Can the Savoie Become the Rhône’s Rival Sister?

Too often thought of as an annex to the Jura, the Savoie actually has far more in common with the nearby Rhône Valley. Jon Bonné on the past and future of France's great mountain region, and the producers to know.

If you remember Albertville, it’s probably from the 1992 Winter Olympics—a picturesque town nestled in a steep valley, the French Alps soaring all around. Albertville is also home to the medieval fortified village of Conflans, once an important stop on the alpine Roman road and a defense bastion of the old Savoyard duchy.

One rainy May afternoon, I meet Jean-Yves Peron at his cramped apartment in one of Conflans’ cobbled squares and he takes me for a damp hike along the alpine slopes. A native of both Paris and the Savoie, Peron studied in Bordeaux before a string of apprenticeships, including one in Oregon and one with Thierry Allemand, the master of Cornas. In the end, he returned to the Savoie and reclaimed a handful of mostly abandoned parcels of local grapes—jacquère, mondeuse, roussanne.

Traversing a footpath from the 14th-century city, we make our way to a steep parcel of old mondeuse dating to 1893, head-staked on schist and silty soils. We keep going, back into the woods, and it’s here, traversing a waterfall in the light May rain, that I realize just how big a challenge it must be to attempt making wine in the Savoie.

It’s not so much the rain—the Savoie can get nearly 50 inches of annual precipitation—as the snow. Albertville and its slopes can be blanketed in white until mid-April; less than a month earlier, the autoroute below would have been packed with weekend skiers heading to Mont Blanc, looming 40 miles away. That’s barely enough time for a growing season, which makes it hard to fault the Savoie for its naturally low alcohol levels, often around 10 or 11 percent.

“So yes,” says Peron, “we get cold. But we’re used to it.”

Peron is known for his naturalist ways—no sulfur and so on—but the real story is the sheer improbability of where he’s chosen to work, odd even by Savoyard standards. He’s one of a handful of pioneers who have staked their careers on this most challenging of appellations, determined to make serious and unique mountain wines. Unlike a place like Cornas, where a critical mass of quality fanatics took hold, the Savoie’s talents, including people like Dominique Belluard and Brice Omont of Domaine des Ardoisières, are as spread out as its vineyards—roughly one overachiever per village, a disparate string of bright lights, like the flaming hilltop beacons of Gondor.

They may be scattered, but they all see something in the region that few others have. Quite simply: When you brush aside chemically reliant farming (the hills make hand-plowing difficult) and indifferent winemaking, the Savoie can produce wines of remarkable diversity and a distinct, alpine intensity. The whites, in particular, show bracing mineral aspects and bitter-herb flavors reminiscent of those found in local liquors like Chartreuse and génépy, and the heady white vermouth made in Chambéry, which, with just 60,000 people, is the region’s largest city.

Along with parts of the Pyrenees, the Savoie is France’s true mountain region for wine, a mysterious place dotted with dairy cows and chalets. It’s less an overlooked wine region than it is a sparse one, with 2,100 hectares over an area the size of Massachusetts, full of weird grapes and, as you might imagine of a mountain region, vineyards that are quite pixelated. The largest concentration wraps around the lower slopes of the Massif des Bauges, a range in the Prealps that runs from Chambéry to Annecy, but otherwise it comprises thousands of tiny plots of vines tucked into the valleys and slopes that lead into the Alps. This marks a radical diminution from a century ago, when vines stretched far across the old Savoyard lands, all the way from the city of Vienne, which marks the northern edge of the northern Rhône, to the far end of Lake Geneva.

And there aren’t many more vines coming. Peron would love to reclaim a bit more of his wooded slope, knowing full well that the hillsides of Albertville were covered in vines in the 19th century. But if the region’s wines are cheap, the land costs—it’s ski country, after all—can reach $500,000 per hectare in some spots.

When anyone thinks of the Savoie at all, they usually describe it as a sort of mountain annex to the Jura. But the two actually have very little in common. The Jura’s vineyards sit not amid the mountains but below them, on older soils (Jurassic, natch) full of marl and calcium-rich matter. The Savoie is a more geologically new and turbulent place, its current soils formed as recently as 2 million years ago, and more recently tumbled and enriched by deposits from Ice Age glaciers. If there’s a similarity, it’s in the bifurcated nature of the Savoie appellation, which, like the Jura, permits both grape varieties and geographic designations on the labels. At least 15 Savoyard villages— Chignin, Ayze, Jongieux—plus a handful more that make roussette de Savoie, the local name for the altesse grape, can be marked on labels.

In truth, the Savoie is more like a mountain Rhône; after all, the Rhône river, flowing south out of Lake Geneva, touches its eastern edge. The geology is notably Rhône-like, too, with granite (Mont Blanc is essentially a huge granite massif) and schist. And its native grapes are essentially mountain cousins of the Rhône’s: jacquère and altesse share that mix of nuttiness and freshness with marsanne and roussanne. The local red, mondeuse, is genetically either a sibling or ancestor of syrah. (Vine geneticist, Carole Meredith, who discovered this link, has been demonstrating their similarity, growing the two side-by-side in Napa.)

Given the similarity, the Savoie should at least be in the comet tail of the northern Rhône’s recent good fortune. Instead, it has faded into the background, less because anyone has forgotten about the place (the French are ski fanatics) than because the wines have rarely made a case for themselves. That’s probably because the Savoie attracted relatively few serious vignerons. Wine was easier to grow elsewhere—less snow, fewer hills, more sun. And those who remained took the easiest possible path: making simple, often slightly sweet wine intended for tourists, little of it ever circulating beyond the local ski chalets, which is why, frankly, we don’t see much Savoie wine on shelves. So, if the Savoyards weren’t going to be serious about their wine, why should anyone else?

How lucky that people like Dominique Belluard ignored this logic, instead transforming his tiny town of Ayze, which counts maybe seven winemakers total, into a mountain haven for soulful white and sparkling wines. His particular obsession is the archaic gringet grape, which, when grown traditionally on bush vines at low yields, shows the mineral finesse of great chardonnay and yet is also analogous to a mountainous marsanne with its walnut and yellow-fruit flavors.

Nearly two hours drive south, just outside Chambéry, Gilles Berlioz, who, along with Jean-François Quénard, has revived the fortunes of the picturesque town of Chignin, having started working organically in 1999 in a town that still has largely barren soils. And if you follow the Bauges slopes just a north, you land in Arbin, where Yann Pernuit of Domaine Genoux works what he calls “a postcard world,” one of jagged, visually stunning cliffs, and limestone-rich slopes of glacial moraine steep enough to leave a Mosel winemaker impressed.

Much farther north, where the shores of Lake Geneva mark the edge of Switzerland, Dominique Lucas is bringing his family’s Burgundian sensibilities (they own land right outside Pommard) to the chasselas grape, long a native on both the lake’s French and Swiss shores. The grape’s rotgut reputation and the region’s general addiction to adding sugar to boost alcohol levels have built a level of frustration in Lucas with his fellow vignerons. To prove his point, he has found depth in a grape that often is seen as being inexpressive, like an alpine version of pinot grigio—and I don’t mean the good Alto Adige kind.

But it also may be the case that for the Savoie to find its deeper self, it needs to stop relying on its old rules and truly try something new. That was the conclusion of a winemaker named Brice Omont, who began planting his Domaine des Ardoisières outside the traditional Savoyard boundaries on steep slopes on the far side of the Isère river from Arbin and in Cevins, far down the Tarantaise Valley past Albertville, making wines under the humbler vin des Allobroges designation (the name for the region’s ancient Gaulic tribe).

Omont, more than most, openly acknowledges the Rhône connection; there, a handful of winemakers returned to the abandoned hillside terraces specifically because they saw it as their chance to undo a reputation for cheap wine, and to pursue something more important.

“If you look at appellations like Condrieu or Côte-Rôtie, now everyone wants to be on the slopes,” he tells me. “But in the ‘60s and ‘70s, everyone wanted to be on the flatlands because it was easier and the yields were better. It took a few people, like Yves Cuilleron or François Villard, who said, ‘We’re going up on the hills because that’s where quality is.’”

At the same time, the Rhône comparison has limits. For one thing, most Savoie wine is white, and most from the northern Rhône is red, and Savoie wines were never as famous as Hermitage or Côte-Rotie. Plus, it’s hard to say just what a great Savoie wine should taste like. Take mondeuse: While it’s related to syrah, it’s not the same; make it like syrah and it becomes overly hard and rustic. But made with a softer touch, using the carbonic methods of Beaujolais or the minimalist infusion techniques now gaining favor, it can achieve more savory finesse and charm.

However imperfect, the link to the Rhône is still the most relevant, and a reminder that wine traditions in this part of France tend to seep from one region to another. And having a few vignerons ask more complicated questions gets the Savoie closer to a context beyond being a Jura sidekick. It’s not going to become another Rhône, and it doesn’t need to. All it needs is a few more people who see the chance for greatness on its old mountain slopes.