It’s been a long time coming, more than 20 years, but this year I am really excited that Savoie wines finally seem to be finding a tiny niche in the UK wine market and beyond. Earlier this month, I offered tastings of wines from three Savoie producers, all imported to the UK, to around 200 people at the France Show 2011 held in London’s Earls Court.
This initative was all thanks to the Savoie Mont Blanc Tourism board in conjunction with the Rhône-Alpes regional tourist board, who this year want to promote the gastronomy that the region has to offer, including Savoie wines.
My first visit to the Savoie vineyards was in the mid-1980s when I visited Pierre Boniface whose Apremont I found in the UK at Waitrose; believe it or not it’s back there now after quite a long gap. Then, in the early 1990s when I bought my first home in Haute Savoie and wanted again to visit the Savoie vineyards, I met Elizabeth Gabay (now MW and based in Provence) who was trying to import and sell them in the UK, and who gave me some excellent introductions. After a while, I picked up more vigneron contacts by reading French wine magazines and the Hachette Guide, as well as speaking with my favourite local restaurants.
In the 1990s I ran several wine and walking holidays based in La Clusaz or Le Grand Bornand, introducing British people to Savoie wines by giving them tastings and touring the vineyards. Those with cars always took cases of wine home with them, but in total, I probably introduced fewer than 50 people to Savoie wines in that decade.
In 2004 the first edition of Tom Stevenon’s Wine Report was published in which I wrote the Savoie and Jura chapter, recommending around 15 Savoie wine producers and being commissioned from then on for occasional articles and book contributions. At last during the 2000s, I felt that some interest was growing, especially in the USA, where the wines were being talked about on forums. To my surprise, on my visit to California in 2008, I even discovered several Savoie wines available in the best wine shops, and was commissioned by Sommelier Journal for an article. Was this a mini-cult?
In the UK, we don’t go in for wine cults very much, and without big promotional budgets (like the New World brands or even countries) the fame of certain producers or wine areas builds very slowly indeed, even with the advent of social media for wine. But Savoie wine is growing, with independent wine importers (some very small, others more significant) gradually taking on Savoie wine listings in the past two or three years.
So there I was, on stage at the France Show Wine Theatre, being introduced by Susy Atkins, wine writer for the Sunday Telegraph, as “the foremost UK expert on Savoie wines” and able to enthuse about the Savoie I know so well, and to offer wines for tastings actually available to purchase in the UK. I felt elated to share my knowledge with real consumers, even better than doing this at a wine show, where the audience might have been part professionals. We did on-stand tastings as well, and the wines were offered to the travel press at the Rhône-Alpes press conference at the start of the show.
I’ve accumulated so many anecdotes about Savoie wines over the years, that they were just bursting to be told, so that each day, my talk was slightly different. I also put the wine in the context of the Savoie landscape and its cuisine, which has more to offer than cheese fondue, believe me.
Among other things that I mentioned were Savoie’s unusual grape varieties – we tasted Jacquère, Altesse and Mondeuse (all virtually unique to Savoie), along with Bergeron, elsewhere called Roussanne. I loved sharing the story of Michel Quenard’s Chignin Bergeron Les Terrasses – from vineyard terraces that he built by ‘borrowing’ a bulldozer that was being used to build the motorway from Chambéry to Albertville for the 1992 Winter Olympics.
Beaufort, Reblochon, Tomme and Abondance cheeses all got a mention, as did Savoie’s great lake fish – perch, Féra (a type of big trout) and Omble Chevalier (alpine char), ideal to match with Barlet’s Marestel from Cave de Prieuré. Then I could not resist surprising people with explaining that polenta is not Italian at all, but Savoyard, bearing in mind that northwest Italy, polenta’s home, wasn’t Italy at all until 1865, it was part of the Duchy of Savoie. Oh yes, and the polenta is the perfect side dish with Diots (pronounced ‘Jo’) the tasty, country pork sausages that go so well with Domaine de l’Idylle’s Mondeuse the red we tasted.
Which was the favourite wine? I’m not sure, they all had their fans, but I know the Abymes, also from Michel Quenard, from the Jacquère grape was enjoyed by pretty much everyone, and so many appreciated the fact that it was only 11% with Jacquère simply not able to produce wines of higher than 11.5% alcohol.
I actually can’t remember the last time I was so excited about wine presentations a day after doing them! I guess it was all just in my head, waiting to share, and in reality I prefer sharing my knowledge in the anecdotal way you can use in a wine tasting presentation, rather than the more structured form necessary for most articles and blog posts.
I’m hoping that 2011 will be the year that finally I can put years of work with Savoie wines to good use: as well as planning more tastings, I’m pitching to translate the new Savoie wines website, and I shall be running a wine and food holiday based in La Clusaz at the end of June. More details available in February.