around the region, which we tasted alongside some delicious local fare (cheeses, charcuterie and an exquisite Torte de Savoie). The great thing about the Tasting was that several of the wines had some decent bottle age. Two went back to 1997. It was a rare opportunity to see how these wines develop.
I won’t provide detailed notes on every wine as that would make this article very long, but I hope the flavour of it comes through. I also hope that my positive comments will whet the appetite of those who signed up for a copy of the book (due to be published in November), and perhaps those who have not done so may be moved to purchase a copy when it comes out. Some of Mick Rock’s stunning photos have already appeared in updates. The book would be worth the price for those alone, but it will really be a gateway to some fascinating, high quality, wines. Wines which perhaps you never thought existed.
We began our Tasting with a rare variety (fewer than 10 hectares in existence) from one of Savoie’s finest producers, Maison Philippe Grisard (of Cruet, on the Combe de Savoie). Mondeuse is the autochthonous alpine red variety most people know. That is officially “Mondeuse Noir”. Mondeuse Blanche 2013, from an altogether different variety, is floral, and yet it has a pleasant rounded fruit texture allied to a lively freshness. A very nice wine, but perhaps worth trying for another reason. Whilst it may be almost extinct, it has had a great impact on modern viticulture – it is a parent vine to both Syrah and Viognier.
Nice as that wine is, it was hard to compare with the next wine, coming as it does from my favourite Savoie producer. Domaine Belluard Savoie Ayze “Le Feu” 2010 comes from the rare Gringet variety. Ayze (also Ayse locally) is a small enclave on the River Arve, between Geneva and Chamonix. Domaine Belluard was founded in the 1940s, but it is only over the past decade that it has become one of the most sought after producers in France, so much so that even I have difficulty in sourcing their wines (at increasingly high prices). I’ve even seen Belluard’s “Les Alpes” (another Gringet cuvée) given a name check on two occasions by Keira Knightly, in Noble Rot Magazine, where once she described it as her “gateway white wine”, and on another occasion chose it (with duck rillettes) for her hypothetical “last meal”. No wonder Belluard is now in superstar winemaker territory.
“Le Feu”, a still white of considerable complexity at this age (the oldest I’ve ever drunk), shows why. It starts off as a lovely, almost softly floral, wine (which indeed it remains when young). With a little age it adds spices and herbs. In this 2010 I was getting subtle ginger notes very clearly. In fact, Gringet is a real find as a still varietal. It had been previously used for sparkling wine in Ayze (and Belluard do make a lovely bottle fermented fizz). Its qualities are now well known. Just a pity there are only somewhere between 20 to 30 hectares planted.
Next we tried four examples of a more commonly known Savoie grape which, like Gringet, has been under appreciated for many decades: Altesse. This local variety is grown in Bugey too, but in Savoie it can also go under the name of Roussette. There is a separate high quality AOP for Roussette de Savoie. All four of the following wines have that appellation.
Roussette de Savoie 2013, Domaine St-Germain comes from a little further east along the Combe de Savoie (southeast of Chambéry), near Fréterive. It has a lovely deep nose which is not a million miles from Pinot Gris, and there’s even a richness here, but not taken too far. Thirst quenching is still possible.
Roussette de Savoie 2009, Domaine L’Idylle is from back down the road in Cruet. Their wines were the first from Savoie I ever bought in the UK, from Yapp Brothers (who continue to import them). The older 2009 ironically had more acidity than the St-Germain version, but also more restraint, and less richness. It has aged quite well. But will Altesse age even further?
Five years older than L’Idylle was Roussette de Savoie 2004, Prieuré St-Christophe. This estate is owned by Michel Grisard, who is known as the “Pope of Mondeuse” (there’s some of that to come). Michel currently owns around 6ha of vines, split between Fréterive and Arbin. He is committed to biodynamics, and his wines are imported by Dynamic Vines in the UK. This is a wonderful wine. The nose has the complexity of age, yet the palate is clean and fresh, like a young wine. You will be pushed to find a more impressive example of an aged Savoie white. But yet…
Roussette de Savoie 1997, Prieuré St-Christophe takes Savoie’s Altesse variety to another level. Of course, it is far from likely that many estates in the region could show a white wine of this age, twenty years, which would display complexity and freshness. This is certainly getting mature, but it doesn’t lack anything. There’s a lovely quince flavour on the finish. Where that young Altesse seemed a little Pinot Gris-like, this has more the texture of mature Chenin. A remarkable wine.
As we move on to the reds, we begin in the territory of one of the rarest grapes in France. There is one vineyard of Espanenc in the country, at Remollon, in the Hauts-Alpes. The grapes usually go into a blend at the local co-operative, but in 2015 Yann de Agostini made a micro-cuvée from just 200 plants which had been grafted with cuttings from the Remollon vineyard.
Domaine du Petit Août “Un de Ces Jours” Espenenc 2015 is the Vin de France which was the result of that micro-vinification. The domaine itself has just between four and five hectares currently, located not in Savoie, but in the region of Hauts-Alpes, at Theus, not far from Gap. The vineyards are all at altitudes of between 600 to 700 metres, and Yann Agostini has a passion for obscure varieties. He’s perhaps best known for his varietal Mollard. The Espenenc is a neat little red, not over complex, yet very interesting. Light, aromatic, and obviously made with care. Only 200 bottles were produced, so I feel especially privileged to have tried it.
Next, a red from the producer of our third white, above. Persan 2013, Domaine St-Germain is an example of another autochthonous Savoie variety. Michel Grisard (of Domaine St-Christophe) has been spearheading the replanting of Persan, and Domaine St-Germain is one of a handful of noted producers. It’s not a bad wine by any means, but for me it is less interesting than the Espanenc. The fruit is fairly simple, but pleasant.
The following two reds were finer examples from the same domaine, but of course we have now moved on to Mondeuse, the finest and most interesting of the Alpine red varieties. Mondeuse is reasonably well known now, although when Yapp’s started importing one a couple of decades ago, hardly anyone here in the UK would have tried it, except perhaps without knowing, on a skiing holiday.
Mondeuse is a dark skinned variety which tends to come in two shapes and sizes. Some cheaper versions are real gluggers, almost like Beaujolais. Some Bugey Mondeuse can be like this. Then there are the deeper coloured, dark and brambly wines which need time. Such wines have real intensity, bite, tannins, and combine a floral and fruity bouquet with a bitter cherry palate, sometimes with black hedgerow fruits.
Domaine St-Germain makes three terroir/single site Mondeuse cuvées, and we tried two of them. Les Taillis 2013 is dark fruited with some tannins still. But it’s showing good acidity, and is accessible. There’s a very attractive wild side to it. La Perouse 2007 was quite different. Six years older, but still a relative youth. The tannins are tamed a little here, but that fresh acidity persists. A very attractive wine, but a serious wine too, for Mondeuse.
For our final pair of aged Mondeuse, we return to Domaine Prieuré St-Christophe. Remember, as Pierre Overnoy is the Pope of Ploussard, and Jacques Puffeney is the Pope of Arbois, so Michel Grissard is the Pope of Mondeuse. His biodynamic reds may be unheard of among drinkers of Bordeaux and Burgundy, yet that doesn’t make him any less of a star in biodynamic wine circles. We were so lucky to be able to contrast his Mondeuse Tradition 2003 with his Mondeuse Prestige 1997.
The 2003 initially has a tannic edge, but softens as one swirls, even with a tasting sample. There’s texture and (for Mondeuse, which is not a heavy grape variety), a little weight. Here we have a good example of the floral element developing on the nose. The 1997 has a much deeper and mature nose, almost in the direction of mature Burgundy, with some sous-bois elements, without losing fruit. I think such a wine would impress most people. Genuine eloquence, and, not wishing to sound too pretentious, a wine which seems to have wisdom. Anyway, I guess you can tell I liked it.
The 2003 Mondeuse Tradition, with the 1997 Prestige in decanter
We finished our Tasting with two gently sparkling wines in the demi-sec category, from the extreme north and south of the region. Bugey-Cerdon is made by the ancestral method, whereby fermentation takes place here in thermo-regulated tanks, and then continues in bottle, but is not followed by disgorgement. This means that some of the original yeast sediment is left in bottle, and that no additional yeasts, nor sugar (by way of liqueur) is added. It’s really the origin of the popular pétillant naturel wines we are all (I hope) glugging, except that Bugey-Cerdon (Cerdon is a Bugey cru) is not dry.
Bugey-Cerdon 2015, Domaine Renardat-Fâche comes from the important wine commune of Mérignat. The wine is a lovely bright pink-red blend of Gamay with some Poulsard. It is fragrant and fresh, demi-sec, and a mere 8.5% alcohol. I have a genuine soft spot for this wine. I was first introduced to it in the 1990s, by friends near Gex. Over the ensuing time, a number of artisan producers have begun to receive acclaim for versions with far less acidity and way more fruit than those earlier examples. It’s a wine you must explore, and over the past eighteen months I’ve been noticing examples on UK shelves, though you have to look hard.
Clairette de Die 2015, Domaine Achard-Vincent is an example of the revamped Clairette de Die wine which seemed to go out of fashion in the 1990s and 2000s. Made from a blend of Muscat (minimum 75% under AOP rules) and Clairette, the méthode diois is a very particular process. The must is filtered so that even the larger yeast cells are removed. There is just enough yeast and sugars left to enable a gentle fermentation in bottle. The wine is then disgorged into a new bottle. It should not be confused with the méthode traditionelle Crémant de Die, which is a dry sparkler, confusingly made just from Clairette.
This biodynamic Clairette de Die wine is frothy and grapey, although the Muscat effect is slightly tempered by the Clairette. This wine is traditionally taken on its own, either with pastries, cake or nuts. I know many people for whom the demi-sec sweetness is a welcome alternative to the acidity of Champagne, and like Bugey-Cerdon, it has low alcohol (just 7%).
A little tale of strife
It is rather a shame that these two regions, in the far north and far south of what we might widely term the French Alps, are currently at near war over what amounts to restrictive practices, or a threat to livelihoods (depending on whose side you are on). Bugey-Cerdon was once France’s only méthode-ancestrale pink with an AOC/AOP. This year sees the release of pink Clairette de Die. Bugey is up in arms.
Wink Lorch herself wrote a very interesting article about the dispute (The War of the Rosés…) for Winesearcher here. It’s worth reading. I’m sure we all know how jealously regional wine producing bodies guard their regional character, but it does also remind us of how conservative attitudes can be in rural France. Not everyone, and certainly not the various viticultural bodies, display the same openness of the young and dynamic growers, who are often the ones moving these appellations forward. I love Bugey wines, and rarely drink those from Die. But please, gentlemen!
What do I think? Well, I can see, as Wink says, that we could see vast amount of Gamay being made into a semi-sweet, commercial fizz which might affect Cerdon. But then we have pink pét-nats from all over the world now. One or two Beaujolais producers are making them in the same style, as Vins de France. I don’t think Bugey can stop these wines, which do not rely on an AOP. They have to get on and market their wines as well made, artisan products. Hopefully, like alpine wines in general, they will shine through in the end.
A note on sources
I’ve mentioned a few importers in this article, and you will also find other references to the wines of Savoie and Bugey in particular in my Blog. I’ve also recently been drinking the wines of Dominique Lucas’ Les Vignes du Paradis. These are wonderful wines made near the Chasselas enclave of Crépy, near Lac Léman’s southern (French) shore. Dominique’s wines (he also makes Pinot Noir in Burgundy) can be sourced from Les Caves de Pyrène.
I would suggest also looking at the web site for Alpine Wines (formerly Nick Dobson Wines). This merchant specialises in wines from Europe’s Alpine regions. Better known for excellent ranges from Switzerland and Austria, they also have an interesting selection of wines from Savoie, which I know will get larger over the coming year (in time for Wink Lorch’s book launch, at a guess). As I said above, Joelle, owner of Alpine Wines, brought some of the wines we tasted.