Crisp Winter Whites

Posted by David on 6th Jul 2017

Winter goes hand in glove with the alpine-like freshness of an aromatic white from the region of Savoie (pronounced Sav-wah and sometimes anglicised to Savoy). 

The region of Savoie is in eastern France in the Alpine area bordering on Switzerland. A fairytale land of snow covered peaks, mountain streams, green hills, wildflowers and lakes, it’s also the home of ski resorts like Val d’Isère, Courchevel and Méribel. Many of the region’s wines bear a white cross on a red background which is the flag of both Switzerland and Savoie.

This area has a long and significant wine history, beginning with the House of Savoy. Established in the 11th century, Savoy endured to become the longest surviving royal house in Europe, as part of Italy, right up until WWII. As with many border regions in Europe, the area moved back and forth between various seats of power, before being annexed to France in 1860.

Summer and winter in the Domaine Dupasquier vineyards.

For cycling nuts, stage 9 of this year’s Tour de France will take riders through the region of Savoie on Sunday the 9th July. The 181.5km stage takes in gradients up to 22º and has a total ascending elevation of 4,600m. Worth watching for the beautiful countryside alone.

The crisp, alpine climate of Savoie perfectly illustrates the important role vineyard aspect plays in the ripening process. The steep south and west facing slopes maximise the vines’ exposure to the sun, ensuring the altitude doesn’t impede ripening fruit. Not surprisingly, much of the terrain is too steep for viticulture. At only about 2,000 hectares, it’s a small appellation, with clusters of plantings scattered here and there, mostly around the more sheltered foothills.

Within Savoie there are four appellations:
- Vin de Savoie (white, red and rosé)
- Rousette de Savoie (white)
- Seyssel (white and sparkling)
- Crémant de Savoie (sparkling)

Wines labelled as Vin de Savoie AOP (formerly known as AOC) can come from anywhere in the region. It quickly gets confusing though, with the names of one of 16 Crus often appearing on the label as well.

There’s a complexity to the naming system which baffles me, but local wineries don’t need to simplify, explain or even market their wine to the rest of the world because most of it’s consumed within the region. Millions of tourists visit the region in summer and winter, all eager to sample the local drop, so very little of it makes its way onto the international market. Andrew Jefford cheekily describes the region as France’s “most fortunate… enjoying buoyant and undiscerning local demand.”

The appellation is known for its unusual native grape varieties, both red and white. Most of these I haven’t heard of and most are rarely grown elsewhere as they are so wedded to the local terroir.

Ripening Jacquère grapes in Quénard's Coteau de Torméry vineyards.

The vast majority of the wine produced in Savoy is white and the most widely planted variety is Jacquère, which Jancis Robinson describes as "a Savoie specialty, producing fresh, light mountain whites - lightly scented, mostly dry, alpine wine for drinking young. These wines tend to taste of the French Alps in whose foothills they are made - all crunchy crispness and herby, sappy flavours."

"As for the best styles, I like the delicate (think 11 per cent alcohol), floral (white hedgerow/hawthorn blossoms), and citrus-tinged whites made from the Jacquère grape."
Susy Atkins, Wine Author and Critic, The Telegraph UK 2011.

Sounding good? Here are two of the top producers.

André & Michel Quénard Les Abymes Jacquère 2015André & Michel Quénard Les Abymes Jacquère 2015

Andrew Jefford is one of the few critics to cover Savoie and unlike many, he doesn’t dole out praise easily. To even rate a mention in his books is an achievement and in Savoie he identifies just two domains as producing 'very good wine.' One of these is André and Michel Quénard.

There are several Quénards making wine in Savoie, however André and Michel produce the best and are the most well-known. Michel Quénard’s grandfather started the domaine in the 1930s, the vineyards lying on the long, steep terraced slopes of the Coteau de Torméry around Chignin. Like so many vignerons at the time, he sold most of his wine in bulk to others. Michel’s father Andrew took over in 1944 and around 1960 started bottling under the estate’s own label. In 1976 Michel joined the team, initiating big changes with both the winery and vineyards undergoing expansion. The 22ha of vineyards became certified in sustainable agriculture in 2004 and in 2009 Michel’s sons Guillaume and Romain joined the estate. Guillaume is now chief winemaker.

Despite the estate’s proximity to the Alps, the vineyards enjoy a surprisingly warm microclimate with southern sun exposure. I was also surprised to learn that fig and olive trees can be found amongst the vines, which is unusual for such a snowy region.

“The minerality of Michel’s vineyards expresses an alpine freshness and liveliness in his wines. His cuvées go beyond the simple 'eclectic' that categorizes wines from the region; whether they are quaffed or savored, they are all unique revelations that reflect the complexity of their terroir and the fine artistry of this master vigneron.” Kermit Lynch - Legendary US Wine Merchant.

Vintage in Quénard's vineyards.

In 1248 a massive landslide occurred at the base of the Chartreusse massif, bringing down a huge section of the mountain, more than 500 cubic metres by some accounts. While this catastrophe completely wiped out several medieval villages, burying them in chunks of limestone and mud, it also formed the basis of what became known as the Abymes vineyards. Abymes is now one of the 16 crus within Savoie and is said to produce some of the best wines in the region.

The fruit for the wine is handpicked and fermented in stainless steel, after which it spends a short time on lees.

Crystal clear and a pale warm gold. On the nose - aromatic tropical fruit notes meld with lemonade and grapefruit marmalade. Good fruit definition carries these flavours onto the palate, with the addition of nice sherbetty acid. Its freshness mingles with musk notes and a slight caramel leesiness. A slightly earthy finish adds a little weight. Easygoing with 11.5% alcohol.

Perfect with a fondue but for those with less cheesy palates, roast chook and fennel gratin would go nicely.

I can offer it for $25 a bottle. Order online

Domaine Dupasquier Jacquère 2014Domaine Dupasquier Jacquère 2014

The 2011 vintage of this wine was my introduction to Jacquère and I was hooked. This is the other producer singled out by Andrew Jefford is. He notes: “few Domaines in Savoie are run with the attention to detail of Noël Dupasquier. The 12.5ha estate is in the quiet backwater of Jongieux, its west facing slope vineyards stretching up spectacularly to 450 metres on the slopes behind the cellar… All the white wines are superb, they include a delicious sappy Jacquère.”

David Dupasquier (son of Noël) and his sister Veronique are the fifth generation of this family business. They are among a handful of producers sticking with the native grapes of Savoie (eg. Monduese, Altese and Jacquère), unlike many others who’ve ripped out the old vines in favour of more fashionable varieties. The Domaine is located close to Aimavigne, named from the French phrase 'aimer le vigne,' or 'love the vine.'

David works the vineyards mainly by hand, with no chemical sprays and practices non-interventionist winemaking, with natural yeasts, minimal sulphur, and only light filtration in bottling. Unlike other producers, he holds his wines back an extra year for ageing - in the case of the Jacquère, it spends 11 months on lees (the dead yeast cells), which gives the wine a little more weight and calms down the sometimes racy acidity. The wine is then bottled and given another 6 months to settle before being released. It’s clear these guys like to do things properly.

You’ll find the wine light in colour and fresh, with subtle floral and citrus aromas - less upfront fruit than the Les Abymes but the same easy drinking 11.5% alcohol. With more complexity than most Jacquère (due to the extra time on lees), the delicious honeyed characters open up to reveal a minerally, almost Chablis-like wine. You know you’re drinking Euro.

Subtle and easy drinking, its well balanced acidity makes this wine crisp enough to drink on its own, but with texture and richness enough to be good company at the dinner table. Although it’s hard to find in Australia, there’s no surprise it’s such a popular bistro wine in France.

I love this with whole baked trout and anything with dill, or with a plate of homemade gnocchi.

I can offer it for $26 a bottle (limited). Order online