The local winegrowers say it themselves: wine enthusiasts are often unaware of the conditions in which Savoy wines are grown. The defining features of wine growing here are not so much about the harsh climate or high elevations, but rather the topography. Vineyards are planted on steep hillsides, making access difficult.
Can you say you know the wines of Savoy if you have only ever tasted them? Obviously this is an essential part of the process, but discussing with a winemaker the specific conditions in which the wines are produced, at the foot of the Alps, is also a must. As is discovering that alongside Apremont, which spearheads wines from this French wine region, is an extensive range of growths shaped by the expertise and determination of passionate people.
The vineyards of Savoy extend over 2,200 hectares, mainly in Savoie and Haute-Savoie, but also in Isère and Ain. About 16 million bottles are sold each year, divided between four protected designations of origin (Vin de Savoie, Savoie Roussette, Seyssel, and since 2015, Crémant de Savoie) and some twenty geographical indications. On top of this array of growths is a broad range of grape varieties, an undeniable marketing bonus. No fewer than twenty grape varieties, two thirds of which are white, are permitted in production specifications.
Not just white grape varieties – red too!
Jacquère, by far the most widespread white grape variety, covers half of Savoy’s area under vine, whilst the second most common, Altesse, accounts for just 10%. These are followed by Chasselas, only grown in Haute-Savoie, Roussanne, Chardonnay, Aligoté, Velteliner, Molette blanche and Gringet.
More surprisingly, the Savoy reds account for a third of production. They include typical Savoy grape variety Mondeuse plus Gamay and Pinot Noir as well as Persan, one of the region’s heritage varieties, and Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon.
What makes this extensive varietal range unusual is not so much the altitude or the climate, but the fact that they are planted on slopes that can be very steep. This makes the use of machines difficult - impossible even in some places - and vineyard management is therefore labour-intensive.
“Local winegrowers encounter more problems related to landform than climate”, confirms Michel Quenard, chairman of the regional Savoy wine organisation. “We are often considered as a mountain wine region but this is not so as our vines are planted at a maximum elevation of 450 metres, whereas mountain vineyards are typically located at elevations of 700 or 800 metres. Yes this is Savoy, but not the winter sports resorts it is famed for, and ultimately, there is no more snow here than in Burgundy! Our major handicap is that our vines are situated on steep inclines with gradients of up to 60% or even 70% in the steepest areas. But it is important to remember that this is a long-standing wine region with propitious vineyard sites patiently shaped by wine growers”.
These topographical constraints allow Savoy wines to be part of the Centre for Research, Environmental Sustainability and Advancement of Mountain Viticulture (CERVIM), an international organisation based in Italy, which specifically promotes and safeguards “heroic viticulture” and organises an annual “extreme wine” competition.
"This is land that has always been home to vines and that produces quality wines”, says Alexis Cote, winemaker at Maison Viallet in Apremont, Savoie, which groups together the Maison Philippe Viallet and Les Fils de René Quenard brands. “But it is true that people do not necessarily realise the reality out in the field. Our 70-hectare vineyard is planted between 350 and 450 meters above sea level. The access roads to our vineyards are sometimes so steep they have to zigzag. Sometimes we have to spray our vines using cannons, a process adapted to steep inclines. When I go to other vineyards and people talk to me about hillside vineyards, to me they look small. The land looks flat! Here, vineyard management is very challenging. On the 16 hectares at Fils de René Quenard, for example, everything is done by hand”.
Samuel Neyroud, owner of Domaine Saint-Cassin, which extends over 5 hectares in Desingy, Haute-Savoie, concurs: “There is no denying that we have to contend with disadvantages. First, mechanisation is very difficult. The gradients of my slopes are between 25 and 45% which requires light machines, weighing no more than a ton, otherwise they won’t climb. The problem is that this type of machine is not mass-produced, it is a rare and therefore expensive product. Caterpillars are extremely expensive too. I have to pick my grapes by hand, but unfortunately in Savoy, we have trouble finding labour”.
"Similarly, soils in sloping vineyards are quite poor in nutrients”, adds Samuel Neyroud, “so vines produce less, leading to lower yields than on the plains”. In the vineyards of Savoy, it is estimated that one third of winegrowers harvest less than 100 hectolitres per year, and the average yield per hectare is around 60 hectolitres.
Very affordable wines
Despite the challenges facing the wine growers of Savoy, these are barely reflected in the price of the wines. Much to Gilbert Perrier's regret. Both a producer and merchant, he owns the Jean Perrier et Fils estate in Les Marches, Savoie, and is current chairman of the organisation that represents merchants maturing their wines in the Rhone-Alps region. “Savoy is more labour-intensive than Chablis”, he claims, “and yet our wines are no more expensive. People don’t take into consideration the work and costs involved. But we are not about to give you a sob story!”
Gilbert Perrier and his sons at Domaine Jean Perrier et fils in Les Marches
Samuel Neyroud agrees: “When you plant on hillsides for example, the cost of development is significant. Mounds have to be flattened, access paths made, and spaces or "headlands” left at the end of the row so that machines can turn. The soils must also be stabilised, but without bringing in or removing soil, because we cannot change either the geography or the geology of the soil. All this obviously has a cost”.
“Saying that, by planting on slopes, our vines enjoy excellent exposure to the sun's rays”, he continues. “The finest aspect is south/southeast: it offers good exposure during the day and the sunrise dries the dew and drives away moisture, thus reducing the risk of diseases. Our soils also have good filtering capacity with gravel, which facilitates runoff. All of this is good for vines”.
A relatively mild climate
The location of the Savoy wine region, between lakes and mountains, also creates many micro-climates. A perfect illustration of this is at Château de Ripaille in Thonon-les-Bains, Haute-Savoie. “Our 20 hectares of vines are planted 350 metres above sea level on the shores of Lake Geneva”, says Paule Necker, owner of the estate with her husband Louis. “What sets us apart is that we are located on a peninsula of the lake. Our vines are therefore high, but on flat ground. Mechanisation is feasible, and we benefit from a microclimate due to the nearby lake. Here, we have almond trees and umbrella pines that are not found elsewhere. We also have less risk of frost”.
Most of Château de Ripaille’s wine is made from Chasselas grapes, usually served as table grapes in the South of France. “But in Haute-Savoie, it develops less sugar and produces an early-drinking wine”. Snow does not impress Quebec-born Paule Necker, but as she points out, it is not an issue anyway. “On the peninsula, if we have snow, there is no more than 10 cm and it only lasts for a few days. When we look in our archives, however - the estate was established 120 years ago - we see that in the coldest years, harvesting could take place at the end of October. Nowadays, it takes place at the beginning of September”.
Climatic hazards are becoming a source of concern for Savoy winegrowers. “By trial and error, we found the right grape varieties for the soils”, points out Gilbert Perrier. “So our vineyard management is nigh-on perfect. But it is undeniable that the climate has changed and the harvest takes place increasingly early. Twenty or 25 years ago, it was October, now it's early September, late August even. The climate is very up and down and we can experience frost when vines are at their most fragile, which was not the case previously. Then there is the issue of storms. From now until the harvest, they will be a constant threat. A storm can wipe out an entire vineyard in a flash, as happened recently in Bordeaux. We are not safe from anything, but consumers are not aware of all this”. Faced with global warming, the industry is considering expanding the appellation area and planting vines up to 500 metres above sea level; the temperature drops by 0.6° every 100 meters of altitude.
Most Savoy wine is drunk in France, but also in North America, Northern Europe and Asia. The nearby ski resorts, which welcome tourists from all over the world, are also captive markets. Samuel Neyroud likes to say that he “exports a lot at home”, due to visits from the Belgians and Dutch who have become loyal customers over the years.
Experimental wine growers
Samuel Neyroud at Domaine de Saint-Cassin is delighted with the change in mentalities within the industry. “Many of us want to diversify and innovate”, he says. “There are changes compared with the previous generation: in times past, some growers produced a lot of wine, sometimes to the detriment of quality. Jacquère is naturally high-yielding, but can sometimes produce diluted wines”. Many winegrowers are rediscovering heirloom grape varieties, including Persan, an ancient red grape variety from Savoy which is attracting renewed interest in the region, and they are experimenting. Samuel Neyroud recently planted 800 Gewurztraminer vines. “The variety is not permitted in our production specifications, so I will market it under the Vin de France label. I also planted 800 Malvasia vines, an old local grape variety that is similar to Pinot Gris from Alsace”.
The new Crémant de Savoie appellation has already recruited a strong following, endorsing Savoy's expertise in producing wine. “It is our very own champagne, but to satisfy demand, we need to produce more”, says Gilbert Perrier.
In the meantime, the Savoy producers we interviewed are unanimous: you must come and visit them! “The scenery is stunning”, says an ebullient Gilbert Perrier. “That's what people who come here admire the most. As an introduction to our beautiful region, I suggest you watch the Tour de France bicycle race which is broadcast virtually all over the world – we are one of its major stages. Once you have watched it, there is absolutely no doubt that you will say to yourself: “I have to go there one day!”
Château de Ripaille, 83 avenue de Ripaille 74200 Thonon-les-Bains. Tel: +33 4 50 26 64 44. ripaille.fr
Domaine Jean Perrier et fils, Zone artisanale 73800 Les Marches. Tel: +33 4 79 28 11 45. vins-perrier.com
Maison Philippe Viallet, Le Clos Réservé 73190 Apremont. Tel: +33 4 79 28 33 29. vins-viallet.com.
Domaine Saint-Cassin, 187 chemin des Vignes 74270 Desingy. Tel: +33 6 33 13 84 97.
Légendes photo :
Paule Necker, owner of Château de Ripaille in Thonon-les-Bains with her husband Louis Necker.
Gilbert Perrier and his sons at Domaine Jean Perrier et fils in Les Marches. Photo credit: Eve Hilaire - Studio des 2 prairies.
Philippe Viallet, owner of Maison Philippe Viallet in Apremont. [Philippe Viallet n’est pas interviewé dans l’article, mais plutôt son œnologue Alexis Cote, mais pas de photo de ce dernier disponible]
Samuel Neyroud, owner of Domaine Saint-Cassin in Desingy.
Michel Quenard, chairman of the Savoy regional wine organisation.
Apremont vineyards located in the village of Apremont. Photo credit: Syndicat régional des vins de Savoie
Jongieux vineyards in the village of Jongieux. Photo credit: Syndicat régional des vins de Savoie
Chignin vineyards near Chambéry. In the background, the Belledonnes mountain range. Photo credit: Syndicat régional des vins de Savoie.
In the Chautagne area, north of Bourget lake. Photo credit: Syndicat régional des vins de Savoie.
Saint-André lake at the foot of Mont Granier. Photo credit: Syndicat régional des vins de Savoie.
The hillsides of Marestel in the Jongieux wine region. Photo credit: Syndicat régional des vins de Savoie.
By Armelle Baillon-Dubourg - Photographs: Courtesy of the estates