Wines by Region / Savoie & Bugey / Savoie
AOC Vin de Savoie
Savoie lies in the foothills of the Alps, mostly between Lake Geneva and Chambéry (the region’s largest city), and about an hour and a half on the autoroute from Lyon to to Chambéry, This region, one of the more visually pleasing in France, has a long history of producing wine. Documentation of grape plantings dates back to the 11th century. The name Savoie comes from a Latin term meaning the country of fir trees. Savoie was annexed to the French from Torino in Northern Italy in 1860, and some of the architecture still retains an Italian feel. In 1889, there were more than 13,000 hectares of vines in Savoie. Post-phylloxera, that number dropped to 8,940 hectares. Today, the Savoie vineyards only cover about 1,500 hectares scattered across four departments (Savoie, Haute-Savoie, Isère and Ain).
Wine production in the Savoie, however, is small. The appellation Corbières in the Languedoc annually produces almost four times as much wine as the entire Savoie! And on top of that, not much of that wine leaves Savoie—99% is consumed in the region, generally by tourists who come to hike or cycle in the mountains in the summer and ski in the winter.
The vast majority of wine here is white, and the white grapes include Jacquère, Roussette (also known as Altesse), Chasselas, and Bergeron (also known as Roussanne).
The scarcer, very light bodied reds are from Mondeuse (the king of red grapes in the Alps), Pinot Noir and Gamay. Mondeuse, in particular, deserves a special mention as it is emblematic of this region, and very little is seen outside Bugey and the Savoie. A little is grown in the United States, however, most notably at Au Bon Climat Winery in California. Mondeuse is a varietal that hasn't yet become a household word. One shouldn't hold their breath waiting for the Mondeuse section to be located next to the Cabernet section at one’s local wine merchant! Chances are, rather, that it will continue to reside in the "Other France" section — a graveyard for the mainstream but treasure trove for the wine scout.
Even in hot years, Mondeuse across Savoie still has difficulty reaching 12% natural alcohol. The juice from Mondeuse is a wonderful beet-colored red, and the wine often gives aromas of red fruits and spice. The challenge is to grow Mondeuse in areas that get the most sun possible, work the vines to help minimize any green and vegetal aromas, and produce a fleshy, fruit-laden texture whose flavors hypothetically blend cru Beaujolais Gamay with Northern Rhône Syrah and just a bit of Cabernet Franc from the Loire. These red wines make an excellent accompaniment to pork roast, veal stew, or sausages with polenta. Of course, the local tomme cheese (or comté for that matter) also pairs marvelously with the grape's deep, intense fruit.
Savoie Appellations and Crus
Since I began my importing career I have been a huge fan and proponent of wines from this often overlooked region. I stand by this conviction, and continue to tout the wines in the Savoie section of our portfolio as ones that deserve serious attention from anyone who seeks out interesting wines to drink with food. Here’s a look at some of the sub-regions that have been providing such wines for years.
Formerly Vin de Savoie and now simply Savoie is the appellation name for all of the villages running the hundred-kilometer trek from Lake Geneva to Mont Granier. There are several crus, which are allowed to put their names on the labels. These include Apremont, Chignin, Chignin-Bergeron, Ripaille and Marin among others on the white wine side, and Arbin and Jongieux among others for the reds. Within the appellation area, surrounding the southern tip of the Bauges mountain range is a cluster of some of the best-known producers. This area is at the intersection of three large valleys: La Cluse de Chambéry, la Combe de Savoie, and la Vallée du Grésivaudan. The Chartreuse and Belladonne mountains form the other borders of these valleys, and each tends to have a slightly different soil type and microclimate.
The vineyards of the tiny village of Chignin line the side of the mountain beneath the Sommet de Montgelas, planted at about 360 meters elevation. Jacquère is the most important grape variety. Because the vineyards face southwest, the grapes become slightly riper and less acidic than Apremont, whose vineyards face southeast. Many producers in this village are named Quenard (it seems like Quenard is the Smith or Jones of the Alps!), but most of them are not directly related to our Chignin producers Jean-François et Jean-Pierre Quénard. We carry a few delightful wines from this highly traditional domaine, usually including Chignin AOC (from 50-year old 100% Jacquère vines), their older vine Chignin AOC Anne de la Biguerne, and one of their Chignin Bergeron (always 100% Roussanne) cuvées.
Apremont lies on the western side of la Cluse de Chambéry facing Chignin, at the base of Mont Granier. In November 1248, part of the side of this mountain collapsed in a landslide that destroyed all the villages in the area. More than 5,000 people and thousands of animals were killed in an instant. The true cause was never determined, but the mountain structure was forever altered by the movement and resulting rubble. It was decided to plant the vineyards of the cru Apremont right on this rubble. Apremont, or bitter mountain, has its vines planted on slightly higher soil, with primary glacial deposits blended with limestone rubble. This is perhaps why it exhibits a mineraled character, with a flinty nuance weaving its way through the fruit. As in its neighbor Chignin the main grape here is Jacquère, but while Chignin's vineyards face southwest, Apremont's face southeast, giving them a little bit less of the afternoon sunlight. One could thus generalize that the wines of Apremont have a touch more acidity than the wines of Chignin. On a family property from 1700, Le Cellier du Palais is run by the youngest generation Béatrice and her father René. Béatrice uses the vineyard practice of lutte raisonée on their 7 hectares of Jacquère, Altesse and Chardonnay to handcraft very typical regional wines. We bring in the family’s two 100% Jacquère wines, the Apremont Classique and the Apremont Vielles Vignes.
The cru Ripaille lies situated along the shores of Lac Léman (aka Lake Geneva) across from the Swiss wine region of Vaud and just about an hour’s drive away from Geneva. The vineyard area is just outside Thonon-les-Bains, a mere 4 km from Evian-les-Bains where the famous water is bottled. While Ripaille is not technically a monopole, the vast majority of the cru’s vineyard land is the property of the Château de Ripaille. This is a château with a long and well documented history: originally a Roman villa with vines on the grounds from the 1st to the 4th centuries, by the end of the 14th century it had become a hunting lodge for the Comtes de Savoie, and eventually their preferred place of residence. At the end of the 15th century the property was occupied by invading Swiss, who sent wine in barrel back to Berne, but then after the wars of the Reformation, Ripaille was for two centuries a Carthusian monastery. After the French revolution the family of a wealthy factory owner spent years restoring and remodeling the château, and today it is owned by their descendants, the Necker-Engel family. The château is surrounded by 21 hectares of vines, all of which are Chasselas (known as Fendant in Switzerland), planted on fairly flat ground. The soil is stony, with sun-baked glacial deposits, mostly limestone. It is a pleasure to import the wines of such a historical estate and its unique cru, and every year the Château de Ripaille Chasselas (the domaine’s only wine) is one of our favorites.
A couple of towns along the curve of the mountain slope from Chignin, at the southernmost reaches of the Vin de Savoie appellation, sits the exclusively red wine Arbin cru. Here Mondeuse vineyards enjoy a southern-facing orientation thus benefitting from ample sunlight. Soils are composed of clay and limestone with dark scree topsoil. Typically the Mondeuse produced here is lighter in body and fruity but with an underlying note of spice. One of our Arbin producers, Domaine Charles Trosset et Fils, works organically and with extreme respect for this unique land to produce a few different Mondeuse cuvées, including the Harmonie and Prestige des Arpentes. Meanwhile, his cousin Fabien and his wife Chloe run Domaine Fabien Trosset which gives us some great value and terroir-encapsulating Arbin Mondeuse cuvées: Les Eboulis, Avalanche, and 1952.
Roussette de Savoie
One of the other 3 appellations within the Savoie region is (somewhat confusingly) named after the grape that must make up 100% of its wines, Roussette—actually called Altesse in the region. Further confusing is the geography—the appellation shares its actual covered area with the Savoie appellation, and some of its 4 crus are located within this shared area. This is because (unlike in the Savoie AOP) the crus are not necessarily names of villages but rather of specific vineyards where the Altesse grape tends to thrive and create its best wines.
One such cru, Marestel, is located in Jongieux (itself actually a cru of the Savoie AOC), a 45-minute spectacularly scenic drive from Chignin. The town, considered the capital of the Altesse grape, sits near the base of Mont de la Charvaz and it is on the slopes of this steep mountain where vines of Marestel are planted. Like the valleys further south within which Arbin, Chignin and Apremont lie, the soils of these slopes are composed of calcium-rich limestone and glacial deposits. Domaine Chevallier-Bernard is located here, and came to us on the recommendation of our Chignin producer Jean-François Quenard. The husband-wife team behind the domaine sustainably farms their 13 hectares to bring us delicious, varietally precise wines including their Roussette de Savoie AOC and their Roussette de Savoie Marestel.