Savoie-Faire: The Wines of the French Alps

I remember driving along the autoroute between Alsace and the Southern Rhone about a dozen years ago.  Just south of Chambery, I viewed an immense stone mass to my right, part of which seemed blasted into a crescent shape.  Before me, the rugged, snow-capped Alps, standing majestically against the beautiful cobalt sky, receded toward the distant horizon.  To my left I saw vineyards stretching up the steep and barren mountainside.  As it was the first time I had ever been to this region, I had no idea where those grapes ultimately made their path.  I wondered what their wine tasted like.

Later that evening, I looked at a map and discovered that the area I had driven through was Savoie (pronounced Sahv-wah) and, in the year that followed, I asked producers around France about wines from that area.  Their takes were not always positive, and sometimes downright negative: “Over-cropped,” “thin and acidic,” “light,” “no fruit”: Or, “poor travelers,” “for tourists”—the criticisms went on and on.  After hearing these opinions, there didn’t seem to be much reason to further investigate the wines.  But the mountainous landscape was gorgeous, and I figured there must be some treasures growing on those rugged vineyards. I decided to conduct my own investigation.

It was difficult, however, to pursue my interest outside the region.  Very few of the wines ever made it to American shores and it was hard to find stores in other regions of France that carried these wines.  Part of this had to do with the area’s scarce vineyards (with just 2,200 hectares, even Corsica has more vines), but also the huge tourist market that sucks down a good deal of its production.  Because of these factors, exporting the wines or developing new markets has never been a priority or even an interest to producers in Savoie.  For most, there was no incentive to increase quality either.  Whatever wine was made would be sold, be it good or bad.    

Attitudes—at least with a rising number of growers—have fortunately changed.  Some have studied winemaking at professional schools, others have begun working their soils and vines to limit their yields or started to sell their wines to customers who demand better wine.  In short, wines from the region have substantially increased in quality over the past ten years.

Other factors that have also increased the visibility of Savoie wines abroad include higher temperatures that have raised the alcohol levels of many producer’s wines (from 11.5% or 12% as opposed to 10.5% or 11%), giving them more texture to glide above their already present acidity.  In addition, the popularity of lower-alcohol, unoaked and highly mineral wines from the Atlantic coast (Muscadet, Txakoli, Albariño or Vinho Verde to name a few) or whites from places with higher altitudes like Austria and Northern Italy, have paved the way for a more widespread appreciation of these wines.

Delicious wines with forward fruit, an elegant texture and crisp, dry finishes that also pair well with food: this is how sommeliers should view these mountain wines today.

Old vines in Apremont with the Alps as a backdrop, courtesy of Beatrice Bernard

The Savoie Region

The Savoie region lies in the central part of France along its eastern edge, nestled beneath the Alps and along the borders of Italy and Switzerland.  This is a highly visited region of France; in fact, close to 50% of Savoie’s revenue comes from tourism.  While the winter months draw skiers from all over the world, the summer months bring nature enthusiasts who frolic atop the wildflower-covered hills and swim in the region’s pristine lakes. 

Historically, the borders of Savoie stretched into what is now Switzerland and Italy.  The House of Savoie was established in the 11th century as part of the Kingdom of Burgundy. The Counts of Savoie helped control trade across the Alps and established their capital in Chambery along the old Roman road between Grenoble and Geneva.  Their dominion continued to expand: during the 1700s, Savoie included a good part of the Alps, Switzerland, the Mediterranean coastline near Nice, Piemonte and Sardinia.

But the sheer size of the territory also made the region hard to defend, and the French made consistent attacks on its western side. To prevent being overtaken, the House of Savoy moved its capital across the mountains to Turin where the majority of its financial attention had become focused. Through a secret deal in 1859, King Victor Emmanuel II promised to exchange the Savoie region west of the Alps to France’s Napoleon III if his 200,000 troops helped fight off attacking Austrians in the north. Within the year, the French soldiers succeeded in keeping their end of the bargain.

Savoie officially became part of France in 1860.  Shortly thereafter, the province was split into two departments: Savoie and Haute-Savoie. Although proudly French, the Savoie people still have strong ties to bordering Italy and Switzerland, whose influence can be detected in their rugged physical features and rustic cuisine.

Lying just north of the 45th parallel, Savoie benefits from a continental climate that also has an oceanic influence.  The summers are warm and the winters cold, with about 1,200 mm of rain or snow falling throughout the year.

Oddly, wine books, websites, wine lists and wine classes often lump Savoie and Jura together, a union that makes little sense as, besides being a couple of hours apart, the two have about as much in common as Burgundy and Alsace, or Southwestern France and the Languedoc.  The soils, climate and grape varieties overlap rarely and, apart from both being in eastern France, Savoie and Jura share little else.  The comparisons should cease to be made, and both regions should be regarded as being entities unto themselves.


The Appellations

Savoie has three appellations, two of which account for 96% of the region’s wine.  The largest of these is simply called AOP Savoie (recently changed from Appellation Vin de Savoie Controlée) which gained its appellation status in 1973.

It is broken into 17 crus whose names can appear on the label.  These include Abymes, Apremont, Arbin, Ayse, Chautagne, Chignin, Chignin-Bergeron, Crepy, Cruet, Jongiueux, Marignan, Marin, Montmelian, Ripaille, Saint-Jean-de-la-Porte, Saint-Jeoire-Prieuré and Pétillant et Mousseux de Savoie Ayze.  Even though most of these crus have all the major grapes planted, many are known for specific varieties (which will be explained later).

Roussette de Savoie is the second largest appellation in Savoie and makes up 10% of the region’s production.  One would think that with such a name, its grape is Roussette, but the only grape permitted is Altesse (which is sometimes referred to as Roussette by certain locals).  Roussette de Savoie has four crus that include Frangy, Marestel, Monthoux and Monterminod. 

Straddling the Rhone River (which begins in the Swiss Alps, flows into Lake Geneva, then down into France between the Ain department and Savoie) lies the town of Seyssel, from which Savoie’s third appellation takes its name.  With the 2008 exodus of Crepy, Seyssel is now the region’s only single-village appellation and has always had a strong following at the Aix-les-Baines thermal spas along Lake Bourget to the south.  Only about 20% of the appellation’s vineyards are in Savoie, however, the rest being across the river in the Ain (home to Bugey wines).  Soils on both sides of the river are similar, comprised of sand, gravel and limestone, or gravel and sand outcroppings mixed with clay. 

Seyssel (accounting for 4% of the region’s production) makes both still wines (with Altesse the sole permitted variety) and sparkling wines (in which Altesse, Chasselas and Molette are also allowed). Molette is a rare variety that is often grown on more pebbly and sandy soils and offers aromas of violets and white-blossomed flowers, an intoxicating compliment to the more neutral and higher-yielding Chasselas.

130,000 hl of wine are produced a year in Savoie, which represents just over a half a percent of that from all wine appellations in France. 


The Grapes and their Regions

Twenty-three varieties are allowed to be used in the wines from Savoie.  White grapes account for just under 70% of the region’s production, with Jacquère, Altesse, Chasselas and Bergeron leading the way.  Other permitted varieties include Aligoté, Chardonnay, Gringet, Marsanne, Molette, Mondeuse Blanche, Pinot Gris, Roussette de Ayze, Velteliner Rouge Précoce and Verdesse.  The red varieties grown the most are Mondeuse, Gamay and Pinot Noir, although Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Etraire de la Dhuy, Gamay de Bouze, Gamay de Chaudenay, Joubertin, Merlot, Persan, Poulsard and Servanin can also be found in minute quantities, mostly in villages outside the three AOPs that release their wines as Vin de Pays de Pays des Allobrogies (now IGP Allobrogies).


The Growing Zones and their Crus

Savoie is also known for propagating and grafting vines that comprise 10% of young vine sales around France.  Savoie is also a land of polyculture, with plenty of wooded forests, grazing land for cows (whose milk is largely used for the region’s cheeses) and agricultural farms. Vineyards for the crus are centralized around villages, but the region is so large that one can drive for miles around Savoie without seeing any vines at all.  Generally the vineyards are found on slopes under 250 and 500 meters altitude, as late-Spring frosts are usually too dangerous above this level.  Vines are grown within six major regions.

Map courtesy of Maison de la Vigne et du Vin, Apremont


Cluse de Chambery

La Cluse de Chambery lies about 10 kms south of Chambery.  While Jacquère is the most planted grape in Savoie (encompassing 50% of the region’s vineyards), its home is here.  Jacquère is well adapted to the clay and limestone scree (broken rock fragments that compose the gentle slopes at the base of more vertical vineyards.)  The crus that specialize in Jacquère include Apremont, Abymes and Chignin.  Jacquère is a grape whose vines can produce high yields (up to 100 hl/ha) and historically has interested those producers wanting to satisfy undemanding tourists at the region’s numerous ski stations.  Jacquère has good natural acidity and, even in hot years, rarely gets above 12% alcohol.  It gives medium-bodied, relatively neutral wines that can have overtones of apple and pear along with an underlying spicy, tonic-like nuance.  Some tasters have begun referring to Jacquère as the Muscadet of the Mountains, which is an apt description as long as they are consumed within 3 years of the vintage.

The vineyard of Apremont is the largest cru in Savoie, producing 24,000 hl of wine annually.  Located on the slope of Joigny Mountain just below Mount Granier, its white Cretaceous limestone is thick and full of fossils. Above this limestone is a mixture of humus, marne and the remnants of old glacial moraines.  The exposure is to the east, where the vines are nourished by the early morning sun.  Apremont wines often have a smoky note, which reflects the soil’s mineral composition.

Abymes (a derivative of abimes or broken stones) is the second largest cru (16,000 hl of wine annually). It sits just south of Apremont and spills into the Isere department.  In 1248, due to glacial activity or a shift in underground streams, a large chunk of Mount Granier plummeted down the hillside which resulted in the deaths of well over five thousand Abymes’ and neighboring Apremont’s inhabitants.  Wines from Abymes are usually fruitier and less mineral than those of Apremont and often contain 4 or 5 grams of residual sugar.

Located across the Autoroute a short five kilometers away, Chignin benefits from a more southern and southwestern exposure, unlike Apremont and Abymes’ vineyards that face south and southeast.  Soils are composed of broken limestone pieces, marl and clay.  Benefitting from more sun and richer soils, Jacquère from Chignin (which produces 6,000 hl of wine a year) tends to have slightly higher alcohol and lower acidity than its neighbors across the valley.

Jean-Francois Quenard in Chignin with Mount Granier in the distance.


Combe de Savoie  

Vineyards of the Combe de Savoie (a combe is a sharp, deep valley) begin along the slopes of Chignin and run along the mountainside through the crus Montmelian, Arbin, Cruet, St. Jean-de-la-Porte and Saint-Jeoire-Prieuré.  The soil is made up of dark Jurassic limestone and black marl with pebbly scree that has accumulated over time from the Massif des Bauges slopes above. 

Bergeron is the local name given to the grape Roussanne.  Generally believed to have been imported from the Northern Rhône, it is the most aromatic of the Savoie white grapes, with apricots and flowers entwined in a creamy texture, kissed by gentle minerality.  The 120 hectares of vines are planted along steep, south-facing slopes that line the combe and reach 400 meters in altitude.  These wines are released with the cru name Chignin-Bergeron and should be drunk within their first five years of life. 

While many Savoie vineyards have Gamay and Pinot Noir planted, Mondeuse should be considered the king of red grapes on these steep inclines. While some make claims that Mondeuse is related to Refosco, this has been proven untrue, although the two grapes do share some aromatic traits.  Mondeuse has the tendency to overproduce, which is one reason producers like to grow it on slopes, where its yields are naturally lower. Even in hot years, Mondeuse rarely surpasses 12% alcohol but it can be rather tannic upon release.  However, its tannin sheds faster than that of many other grapes, and after a year or two in bottle the wine reveals lovely layers of cranberry, pomegranate and cherry fruit entwined with fine spice.  The best Mondeuse manages to give the flesh of cru Beaujolais, the spice and acidity of Northern Rhône Syrah, and the savory herbal component of Cabernet Franc from the Loire.  The finest Mondeuse wines are delicious between their second and eighth birthdays.

Limestone scree found on the hillside slopes along the Combe de Savoie


Lake Geneva

The major grape in the area that runs along or near Lake Geneva is Chasselas, the variety responsible for 70% of plantings in the Haute-Savoie.   Although Chasselas is the most widely grown grape in France, most of it is eaten rather than vinified into wine.  All the Chasselas in the region used for wine is grown close to the shores of Lac Léman (known in America as Lake Geneva), across from the Vaud region of Switzerland, where Chasselas is also king.  Chasselas rarely gets above 12% in alcohol, and produces neutral wines with an underlying mineral, tonic-like quality.  Chasselas has the reputation of a wine to be drunk young although, while delicious in its first two or three years, properly stored bottles from strong vintages can be highly enjoyable a decade after release.

The vineyards around Lake Geneva include four crus.  Ripaille juts out into the lake on flat land covered by sand and gravel, and Marin lies a bit further west along gentle slopes above Evian-les-Baines (where the water comes from) and its vineyards are comprised of clay, sand and brown gravel.  Marignan is perhaps where Chasselas’ cultivation for wine originated: in the 14th century, monks established a model farm and began pressing grapes.  The vineyards have more pitch to them than in Ripaille, and they are covered by coarse sand and clay molasse (shale and sandstone gravels) that have eroded from the Alps.  Just below Marignan lies Crépy, whose soils are similar albeit with better exposure.  Crépy, which once had its own appellation but saw it removed in 2009, makes dry white wines in a more modern style.  Their specialty is petillant wines, whose touch of carbonic gas gives them a slight spritz.  


Côte d’Arve

The Côte d’Arve has the highest vineyards in Savoie, rising to about 550 meters midway between Geneva and the Mont Blanc tunnel that connects France with Italy.  It also has the most mountain-like climate, with about 110 days annually experiencing frost.  Fortunately its southerly exposure and protection from north winds by the Chablais Massif helps minimalize late spring frosts.  The soils are molasse that have tumbled down from the mountains above.  The grapes grown here include Roussette d’Ayze or Mondeuse Blanche, Grosse Roussette aka Marsanne, and Chasselas, known locally as Bon Blanc.  Just 40 hectares remain of the Gringet variety, which some say is related to the Savignin or Traminer family of grapes although DNA tests have disproved this.  Gringet ripens late in the season, has moderate yields and gives wines that have apple and quince flavors, often accompanied by floral notes.  Although in short supply, it does make some of the region’s most interesting sparkling wines. 


The Montagne de Chat

The vineyards of the Mont de Chat area lie about ten kilometers west of the Lac de Bourget and are highly planted with the Altesse grape.  Altesse, thought to have been brought to the region from Cyprus in 1366, achieves its pinnacle along the Marestel slope (pronounced Mar-ray-tell), an amazing series of steep plots whose pitch falls somewhere between the Chablis Grand Crus and Côte Rôtie.  Facing due west and overlooking the Rhone River, its clay and Kimmeridgian-period limestone vineyards often reach grades of 40%, insuring optimum exposure.  The soil, the slope and its facing all contribute to a particular microclimate from which Altesse reaches its pinnacle in both complexity and longevity.  These stunning vineyards are a must see for any student of wine.

Altesse is harvested late in the season and is not susceptible to gray rot, allowing the grapes to ripen fully.  Yields are kept low, generally around 30 hl/ha.  Altesse produces fuller-bodied wines than Jacquère yet also has admirable acidity.  To balance this acidity, a bit of residual sugar is frequently left, as is often the case with Chenin, Riesling, or the grape that some compare it to, Furmint, used in Tokaj.  The resulting wines often have exotic flavors (pineapple, guava, bergamot orange) and a pronounced almond and honey note.  While the best Marestel wines can age for up to 12 years, they are most enjoyable between 2 and 6 years of age.

The stunning Marestel slope, home to the world's finest Altesse


La Vallée des Usses

This area, including Seyssel, has vineyards planted on limestone glacial debris.  The cru Frangy lies northeast of Seyssel and has south and southeast facing vineyards planted solely with Altesse.  Yields are generally kept lower in Frangy than in Seyssel, making for more concentrated, interesting expressions of the Savoyard grape, delicious during its first five years of life.


La Chautagne

This series of vineyards lies along the northeastern part of the Lac de Bourget, between Marestel and Frangy.  Chautagne has more of a Mediterranean climate than the other crus, with olive trees dotted within the landscape and cicadas providing a more southerly soundtrack.  This is the only cru in Savoie where red grapes are dominant.  Gamay accounts for about 50% of the plantings, with Mondeuse and Pinot Noir comprising the rest in equal proportions. In the south, limestone dominates, while in the north, glacial sediment composed of gravel and sand lie under the vineyards.  Gamay from Chautagne has the reputation of being more structured and ageworthy than those of others crus in Savoie, with an impressive 5 to 7 year aging curve for the better wines.


Food in Savoie

The food in Savoie overlaps that of Switzerland and the mountainous areas of northwestern Italy like the Val d’Oesta.  While fondue is Swiss in origin, fondue Savoyarde can be found at every auberge in the region.  And even though most people associate Polenta with Italy, it is found on many tables in Savoie, normally as an accompaniment to sausages or stews.  Alternatively, it is cut into triangles and pan fried in butter.  Diot sausages, made from ground pork with a little nutmeg seasoning, are traditionally cooked in white or red wine.  Frog’s legs with garlic and parsley are found in other regions of France, but I always associate them with Alpine ponds and see them on menus at many local restaurants.  These are normally pan fried in butter with some garlic and parsley.  Especially in the Haute-Savoie, perch filets (small white fish from lakes that are normally pan fried and served with fries) are the local version of fish and chips.  Perhaps the most famous Savoie dish is the tartiflette, a casserole made with sliced potatoes, reblochon cheese, lardons, onions and cream.

Savoie also rivals Normandy with its wealth of cow’s milk cheese. Beaufort, coming from near a town with the same name, is somewhat similar to Gruyere and is commonly used in fondue because it melts easily.  Tomme (a generic term meaning wheel of cheese) abounds in Savoie.  Tomme de Savoie is made with partially skimmed cow’s milk cheese and has salty and grassy flavors.  Tomme de Bauges has an AOP and is made from milk with a higher fat content and from a specified part of Eastern Savoie.  The cheese does not have holes and its rind is less thick than that of regular Tomme de Savoie, and its taste is also sweeter.  Reblochon is a soft cow’s milk cheese that is molded in a circular form.  It has a slightly nutty taste and is an essential ingredient in tartiflette.


Challenges for the Sommelier

The challenges presented to the sommelier by Savoie wines are many: Wines from Savoie are still relatively hard to find, and quantities that many importers bring into the country are enough to cover several markets at best.  The wines are still lumped into that dust-collecting Other France category on a wine list that often sit untouched for months.  Because the varieties and appellations are unknown to most wine consumers (or even professionals in the business), bottles are harder to sell because education on a number of different levels is necessary—sales rep, sommelier, servers and customer.   In short, it’s easier to sell another Bourgogne Rouge, Chardonnay or Riesling by the glass simply because they are easier for all levels of the chain to recall and sell.  Additionally, those areas have become so well known that if a client doesn’t like the wine, they will blame the region or the grape rather than the server who sold it to them, so nobody needs to fear losing face in front of a guest. 

That being said, it’s really not all that hard to sell the wines from the region: after all, its comprised of just three appellations (Savoie, Roussette de Savoie and Seyssel), and four commonly-found grapes (Jacquère, Altesse, Chasselas and Mondeuse).  What’s more, Savoie wines perform amazingly well at the table.  Wines made with Jacquère are aromatic enough to be served by the glass but also pair well with seafood (clams, mussels) or light appetizers, particularly those with a lightly-fried crust.  Altesse-based wines should be viewed with the same pairing potential as Chenin Blanc-based wines from the Loire, that is with chicken, veal or white fish, even plates with a bit of spicy heat.  Chasselas works well with grilled or lightly battered fish like sand dabs or lake fish, composed salads or a cheese soufflé.  Mondeuse can be matched with similar foods one might serve with Saint Joseph: beef short ribs, grilled chicken, pork loin or rabbit to name a few.


Some recommended wines from Savoie available in America

André and Michel Quénard Chignin: This excellent producer is one of seven Quénards in Chignin and makes very reliable wines.  Highlights include their Chignin and Abymes, as well as their Chignin-Bergeron.

Domaine Labbé Abymes: This domaine is run by cousins Alexandra and Jerome Labbé.  Their Abymes is light to medium-bodied, with notes of firm pear and citrus pith, and a clean, fresh, mineral finish.

Pierre Boniface Apremont: These wines, along with those of André and Michel Quénard, have been available on a consistent basis in the States longer than any others.  Their Apremont is medium-bodied, with under-ripe apple and lightly floral aromas, plenty of limestone minerality and good acidity that hides its small amount of residual sugar.

Béatrice Bernard Apremont: The Vieilles Vignes cuvée comes from 80 year-old vines lying beneath Mount Grenier.  Medium-bodied, where flavors of under-ripe Bartlett pear, tonic water and mineral salinity converge to make this one of the better Jacquère-based wines of the region.

Domaine JP and JF Quénard Chignin-Bergeron: Jean-Francois Quénard makes two excellent wines from Roussanne, known to locals as Bergeron.  Les Demoiselles comes from vines growing along the steep limestone slopes of the Combe de Savoie.  It shows notes of creamy apricot and white flowers that dance across its medium to full-bodied texture.  His Pied de la Tour cuvée comes from 50-80 year old vines grown on rolling hills comprised of clay and limestone.  Richer than Les Demoiselles and with flavors of ripe apricot, peach and creamy vanilla (although it sees no oak), this full-bodied wine shows less minerality than its predecessor yet more hedonistic fruit.

Domaine Dupasquier Roussette de Savoie: David Dupasquier is the fifth generation at this well-respected estate located beneath the Marestel slope.  The Dupasquiers tend to release their wines later than their compatriots, which is not a bad idea for Altesse at it really flowers after several years in bottle.  Their Marestel shows some notes of ripe exotic fruit (pineapple and apricot), along with honey and citrus pith flavors. 

Domaine Edmund Jacquin Roussette de Savoie Marestel: Now run by Patrice and Jean-Francois Jacquin, this Marestel shows exotic notes that include pineapple and honey, as well as a note of white flowers, buttressed by gentle underlying acidity.

Jean Vullien St. Jean-de-la-Porte Mondeuse: This cru only allows red grapes, most of them Mondeuse.  This shows bright, Grenache-like red fruit along with intriguing peppery and dried herbal notes.  Well-integrated tannins make it fully enjoyable now.  

Domaine Charles Trosset Arbin: Mondeuse is the only grape grown within the Arbin cru.  Louis Trosset and his brother Joseph farm just over four hectares of old vines planted on very steep slopes.  Four cuvées are released at the domaine, all aged in tank but with various levels of aging potential.  Harmonie is bright and full of blueberry, pepper and spice, while Prestige des Arpentes has slightly higher acidity, tannin and aging potential.  These wines are about as close to St. Joseph as one gets outside the Northern Rhone.

Domaine Belluard Gringet Feu: Belluard is a lone soldier in the cru Ayse, responsible for half of the production of the world’s Gringet.  This cuvée comes from biodynamically-grown fruit and is aged in small cement eggs.  It has a beautiful gold color, and a rich nose with a slight hint of oxidation.  The mouth shows pineapple and a hint of cream and smoke.  The olfactory fireworks continue with apple, white peach and quince flavors, along with honey and orange pith. 

Domaine Belluard Ayze Methode Traditionelle: This delicious sparkler shows notes of juicy clementine, Asian spice, pineapple and creamy vanilla, wrapped seamlessly in a 12% alcohol package.

Chateau de Ripaille Chasselas:  This 22-hectare domaine lies along the shores of Lake Geneva where the climate is temperate and the gravelly soils provide excellent drainage.  Apple, quinine water and citrus pith converge on a medium-bodied palate that effortlessly invites another sip.


Charles Neal is a wine and spirits importer based in San Francisco, CA.  He is the author of Armagnac, The Definitive Guide to France's Premier Brandy and Calvados, The Spirit of Normandy.  In addition, he has contributed to The International Wine Cellar and The Art of Eating magazines.