Wines from the French Alps
Vineyards in the French Alps probably seems like a novelty or
after-thought today to many wine drinkers. Though it's long been on the
map, the Savoie region is well below the radar of most wine drinkers,
particularly those here in California.
But historians can cite with precision many references to wine growing in the
Alps and the region's prominence at various times over the past several hundred
scourge of the phylloxera root louse took its toll on the Savoie region in the
1870s and 1880s. Mildew then plagued the region followed by World War
I. Of course, one can imagine working mountainous vineyards is more
labor-intensive than valley floor sites and this didn't help the situation in
As I understand it, vineyard lands were reduced during World War II as well, but
this situation is reversing itself and vineyards in the area are expanding!
The major cities in the region are Annency and Aix-les-Bains, along with the
famous vermouth center, Chambery.
The wines of the region tend to be rather light and delicate, as one might
expect of fairly cool-climate sites.
The predominant white grape is the Jacquère, which accounts for more than half
the white wine vineyards. You'll also find varieties such as Chasselas, a
major grape in nearby Swiss vineyards. Altesse is another grape found in
the region and it's sometimes called Roussette just to keep you guessing.
Chardonnay is sometimes found here, as is Aligoté. Roussanne, from the Rhône
Valley, is not uncommon. Mondeuse Blanche (said to be a parent of
Syrah and related to Mondeuse Noire) is a rarity, as is Malvoisie.
As for red wines, you'll find Gamay has arrived from nearby Beaujolais.
Pinot Noir is a bit of a rarity, but it can be found if you look hard
enough. Mondeuse has been the "big" red of the region, both in
terms of acreage planted and the body of its wines. Tiny smatterings
of an old grape called Persan are found hither and yon, mostly within sniffing
distance of Chambery.
is another unknown wine region in France. It's located on the lower slopes
of the Jura region.
The main red grapes are Poulsard (from the Jura), as well as Mondeuse, Pinot
Noir and Gamay. Whites include Jacquère, Altesse, Chardonnay, Aligoté and a really obscure grape called Molette.
- When our
friend and wine importer Charles Neal mentioned bringing over a curious
wine from the French Alps that was bubbly like an Italian spumante and
sweet and pink we figured the poor fellow was "one bottle shy of a
This is a most frivolous bottle of wine...it's made in a region well east
of Lyon in the Alps but in a locale that's neither the Jura nor the
Savoie. We trekked there this past winter and found ourselves pretty
much in France's version of the "middle of nowhere."
Cell phones don't work there and the few souls who inhabit this landscape
must be hermits, for when we asked various folks where the winery of
Bernard Rondeau was located, virtually nobody had heard of the fellow!
Rondeau has tanks similar to those we see in Italy's Piemonte at wineries
producing Moscato d'Asti. He employs a similar sort of vinification
in producing this simple VDQS (Vin Delimitée Qualité Supérieur)
called Bugey Cerdon or Cerdon de Bugey. The resulting wine is pink
in color and it's fruity and sweet. When we visited Bernard and his
lovely wife Marjorie, they brought out a plate of fried bread dusted with
powdered sugar. We've since enjoyed this wine at home with red fruit
The wine is made about 40 minutes' drive from Bourg-en-Bresse, a town
famed for its chickens. We drove to a fancy restaurant near there
for dinner with the Rondeaus and were pleased to see Poulet de Bresse on
the menu. Unfortunately, it has to be ordered two days before.
Those chickens must be tough to catch!
Currently in stock: BERNARD RONDEAU "BUGEY
Bernard & Marjorie Rondeau with their 5 year old
future winemaker son Cyprien and Bernard's sister Clara whom we found
doing the vineyard work of pruning the vines...
Most of the vineyards are planted on steep
slopes...remarkable terrain for growing Gamay to make a fizzy and sweet wine.
The Rondeau kids in 2011...
Emile, Cyprian and the lovely Victorine.
- The Angelot
brothers cultivate about 57 acres of vineyards in the French alps
appellation of Bugey...and
they produce a rather nice, juicy, berryish Gamay that's much along the
lines of a French Beaujolais.
We have the 2010 presently, a delightfully easy-to-drink, simple
red. This vintage is comparable to good Beaujolais or
Beaujolais-Villages, whereas "normal" vintages tend to be a
shade lighter than Beaujolais.
The label, above, was their standard packaging for the Angelot wine.
Simple, clean, normal.
But the local importer wanted to have something a bit more
distinctive. Meeting some guys in a touring rock band from France,
one of the musicians explained that he augments his income by drawing
poster and advertising art. So, importer Charles Neal commissioned
the fellow to produce a label for an Angelot wine. And it's quite
- This new vintage is from the 2011 harvest and it's as delicious (maybe
more so) than a standard bottling of Gamay from the more famous Beaujolais
region. The label depicts all the fruits you'll find in this
wine...lots of little strawberries, raspberries and cherries.
It's best served at cool cellar temp and pairs well with
The Angelot boys
also dabble in Mondeuse, a commonly cultivated red in the Alps.
Mondeuse is also found in Italy, but generally well across the country in
Friuli where it goes by the name Refosco. We have this grape in
California, by the way. In the Alps you can find some Mondeuse wines
which resemble Northern Rhône Syrahs! The Angelots make a more
berryish and mildly peppery version. After offering us the wine with
an anonymous label, the Angelot boys have returned to using the black
"Bugey" label and this has helped improve sales...
Currently in stock: 2011 Gamay $11.99
2010 Mondeuse $13.99
Philippe Angelot shows off an old bottle of Mondeuse.
Philippe and Eric Angelot...the Bugey Brothers.
An old Angelot vine shortly after being pruned in the
CHÂTEAU DE RIPAILLE
- The French word
"ripaille", if I understand it correctly, translates to
"feast." And what a great name for a chateau which was a
"get-away" location for the first Duke of Savoy? He must
have been some party animal! This guy ended up becoming Pope (back
in the 15th century).
Of course, if you're going to have a chateau and host friends and visiting
dignitaries, you're going to need some wine. Well, rather than have
to go to all the trouble of calling someone at Château Lafite or hope the
brothers at the Clos de Vougeot would be willing to send wine to you, why
not plant a vineyard and make your own?
That's what the Duke did and they've been making wine at the Ripaille
estate ever since. The place has passed into the hands of the Necker-Engel
family and it's open for tourists to visit and see the gardens surrounding
the old domaine. I gather they have some sort of convention facility
on the property, as well. The chateau hosts concerts and various
Thos hills in the distance are Switzerland and Lake
Geneva is a stone's throw from Ripaille.
There are some 20 hectares of vineyards on the estate and it's planted
mostly to Chasselas, with a tiny parcel of Pinot Noir and Gamay. The
soils are well-drained and the vineyards sit on glacial deposits.
It's right on Lake Geneva...a short hope away from the source of Evian
water on the shores of Lac Léman.
We actually sell a fair quantity of Swiss wine from the other side of the
"lake" and Ripaille's vin blanc is made of the Chasselas grape
and is quite reminiscent of (more expensive) whites from
Winemaker Paule Necker offers us a taste of the
newest vintage from the tank.
On a cool, crisp winter day, we tasted numerous old vintages of Ripaille's
You wouldn't expect a bottle of 22+ year old Chasselas to still be alive,
but their 1985 was remarkable! So were the 1988 and 1989 vintages.
Paule Necker and her future winemaker daughter...
We have the 2011 vintage in stock currently. This is textbook
Chasselas, being a delicate dry white of which oak is not a part of the
aromatics or flavor. Fans of sweet or heavily-oaked California or
Australian wines are definitely not going to find this to be very
exciting. The wine is low in alcohol, weighing in below 12%
most vintages. The estate produces about 130,000 bottles annually
and we're delighted that a few of them are sent to San Francisco.
Currently in stock: 2011 Château de Ripaille
"Vin de Savoie" $12.99
DOMAINE JEAN-PIERRE & JEAN FRANÇOIS QUÉNARD
- Across the
valley from where you will find Apremont wines, one of the (for lack of a
better term) more famous Savoie wines, is the estate of the Quénard family. Actually, there are a number of
Quénards that make wine in
- You practically need to be named
Quénard to make wine in this region!
Like the wines of Apremont across the valley, the Quénards grow the grape called "Jacquère." The difference, though, is that the Chignin region has a better
exposure to the sun and the wines can be a tad riper, softer and more flavorful
(by Savoie standards). It's still not a blockbuster white wine,
though. I like the chalky character. As the fruit tends to be
rather acidic, the Quénards induce a secondary, malolactic fermentation
to soften the wine. It's a satisfying little white unless you have
to have oak in your wine.
We're big fans of the Chignin Bergeron white wine. This comes from a
small parcel of Chignin vineyard land where they grow the Rhône variety
known as Roussanne. Jean-François explains there are but 60, or so,
hectares of Roussanne in the region. This is a delicious dry white,
teeming with melon, orange and pear-like notes. It's dry, of course.
2010 is the current vintage. Delicious!
Quénard makes a couple of bottlings of Mondeuse (Italy calls this
It's typically a bright, youthful red intended for consuming while it's
young. The importer is presently sold out and we hope a new vintage
will arrive shortly... It's best served at cool cellar temp, too, please.
There's another interesting white...
de Savoie is the name of the wine and it's made entirely of the Altesse
grape. Quenard fermented 2/3s in stainless steel and 1/3 in barrel.
The wine spends about 10 months on the lees and picks up some richness and smoky
notes. It's dry and mildly minerally...very interesting and quite a good
wine with seafood. It has the name
Anne-Sophie on the label in honor of a daughter. Sold out presently...
Currently in stock: 2011 Chignin Blanc $12.99
2010 Chignin Bergeron (Roussanne) $19.99
2007 Roussette de Savoie Sold Out
2003 Mondeuse Sold Out
Quénards suggested a lovely place to dine which also had rooms. It's
in the town of Le Bourget du Lac.
Click here to see our Savoie-fare.
Elisa shows off a bottle of a special dessert wine bearing her name.
Sophie Quénard and her pop.
Mister Chignin in 2011.
Capturing Chignin Sunshine-in-a-Bottle...
If you drink good wine, you won't need a doctor...
The late Charles Trosset, Mondeuse Meister
discovered this winery while dining in the Savoie. I had asked the
server for a suggestion of a good, local red wine and she recommended a
bottle of Mondeuse from Trosset.
The wine reminded me very much of top Northern Rhône Syrahs and, in fact,
the Mondeuse is said to be a member of the Syrah "family."
I don't know if this is accurate, though. Having tasted two vintages
of Trosset's Mondeuse, I might guess that there are not too many
"degrees of separation" between Mondeuse and Syrah. In fact, the
"Mondeuse Blanc" is currently thought to be one of the
"parents" of Syrah! On the other hand, the grape
grows in Italy's Friuli, where it's called Refosco and these are rarely
reminiscent of Syrah. California vintners like to call their wine
Refosco, but it's not clear what we have in California is the same variety
as "Mondeuse." In fact, some say the Refosco of Italy is
not related, either!
The village of Arbin is a few miles north of Chambery in the Alps.
You can, on a clear day, see Mont Blanc from here. Arbin is, essentially,
a "cru" designation for Mondeuse and when you taste this wine,
you'll probably understand that if it's this good and so relatively close
in character to a nice Northern Rhône Syrah, it's probably worthy of this
special designation. In terms of aromatics, think of smoky notes, a
bit of bacon or hickory and a touch of a green olive tone. The wine
is medium-full-bodied and rather elegant.
It pairs well with lamb, of course. Duck and beef work well with
this and if your pork roast has plenty of seasonings, it will shine with
this, too. I have not tasted an old bottle of Mondeuse, so I can't
imagine how this will mature. It's so attractive now, anyway.
Louis Trosset's real job is as a biology
professor. His partner in the winery is his brother Joseph, who
works in the French telecom industry.
Currently in stock:
2011 CHARLES TROSSET
"Arbin" MONDEUSE $20.99
DOMAINE J.C. RASPAIL -- DOMAINE
DE LA MÚRE
Raspail family purchased the Domaine de la Mûre, a five hectare
property. Today the family has 15 hectares and makes sparkling wines
as well as some table wines.
We're especially interested in the somewhat famous bubbly from this
estate, a wine known as Clairette de Die.
Son and Dad, Frederic and J.C.
Frederic Raspail shows off the wine "in progress."
Though the wine takes the name of the Clairette grape, in fact,
these must be a minimum of 75% Muscat!
The bottles are "riddled" much like Champagne.
The sediment then gravitates to the crown cap...the necks of the bottles are
frozen and then the sediment is disgorged, allowing the wine to be presented
The resulting wine is very bubbly and nicely fruity and
floral. It's reminiscent of a handful of well-made Asti Spumante, far more
interesting than most of those. The wine is moderately sweet, but elevated
acidity contributes a measure of balance to the wine and it's delicious and
crisp on the finish.
Currently in stock: JC RASPAIL CLAIRETTE DE DIE
EDMOND JACQUIN et FILS
you visit vineyards in Burgundy or Bordeaux, you'll see fairly flat
parcels of vines. Oh sure, in Burgundy, there are some famous sites
where the vineyards have a modest slope to catch the daylight, but if
you're looking for "spectacular" vineyard sites, a few Northern
Rhone locations have more "drama."
Alsace has a number of hillside exposures where there are some inclines of
note, but probably nowhere else in France do you see such an
"extreme" hillside vineyard site than in the town of Jongieux
where you'll find the 'cru' of Marestel. And despite its grandeur, it's
relatively unknown more than a few kilometers away!
Patrice Jacquin during a winter visit to Jongieux...
It's really rocky terrain, too.
The Jacquin estate comprises 22 hectares, or so, of
vineyards. They grow Gamay, Pinot Noir, Mondeuse and some odd variety
called Chardonnay. Most interesting, though, is their vineyards of the
Altesse grape. It's called "Roussette de Savoie" and most
connoisseurs will tell you to look for the "cru" of Marestel as that's
Altesse in this place can make a wine with a wonderfully stony, minerally
quality. It's usually a fairly high acid wine and in "the old
days" most producers would make a wine with a bit of sweetness to
counter-balance the tart character of the wine.
Jacquin's is dry and nicely acidic, so pairing it with some fresh crab or a
seafood salad makes for a memorable culinary adventure. The wine
doesn't see wood and there's a sort of yellow fruit quality here...quince,
perhaps? Anyway, $20 will get you into this show and it's a performance
well worth experiencing at least once.
Currently in stock: 2010 JACQUIN "ROUSSETTE DE
SAVOIE" MARESTEL $19.99