South of Lake Leman, bordered by Albertville, Chambly and Annecy, the small winegrowing region of Savoie now covers approximately 2000 hectares of vines grown on the foothills of the Alps, at an altitude between 250 and 500 metres. Savoie’s winegrowing area is divided into three appellations, broken up by mountainous terrain. This mosaic of microclimates amidst lakes, alpine pastures and orchards provides 20 distinct geographical denominations. Despite its small size, this area has more than 20 different grape varieties, mostly whites, of which some are completely unique, such as the Altesse grape. Currently enjoying a revival, Savoie is attracting new producers passionate about the diversity of its terroir, who are helping showcase wines of great finesse.
The geology of Savoie
The Savoie winegrowing area is a very fertile region, boasting soils that are the result of geological evolutions from the creation of the Alps, and even certain sectors of the Jura chain in the Chautagne territory.
The vast majority of the vines were planted on a limestone subsoil of the French Prealps, or "limestone scree". The most recent of this subsoil, which forms a most conducive terroir for white wines, is from the collapse of Mont Granier in the 13th century.
The soils are composed of alluvium, glacial moraines, fragments of ancient glaciers, scree cones and fluvial terraces. Limestone marl terroirs can be found at Chignin and Jongieux. Some vines benefit from schist soil, as in Cevins, or clay veins, for instance around Arbin. This diversity of terroirs contribute to the individuality of Savoie among French wines.
The history of Savoie wines
While winegrowing on this side of the Alps was recorded after the Roman conquest, vine cultivation in Savoie is much older than that, as proved by the discovery of fossilised grape pips on the sites of Neolithic lakes.
The development of Savoie wines under Roman rule
In the first century AD the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote about winegrowing in this Alpine region, referring to « vitis allobrogica », capable of weathering mountainous weather conditions. It was indeed during the first century that the Celts from Allobroges began to cultivate a grape variety adapted to the mountain climate.
In the Augustan era, agricultural author and farmer Columella spoke of this allobrogicum as a wine that was prized in Rome. Other classical writers, Celsus and Plutarch, praised the Allobroges wines with their naturally tarry savour, « vinum picatum,» attributing both taste and medicinal qualities to them. This renown for Savoie wines helped in the winegrowing development.
The ascent of winegrowing in Savoie after the fall of the Roman Empire
After the fall of the Roman Empire in 462 AD and subsequent invasions, a new advance in Savoie winegrowing came about thanks to the Catholic Church. It owned significant land assets and put monks to work denominating areas to cultivate vines. As they did, they learned more about growing and winemaking, advancing hugely the quality of the wine. But a dramatic episode would change the winegrowing region forever : the collapse of Mont Granier. This catastrophic landslide in the 13th century buried several villages, and claimed the lives of thousands of people.
The great winegrowing expansion from the 16th-18th century
During this period, vine cultivation became so profitable for labourers that the vineyards, initially planted on the sunniest hills, were extended onto the plains and upwards onto the mountainsides at 1000 metres of altitude. In the 18th century, growers even planted vines onto the scree of Mont Granier. These vines are linked today to two geographical denominations : Abymes and Apremont.
In 1559, the ruler of what was then the ancient Duchy of Savoy, Duc Emmanuel Philibert, published a decree banning the harvest before the grapes had reached their full ripeness, in order to preserve their quality. This was only partially respected and a period of overproduction followed, which continued until the arrival of phylloxera.
In 1768, 9,000 hectares of vines were counted, the majority of which provided only a "farmer's wine," often too green and acidic.
France’s annexation of Savoy and phylloxera: harmful consequences on the economy of Savoie wines.
In 1860, France’s annexation of Savoy weakened the economy of Savoyard vineyards, because the wines were put in direct competition with the wines of the South. Then, between 1878 and 1892, the region was afflicted by the arrival of phylloxera.
However, the Savoie vines benefitted from American rootstock grafting, an innovative technique discovered in the late 1880s. A huge vine replantation took place to replace the losses. Thanks to this the winegrowing area remained constant.
The golden age for Savoie wines after the First and Second World Wars
From the 1960s up to the 1990s the Savoie winegrowing area saw a true renaissance. The advent of winter sports gave the region unprecedented notice and market opportunities. This period is also when it obtained the AOC Savoie and Roussette de Savoie (1973), which were added to the AOC Seyssel, obtained in 1942.
In 1992, the Winter Olympics in Albertville put Savoie wines in the spotlight and they were awarded several agricultural and viticultural prizes.
But consumption of wine at a national level had dropped. While some producers had been able to anticipate this phenomenon by increasing quality, Savoie suffered a decline in its reputation, confining it to immediately drinkable wines, without much ageing potential.
A winegrowing region on a quest for quality and recognition in the 2000s
The 2000s marked a turning point for Savoie wines. The strategy to reconquer the market was laid down, thanks to new technical directions, production controls and monitoring, but also to communication and seeking new consumers. Winegrowing has greatly contributed to the development of the Savoie landscape.
Today, it has the privileged position of the second most important sector in the Savoie agricultural economy, after dairy farming. The vineyards are attracting attention and new producers are arriving; living proof of a revival in the image for Savoie’s new wines.
Winegrowing in Savoie today
From Lake Léman to south of Chambéry, the Savoie vineyards are mostly placed on the low slopes of the Alps, spreading across two principle departments, Savoie and Haute-Savoie, and two outer departments, Isére and Ain. One of the smallest terroirs in France is represented today by 1550 hectares of AOP vineyards and produces 15 million bottles per year.
The Savoie appellations
The winegrowing region of Savoie has 3 classifed AOP (appellations d’origine protégée) appellations. There are two regional appellations : "Savoie wine" or "Savoie" for all types and "Roussette de Savoie" for white wines from the Altesse grape. The third is a commune appellation, "Seyssel," for dry and sparkling white wines. There is also the IGP (Indication géographique protégée) Comtés Rhodaniens and the IGP Vin des Allobroges.
The vineyards are split up by the mountainous terrain. Some plots are entirely distinct, separated by towns, mountains and lakes, forming form a complex mosaic of microclimates and terroirs.
For this reason, regional appellations can be supplemented by a geographical denomination (formerly called "cru”). There are 20 of them: Abymes or "Les Abymes," Apremont, Arbin, Ayze, Chautagne, Chignin, Chignin-Bergeron, Crépy, Cruet, Frangy, Jongieux, Marignan, Marin, Marestel, Montoux, Monterminod, Montmélian, Ripaille, Saint-Jean-de-la-Porte and Saint-Jeoire-Prieuré.
The Savoie climate
As a mountainous region at the foot of the magnificent Mont Blanc, Savoie has a multitude of small terroirs at altitude planted on hills between valleys and lakes, those of Annecy and Bourget.
The continental-mountainous climate is influenced by the Atlantic ocean from the north and the Mediterranean in the south, with frequent frosts that only local grape varieties can weather. The vines are also threatened by the south-west wind. Named La Traverse, it is lethal to crops when it occurs during wet weather, which is frequent in Savoie, one of the wettest regions in France. The Savoie vines also suffer the north wind, the north-southwest "bise" wind and southern winds, which bring storms to the region in the summer.
The Savoie grape varieties
This complex and fragmented winegrowing area has a multitude of grape varieties – 23 in total – mostly white, making up 70% of production. Some native varieties are very widespread in Savoie.
Jacquère is the prominent grape in the region and is the most grown in Savoie, taking up 50% of vines and reigning over six geographical denominations : Apremont, Abymes, Chignin, St-Jeoire-Prieuré, Cruet and Jongieux. It gives white wines a pale, fresh yellow colour. The aromatic range gives mineral and white flower notes.
Altesse represents 10% of the vines but its presence is increasing. Also known as Roussette, Altesse originally comes from Cyprus but was imported into Savoie at the time of the crusades. White and sparkling wines from this grape are floral and fruity, combining richness and freshness. They can be kept for many years.
Roussanne represents just 4% of the growing area and is spread over the hills of Tormery, the hamlet of Chignin, Francin and Monmélian. It produces (single-varietal) Chignin-Bergeron, a creamy wine with powerful scents of ripe fruit, apricot, quince and honey notes.
Red wines come mostly from the Mondeuse, Gamay or Pinot Noir grapes. Mondeuse covers 12% of the growing area ; before phylloxera, it was the most widespread red variety in Savoie. It produces tannic, robust, rich wines with spicy scents, like white pepper, and blackcurrant, with an excellent laying-down potential. It was brought back to Savoie in the 1980s thanks to Michel Grisard, founder of the Domaine des Ardoisières.
Gamay spreads over 15% of the growing area and produces highly scented wines which are best enjoyed in their youth.
Wines from the Savoie appellations
Roussette de Savoie wines
This dry white wines with their lustrous pale yellow colour gives a nose of nutty notes, almond and honey as well as dried fruits and violet. On the palate, it’s a lively wine graced with a great aromatic longevity. It is perfectly paired with fish.
Roussette de Savoie Marestel wine has a quince jelly and dried fruit scented nose. The palate is dense, round and full-bodied aith a long and enduring finish. It can be laid down for more than 5 years and goes perfectly with chicken.
Roussette de Savoie Monthoux is characterised by its light waxy notes. It goes best with cheeses.
Seyssel wine has a pale golden colour. The nose opens with notes of pear and peach, which develop into floral and mineral touches. On the palate, it is a lively wine, but dense and generous which goes wonderfully with poultry or fish in sauce. It is not generally a laying-down wine.
Wines from Allobroges are white, red and rosé.
White Allobroges wine has in its youth a light colour with green highlights. The nose unlocks to unveil its aromatic palette when aerated in a carafe. It gradually opens to floral and mineral notes. It should be served chilled and is excellent with finely-fleshed fish. It can be laid down for between 5 and 10 years according to the vintage.
Red Allobroges wine can be wonderfully fine and elegant, with its faintly spicy notes and beautiful structure. It should be tasted with meats that are spiced or in sauce.