It is five years since Wink Lorch self-published her Jura Wine. Over those five years since publication this award winning book has proved an invaluable guide to a region which has gone from backwater to trend setter over less than two decades. Even as someone who has been visiting that region for many years, Jura Wine has been more than well thumbed, and accompanies me every time I stay in Arbois. The depth of knowledge within its pages is astonishing.
Now, with a few rocks strewn along the way, Wink has created another potential masterwork, one which will surely do more than anything before to raise the profile of France’s Alpine Wines and viticulture. I know how hard the task has been. It’s not merely that covering such a disparate set of vineyards, stretching from Bourg-en-Bresse and Lac Léman in the north down to Die and Gap in the south, would be as physically demanding as it is intellectually. Wink also suffered a very personal loss during the work’s creation, as readers of the book will be made immediately aware on noting its Dedication. That she has soldiered on to finish Wines of the French Alps, and to produce something of such quality, deserves more than just credit.
Before we look at what Wink has created this time, I’d like to give a little background to my own interest in French Alpine Wines. I suppose like so many of us, the first Alpine wines I drank were on skiing holidays. As a wine lover I avidly tried all the different sub-regions and grape varieties, but I wouldn’t say the wines were often particularly good. The larger producers and co-operatives saw the ski crowd as a captive market, and those who saw themselves as wine aficionados probably didn’t touch the stuff. So the incentive towards quality wasn’t there.
Yet there were people making good wines, often called Dupasquier, Quénard or Berlioz. Discovering some of these producers whetted my appetite, that and my penchant for pursuing the obscure and difficult. A few wine writers did touch on these outposts of quality, and I remember devouring the Savoie chapter in Andrew Jefford’s The New France (Mitchell Beazley, 2006), and trudging round wine shops in Annecy and elsewhere trying to find bottles he’d recommended. I was particularly interested in this guy called Michel Grisard due to Jefford’s description of him as a “leading exponent of biodynamics”, but sadly I never found any of his wines back then.
With friends in Geneva we used to try to find wines from places close by. I became a certified weirdo bringing back to the UK bottles from Crépy (a slightly more mineral version of Vinho Verde, made from Chasselas, might be a loose description), Marin (an error in acidity, at least back then) and Ripaille (from the lovely lakeside village and it’s château, close to Thonon-les-Bains and Évian). I also recall that the Château d’Apremont’s white from the zone of the same name was fairly ubiquitous in the hypermarkets of the region.
Then there is Bugey. Why I grew interested in these wines, I don’t really know. Those Geneva friends have a house in France and in their village is one of those Logis et Auberges hotels with a good value menu and simple wines. If a red was required, we always chose a local Bugey-Mondeuse. For sparkling, Bugey-Cerdon (a méthode ancestrale demi-sec sparkler, coincidentally covered in my previous article here, Recent Wines July 2019), or maybe a Montagnieu.
In the UK back in the 1990s and early 2000s finding Savoie wine was very difficult. I became a fairly regular buyer of the wines from Domaine de L’Idylle which Yapp’s (Mere, Wiltshire) still sell today, but that was about it until Les Caves de Pyrene began to develop that section of their list described as Jura/Savoie. Of course there were a few more commercial wines from the Alpine regions available, particularly Clairette de Die and Royal Seyssel, a bottle fermented sparkling wine once made by Varichon & Clerc, and now revived by Gérard Lambert, whose great grandparents were grape suppliers to the brand at the beginning of the 20th Century.
Wink’s book is published at a moment of massive change in the French Alps and surrounding Sub-Alpine wine regions. A couple of decades ago these wines were merely an opportunity for a wine geek to discover something new. I would never have suggested that these wines were remotely among the very finest of France (don’t forget, no Grisard yet), but my whole approach to wine is one of discovery, not complacency. Give me something new against a readily available old favourite any day.
As I write today there are now a host of Alpine producers up there in the vanguard of French wine. New ideas and philosophies, new (more sustainable) methods and a new focus on absolute quality, are apparent. Among my favourites, which I believe would belong to this vanguard, I would mention Dominique Belluard (Ayze), Dominique Lucas (of Les Vignes de Paradis (Ballaison)), Jean-Yves Péron (Albertville), Domaine des Ardoisières (Fréterive), Domaine Giachino (near Chapareillan/Apremont) and, of course, Michel Grisard’s Prieuré Saint-Christoph.
Grisard may possibly have made the finest wines in Savoie, almost certainly the longest lived, but he retired (like Jacques Puffeney in Jura) after the 2014 vintage. His vines, and label, are in good hands with the Giachino brothers. Thankfully, all of these producers are available in the UK, though tiny quantities mean you need to keep your ear to the ground in some cases.
Where to find Alpine Wines in the UK? Les Caves de Pyrene currently list just three Savoie producers, but importantly, those include the two Dominiques (Belluard and Lucas). Dynamic Vines is a key source, with four producers including Giachino/Prieuré Saint-Christophe. Try Gergovie Wines for Jean-Yves Péron. Paris is a place where you should look out for them. On my recent Paris trip I even managed to drink two Savoie wines in two different locations on the same day.
Alpine Wines in Idle, Yorkshire (online only) has a few Savoie producers as well, although surprisingly few given the name of the company (their wonderful specialities would be Swiss and Austrian wines). I suspect that number will increase following the publication of this book.
Vine Trail (in Bristol) has a very good selection from Savoie (L’Ardoisières included), along with Franck Peillot from Bugey. I’ve also picked up a few Bugey wines at Winemakers Club, although none appear among their core producers.
I guess you want to know a little about the book? Wines of the French Alps is divided into four parts, which will be completely familiar to those who have read Jura Wine. The format is the same, and we also get Mick Rock, of Cephas, as the main professional photographer. So Part 1 sets the scene with a history of French Alpine Wine, and introduces the movements and people who have been instrumental in its development.
Part 2 is called “All About the Wines”. This is where we get an overview of the different appellations and their sub-regions, terroir, the unique grape varieties produced here, viticulture and winemaking. Wink has her finger on the pulse and identifies the more sustainable approach which the region is experiencing today, which very much includes biodynamics and natural wines. Grape varieties Altesse, Bergeron (aka Roussanne), Gringet and Mondeuse are all capable of making wines of genuine quality, whilst Jacquère, Persan and Chasselas are equally capable of producing wines that really make you sit up and take notice.
There are many more varieties from other French regions which are now planted in Savoie and beyond. Bugey specialises in Gamay, Mondeuse, Pinot Noir and a little Poulsard for reds. Chardonnay is the most planted white variety, but we also see Altesse, Aligoté and Jacquère in some quantity (relatively speaking), the latter quite common in the region’s sparkling wines.
Part 3 is the meat of the book for those wishing to visit the regions as it contains all the producer profiles, listed by Savoie, Isère, Bugey, Le Diois and Hautes-Alpes (approaching 120 of them, which would take me a lifetime of trips to dent). The end of Part 3 contains an interesting three page look into the future for these producers, and it does sound a positive one. At last these wines may come out of the shadows and claim a prominent place among France’s much loved wine esoterica.
Part 4 gives a wider perspective on how to get the most out of visiting these regions, via pieces on how to enjoy the wines, local cheeses and other specialities, and those famous and occasionally frighteningly alcoholic Alpine liqueurs which surely none of us can resist. Finally we get the invaluable section which in Jura Wine proved so useful to so many visitors: hotels and auberges, restaurants and wine shops close to the vines and in the major population centres, the latter being a wonderful addition for those who can’t drive the often long distances between the producers themselves.
As usual, we finish with a set of appendices which outline the AOP/AOC rules, a glossary, and a succinct but focused bibliography (unlike some books which seem to list everything ever written on the subject, this one contains the stuff you might actually be tempted to refer to).
Jura Wine was so important back in 2014, a book on a French wine region which had burst seemingly from nowhere to become perhaps the place everyone was talking about. How much as a result of that book do we see dozens and dozens of Jura wines on wine shop shelves in the UK now? Wines of the French Alps has the potential to create the same waves, and I hope it does. It is important for those who love to discover something a little different. Juicy reds, crisp and pure whites, and some fine sparkling wines are there to grasp.
It is also important for Wink Lorch that this book succeeds. She is the most knowledgeable and experienced writer on the wines of Eastern France. This volume took a lot of work, not least with the added burden of self-publishing via Kickstarter funding. She has yet again created something which combines scholarship with readability, and a book which looks so professionally produced as well. The photography in particular really helps make it special. It’s a book to read and digest, but then to take with you as you explore these spectacularly beautiful vineyards. We are only in August, but so far Wink has given me my “wine book of the year”, yet again. Let’s see if it remains so. It should really bring these often lovely wines to a wider audience.
I thoroughly recommend Wines of the French Alps to anyone even remotely interested in what these regions are producing. It is self published via Wink’s Wine Travel Media. It is currently available on winetravelmedia.com for £25**. Doubtless it will appear in book shops soon, especially in the wine regions. It is also up for the same price on Amazon, though Wink says that copies are not currently available on that platform. Presumably if you buy it direct from Wink’s site she gets all of the money.
**Note that Wink has kindly offered a discount code for readers of this article. Enter KS1219 at the checkout on the above link to get 20% off, ie for £20 per copy, until the end of the year.
What next, Wink? I have my own ideas, but perhaps you’d like to wait a while…