The use of vacuous, flowery language when it comes to wine is nothing new, but over the past five years, a unique linguistic pattern has emerged among importers, sommeliers and wine shop buyers alike when it comes to describing the wines of Dominique Belluard. The word is “crystalline,” said with conviction, sanctity and hope, as if the wines will beam us onto a clearer path.
Belluard’s collection of wines, made from an obscure grape called gringet from a little-known corner of France’s alpine Savoie region, are perfect embodiments of today’s white wine thirst trap: rich and fruit-forward, but with vivid, piercing acidity—all at an easy price. The latter qualifier is, of course, no longer true. But more on that in a second.
Like so many other great small producers, Belluard’s wines first slipped in to the U.S. through Jon Rimmerman’s wine club, Garagiste, in the mid-2000s. Rimmerman had been introduced to the wines by Thomas Calder, an influential Paris-based wine broker and was immediately taken. “I once described Belluard’s gringet as a combination of a beautiful babbling mountain stream mixed with shards of mineral-slathered stalactites,” says Rimmerman. “I think that still fits.”
Belluard works biodynamically in the tiny village of Ayse, which sits at the foot of the Alps on exceedingly steep, rocky terrain. The gringet grape has been grown there since the 14th or 15th century, but had all but gone extinct before Belluard began cultivating more of it. For hundreds of years the grape’s parentage has been in question. In fact, it was only in 2008 that ampelographers came to the conclusion that gringet is not a relative of another local grape called savagnin. It is, instead, its own autochthonous variety.
The first wine Rimmerman brought in was a sparkling gringet called Mont Blanc Brut Zero, which he credits with helping foster a culture of zero-dosage wines from places other than Champagne. “Dominique subsequently added an ‘Ayse’ sparkling wine [called Les Perles du Mont Blanc] that was a bit lower in price and easier to understand,” says Rimmerman. A trio of still white wines followed: Les Alpes, Grandes Jorasses and Le Feu. Le Feu quickly emerged as the most coveted. “It remains one of the definitive wines of France,” he says.
It wasn’t long before Cory Cartwright, co-founder of the import company Selection Massale, got his hands on a bottle of Belluard’s Mont Blanc. He brought it to his business partner Guilhaume Gerard, and the two have been importing the wines of Dominique Belluard into the U.S. ever since.
Jonathan Waters, sommelier at Chez Panisse, was one of their first customers. “They’re not elbows-on-the-table wines,” he says, intimating that they’re not ponderous, but very present. “They go well with food because they have balance and elegance—they’re very flexible.”
What is desired in white wines, today, tends to surround intense acidity, and while Belluard’s wines certainly have it in spades, there’s more to them than that. “You know that game where you drop the claw down into a pool of toys and try to pick one up?,” asks Waters. “These wines have a racy quality that’s not just acidity. The acidity has to bring something with it.” In other words, a steel claw without a toy attached isn’t much of a win.
Belluard works with four distinct soil types: limestone, glacial moraine (lest we forget he’s at nearly 1,500 feet above sea level, in the shadow of Mont Blanc), yellow marl and a vein of iron-rich clay left behind by glacial waterfalls, which gives what he considers his grand cru bottling, Le Feu, that elusive combination of depth and freshness. While his various bottles of gringet are the stars, he also works with the white altesse and red mondeuse grapes in a similar manner.
“It’s always hard to know what resonates with people, even after ten years of doing this,” says Gerard of Selection Massale. The foundation of his business relies on other peoples’ tastes aligning with his own, but a wine’s success is still, in some respects, a game of chance. In the case of Belluard, Gerard points to a perfect alchemy of deliciousness from a singular grape that’s not grown anywhere else, the support of big wine influencers on both sides of the Atlantic and the sheer rarity of the wines.
Belluard’s cult status comes with a price. The wines have been highly allocated since 2013, with sommeliers and wine shops vying for what few bottles exist. “I think Les Alpes retailed around $27 in 2011, but they’re now around $40,” says Gerard. The Le Feu, originally in the high $30 range, now, when available, tends to retail above the $50 mark. So, too, have allocations become slimmer and slimmer with increased demand. Waters estimates that these days he’s offered about an eighth of what used to be available to him.
We have, of course, brought this on ourselves. As we continue to push deeper into the most remote corners of the wine world, we run into the undeniable truth that there is a limit to these little wonders, that they can be exhausted. This is, in fact, part of their appeal. And so we turn the corner and head straight into the hunt for the next “crystalline” wonder, with the hope that we get there before everyone else.