Drinking at the Savoie

Like most people who studied European history, I early on discovered that there’s a lot of it. An awful lot, actually; so much so that certain parts of Europe might spend half a millennia rolling quietly along with dukes and wars and international intrigue, all the while pregnant with potential to lay a stamp on the sliver of history we call the present, yet I might file away my college diploma knowing nothing more about that place than the average schmo checking into a fine hotel in Limeric

It is frankly odd how utterly Savoie slipped into the footnotes of history. Even Navarre, a relative postage stamp of a kingdom, showed up in some kickass 80s movies while the 450-year old Savoie ended its run in 1860 getting traded to France like a veteran stretch forward for draft picks in the 1860 Treaty of Turin. Perhaps because of this geopolitical confusion, perhaps also because of Savoie’s we will gently call it awkward geographical situation, the wines of Savoie have had trouble capturing the attention of the larger wine drinking audience.[1] This is a shame, because unlike the constantly manipulated, en-vassaled, and unlucky-in-war dukes of Savoie, the wines of this obscure and rugged region bow to no one.

Start with the unassuming Jacquerre grape. While technically the least noble of Savoie’s three foundation varieties, it’s easily the most recognizable. Grown primarily in the sub-alpine vineyards of Apremont and Abymes, Jacquerre wines are universally cheap and cheerful; redolent of apples and pears, and packed almost solid with acidity. It’s a pick’em of a food wine – shellfish, trout, or hare.

If you’re a determined grapcist laboring under the misapprehension that red wine is better than white, and the previous paragraph did nothing for you, then look for a bottle of Mondeuse; especially from the Crus of Arbin, Saint-Jean-de-la-Porte, or Jongieux. Juicy and bright with a light sprinkle of tannin, a wallop of black-raspberry flavors, and a teaspoon of white pepper. Do you insist on drinking red wine with fish because you’re dumb? Call this charming variety an acceptable compromise. But really, what you should be doing is getting a stick of charcuterie and Savoiard cheese.

If you want to jump to the finish line, the grand cru variety of Savoie is the white Altesse. These wines come from a handful of village Crus under the AOC title Roussette de Savoie[2]. While acidity runs through the core of these wines just like any other from Savoie, the Altesse set themselves apart with a signature rich and creamy texture, pear and nutty flavors and affinity for limited oak age that makes these wines not entirely unlike Burgundian Chardonnay.

All of these still wines share vineyards with sparkling appellations, Sayssel and Bugey[3] chief among them, who make cremant on a par with Alsace and Jura, exceptional for their bright character. For the completists, Gamay, Grignet, Aligote, Marsanne and Roussane grapes find some of their freshest expressions in these alpine valleys.

With summer weather approaching, bright and crisp alpine wines should be on the tip of your palate. The name Savoie should be on the tip of your tongue.

[1] Also, Savoie’s flag – displayed somewhere on every label from the region – is identical to the Swiss flag. Understandable for a region that surrounds Geneva on three sides, but still confusing.

[2] Until recently, Altesse grapes were called Roussette in a nod to their reddish tint upon ripening.

[3] As good a place as any to clarify Savoie’s mumblecore appellation system. Save the Roussette previously mentioned and a couple villages who have struck out on their own the Vin de Savoie appellation stands for all the wine of the region. Within that simple title, every village with two goats and a stop sign has a named cru that acts very much like a separate appellation, with its own grape varieties, wine styles, and viticultural specifications. It makes perfect sense as a sort of appellation cooperative; none of which would be commercially relevant separately.

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