Après-ski, fondue, alphorns, Julie Andrews in an endless twirl—these are just a few of the things that likely come to mind when one thinks of the Alps. But there’s also a lot of wine hiding in them there mountains. Unbeknownst to many, the alpine regions of Savoie in France, Valais in Switzerland and both Valle d’Aosta and Trentino-Alto Adige in Italy form a collection of high-altitude winemaking regions that not only claim their own indigenous varieties, but collectively offer a jackpot of value-driven wines that channel their brisk alpine environs.
Savoie, for one, is finally getting its due in the U.S.—with a number of excellent producers finding not only representation, but cult success on our shores, from the whites and sparkling wines of Domaine Belluard (whose rare bottling of the indigenous gringet grape has become something of a totem for the region’s potential) to the naturalist producer Jean-Yves Péron.
To the east, in the shadow of Mont Blanc, lies Italy’s Valle d’Aosta, home to some of Europe’s highest elevation vineyards and a virtual grab bag of grape varieties, from the obscure native grapes of petite arvine and prié blanc on the white side to petit rouge (responsible for light, juicy reds), fumin (another peppery, floral grape that often channels cool-climate syrah) and cornalin on the red. Not to mention excellent and wholly unique takes on gamay, nebbiolo and pinot noir.
At the base of the southern alps and the foot of the Dolomites is Italy’s other alpine region, Trentino-Alto Adige, which shares as much kinship with Germany and Austria as Valle d’Aosta shares with France. Here, too, are a number of native grapes—like the red teroldego, lagrein, marzemino and schiava—along with close to a dozen white grapes that share turf with Austria and Germany and even France, like Müller-Thurgau, weissburgunder (pinot blanc), sylvaner, gewürztraminer and many more.
While all of these regions are utterly unique in their own right, what they all share—at their best—are wines that show that particular kind of alpine tension between fruit and acid, and an undeniable freshness that drinks like a liquid facsimile of the alpine breeze.
So, to kick off winter, we went trekking through the Alps to find the best damn cool-weather wines under $25 to be had. In one of our most successful tastings to date, from a pool of six whites and six reds from the aforementioned regions (Switzerland did not make the cut as a matter of price—there are many great wines to be found, but few under $25), we came up with a full six we’d wholeheartedly recommend—from an excellent $15 weissburgunder from Südtirol to a peppery, floral $17 mondeuse from Savoie’s Chignin.
To the wines:
2012 Weingut Niklas Weissburgunder | $15 (Alto Adige)
Sourced from vineyards located around 1,650 feet above sea level in the southern part of the valley that leads up to the foot of the Dolomite mountains in Alto Adige, this 100 percent weissburgunder (pinot blanc) is the perfect introduction to what the area does best. Our best value white in the tasting, this is all round, dense stone fruit (think peach compote and apricots) countered by racy acidity and a notable mineral streak. No oak and no malolactic on this guy—just clean alpine goodness. Importer: Oliver McCrum Wines [Buy]
2014 Jacques Maillet Le P’tit Canon | $22 (Savoie)
After falling ill from the use of chemicals he encountered while working for a commercial cooperative winery in Savoie, Jacques Maillet decided to purchase and farm his own land, converting old-vine mondeuse, altesse and jacquère to biodynamics and working as naturally as possible in the cellar. This cuvée—a mix of altesse (aka roussette) and the high-acid grape jacquère, sourced from steep hillside vineyards—shows the more angular side of Savoie. Lean, mineral and intensely savory, this is the sort of white that begs for fondue. Oblige. Importer: Dynamic Vines [Buy]
2014 Franck Peillot Altesse | $24 (Bugey)
Franck Peillot has long been an ambassador of excellent, low-impact wines on these shores. Located in Bugey, which is often considered part of Savoie, he is one of the few winemakers who bottle a 100 percent altesse, Peillot farms steep limestone vineyards in the village of Montagnieu, overlooking the Rhône Valley. This bottling shows the kind of tension between dense fruit and high acid that has become synonymous with the altesse grape. Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections [Buy]
2013 Vallarom Marzemino | $20 (Trentino)
After taking over his family’s vineyards just east of Lake Garda at the foot of the Dolomites, Filippo Scienza abandoned the use of chemical fertilizers and converted all of the vineyards to organics. One of a growing number of smaller producers in Trentino—a region still in the process of moving away from co-op culture—Scienza’s marzemino is sourced from 30-year-old vines, fermented using native yeast and aged in stainless steel before being bottled unfiltered. This has all of the hallmark florality of the grape in a rustic package that will charm the hell out of those addicted to the glou-glou reds of the Loire Valley. Importer: PortoVino [Buy]
2014 Diego Curtaz Di Meun | $24 (Valle d’Aosta)
The smallest producer in the tasting, Diego Curtaz farms a minuscule one hectare (just under two and a half acres) of vines separated into three plots—ranging in elevation from 2,000 to 2,500 feet above sea level—of both red and white grapes. His Di Meun, of which less than 2,000 bottles are released each year, is a juicy, earthy blend of native red grapes petit rouge, vuillermin, fumin and cornalin. Importer: VOS Selections [Buy]
2011 Les Cantates Mondeuse | $17 (Savoie)
A more structured, age-worthy answer to the Di Meun, this take on the mondeuse grape was not only our favorite wine in the tasting, but our best value red. The domaine, whose wines were formerly bottled under Les Fils de René Quénard name before it was purchased by Claire Taittinger (a Savoie native and the wife of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger of Champagne Taittinger), bottles this 100 percent mondeuse from vines ranging in age from 30 and 50 years old. Herbal and peppery, this is exactly the kind of wine that inspires talk of the grape’s kinship with syrah. Importer: T. Edward Wines [Buy]