A Wine Tour in the French Alps
For a long time known simply as skiing wines, the best wines from Savoie deserve much greater recognition. After continued quality improvements in the wines over the past couple of decades, skiers coming to the French Alps should certainly consider adding on a day or two of vineyard visits in this beautiful French wine region in the foothills of the mountains.
The vineyards of Chignin
The greatest concentration of vineyards in the Savoie wine region is close to Chambéry below the mountain named Mont Granier at the northern end of the Chartreuse chain. History tells us that the dramatic Mont Granier got its abrupt shape from a fatal landslide in the 13th century which buried several villages – the rubble that was left behind proved fertile ground for growing vines and this is where you will find the Savoie appellations Apremont and Abymes. These wines are made from the white Jacquère grape, unknown outside Savoie. Jacquère is the most planted variety in the region, and makes dry, light fresh wines, ideal to match with charcuterie or the ubiquitous cooked cheese dishes such as fondue, raclette, tartiflette. Jean Masson, Cellier du Palais and Frédéric Giachino are three Apremont producers I can recommend.
Arguably more serious wines are produced in the Combe de Savoie, the valley that runs between Chambéry, the departmental capital of Savoie, and Albertville, host city of the winter Olympics in 1992. The tiny wine village of Chignin (with around 10 producers of the same name - Quenard – all producing different styles of wines!) has several ruined towers. As well as making the dry white Chignin from Jacquère, the village produces Chignin Bergeron from the Rhône Valley’s Roussanne variety. Chignin Bergeron is a much richer white, full bodied and matching well with lake fish in a cream sauce or mature Beaufort cheese. My favourite Chignin producers are André & Michel Quenard, Pascal Quenard, Jean-François Quenard, Gilles Berlioz and Denis & Didier Berthollier. The valley is also known as the best area for the Mondeuse variety, a red grape distantly related to Syrah, but producing somewhat lighter and more rustic red wines. Good Mondeuse wines are produced in particular in the village of Arbin, notably by Louis and Béatrice Magnin.
Apremont vineyards in winter with Mont Granier
The valley is very quiet in winter as skiers speed past in their cars and buses up to the ski resorts beyond Albertville towards Chamonix or to the Tarentaise ski resorts. But, one place you will find always open, close to the ruined Château de Miolans, is a rather fabulous Bed and Breakfast which would make an ideal stay for a night or two. Named Château des Allues, it is a converted old manor house located high up above the vineyards - you can also eat dinner there and they make a point of serving local Savoie wines, which is, rather sadly, not the case everywhere in the region. If you prefer to be based in a hotel, then the Hotel Le Château des Comtes de Challes, closer to Chambéry is also a very decent place to stay and eat.
For fine dining it’s best to head in the other direction past Chambéry towards the old spa town of Aix Les Bains and the largest inland lake in France, the Lac de Bourget. Here there are several grand hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants, one of my favourite being a modern restaurant with rooms, named Atmosphères. After an excellent meal and a night there, you might want to head through the Tunnel du Chat to visit the vineyards near the little village of Jongieux. Whilst both Jacquère and Mondeuse are grown along with the better known Gamay, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varieties, the best grape in this district is a white named Altesse, making a wine named Roussette de Savoie. One extraordinary, steep vineyard slope is given its own name, Marestel, and it is here that the most intense Altesse is made. The best are dry and mineral with yellow fruit aromas, and they match beautifully with the excellent local lake fish, féra and omble chevalier (the latter is an Alpine char). There’s a very good, smart restaurant named Les Morainières in the heart of the vineyards and good Jongieux and Marestel producers include Dupasquier, Edmond Jacquin and Cave de Prieuré.
Fresh snow on the Chignin vineyards - view to Mont Granier
If all this talk of food and wine gets too much for you and you need some culture, history or even shopping, the best place to find that is back in the city of Chambéry. Its cathedral boasts the largest expanse of Trompe L’oeil painting all over the walls and ceiling – quite impressive. Enjoy strolling through the streets around the cathedral in the old town, where you can also stock up on cheese and saucisson and don’t forget to look at the famous Elephant fountain – if you fail to read up about why it’s there, you will puzzle over it for hours.
Avid skiers who have never visited the Alps outside of winter, might be surprised that they can be even more beautiful than when buried in snow. Cows, sheep and goats graze in the pastures that tend in most years to remain green throughout summer, and in spring the alpine flowers are incredible. Autumn brings a whole new set of colours that can sometimes rival New England. For a dedicated wine lover who wants to spend a little time tasting at the wineries, I can tell you from personal experience that the cellars and tasting rooms can be very cold in winter, so its perhaps best to avoid winter if you intend spending more than a day or two on your vineyard visits.
Michel Quenard's vineyard in Chignin
You can find much more detail on my own Wine Travel Guide to Savoie named ‘Around Chambéry’. All the information is free to view on the website and you can purchase the convenient PDF download ‘Around Chambéry’ for a small price. If you are doing a more extensive wine tour around France, then it pays to use the Wandering Educators discount code to purchase annual membership, so you can access all the PDF travel guides on the site. And, for wine lovers who want to learn more about Savoie wines, if you do a search on my name plus Savoie wine, you should come up with a few articles of interest, as I’ve specialized in writing on this tiny wine area for several years.
Wink Lorch is the Wine Travel Guide Editor for Wandering Educators
Feature photo: snow on the vineyards of Chignin with view across to Mont Granier with the Apremont vineyards below
all photos courtesy and copyright Wink Lorch