The Wines of Savoie

combe de savoie

Vineyards in the Combe de Savoie, hugging the Bauges mountains.

Twenty years ago, the wines of Savoie were often thin and acidic, and good mostly for cutting through cheesy dishes such as the local fondue and raclette. On a recent ski trip to Chamonix, I was intrigued by some complex and unusual wines, and took a few days out of skiing to visit some producers and find out more.

Even before the Roman conquest, the vine was being cultivated in Savoie by the Gallic Allobroges. The region’s 2,100ha (versus 120,000ha for Bordeaux) are dispersed across four French départements: mostly Savoie and Haute Savoie, but also Ain and Isère. Ain also contains the even smaller Bugey wine region, which is fairly similar to Savoie in terms of terroir, varieties, and styles. You can see a map of the region on the Vin de Savoie website.

Although Savoie’s wine producing areas are fairly disparate, they are united by their common Alpine landscape, with the vine cultivated on sheltered south-facing slopes and along moderating water bodies such as lakes Geneva and Bourget. Stony soils provide good heat retention and water drainage, and I spotted the odd almond or apricot tree amidst the vines.

savoyarde

The vines of André et Michel Quenard at the foot of the Savoyarde in the Bauges. This slope was first planted by the Romans but had been abandoned in favour of higher yields.

White wine accounts for 70% of Savoie production, followed by red wine (20%), rosé (6%), and sparkling wine (4%). Only 5% of total production is exported, so the wines, though generally good value for money, are fairly hard to source.

By far the most important appellation in Savoie is Savoie AOP. The other still wine appellations are Roussette de Savoie AOP (for the crus of Frangy, Monthoux, Marestel, and Monterminod) and Seyssel AOP (for the cru of Seyssel), although it is not clear even to the producers themselves why these two appellations are not subsumed under Savoie AOP. Interestingly, in 2009 growers in Crépy had their AOP demoted to cru status to be able to market their wines as Savoie AOP. A fourth Savoie appellation was created in 2014 for Crémant de Savoie, which is becoming increasingly important. Broadly speaking, Crémant de Savoie is at least 40% Jacquère, with any remainder being Altesse and Chardonnay, although Chardonnay cannot account for more than 40% of the blend. The style is already winning medals in Paris.

The Savoie wine region counts some twenty crus, from Ripaille and Marin on Lake Geneva in the north to Apremont, Les Abymes, Chignin, Montmélian, and Arbin in the south. The heart of the region is to the south, between the Bauges and the Chartreuse mountains in the valley of the Isère, in the so-called Cluse de Chambéry and Combe de Savoie. The soils here are predominantly limestone scree from crumbling mountains, including the picturesque Savoyarde in the Bauges and Mont Granier in the Chartreuse.

granier

Mont Granier in the Chartreuse, as pictured from the Bauges. The valley is the Combe de Savoie.

Over twenty grape varieties are cultivated, but the most important are Jacquère, Altesse (Roussette), Bergeron (Roussanne), and Chasselas for the whites, and Mondeuse and Gamay for the reds. The high-yielding Jacquère accounts for half of plantings, while Chasselas is found, as you might expect, in the north towards the Swiss border (see my article on the wines of Switzerland). The Gringet grape is only found in Ayze, where it is made into a sparkling wine. Some of Savoie’s indigenous varieties are on the verge of disappearance: there are, for example, just nine hectares of Persan left.

Jacquère wines are dry, crisp, and mineral, with notes of citrus fruits, pear, white flowers, and wet stone. Some of the best, most ‘Alpine’ expressions of Jacquère come from the aptly named crus of Apremont (‘Bitter Mountain’) and Les Abymes (‘The Abysses’), which lie on limestone scree from a 13th century landslide of Mont Granier that killed thousands of villagers.

Altesse underlies the Roussette de Savoie AOP, and is richer than Jacquère, with notes of honey, apricots, tropical fruits, and aniseed, among others. According to local lore, the variety was brought back from Cyprus as a royal dowry, whence the name ‘Altesse’ (‘Highness’). Whatever the case, Altesse is capable of serious complexity, and, unlike Jacquère, improves with age, developing notes of toast and nuts. The Seyssel AOP is reputed for its floral sparkling wines made from Altesse, Chasselas, and Molette.

The cru of Chignin-Bergeron (not to be confused with the overlapping cru of Chignin, which consists of Jacquère) is the only cru with a grape variety in its name: Bergeron, or Roussanne, as it is known in its native Rhône Valley. Chignin-Bergeron is rich and honeyed, although more fresh and mineral, and less alcoholic, than Roussanne counterparts from the Rhône. It is capable of serious finesse and complexity, as, for example, in Louis Magnien’s Grand Orgue cuvée.

grand orgue.jpg

The first century writer Columella referred to Allobrogica, which is most probably Mondeuse, as ‘the grape that ripens amidst the snow’. In 2000, there were just 200ha of Mondeuse left in France, although the variety has since recovered somewhat. Mondeuse has often been compared with, and mistaken for, the Piedmontese Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso. It is deep in colour with notes of cherry, plum, violets, and spice, crisp acidity, and substantial tannins. Like Altesse and Bergeron, Mondeuse is age-worthy, and on my trip I tasted a 1998 Mondeuse from Louis Magnin that could still be counted as fresh. The finest examples of Mondeuse are arguably from Arbin, and I also loved Fabien Trosset’s 2015 cuvée Avalanche.

20yo Mondeuse.jpg

Recommended producers: Louis Magnin, André et Michel Quenard, Fabien Trosset, Domaine Giachino, and Les Ardoisières (IGP Vin des Allobroges, just outside the Savoie AOP).

Blind Tasting for Exams and Competitions

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When it comes to blind tasting, there can be no substitute for experience and practice. Do not merely fall back on your strengths, however impressive they may be. The best way to improve is to work at your weaknesses. Attending as many tastings 
as possible can really help to bring things together, as can visiting wineries and wine regions, talking to wine people, and reading the wine press and literature. More important still is to find or form a dedicated study group. Aside from the purely social aspects, the benefits of a study group include: imposing structure and discipline, sharing knowledge and experiences, shaping and strengthening indistinct impressions, uncovering blind spots, and, last but not least, dividing expenses.

Also key is familiarity with timing, as time pressure in exams and competitions is often intense. Put yourself through timed practices that mirror the format of the real McCoy. When you blind taste, say, a Pomerol, you taste it with everything that you know about Merlot and right Bank Bordeaux, indeed, everything that you know about wine. Last minute cramming is not going to turn you into an overnight supertaster, and might even serve to confuse you. Better to spend the run-up to the exam or competition relaxing and sharpening your mind and senses.

In the hours leading up to the event, it can be helpful to taste a familiar benchmark such as a Rheingau Riesling to calibrate your palate. If your palate is poorly calibrated for a particular variable such as acidity, alcohol, or quality (more likely if you are ill, stressed, hungry, or dehydrated), you will be losing marks right across the board.

For competitions, if tasting in a communicating team (in which members can confer with one another), the top taster should take the lead. If there is no clear top taster, one of the stronger tasters should be designated as captain to streamline decision-making. If it becomes apparent that the captain is having an off day, he or she should immediately yield the captaincy to another strong taster. If tasting in a non-communicating team as in the Oxford and Cambridge varsity match, the team is only as strong as the sum of its parts, and gains most from the stronger tasters training up the novices.

For exams, be sure to read the questions carefully and to answer them directly and comprehensively (although not necessarily exhaustively). If short of time, choose breadth over depth, as marks are likely to be distributed across a number of domains, for instance, across several aroma groups. Elaborate only if it seems appropriate, or if you are specifically asked. If you get stuck on a particular wine, come back to it later if you can.

For many exams, it is very important to use the prescribed tasting method, including the tasting format, lexicon, and grading scales. Committing the prescribed method to memory also increases your speed while decreasing your chances of missing out key elements such as tannins or oak.

If, say, six marks are allocated to ‘nose’, be sure to write down at least six items about the nose, across all the principal domains. In particular, do not omit to comment on a defining element such as notes of honey and honeysuckle in a botrytized wine, or notes of vanilla and toast in a wine with reams of new French oak. Conversely, be careful not to imply something that is not there. For instance, ‘coconut’ is so closely associated with American oak as to imply its presence, even if you meant it in a completely other context.

When writing descriptions, use only very specific terms: instead of ‘citrus fruits’, prefer ‘lemon’, ‘lime’, ‘grapefruit’, ‘clementine’, or ‘orange’. Other cluster headings that can be elaborated upon include ‘red fruits’, ‘black fruits’, ‘green fruits’, ‘stone fruits’, ‘nuts’, and ‘spice’. Do not hedge: instead of ‘youthful’, plump for either ‘young’ or ‘developing’. Similarly, avoid broad, imprecise, subjective, or fanciful terms such as ‘mineral’, ‘fairly high’, ‘feminine’, and ‘broad shouldered’. In short, be as precise and concrete as you can. At the same time, do not fall into the opposite trap of being needlessly technical by, say, providing an estimate of the residual sugar level in grams per litre. Describe each wine in the absolute, without referencing the other wines in the flight. For instance, avoid writing that a wine is ‘more aromatic than the previous wine’ – unless specifically asked to compare the wines.

Try in as far as possible to be consistent and coherent within your tasting note. It is surprisingly easy to inadvertently contradict yourself, sometimes even within the same sentence, for example, by describing the hue as ‘deep lemon’ but the colour intensity as only ‘medium’. More broadly, if you think that a wine is obviously young, do not write down notes such as petrol or marzipan that suggest a fair bit of development.

Take care not to confuse a descriptor with a conclusion. ‘Likely fermented in stainless steel’ is a conclusion not a descriptor, and used as a descriptor is unlikely to attract a mark. Also unlikely to attract marks are negative descriptors such as ‘no sediment’, ‘no tannins’, and ‘no evidence of new oak’.

In general, when concluding, it is not nearly enough to ‘get it right’. To score full marks, you also need to back up your conclusions with evidence, explanations, and context, in proportion to the allocated number of marks. Should your conclusions prove incorrect, your reasoning could ensure that you score at least partial marks. You are unlikely to be given rare, unusual, or atypical wines, so do not stray too far off the beaten track with an Alto Adige Sylvaner, a Bío-Bío Gewurztraminer, or a Mornington Nebbiolo.

If you are also asked for a quality assessment, do not hold back from being critical. However, be sure to back up your conclusions with evidence and explanations. For instance, do not merely state that a wine ‘will not improve with age’, but argue that it is ‘lacking the concentration and structure for further ageing’. Similarly, do not merely state that a wine is ‘balanced’, but make the case that ‘the full body and high alcohol are offset by the high acidity’. Verify that your quality assessment is externally and internally coherent. If you noted further up that a probable Bordeaux has green tannins, do not conclude that it is at the level of a classed growth; and if you claim that a wine is of poor quality, do not argue that it will improve with age.

Ahead of the exam, it can be useful to draw up differential lists for recurring problem areas such as ‘mineral whites’ (Chablis, Muscadet, Savennières, Sancerre, Riesling…), ‘aromatic whites’ (Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Muscat, Torrontes…), ‘light reds’ (Pinot Noir, Gamay, Grenache, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo…), ‘soft reds’ (Gamay, Pinot Noir, Dolcetto, Barbera, Valpolicella…), and ‘spicy reds’ (Southern Rhône blends, Northern Rhône Syrah, Rioja, Chianti, Nebbiolo…). For each variety or style, write down the most important distinguishing features. Everyone is different, with different trouble areas, triggers, and tricks, so it is important that you draw up your own lists.

For example, this is a list for spicy reds.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Grenache dominated blend)

  • N Rhône Syrah: darker fruit, black pepper, higher acidity, lower alcohol, chewier tannins
  • Rioja: brick red, less herbal, lower alcohol, more oaked and often with American oak
  • Chianti: brighter with higher acidity, higher and firmer tannins, drier finish
  • Nebbiolo: rust-red tinge, more floral, higher acidity, much higher tannins

You can then rejig the list to put it in terms of another variety or style.

Chianti

  • Nebbiolo: rust-red tinge, more floral, higher acidity, much higher tannins
  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape: garrigue, less cherry fruit, lower acidity, lower and softer tannins
  • Rioja: brick red, less bright, lower acidity, softer tannins, more oaked and often with American oak

Here are some more differential lists to get you started. Try, with the help of your peers, to formulate such lists in your blind tasting practices. Start with just a couple of varieties or styles, and then, over several tastings, gradually extend and refine the list.

Chablis

  • Muscadet: paler, slight effervescence, lees character, lighter body, lower acidity and alcohol, less mineral
  • Savennières: more aromatic, fuller body, higher alcohol, bitter afternote
  • Sancerre: more aromatic, notes of gooseberry and grass
  • Riesling: much more aromatic, petrol, possible residual sugar

Gewurztraminer

  • Viognier: no pink tinge, more stone fruit, less exotic, often less oily, dry, lacks bitter finish
  • Pinot Gris: pear or stone fruit, no lychee, often less oily, higher acidity, greater structure
  • Muscat: grapey, orange blossom, lighter body, lower alcohol, often drier
  • Torrontes: lacks lychee note, less oily, more mineral

Gamay

  • Pinot Noir: no blue tinge or estery notes, higher acidity, alcohol, and tannins, often oaked
  • Dolcetto: darker colour, more ‘Italian’ cherries and bitter almonds, lower acidity, higher alcohol and tannins, drier finish
  • Barbera: more cherry than strawberry, higher acidity, more often oaked, drier finish
  • Valpolicella: sour cherry note, higher acidity

Pinot Noir

  • Gamay: blue tinge, estery notes, lower acidity, alcohol, and tannins, rarely oaked
  • Grenache: spicier, higher alcohol, lower acidity
  • Tempranillo: brick red, less finely etched fruit, lower acidity, often oaked with American oak
  • Nebbiolo: rust-red tinge, fuller body, much higher tannins

Cabernet Sauvignon (e.g. Left Bank Bordeaux)

  • Merlot: plums, no cassis or green pepper, more earth and less gravel, lower acidity, higher alcohol, softer tannins
  • Syrah: black pepper, no cassis or green pepper, lower acidity, less structured
  • Cabernet Franc: more aromatic, lighter fruit, lesser structure and tannins
  • Cahors: inkier, earthy mineral notes, higher tannins
  • Argentine Malbec: fuller body, higher alcohol, lower acidity, softer tannins

Adapted from the new edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

Concise Guide to Wine 2e

Major Prize for ‘Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting’

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My co-author James Flewellen and I were honoured a few months ago when our ‘textbook of wine’ won ‘Best in the UK’ in the the drinks education category of the prestigious Gourmand Awards.

All the national winners entered the final, which was held this month in Yantai, China, and we are delighted to announce that our title won ‘Best in the World – 2nd place’.

For several years, James and I were heavily involved in the popular Oxford University Blind Tasting Society. James presided over the society and led the university blind tasting team to victory in several international competitions. We wrote ‘The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting’ to crystallise the knowledge and expertise that we had acquired and share our passion with a wider audience.

The book was published in March last year, and soon began receiving rave reviews, including, to our astonishment, from the Times Literary Supplement, which dubbed it ‘a comprehensive education in wine’. It also gathered a strong following among people studying for wine qualifications, not least the highly-regarded wine degree at Plumpton College.

The book aims to provide readers, including novices, with a strong foundation in wine, which they can then build upon with their own, unique tasting experiences. Although all the major wine styles and regions are covered, the emphasis is firmly on blind tasting, which, by removing unconscious bias and suggestion (from the price, from the label, and so on), sets a standard of objectivity in wine.

A blind tasting in progress.

Aside from this, there is much pleasure to be taken from the process of blind tasting, in:

  • Testing, stretching, and developing our senses
  • Applying our judgement
  • Relying upon and recalling old memories
  • Comparing our analysis with that of our peers
  • Getting it more or less right (or ‘wrong for the right reasons’)
  • Discussing the wine and learning about it, and about wine in general
  • Imbibing the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.

In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, blind tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world. For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.

Wine Blind Tasting Guide Part 1: Why Blind Taste Wine?

The Oxford Wine Blog

James Flewellen, my co-author on The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, has kindly invited me to write a series of blog posts on wine blind tasting.

As you may be aware, James and I are keen to promote blind tasting, and to encourage and support those who are taking their first steps into the sometimes intimidating and obscurantist world of wine.

James and I met at the University of Oxford, which, for historical reasons, has a very strong culture of wine—no doubt one of a small handful of institutions with a dedicated blind tasting coach!

Simply turning up to almost daily tastings enabled to acquire, as if by osmosis, the knowledge and skills which are required to blind taste, and which we now wish to pass on to others—one of the major motivators for writing our book.

But first, you might be asking yourself, why bother at…

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Jura Wines

With less than 2000ha, the Jura is a small yet diverse wine region. The vineyards sit in the foothills of the Jura, ~80km (50mi) east of Burgundy and not far from Switzerland. The climate is cooler than in Burgundy, although the summers are fairly hot and sunny. The soils, which are rich in fossils, are clay and limestone with outcrops of marl. Five grape varieties are planted: Chardonnay and Savagnin for whites, and Poulsard, Trousseau (which thrives in the gravelly vineyards around Arbois), and Pinot Noir for reds—which, though vinified as reds, tend to be rather more salmon than actually red.

The relative isolation of the Jura has led to the preservation of a number of distinctive wine styles. Most notable is Vin Jaune made from very ripe Savagnin, which is left to mature under a flor-like strain of yeast for six or more years before being bottled in a 62cl clavelin. This process leads to oxidative nutty aromas similar to those of Sherry— although, unlike Sherry, Vin Jaune is not fortified. Other aromas include walnuts, honey, and “curry”. Vin Jaune can be produced under the Arbois, Etoile, and Côtes du Jura appellations, but the richest examples are produced under the exclusive Château-Chalon appellation, which is home to top producers Jean Macle and Domaine Berthet-Bondet. Vin Jaune can potentially last for decades, if not centuries.

Also notable is a straw wine, Vin de Paille, which, like Vin Jaune, can be produced under the Arbois, Etoile, and Côtes du Jura appellations. This blend of Chardonnay, Poulsard, and Savagnin is pressed, normally in January, from dried grapes and aged in oak for at least three years. It is rich and complex with high alcohol and dominant notes of honey and dried or confected fruits.
Macvin du Jura AOC, which can be white (Chardonnay and Savagnin) or red (Poulsard, Trousseau, and Pinot Noir), is a vin de liqueur or mistelle made from the must of late harvest grapes. The must is oak-aged for 12 months without prior fermentation. Marc du Jura is then added in a ratio of 1:2, thereby halting fermentation and preserving the natural sugars. Further oak ageing finishes the process by harmonizing the flavours.

To round up on the six Jura appellations: any style of wine can be made under the Arbois and Côtes du Jura appellations, which are the most quantitatively important. In contrast, only white wines (including Vin Jaune and Vin de Paille) can be made under the Etoile appellation, and only Vin Jaune under the Château-Chalon appellation. Macvin du Jura is a regional appellation, as is Crémant du Jura AOC. This sparkling wine is made by the traditional method, most commonly from 100% Chardonnay.

Of the still ‘regular’ wines, the whites enjoy a greater reputation than the reds. These whites, which can be very terroir driven, are made from Chardonnay and/or Savagnin, either by the classic method (employed in other regions) or by the more oxidative regional and traditional method whereby the barrels are not topped up to compensate for evaporation. This oxidative style has long been the signature of this beautiful but isolated and often neglected wine region.

Adapted from the newly published Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Corks: For or Against?

Cork, the traditional closing method for wine bottles, is harvested from the cork oak tree (Quercus suber) and is elastic and watertight. It allows a tiny amount of air exchange, which is thought to prevent the development of reductive odours as the wine matures. Problems with cork hygiene from the 1960s when the wine industry was booming led to an increase in the frequency of cork taint. True cork taint is due to 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), formed when certain phenolic compounds react with chlorine-containing compounds used as disinfectants. This need not result from the cork, as TCA is also found in barrels and other winery equipment. If there is a high degree of cork taint, the wine smells musty (‘like wet cardboard’) and falls flat on the palate, without fruit or vibrancy. Some people are very sensitive to cork taint, others less so. The increased frequency of cork taint prompted the development of alternative closures such as stoppers made from reconstituted cork, synthetic ‘corks’, aluminium screw caps, and glass stoppers with a plastic washer seal. There continues to be a lot of debate and research into the ‘best’ closure. Some of the world’s most prestigious producers are carrying out longitudinal studies with a single wine under multiple closures. As the finest wines can take decades to mature, a definitive answer may have to wait a bit longer. Meanwhile, the quality of cork is improving and instances of cork taint are less common than in the past. For many purists, the aesthetics of the customs, movements, and sounds associated with uncorking a bottle, and the quasi-Pavlovian association with care and quality, easily outweigh the small risk of cork taint. Today more than ever, the presence of a true cork is an indication of a quality wine intended to improve with age.

Wine Tasting Tutorials

If you would like to learn wine tasting, I’ve made a series of kitchen table videos to take you through the steps. Enjoy!

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