Most of the Savoie wine you’ll encounter on American shores tends to be relatively cheap— often under $15—from villages like Apremont and Chignin. These wines can be a good introduction to unusual grapes like jacquère and altesse (the latter often labeled as roussette de Savoie), but they offer the level of depth of any cheaper wine.
The following six producers are chasing something entirely different. They’re in pursuit of profound expression, important wines that can define the Savoie today and in the future. Prices can sometimes bring sticker shock if you remember the region’s cheaper fare, but this is a small mountain region, where farming is expensive. Some of the cost reflects better farming decisions and some reflects the wines’ newfound popularity.
In addition to the below, keep an eye out for wines from Domaine de Vens-le-Haut, which has been singlehandedly reviving the wines of Seyssel, in the hills above the Rhône, as it flows south from Geneva; La Gerbelle in Chignin (run by Claude Quenard, one of the many Quenards in town); and the old-school stylings of Domaine Dupasquier from the steep slopes of Jongieux.
Situated in Ayse (alternately Ayze), in the Chamonix valley, which heads northeast toward Geneva, Belluard is the Savoie’s closest thing to a star shot. Both his white and sparkling wines are now in high demand. The sparkling bottlings, Les Perles du Mont Blanc Brut and a Mont-Blanc Brut Zéro, both made from the archaic gringet grape, show mineral intensity and a warm, nutty side. Gringet is used in his best still whites, too: a quince-flavored Les Alpes, from a planting on calcareous stones, and the rare Le Feu, full of spice and green-tea subtlety, from a steep, south-facing parcel of friable bauxite that can evoke comparisons of great northern Rhône whites, even Hermitage Blanc. Belluard is a careful student of the Savoie’s old ways, often quoting ampelographer Pierre Galet. But he’s also a skeptic of some traditional grapes, like jacquère. Instead, he prefers altesse, using old field cuttings from Dupasquier for his Les Grandes Jorasses, which smells like the best Ricola drop you’ve ever had.
Peron’s formative winemaking took him through the heart of naturalist cred, including stints with Cornas’ Thierry Allemand and Alsace’s Gérard Schueller. And his reclamation of the old Albertville slopes, in the heart of the old Savoyard lands, is a moral work. The wines, all made outside appellation rules, can be radiantly fresh if also a bit rough-edged (there’s a hard resistance to using sulfur), but they have a wide fan base. La Grande Journée, jacquère on mica and schist, leads with plush pear fruit and a slight oxidation. His Champ Levat shows the subtler, ruby-ish side of mondeuse, as does the Côte Pelée, made from grapes grown on a precipitous parcel just above the city, which demonstrates an impressive mineral depth.
Since 1998, Berlioz has grown his estate to seven hectares on the southwest facing slopes of the Massif des Bauges, nine miles east of Chambéry. He’s a fan of the grape that Belluard dismisses: jacquère. It is the base of his Le Jaja, for instance, which exudes an alpine freshness, scented with chervil and green tea, and that bracing herbal core that riesling can achieve. But he’s adept with all the traditional Savoyard grapes as well. His El-Hem finds the green-walnut astringency that can give distinction to altesse. And his (rather expensive) bottlings of Chignin Bergeron, the local name for roussanne, like Les Fripons and Les Filles, demonstrate a fine line between mineral austerity and a Meursault-like opulence that roussanne can—but rarely does—achieve.
Continue east from Chignin, swing around the other side of the Bauges’ southern tip, and you find Arbin, on dramatically tilted slopes above the Isère River. The Genoux brothers hired Yann Pernuit in 2008, and he makes the wine in a spacious 13th-century maison forte, a kind of mini-fort. Mondeuse finds its subtlest expression here, both in the La Belle Romaine and the rare (N) 45°30.506′ (E) 6°04.451′, although his Le Grand Blanc matches classic roussanne flavors (peanuts, baked apricot) to a remarkable mineral intensity.
Dominique Lucas migrated from his native Burgundy, frustrated with the region’s reliance on chemicals, and landed in the local winery at Ballaison, on the shore of Lake Geneva. Here, he founded Les Vignes de Paradis, where he trains vines in a chaotic, unpruned method reminiscent of Burgundy’s Lalou Bize-Leroy, and is trying his hand with pinot gris, chardonnay and gamay aged in concrete pyramids. (Long story.) But his chasselas, like Un Matin Face au Lac Terroir du Léman, aged in concrete egg, and 1515, in old casks, exude honey and matcha scents, and pace the best Swiss examples, from producers like Luc Massy. But there’s also great savagnin, in a rare tie to the Jura, and, yes, gamay, in the forthcoming G de Marin.
Domaine des Ardoisières
Starting in 2005, Brice Omont made a choice: Rather than elevate traditional Savoie wine, he would create a frontier, hunting great soils in previously abandoned corners of the region. Half his vines are in Saint-Pierre-de-Soucy, on the far side of the Isère River, where the soil turns Jurassic. Here he planted not just the usual Savoie fare but also gamay and the rare red persan. The other half of his vines are in Cevins, far down the Tarentaise Valley from Albertville, where a local effort begun in the 1990s has revived some 450 microparcels—all on densely head-staked hillsides of quartz and schist—in a tribute to the area’s historic wine culture. Cevins yields his Amethyste (persan and mondeuse), Quartz (all altesse) and Schiste (jacquère, roussanne, malvasia, mondeuse blanche), while the Saint-Jean vines provide more basic Argile red and white blends.