This month on L’Occasion, I have the honor of hosting our Wine Pairing Weekend event which gathers wine, food and travel writers to cover the pleasures of a chosen region or category.
The topic I chose to explore is Savoie, in eastern France, situated south of Lake Geneva in a mountainous area on the Swiss border. Don’t kick yourself if you haven’t sampled many wines from Savoie, which only produces a minuscule 0.55% of all appellated French wines. Winegrowers from the four appellations here cultivate 20+ grape varieties to promote predominately white wine, which accounts for 70%. 20% is red and the remaining 10% is split between rosé and sparkling.
I’ve been to Lake Geneva as a wayward deviation from a road trip from Burgundy to Provence, but I didn’t get to immerse myself in the region or taste any wine. Still, I knew I had an essential resource in my bailiwick: author and educator Wink Lorch.
Wink wrote and self-published Jura Wine, the only book in English on the wines of the Jura, which won the award in the Drinks category for the André Simon Awards 2014. In July 2019, Lorch published Wines of the French Alps: Savoie, Bugey and beyond and received applause in the World of Fine Wine, from a review by David Schildknecht: on JancisRobinson.com, from a review by Tamlyn Currin who said, “No one has devoted as much time and energy to these unusual and little-known mountain vineyards as Wink Lorch has.”
She ran successful Kickstarter campaigns for both of them and her achievement is due to the fact that she possesses a stratospheric amount of knowledge on these fascinating regions. And lucky for us, she’s offered to be interviewed here on L’Occasion. Her answers are so complete and interesting that this reflects the candor and depth of a guest post.
Bonus: Readers of L’Occasion can take advantage of a generous 20% off the cost of the purchase of Wines of the French Alps from Wink’s website. Use the code occ200220 at checkout valid until the end of February.
(Dispatch costs are on top.)
Jill Barth: What compelled you to write your book Wines of the French Alps: Savoie, Bugey and beyond? What makes this project special?
Wink Lorch: I have been a skier and lover of the mountains for all my life and for over 25 years, I’ve been lucky enough to own and spend a lot of time in my second home in the French Alps, above Annecy. When I was first there I already worked in wine and became quickly interested in the local Savoie wines. At the time they had a poor reputation locally, but early on I managed to uncover the best producers and saw the potential for these mountain wines from mainly very unusual grape varieties.
In the past 20 years, the wines have rapidly improved, and I have become the writer who helped well-known authors such as Oz Clarke, Tom Stevenson and Jancis Robinson MW update the few pages on Savoie and Bugey in their books on the world of wines.
This also applied to Jura, despite that region being a couple of hours’ drive away from my base. Jura wines started setting alight the wine geek world from around 2007 and so even though Savoie wines were my earlier eclectic wine interest, I had to write my book Jura Wine first. In the end, due to other professional commitments and personal issues, it took me another five years to bring out this second book focused on the wines of Savoie and Bugey.
I am hugely proud to have at last released the book about these wines that I have known for so long. Nothing has ever before been written so comprehensively about the grape varieties, terroirs and most of all the interesting vignerons of these French Alpine regions, even in French. And the stars are aligning for them right now.
JB: What are some of the particular attributes of the Savoie and other French Alps regions?
WL: Many people reach for the skies in discussing Savoie and other Alpine wine regions, automatically presuming they are from high altitude vineyards, but that is mainly a myth. The highest vineyards in the French Alps are in the obscure Hautes Alpes area, close to the town of Gap, and in the Diois, from where the delicate sparkling Muscat-based Clairette de Die emerges.
However, the better known Savoie and Bugey vineyards are mostly no higher than those in Alsace or the higher areas of Beaujolais or Burgundy, below 500 metres altitude. However, all these Alpine areas share specific terroir influences from being on the limestone foothills of the Prealps, with very complicated geology from the glacial movements of the Alps giving a variety of soils suitable to grow different grape varieties.
Many vineyards are on exceedingly steep and hard-to-work slopes, which suffer from erosion and are prone to erratic mountain weather systems, requiring very skilled and labor-intensive viticultural practices.
With climate change, the frequent earlier springs and warmer summers and autumns have been mainly of benefit to these regions, allowing much more reliable grape ripening than before, but the downside of climate change has been a greater incidence of fierce spring frosts or hailstorms.
The excitement is in the myriad obscure grape varieties grown, including Jacquère, Altesse and Mondeuse Blanche for whites; and Mondeuse Noire and Persan for reds. These provide an ideal response to climate change as they do not achieve such naturally high alcohol levels as many more classic varieties do.
JB: For readers that haven’t tried wine from Savoie, what are some of their typical characteristics?
WL: The word freshness could considered as just a polite way to describe high acidity, and yet this seems the most apt single word to describe French Alpine wines. But of course, each grape variety in the hands of each vigneron brings something different.
Generally, the alcohol is refreshingly low – the Jacquère and Mondeuse grapes rarely achieve more than 11% natural alcohol (an exception was in 2018) and some vignerons will then enrich the latter to 12%.
The whites shriek mountain minerality too, and oak ageing is only occasionally used for the best Altesse and Roussanne wines (the latter is used to make the Savoie Chignin Bergeron). These whites, especially Altesse, age surprisingly well, something that has only recently been recognized by most restaurant and private buyers. Indeed, the vignerons themselves have been guilty of bottling wines much too early, due to the high demand from the ski resorts.
As for the reds, the great Mondeuse wines have hidden depths of spicy fruit with a leathery, rusticity, ideal to match with sausages and game dishes. Persan is a rare grape to look out for too giving fuller, more rounded reds, but also with bite. The huge range of flavors, all backed up by that fresh acidity, makes Savoie and other Alpine wines of both colors fun to match with the huge range of fine mountain cheese.
JB: What can visitors to the region expect in terms of wine tourism? How is it to visit the 100+ producers you’ve covered in this book?
WL: Bugey, Savoie and the Diois (Clairette de Die) wine regions, all AOC, have designated wine routes, allowing you to amble through these spectacular vineyard areas by car or perhaps bicycle, marveling at the steep vineyard slopes. Often you will be near lakes or rivers with a view to the high mountains or perhaps a fortified castle.
Public transport is almost non-existent in these areas and restaurants in the vineyard villages are surprisingly sparse – you often need to head to a nearby town or more tourist-orientated place to eat.
Each region has a range of producers with tasting rooms geared up to welcome visitors, especially those able to buy some bottles. But be aware that the very best vignerons (often working along organic lines) are not usually listed in the wine tourist brochures and require advanced appointments, preferably made through an importer or distributor. And, often these vignerons simply can’t receive you as they work on their own, just with seasonal vineyard workers.
Bear in mind these are tiny wine producing areas compared to the main French wine regions. The reward for going there is the scenery and the rarity of these wines, and a bonus is that if you can afford to go to the best restaurants (there are many fine examples near the lakeside towns of Annecy or Aix-les-Bains), you will find excellent wine lists including the best local examples. And there are numerous hiking or other sporting activities to work off the calories.
JB: Your book offers advice on Alpine travel and food. Can you share a handful of interesting products from Savoie?
WL: Savoie cheeses are second to none, and once you see a pristine high altitude meadow full of flowers in June, and realize that the cows feed off these, with their flavours going straight into their milk and thus the cheese, you begin to understand why. Reblochon (aged for just three weeks) is just gorgeous when bought between mid-June and mid-September; outside these periods it’s better eaten in a cooked form as Tartiflette, for example.
Other longer-aged cheeses also vary with the seasons. If you eat pork, there are some excellent mountain-aged hams and saucissons, and I’m particularly fond of the chunky Diots sausages, served with polenta, a typical Savoyard product (remembering that northwest Italy was part of the Duchy of Savoy 200 years ago).
For something more delicate to marry with the fine white wines, try an unusual lake fish called féra, from Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), also named Lavaret when from Lac du Bourget near Aix-les-Bains.
Finish off your meal or just sneak in a snack after skiing with a classic tarte aux myrtilles or bilberry tart (from the smaller, wild form of blueberries). If you enjoy them, herb-based liqueurs (the most famous being Chartreuse from nearby Isère) might provide a postscript.
Wine + Food Pairing
To celebrate the pairing of food and wine from Savoie, I obtained generous wine samples from Vin de Savoie and a review copy of Alpine Cooking, by Meredith Erickson. If reading this post made you hungry and thirsty, here are some suggested pairings for these wines based on this book.
Les Fils de Rene Quenard Mondeuse Chignin Vin de Savoie 2015 with Abondance Salad which is mainly charcuterie with a dash of greens plus Berthoud, a mini fondue made with Abondance cheese.
(All made with Jacquere:)
Jean Perrier et Fils Apremont Cuvée Gastronomie 2017 with Fondue Brioche, which are individual brioche buns packed with molten fondue.
Domaine Labbe Abymes Vin de Savoie 2018 with a poetic Alpine salad made with local or homegrown herbs and edibles.
Domaine Jean Masson “Vieilles Vignes” Apremont Vin de Savoie 2018 with Tartiflette, a potato gratin packed with crème fraiche, bacon, wine (Apremont is perfect) and cheese cheese cheese!
Wine Pairing Weekend
Join our live #winePW Twitter chat February 8, 2020 at 10am central. These participating bloggers (and others interested in the subject) will connect via a live Twitter chat:
- Jeff at Food Wine Click! has us Warm Up by the Fireplace with Raclette and Vins de Savoie.
- Rupal the Syrah Queen pairs Savoie Wines and Tartiflette –Mountain Wines with Mountain Fare.
- Nicole at Somm’s Table is Cooking to the Wine: Altesse Roussette de Bugey Montagnieu with Crab and Veggie Gratin.
- Cindy at Grape Experiences offers A Quintessential Pairing:Wines from Savoie and Savory Herbed Cheese Fondue.
- Liz from What’s In that Bottle shouts about Alpine Wine Alert: Wines from France’s Savoie Region are Awesome.
- Pinny from Chinese Food & Wine Pairings shares André et Michel Quenard Gamay from Savoie and Roasted Chicken Drizzled with Ginger Scallion Infused Oil.
- Gwendolyn at Wine Predator is making Chicken and Savoie for Sweethearts, Fondue for Friends.
- Susannah at Avvinare shares Brie and Bacon Quiche With Vin de Savoie Wine.
- Jane from Always Ravenous has Raclette Paired with Savoie Wines.
- Wendy from A Day In the Life on the Farm goes on A Gastronomic Visit to Savoie.
- Terri at Our Good Life pairs Vin de Savoie and Seafood Pasta with Lemon Butter Sauce.
- David from Cooking Chat makes Potato Bacon Skillet Casserole –Tartiflette Inspired Recipe for Savoie Wine.
- Camilla from Culinary
Adventures With Camilla presents A Taste of #vindesavoie: Älpermakkaronen+ 2018 JP & JF Quenard Vin de Savoie Chignin.
- Linda at My Full Wine Glass gets into Savoie wine – a non-skier’s reason to visit the French Alps.
- Jen at Vino Travels pairs Garlic Buttered Shrimp over Polenta with the Wines of Savoie.
- Here on L’Occasion we present “An Interview With Author Wink Lorch + A Savoie Wine Pairing”