By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 28 March 2020
A small forgotten corner of France overlooked for years by winemerchants is back in the limelight, highlighted in a fascinating new book.
‘Wines of the French Alps’ by Wink Lorch (£25 https://academieduvinlibrary.com/product/wines-of-the-french-alps/) is a wonderful delve into five little-known wine regions in eastern France: Savoie, Bugey, Isere, Die and Hautes-Alpes. These names may be recognisable to skiers, but perhaps not to UK winelovers. The French Alps regions form a tiny vineyard area of just 4,600 hectares with a few hundred producers making 35 million bottles of wine – but most of this is drunk in the region.
As an avid skier Lorch, who lives in Savoie, was first attracted to the area intrigued by vineyards close to mountains. Her first visit in 1980 to grower Pierre Boniface, who was exporting his Apremont to England at the time, gave Lorch her first memorable glimpse of picture-postcard Lac St-Andre surrounded by vines with Mont Granier looming behind – and she was hooked.
“I cannot think of one vineyard in Savoie that does not have a gorgeous outlook…a snowy jagged rocky peak, a shimmering lake or verdant river valley”, she says. The sheer beauty of the place is the first thing you notice in her book, with stunning landscape shots by wine photographer Mick Rock of Cephas Picture Library – it really makes you want to book a flight to Geneva or Grenoble.
Packed with information on history, geology and climate, Lorch explains that these limestone-based vineyard slopes in the foothills of the Prealps are, surprisingly, not high altitude. Savoie and Bugey’s vineyards are up to 400m, the highest in Hautes-Alpes to 1000m. Altitude generally is similar to Alsace or Jura, only slightly higher than Burgundy’s top Cote d’Or vineyards – but this is a mountain area and the mountain influence on the terroir is important, reflected in the purity of fruit and vivid freshness of the wines.
Chignin, Savoie @Mick Rock
Savoie’s wine zones, over 2,000 hectares, is the main focus. Lac Leman and Ayze east of Geneva near Mont Blanc in Haute-Savoie where Chasselas, Gringet and Mondeuse are grown. Around the Rhone and Lac de Bourget, down to southerly area around Chambery and the Tarentaise and Maurienne valleys with white grapes Jacquere and Altesse and red Persan and Mondeuse. She describes in detail the most exciting producers from Dominique Belluard in Ayze to Denis and Didier Berthollier in Chignin.
A century ago southerly Isere region near Grenoble had 30,000 hectares, more than Savoie, but now has 30 – but there is an exciting revival here with Verdesse grape.
In Die, Lorch describes the sparkling wine tradition with Clairette de Die and Cremant de Die with Muscat, Aligote and Clairette grapes.
She highlights Bugey near Lyon as a beautiful region to visit best known for its Chardonnay based fizz, still Roussette de Bugey from white Altesse and reds from Gamay, Pinot Noir and Mondeuse. But the area which really attracted me was the high Hautes-Alpes with its rare red Mollard grape revived by grower Marc Allemand in Durance valley, an area where hail and frosts are constant threats – this is real heroic mountain viticulture.
Mont Granier, Apremont vineyards, Savoie @Mick Rock
Lorch is not frightened to tell us of the shadows that lurk behind these crystalline skies. There are serious challenges with high land prices, labour shortages, few willing to work steep isolated slopes with the average vineyard size just 5 ha – and the local wine authorities ‘stuck in the C20’ unwilling to acknowledge experimentation amongst leading vignerons.
Despite these struggles, Lorch reckons the future looks bright. “The highest steepest vineyard slopes were once deserted as too hard to work, but since 1990s the high ground is being reclaimed – and new vineyards are shooting up on abandoned slopes”, she says.
This book is not only useful for winelover and winestudent, it is packed with tips on restaurants, places to stay and local events. With chapters on local Alpine cheeses from Abondance and Reblochon cows cheese to Picodon goats cheese, local meats, Alpine dishes, Chartreuse herbal liqueur and fruit eaux-de-vie. An invaluable guide for the wine traveller to the beautiful French Alps.
Savoie: CUVEE L’ORANGERIE 2018 Philippe & Francois Tiollier (12%)
£12.25 Yapp Brothers www.yapp.co.uk
This is my go-to summer hammock wine; a delightful crisp zippy bone-dry aperitif style with light blossomy aromas from Jacquere grape grown on limestone soils in Cruet. It tastes like a mountain Muscadet.
Savoie: SAVOIE APREMONT VIEILLE VIGNE TRADITIONNELLE 2016 Jean Masson (12%)
£16.99 Raeburn Wine, Edinburgh
“Larger than life Jean-Claude Masson makes a superb range of Apremont – no question”, says Lorch. Masson’s dizzing array of Apremonts, from Savoie’s largest cru, are from low yields and maximum ripeness. He transforms humble Jacquere grape into an ageworthy appley rich intense gem.
Savoie: CHIGNIN BERGERON, CUVEE GASTRONOMIE 2018 Jean Perrier (12.5%) ***STAR BUY***
£20.70 Luvians, Cupar & St Andrews; Fine Wine Musselburgh; Vinvm; Alliance Wine
From Perrier’s historic Chignin vineyards, the local synonym for the fine Roussanne grape here is Bergeron. A delicious unoaked pale gold, apricot, almond and acacia notes with creamy honeyed richly textured mouthfeel interwoven with a seam of bright vibrant acid made from Perrier’s own estate grapes.
Savoie: CHIGNIN BERGERON EXCEPTION 2018 Denis & Didier Bertholier (12.5%)
£25.81 Alpine Wines www.alpinewines.co.uk
From one of my favourite Chignin growers, the Bertholiers brothers make several different Roussanne cuvees. I like the richness of apricot and nectarine fruits, spicy, candied fruit, vibrant mountain freshness with honeyed depth and smoky finish. Winemaker Didier Bertholier is inspired by the style of white Chateauneuf du Pape – and his wines certainly remind me a little of the Rhone.
Bugey: ROUSSETTE DU BUGEY-MONTAGNIEU 2018 Famille Peillot (12%) ***STAR BUY***
£16 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com
The Peillots in southwest Bugey make Roussette solely from Altesse grape, rather than adding any Chardonnay. Altesse is tricky to grow, so Franck Peillot’s trains vines using low trained gobelet method. Yellow stone fruits, honeyed depth, pure ripe citric fruits from the warm 2018 vintage.
Savoie: MONDEUSE TERRES ROUGES 2017 Jean Francois Quenard (12%)
£12.95 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com
Savoie’s favoured red grape, the late-ripening Mondeuse, has recently been revived. Deliciously chewy example packed with savoury sour cherry notes, zingy, peppery and grippy, it reminds me of Syrah. Served cool from the fridge – a young fruity Mondeuse is perfect with Alps’ diots saucisses.
Join Rose’s Online Virtual Interactive Wine Tastings on Friday nights : www.rosemurraybrown.com