One of the hottest tickets for a tasting this week was a relatively modest affair in Charing Cross’s Terroirs restaurant. The reason? Here was an opportunity to taste some 30 wines from the Savoie, Bugey, Isère, Hautes-Alpes and the Clairette de Die wine regions. With grapes used such as Mondeuse, Mollard, Persan and Etraire de la Dhui it was a sommeliers’ dream and a rare opportunity to taste a collection of these wines under one roof. Wink Lorch, who has just written a book on the subject called Wines of the French Alps orchestrated the event and here tells Peter Dean how you should go about discovering the wines of the region.
“The appellation rules encompassing so many grape varieties and crus make it hard to grasp the essence of the Savoie. Yet, it is definitely seen as the new kid on the block and that’s a great thing if the region would only seize the opportunity,” says Lorch.
PD – So why focus on the wines of Savoie, Bugey and beyond?
WL – It happened because I’m lucky enough to own a second home in the French Alps. So, after decades working as a wine communicator, increasingly my focus and speciality has become the wines of Jura, Savoie and neighbouring French Alpine regions. I published the book Jura Wine in 2014 and many readers were asking when I would bring out the equivalent book for Savoie, which was always my plan to write anyway. Due to the neighbouring regions of Bugey and Isère being subsumed wrongly into Savoie, I decided to extend the scope of the book to incorporate a broader definition of French Alpine wines. So, the title of Wines of the French Alps was born.
PD – What common characteristics are there between the wines of Savoie, Bugey, Isère, Hautes-Alpes and the Clairette de Die area? (apart from them all coming from the French Alps!)
Natural high acidity (or freshness as is the current polite way of describing it), relatively low alcohol and often coming from obscure grape varieties grown on steep limestone-based vineyard slopes.
PD – What are the number one wine styles from each region, and what grapes are they made from?
So much variety from these tiny regions, this is tough.
Savoie: Don’t miss Roussette de Savoie from the Altesse grape and the red Mondeuse wines.
Bugey: The Méthode Ancestrale Cerdon is rosé sparkling from Gamay and sometimes Poulsard – it is light, frothy and a perfect afternoon sip.
Isère: Tiny and up-and-coming but look out for reds from the obscure, rustic varieties Persan and Etraire de la Dhui.
Hautes-Alpes: Another tiny and obscure region, look out for light, juicy reds from the Mollard variety.
Clairette de Die: The best Méthode Ancestrale sparkling wines from here are those from 100% Muscat à Petit Grains.
PD – Many people might know these wines as ones to just help digest cheese fondue whilst skiing? Fair?
It’s fair for the lower-priced young Savoie whites from the Jacquère grape which are often, but not always from the cru Apremont – these are often deliciously drinkable with cooked cheese dishes or just on their own; but it’s also unfair, because there are so many more high quality wines to discover out there that age well and match fine cuisine all year round.
PD – How have these wines been changing style in recent years?
The combination of climate change, and improving viticulture and winemaking including lowering grape yields, have given fuller wines with less chaptalization and more natural alcohol, and with a depth of flavour to balance the acidity.
PD – Are they wine regions that have popular appeal or limited just to wine geeks?
The reds may well be limited to wine geeks, but the whites and sparkling wines appeal to everyone. There is a big demand among the natural wine crowd, due to growing numbers of organic and biodynamic vignerons, some of which use very hands-off cellar techniques too.
PD – Can we find many of these wines in the UK? And if so through whom?
There are surprising numbers available – Yapp Brothers has imported Savoie from Domaine de l’Idylle and one of the best Clairette de Die wines from Achard-Vincent for over a decade. Vine Trail, Raeburn Fine Wines, Les Caves de Pyrène, Alpine Wines, Newcomer Wines and Dynamic Vines have snaffled up some of the best Savoie producers. Roberson, Bibendum, Alliance and others have some too. We need more Bugey importers, and someone needs to check out the Hautes-Alpes and Isère.
PD – A wine lover has no prior experience of wines from Savoie and Bugey – where should they start?
If you go there and have limited time, consider visiting the village of Chignin, near Chambéry where you can find Chignin white from the Jacquère grape; Chignin-Bergeron from Roussanne (Bergeron is a synonym) and Chignin reds from Mondeuse. For Bugey over here, check out the range from Franck Peillot imported by Vine Trail, and Renardat-Fâche Cerdon from Raeburn.
PD – Is Savoie the new Jura as a wine region do you think?
One part of me wants to say yes, but the reality is no. Savoie has more accessible wines than the Jura does, both in terms of flavour and price but is also less consistently exciting as a region in terms of producers and wine styles – the appellation rules encompassing so many grape varieties and crus make it harder to grasp the essence. Yet, it is definitely seen as the new kid on the block and that’s a great thing if the region would only seize the opportunity.
PD – When you are not drinking a glass of wine from a French Alps wine region – how do you spend your time?
You mean when I’m not dealing with book customer enquiries, packing up orders, or promotional activities (just some of the work of this self-publisher)? Skiing in winter; hiking or swimming in Lake Annecy in summer is what I love doing when I’m over at my French base. In London, catching up with wines that are not from Jura, Savoie or Bugey and eating food that is not French.
Wines of the French Alps by Wink Lorch is available to buy now for £25 from Wine Travel Media. Click here.
Lorch’s earlier book Wines of the Jura, which was published in 2014 and was awarded Best Drink Book in the André Simon Awards is also available. Click here.
Lead photograph © Vitaly Tikhonov