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Savoie: Fruit of the Alps
By Jim Clarke
Apr 2, 2019
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We’re now in the twilight of ski season (if you’re into that sort of thing), and many end-of-year diehards are streaming to the Rockies, the Alps, or whatever snow-covered mountain range they prefer.  Whether you’re into skiing or not, apres ski has its own appeal, and in some cases that appeal includes local wines.  If you’re near Mont Blanc, in France, that might include the wines of Savoie; fortunately, those wines have become increasingly available here in the U.S., without the effort and expense of skiing.

Savoie is not the first “Alpine” wine to have a moment here.  Sommeliers embraced the Jura several years ago, in part because of the geeky extreme of Vin Jaune, one of the few “classic” oxidative, flor-aged wines outside of Sherry.  Swiss wines pop up from time to time, though they tend to be pricey; for that matter, with a strong local market, Swiss producers have little motivation to export.  Savoie’s winemaking is not unusual in its techniques like the Jura’s, but the region’s growing conditions and grape varieties create some exciting wines with fresh acidity, generous aromatics, and an opulent, dense texture that gives them a tactile appeal uncommon in many white wines, especially white wines that average around 12% alcohol, as many of these do.

While summers can get warm, the growing season is short; snows can persist on the ground well into March.  The vineyards are not as high in altitude as the term “Alpine” might suggest; above 500m that potential growing season is shortened even further by the threat of frosts.
The vineyards also cool off in the evenings thanks to the elevation and breezes the mountains themselves create.  All that said, the region is not immune to climate change.  Producer Didier Berthollier told me they were working on moving their plantings further up the slopes, and that south-facing slopes were no longer the necessity they once were.

Soils are a mix of limestone, alluvial deposits, and moraines.  The patchwork soils and other limitations in terms of conditions mean plantings are scattered widely over a wide area, with just over 2,000 hectares in total.

For a tiny region, Savoie is home to a large number of official grape varieties -- almost 30 in total -- but only a few stand out, or can even be found, especially in exported wines.  Jacquère is the region’s most common variety, making up 50% of plantings.  Roussanne, known as Bergeron there, is not common, but produces some standout wines, often at higher alcohols of 14% or so.  The most common grape on Savoie wines found in the U.S.  may well be Altesse, often known there as Roussette. 

There are red wines made in Savoie, but in terms of production white wines outnumber them about 3 to 1.  Gamay would probably be the grape U.S. drinkers would be most familiar with, but Mondeuse, an indigenous variety, is more common.  A few growers are working with another local variety, Persan, to good effect.

While most of the wines come in under the same Vin de Savoie AOP, it’s more informative to look for varietal or cru names -- both are possible, and some crus, like Chignin-Bergeron, combine the two.  Apremont is a well-known cru, essentially created in 1248 when a section of Mount Granier collapsed, completely burying the village at its base and spreading rubble for miles.  Roussette de Savoie is a separate AOP, with four crus of its own, devoted to 100% Roussette (Altesse) wines, and in 2014 a Cremant de Savoie AOP was created.

Normally, I would think of these wines as summer sippers, not as something to relax with after a long day in the snow, and both the whites and the reds would certainly be enjoyable on a hot day.  But the density and focus of the wines make them suitable winter wines, too, once you’ve come in and warmed up; their lighter alcohols make it easier to enjoy the party longer, and be more prepared to hit the slopes again the next day.

Some Recommended Wines:

Denis & Didier Berthollier Chignin-Bergeron Les Salins 2016:  A single-plot that was abandoned for some time in favor of easier to farm, flatter spots until the Berthollier brothers brought it back to life.  Intense and linear, with apricot and nectarine notes plus an underlying salinity.

Denis & Didier Berthollier Cremant de Savoie NV:  70% Jacquère, 30% Chardonnay.  Very dry, with a minimal dosage and about 20 months on the lees.  Citrus and chalk aromas lead the way, with supporting floral notes.  Good length.

Jean Perrier Apremont 2017:  Shows pear, floral, and peach aromas; saline and focused.  Good length.

Jena Perrier Roussette de Savoie 2017:  Shows mineral, pear and marzipan notes; medium-bodied, round and ripe, with a pleasant, long finish.

Chateau de Monterminod Roussette de Savoie 2016:  A monopole in the Jean Perrier portfolio from a low-yielding, steep vineyard.  Shows marzipan and spice on the nose, but fruity on the palate, with notes of pear and apricot.  Fuller-bodied and round.

Jean Perrier Gamay Rosé 2018:  Light and juicy, with notes of watermelon, peach, and strawberry.  Elegant, with good persistence.

Jean Cavaille Apremont Vieilles Viignes 2017:  Only 7,000 bottles made.  Mineral spice, and acacia; medium-bodied and firm, with good length.

Jean Cavaille Altesse Vieilles Vignes 2017:  Complex, almost musky, with notes of apricot, flowers, nettles, and spice.  Medium-bodied, with good focus and linearity on the palate.

Domaine Dupraz “Terres Blanches” Apremont 2017:  Mineral and pear.  Done in a racier, more linear style, with good persistence.

Domaine Dupraz Mondeuse 2016:  A spicy, meaty wine, with some red fruit and touches of smoked sausage.  A bit reductive at first, but opens with time.

Vignoble de la Pierre Mondeuse 2017:  Spice and a mix of blackberry and raspberry fruit notes.  Light, but well structured.