This is part two in a four-part series of new-to-me French wine regions, brought to you by the Tour de France. My first post in this series (along with background) can be found here: Vin Nouveau: La Première Partie.
The next new-to-me French wine region on my Tour de France is Savoie.
Savoie isn’t far from Jura (last week’s new-to-me region) — it’s just a cheese wheel’s throw to the southeast. It’s a truly alpine wine region, with most vineyards growing on the sides of steep slopes. The climate is marked by fairly hot summers and cold winters. The growing conditions are extreme, and many of the more traditional grape varieties don’t survive here. The Savoie coat of arms is a white cross on a red background. It appears on many Savoie wine labels.
Savoie trivia: The name Savoie comes from the Latin, meaning “country of fir trees”. The 1992 Winter Olympics were held in Savoie, in Albertville. And, most interesting of all (at least to me), Savoie has been called the birthplace of my favorite dinner on the planet . . . cheese fondue.
The main grape varieties grown in Savoie include:
- Altesse — white, bottled as Roussette de Savoie
- Chasselas — white, light-bodied and neutral
- Jacquère — Savoie’s indigenous white grape, dry and light bodied with high acidity
- Bergeron (the local name for Roussanne) — white, bottled as Chignin Bergeron
- Gringet — white, high acid, delicate and floral; used in the sparkling wines of Ayze
- Mondeuse — red, lighter in style, with flavors of cherry and black pepper
Savoie produces mostly white wines because red wine grapes have some trouble fully ripening in the region. Even white grapes are only usually barely ripe, so they produce wines that are higher in acid and lower in sugar.
While researching this post, I sifted through a lot of very dry and very unclear information about Savoie. And I came to the conclusion that under the heading, Why French Wine is Confusing it says, #BecauseSavoie. Here’s why.
There are three AOCs for Savoie (dates of AOC status are in parentheses):
- Vin de Savoie (1973)
- Seyssel (1942) — both still and sparkling wines; still wines are made from the Altesse grape, sparkling wines are made from Altesse, Chasselas and Molette grapes. I read somewhere that the only reason Seyssel has its own AOC (and isn’t a cru appendage) is because it was awarded so early.
- Roussette de Savoie (1973) — wines are made from the Altesse grape. There are four cru names that can be appended to the Rousette de Savoie AOC: Frangy, Monterminod, Marestel and Monthoux.
That seems straight forward enough. What’s so confusing about three AOCs? Well, nothing. Until I tell you there are sixteen cru villages that can append their name to the Vin de Savoie name. And lot of these cru have specific grape varieties are used only in their village. The only way I can make sense of this Savoie madness is to think of it like Cru Beaujolais, which, btw, only sounds like a French gang.
- Abymes (white wines)
- Apremont (white wines)
- Arbin (red wines)
- Ayze (sparkling wines)
- Chautagne (white and red wines)
- Chignin (white and red wines)
- Chignin-Bergeron (white wines)
- Crépy (white wines)
- Cruet (white wines)
- Jongieux (white and red wines)
- Marignan (white wines)
- Marin (white wines)
- Montmélian (white wines)
- Ripaille (white wines)
- Saint-Jean-de-la-Porte (red wines)
- Saint-Jeoire-Prieuré (white wines)
Any of the cru that make both red and white wines can also make Rosé.
So here’s what Vin de Savoie wine labels look like (notice the coat of arms on each label):
Perhaps the best known cru in Savoie is Apremont, which means “bitter mountain” in French. Sometime around 1248, the entire side of Mont Granier sheered off and caused a massive landslide down into the valley, completely destroying five villages and killing over 1,000 people. But on the plus side, the landslide created a soil that’s a mix of limestone and rock debris, which is great stuff if you’re a grape grower.
By far, the most helpful and effective tool I found to help make sense of Savoie is this visual organizer from Alex Redfern. If you think in pictures, this will be your Savoie Ah-ha! moment.
Until very recently (a couple of weeks ago recently), Savoie sparkling wine was sold as Vin de Savoie Pétillant or Vin de Mousseux, both of which translate to sparkling in French. But now, the French Ministry of Agriculture (the INAO, or Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité) has awarded Savoie a Cremant de Savoie status for the 2014 harvest. I’m a little unclear as to whether this is a probationary AOC status or a permanent one. Regardless, folks in Savoie are pretty excited about it. Wanting to preserve a regional quality to the wines, INAO rules stipulate that 60% of the Cremant de Savoie blend must consist of the local grapes Jacquère and Altesse. 40% of the final blend must be Jacquère, and the balance can be made up of Chasselas, Aligoté and Chardonnay. Sparkling wines from the Ayze cru will be allowed to continue to use their name on labels.
Savoie is supposed to be the perfect wine for Cheese Fondue. I feel like I’ve tried to pair Cheese Fondue with just about every wine (and I’m almost embarrassed to admit this), but I don’t think I’ve ever tried it with a Savoie wine. But I remembered the distinctive white cross coat of arms on the bottle, so I checked my Cellar Tracker tasting notes. I’m wildly inconsistent with Cellar Tracker. I’m religious about keeping track of my wines, but terrible about writing tasting notes. But back in 2007, I did taste a bottle of Pierre Boniface Vin de Savoie Apremont 2005 — and I wrote a note! It appears I was unimpressed, as my tasting note says:
Imagine my surprise when I opened this bottle, poured a glass and there were bubbles! Not just a slight effervescence, but foaming, audible, cheap champagne-esque bubbles. Gotta be flawed.
Apremont isn’t supposed to be bubbly . . . is it?? Savoie aficionado, Alex Redfern, told me some producers of Apremont, Abymes and Crépy add a dose of Carbon Dioxide just prior to bottling which can result in a slight effervescence, although this practice is becoming more and more rare. Perhaps I got a hold of one of those bottles.
Last Friday was my birthday, an occasion I shamelessly use as an excuse to make myself a vat of hot melted cheese. And I paired it with a Savoie Jacquère.
Domaine Les Cantates Vin de Savoie Chignin Jacquère 2012
No bubbles! Super-clean nose of slate and seashells. Very lightweight, almost delicate. Flavors are pear, lime, apple and white peach. A knockout with the Cheese Fondue. The acidity in the wine lends a much-needed balance to the heaviness of the cheeses.
Vin de Savoie is my new Cheese Fondue wine! 12% ABV. $15.
I’m less confused (mostly) and more impressed with the wines of Savoie then when I started researching this post, so Mission Accomplished!
Stay tuned for La Troisième Partie: Jurançon.
A votre santé!