As background, see A wallow in Wink wines. A version of this article is also published by the Financial Times.
Is Savoie the new Jura? This question would seem absolutely loopy if unprotected by the context of this website: wine. But among the many fashion-conscious wine drinkers, particularly sommeliers, it is a relevant question.
These two French wine regions pushed up against central France’s eastern border tend to be lumped together in books (guilty, m’lud) but have very little in common except a vague proximity to the Alps.
In terms of global impact, the Jura is a good decade ahead of Savoie, whose wines outsiders are likely to have encountered only on a skiing holiday. Compare and contrast with Jura wines that so successfully rode the wave of younger wine drinkers’ early-21st-century backlash against blockbuster wines blessed with high scores. It had little to do with clever marketing on the part of producers and a great deal to do with influential sommeliers’ use of social media in setting wine trends.
New York wine professional Anna-Lisa Campos recalls, ‘When I started at Tom Colicchio's Craftbar in 2007, people were just starting to talk about Jura wines in a geeky, insider, under-the-radar way at this time, and I feel like the obscurity really started to shed around 2009. Young, upstart sommeliers and retail clerks like myself couldn't necessarily afford burgundy regularly, but we could afford wines from Jura (and cru beaujolais.) It was fun to know about a "cool" thing, for us and then for our open-minded and curious customers who we recommended these to.’
British Master of Wine Mark Andrew of Noble Rot observed the Jura wine craze in Paris, when he and his business partner Dan Keeling toured the more au courant wine bars before opening their own in London in late 2015. ‘The buzz about Jura was palpable in places like Vivant, Le Verre Volé and Septime', he remembers about those scouting trips across the Channel, identifying it with ‘embracing of local, indigenous, authentic, small-batch, hand-made etc wines, and – most importantly of all – the rise of natural wine'.
Japan’s enthusiasm for natural wine saw Jura wines take off in Tokyo even before they did in New York, and long before they had much impact in the UK. It was not until 2013 that Jura producers held a tasting in London, and it was the next year that British wine writer Wink Lorch self-published Jura Wine, the first book in English devoted to the subject. She had already been billed as ‘The Real Queen of Jura Wine’ at events for influential wine stores in Manhattan, eager to deepen their customers’ acquaintance with vin jaune and the Savagnin, Ploussard and Trousseau grapes that characterise fashionable Jura. Her late partner Brett Jones took this picture of Wink outside Christy Frank’s influential store Frankly Wines in 2013.
Lorch’s second book Wines of the French Alps – Savoie, Bugey and beyond, which she self-published at the end of last year (print and e-book versions available from www.winetravelmedia.com/shop) is likely to encourage Jura fans to discover the wines made in the more mountainous regions to the south, even if for the moment they are more difficult to find outside France. If Jura wines answered a need for fresher, lighter wines than those that were celebrated in the 1990s, Savoie wines are even lighter and fresher.
This is not because the vineyards are so high up in the scenic Alps that so dramatically overlook them – average elevations are only just higher than those in Alsace, for example – but it has been partly because, as in Switzerland over the border, yields have been relatively high. To make a living from steep, difficult-to-work vineyards, it was believed, you have to squeeze as much wine as possible out of every vine. But this is now changing, and there is a new generation of wine producers who recognise that the future of the region lies with quality rather than quantity. Now is the time to take advantage of that development.
White wines dominate the vineyards of Savoie and share purity, refinement and notable persistence, often preceded by floral or herbal aromas that really do seem to taste alpine. But it’s pretty stupid to generalise because the vineyards are so widely dispersed and, with so many of them on hillsides, they face in all sorts of different directions and lie at different elevations. And glaciers, rivers such as the Rhône that flows through the region, and a mountain, Mont Granier, that literally collapsed in both 1248 and, to a lesser extent, in 2016, have all played a part in contributing wildly varying geologies.
The region’s 2,100 ha (5,190 acres) of vines are divided into 23 subregions, or crus, generally named on the label, a situation Lorch described in an online presentation of the region to her fellow wine writers last month as ‘madness’. But then few wine lovers object to the division of Barolo, with a roughly similar area of vines, into more than 180 crus. We just have to apply ourselves presumably, and do our best to distinguish between, for example, the eight different wine producers called Quenard, some with and some without an acute accent.
Summer days in Savoie can be very hot indeed but nights can be quite cool in the highest vineyards, and frost and hail are increasingly common. Last year 100 ha of vines in the Apremont cru south of Chambéry suffered a full 20 minutes of relentless hail that destroyed the 2019 vintage.
The narrow valleys have provided crucibles for intensely local grape varieties that, with a few exceptions, have not travelled far. Jacquère is the most planted and needs encouragement to yield real character, but the likes of Domaine des Ardoisières and Domaine des 13 Lunes are managing it – even if some of the wines are grown outside the area demarcated for Vins de Savoie and have to be sold as Vins des Allobroges, the name coined for local, not-quite-appellation wines that recalls the name of the Gallic tribe that originally lived in this part of the world. Jacquère is also a fine base for the sparkling Crémants de Savoie produced today.
The delicate Altesse, also called Roussette, is a particularly fine local white wine speciality, as is the richer, aromatic, often herbal Roussanne that is now planted all over the world alongside other Rhône Valley grapes. Just to keep us on our toes, in Savoie Roussanne is commonly known as Bergeron and is most often encountered in the cru of Chignin, also just south of Chambéry. A particular favourite of mine is the floral Gringet grape, currently being revived by the innovative Domaine Belluard in the Ayze cru in the hills east of Geneva.
Savoie’s reds used to be easy to overlook but the most famous red wine grape Mondeuse, recently shown to be a close relative of the noble Syrah, can make thrillingly peppery wines, though all are pretty light – very 21st century in fact.
Recommended Savoie wines
Alpine Wines offer a six-bottle Taste of Savoie Explorer case, including a copy of Wink Lorch’s book, for £144.
Dom Belluard, Les Perles de Mont Blanc NV Savoie, Ayze (Gringet)
$27 Gordon’s Fine Wines & Liquors, Waltham, MA
Dom Belluard, Les Alpes 2018 Savoie, Ayze (Gringet)
£27.78 Les Caves de Pyrène, £31.99 AG Wines, £33 Buon Vino
Philippe Grisard Mondeuse Blanche 2015 Savoie, Cruet (Mondeuse Blanche, a parent, along with Dureza, of Syrah)
Alpine Wines sell the 2013 and 2019 for £24.88
Dom Jean Perrier et Fils, Ch de Monterminod 2017 Roussette de Savoie, Monterminod (Altesse)
Imported into the UK by Alliance Wine
Gilles Berlioz, Les Filles 2015 Chignin-Bergeron (Roussanne)
£36.50 Vine Trail
Dom des Côtes Rousses, Les Montagnes Rousses 2017 Savoie, St-Jean-de-la-Porte (Mondeuse Noire, rare relative of Syrah, possibly a grandparent)
£28.50 Vine Trail