In the absence of that wonderfully useful annual guide Wine Report – no 2010 has been published and 2011 is unlikely – I thought a roundup of random news from Savoie might be useful. Some of these items are not so new at all, but Savoie news travels rather slowly. The text I provided for Wine Report 2009 had to be submitted by January 2008, so this report includes news that’s nearly two years old, some of which I had been ‘saving’ so that it could have been fresh for new editions of Wine Report.
The biggest news story I should be writing for Wine Report 2011 concerns Bugey (which some treat as part of Savoie, though really it’s separate). In 2009 the Bugey region finally achieved its quest to be elevated from VDQS to AC. This up-and-coming little region deserves more investigation and I will report back when I’ve spent a couple of days visiting producers later this year. In the meantime, here’s all the other news.
The 2009 vintage – Jamais Vue
After the rather difficult 2008 vintage, last year’s vintage was a ‘millésime jamais vue’ (never seen before) with far higher ripeness levels than usual, combined with very little disease and fair volumes in most areas. All varieties performed well and there was far less chaptalization (sugar additions to the must) than usual, with most Altesse and Roussane (Bergeron) grapes not chaptalised and even rarer much Jacquère and Mondeuse had sufficient natural sugar levels. More medium-sweet and sweet wines were made than ever before even though they aren’t allowed to label them Vendange Tardive. I will reserve judgment on the balance and wine quality until I’ve tasted more wines.
Crépy AC – becomes Savoie AC Crépy – And who cares?
The butt of jokes from the English about crappy Crépy, the Haute Savoie vineyard on the slopes above Lac Léman not far from Thonon and Evian no longer has its own appellation. Held since before the overall Savoie AC was awarded, the handful of Crépy producers (it is dominated by the Domaine de la Grande Cave owned by Claude Mercier – no relation to the Champagne – with 39 hectares) decided they would do better with marketing their wine as Savoie and the authorities accepted their request. Crépy has now become another Savoie cru bringing numbers of individual named crus in this tiny region up to around 18. Unfortunately quality of the exclusively Chasselas white wine is not encouraging in this appellation, although Domaine de la Grande Cave occasionally brings out some decent special cuvées, reserved for selected private customers and restaurants.
The Taittinger Investment and the rise of Vins Viallet
As I reported in Decanter in October 2008, Madame Claire Taittinger, wife of the Director General of the Champagne House and a long time lover of the French Alps, has invested into a Savoie domaine, Les Fils de René Quénard, one of the many Chignin domaines named Quénard (some with and some with the accent on the ‘e’). The domaine is known for its Chignin Bergeron from Roussanne and there are plans to increase plantings. The purchase was made in conjunction with the négociant and grower Philippe Viallet who is based in nearby Apremont. A new winemaker was installed at the Chignin domaine to work together with Monsieur Jacky Quénard the former owner and investments are to be made in the cellar. It will be interesting to monitor improvements in wine quality. In the meantime Vins Viallet has expanded, installing a state-of-the art, environmentally-friendly winery that I have yet to visit, and the wines are doing increasingly well in local competitions.
Royal Seyssel and the Seyssel Vineyard Saved
In 2008 the Royal Seyssel sparkling wine brand, for many years the best example of Savoie sparkling wine, was effectively saved from oblivion by a passionate local wine merchant Gérard Lambert. The brand was created by Varichon et Clerc back in 1940, but the company was taken over by the Burgundy-based Boisset wine conglomerate in the mid-1990s and they effectively neglected it. Boisset decided to cease operations in Seyssel whilst retaining the Varichon et Clerc name. Having purchased the Royal Seyssel brand, Lambert has rescued not only the brand but a large number of Seyssel vineyards whose growers sold their grapes exclusively for the brand. Lambert has built new premises and vows to keep up the quality standards of what was always an exemplary Méthode Traditionnelle from the local Molette and Altesse grapes, with a minimum of three years bottle age before disgorgement.
Three organic growers market together
Organic vineyards are increasing in Savoie, many of them biodynamic or in conversion. Jacques Maillet, a maverick grower in Chautagne who used to be a member of the local wine cooperative, makes increasingly good red blends (Gamay, Pinot and Mondeuse) and wonderful white Jacquère and Altesse (though the latter in tiny qualities) marketed under the name Autrement. He regularly mans a stand at wine fairs around France to market his own wine as well as wines from two other organic grower friends, Gilles Berlioz from Chignin and Domaine Frédéric Giachino from Apremont, Berlioz has featured as an up-and-coming producer in Wine Report for several years and I am increasingly impressed with the quality from Giachino. Apart from these three, Domaine Claude Quenard, Domaine Belluard and Domaine du Prieuré Saint Christophe (below) are the other main organic growers in Savoie, with others including Mondeuse specialist Louis Magnin and la Grande Cave de Crépy (above) converting all or part of their domaines. Savoie has a higher than average area of organic vineyards compared to the rest of France.
Michel Grisard relinquishes Ardoisières to focus on Prieuré Saint Christophe
For around ten years, Michel Grisard (above – picture by Brett Jones) has been trying to run his own Domaine du Prieuré St-Christophe at the same time as his other joint venture Domaine des Ardoisières in conjunction with a young vigneron Brice Omont, who he brought in to do the day to day work. Recently Michel has passed the mantel over to Brice completely leaving him free to concentrate efforts on his original, highly respected domaine. Run along biodynamic lines for many years, in recent vintages Prieuré St-Christophe has suffered from very low production levels due to various maladies, simply because Michel has not been able to put enough time into his own vineyards. Since Michel always has several other projects on the go, usually for the greater good of the authenticity of the Savoie region, this is good news and I can only wish both Brice and Michel well with the future of these two important domaines. A recent tasting of a few older wines from Prieuré St-Christophe attested to their high quality and different style from most other Savoie wines.
USA Imports increase
In researching an article for Sommelier Journal in the USA, I discovered a growing interest in Savoie wines in the USA. At least 15 of the best vignerons now export there, far more than to the UK. Wine forums often mention Savoie wines and although they don’t have quite the cult following that the Jura is garnering there, I don’t believe they are far behind.
Savoie Producer/Wines Sum-Up
I’m relieved not to have to select the ‘top ten’ lists of producers and wines for Wine Report, it really was the most painful part of the exercise, especially since it was rare that the best from this rather static area changed much from year to year. Having not had the pressure to taste so many wines from the most recent vintages in a competitive way, I’ve occasionally delved in my cellar to open and drink (rather than taste) Savoie wines of some age. What nonsense it is that people write about Savoie wines needing all to be drunk young. It’s true that most wines from the Jacquère grape are best drunk within two years of vintage, but many whites from Altesse and Bergeron age magnificently and of course, so do the Mondeuse reds. As well as Grisard (above) we’ve enjoyed older wines in the past two years from Berthollier, Dupasquier, Domaine de l’Idylle, Domaine Edmond Jacquin, André et Michel Quenard, Pascal Quenard and Domaine St-Germain. Even though I know there’s still a lot of rubbish available in the ski resorts (especially from crus Apremont and Abymes), Savoie wines should be taken a lot more seriously than they are, there’s plenty of good stuff out there.
If you’ve read this far and want to know more about Savoie wines, take a look at my guide to wine travel in Savoie on Wine Travel Guides where you will find contact details and more for many producers mentioned above. In an earlier post here you will find links to free PDF downloads of all my chapters on Wine Report 2004 – 2009 inclusive. For a general overview, try to get hold of the June 2009 issue of Sommelier Journal or check out this rather old article on Wine Pages.