I had this problem in the Jura and now I have it in Savoie. What to do when there is a lovely story, which has been related by everyone from vignerons to official regional bodies and onwards to journalists, educator and authors, but you find out it’s not true?
And, the issue is further complicated when you find out that the real truth is almost impossible to put your finger on, despite the story having been shared in good faith.
The tall story of the clavelin
In the Jura, the one that got to me the most (and still does) is the story of how the 62cl clavelin bottle, used compulsorily according to AOC rules for all Vin Jaune, came to be used. Yes, the tale is still repeated now, my book notwithstanding: allegedly 62cl is the amount left from a litre of potential Vin Jaune after evaporation during the six years three months of barrel ageing sous voile (and yes, that exact time duration is another one – see the book). Nonsense, my friends, this simply cannot be the reason. For, the rate of evaporation of the wine in barrel depends entirely on the location of the barrels and the consequent temperature and humidity, and these vary considerably. The reality is that although there have been various suppositions, no-one really has any idea of exactly how the 62cl size (actually the glass bottle is stamped 65cl – yet another story) came into existence.
Blowing the lid on the Savoie-Cyprus connection
So, now while writing Wines of the French Alps I’m digging deep into Savoie lore, law and labels… And the story of the history of the Altesse grape variety is driving me to distraction. Especially as I’m planning a trip this coming week, mainly to visit the vignerons of Jongieux, the location of the vineyard slope named Marestel, the most famous of the four Roussette de Savoie crus. (Oh, whoops! ‘Cru’, there’s another can of worms, a term no longer allowed here, it seems.) It is around Jongieux that Altesse may well have originated… or it may not have.
Roussette de Savoie and its Bugey sister, Rousette de Bugey are the official AOCs for wines made from the white Altesse variety, frustratingly sometimes translated as ‘the highness’ grape. Until recently, and still today in Seyssel and nearby Bugey, Roussette has been used as the name of the very same grape variety. The following is an unedited excerpt from the new book-in-progress – the text will likely be a box in the grape variety chapter.
The true origins of Altesse
Everyone loves a good ancestry story, then along comes DNA testing and destroys it all – thus is the case with Altesse, known to some people as Roussette. The Savoyard tale, told very proudly, is that Altesse was brought over from Cyprus where there were royal connections with the House of Savoy. Either it was brought over in the early 1430s by the daughter of the King of Cyprus, Anne of Cyprus, also called Anne de Lusignan, who was to marry Louis of Savoy, later Louis I, Duke of Savoie. Or, some texts claim that it arrived over a century later via Charlotte de Lusignan, a Queen of Cyprus who married another Louis of Savoy. Considering the power of the House of Savoy at the time, and its interrelationships with the powerful courts of Europe, these stories appear quite feasible, and were handed down through the ages as received wisdom. In the late 18th century the story appeared in the writings of a local nobleman Maruis Costa de Beauregard and it was then picked up by Pierre Tochon, who in 1887 published a monograph on the grape varieties of Savoie.
The name, Altesse, means ‘Highness’ and this conferred nobility on the grape. The fact that it was known to produce very fine wine in the Jongieux area where it appears to have originated, must have helped endorse the story, though according to several sources it may first have been planted on a slope named Coteau des Altesses, probably today’s Marestel slope in Jongieux.
Confusingly, as interest grew in Savoie wines in the 1980s, the ampelographer Pierre Galet, having found no resemblances between Altesse and any known French or Cypriot grape varieties, and having recently visited Hungary, published that it resembled closely the Furmint grape of Tokaj and that he believed they were one and the same. As well as finding the grapes’ conformity identical, the fact that Tokaji wines (made from Furmint) were known in Royal Households lent credence to the Altesse name, he thought.
The alternative name for Altesse – Roussette – came about because of the characteristic red tips of the vines’ stems as they grow, along with the reddening of grapes as they become ripe. Hence why the wine was enshrined into the AOC system as Roussette de Savoie or Roussette de Bugey, adding to the confusion.
Some years ago DNA testing proved the Cyprus connection to be a tall story, and more recently further testing by José Vouillamoz confirmed that Galet’s Furmint identification was incorrect. The tests show a likely Savoie origin due to a probable relationship with Chasselas – it’s a shame there’s not a clearer answer. So, the old story continues to be repeated in the region ad nauseam – on back labels, in winery brochures and so on. In Cyprus, Altesse vines have been brought over from Savoie to be planted there by KEO, in the belief that this was rehabilitating an ancient Cyprus grape. I hope to try it sometime…
I love a good story and the new book will have plenty, but I prefer my stories with more than a grain of truth in them. The locals have inadvertently landed with the wrong person in me to perpetuate their tales of historical intrigue as truth. Behold, the Alpine wine whistleblower.
PS: I am proud to learn that I have been shortlisted for the award of Ramos Pinto Online Communicator in the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards 2017. I submitted a couple of articles written for Wine Searcher as well as a post on here about ampelography. The winner will be announced on 12th September. The competition is stiff, to say the least – the other writers shortlisted for this award are Tim Atkin MW, Julia Harding MW, Richard Hemming MW, Andrew Jefford and Ron Washam – but I am happy to have my name listed among them.