When I moved to Burgundy fifteen years ago, I befriended a young Savoyard who had recently inherited some family vineyards, and he invited me for a tour of his vines in the village of Chignin. Having never set foot in Chignin, nor ever tasted a wine from Savoie, I gladly accepted his invitation. As he picked me up at the local train station, he told me that the first thing he wanted to do was to take me to the domaine of Michel Quenard. He explained that Michel was his model, paving the way not only by making unique and delicious wines marked by their uncommon Alpine terroir, but also by championing the notion that these wines were more than mere local curiosities to drink at ski resorts over a pot of fondue. While Michel had long given counsel to young growers, he also had recently become president of the Savoie wine syndicate (a position he still holds today) and was pushing to lift the region by focusing on quality and the potential locked in the terroir. Under his tenure, the appellation of Chignin has cut by half the amount of acreage allowed to grow grapes (effectively eliminating any questionable terroirs), has limited yields, and has imposed sustainable farming practices. Thus, for my friend who wanted to introduce me to the region and its wines, it was a no-brainer to take me to Michel’s door. We were warmly greeted, and upon hearing my American accent, the first thing Michel did (after pouring a glass for each of us) was to bring out an old, worn scrapbook. Inside were page after page of clippings of write-ups from this very newsletter, in which Kermit would muse a few lines about a new release from the estate, as well as handwritten faxes from Kermit congratulating Michel for a cuvée that was providing particular enjoyment, and even forms detailing the various orders the domaine had received and shipped around the United States. Michel absolutely beamed with pride, without the least hint of arrogance, as he showed me the scrapbook. Each page validated what he, his father André, and the generations before had always believed: that Chignin was a grand terroir capable of making grand wines, and Bergeron was its grandest grape. At the time, I knew of Kermit but had no idea I’d be working in his office in Beaune a few years later. The moment was eye-opening for me, on many levels, to say the least. Since that day, I have become quite fond of Savoie wines—the Quenards’ in particular—and regularly have cases sent down the mountain for my personal cellar. The Quenards are on a mission to spread the word, and they price their wines accordingly, even though demand is high. They could easily sell their production three times over to the famous ski resorts down the road, and yet they prefer to let the wines travel and be discovered and enjoyed in various corners of the world. In the years following my first visit to the estate, Michel has been joined by his son Guillaume, who talks the talk and walks the walk. Of all Michel’s wines, his 2018 Chignin-Bergeron Les Terrasses is his crown jewel, the vision he has for Savoie taking its seat at the table of the world’s finest white wines. The parcel—the highest of the estate, too steep for any human to walk on—had to be hand worked into small terraces, where the ancient crumbled limestone of the Alps litters the ground, drains the soil, and radiates heat back to the vines on cold nights. A serious wine with spice and warm gingerbread notes, Les Terrasses is meant for something serious at the table, like pan-seared foie gras or langoustine. For a more casual tipple, try the Quenards’ 2018 Chignin Gamay, exactly what you’d hope for with Gamay grown in the mountains: fresh, crisp, peppery, and smoky. You can only find this one in the United States now; at the domaine, the cuvée sold out nearly instantly, given its local popularity as an everyday wine. Finally, for those who want to try a truly unique rouge, the 2018 Chignin Mondeuse Vieilles Vignes pours out with a shimmering neon-black color, smells of great northern Rhône Syrah, and is delicate and juicy to its core. A pure joy to swirl around and drink, it is the perfect embodiment of the Quenard family’s message of trusting their terroir.
With all due respect to the northern Rhône and its gorgeous expressions of Roussanne, it is very tempting to say that the variety’s future lies in Savoie. Known here as Bergeron, it grows on well-exposed slopes of limestone scree, sucking up mineral essence from the stone that has crumbled down these precipitous mountainsides. Bergeron enjoys an Alpine-influenced climate significantly cooler than that along the baking banks of the Rhône, fifty miles or so to the west—a welcome chill in a time when each vintage seems hotter and drier than the last. While Alpine Roussanne may be a novelty to most, the grape has been cultivated in these parts just as long as it has thrived in the Rhône Valley. In fact, the Romans arrived here from across the Alps in the second century AD, planting some of Savoie’s first vineyards, records indicate, on a steep slope known today as the Coteau de Torméry. Nowadays, the Quenard family of nearby Chignin carries on the tradition of growing grapes on the near-vertical heap of rocky rubble that is the Coteau de Torméry. The highest and steepest section of the vineyard has even been terraced to enable viticulture. This beautifully refined, tenderly floral, and succulently peachy wine, born from pure stone, is the outcome—a product of centuries of tradition, one chosen site, and a family’s laborious dedication to eking out a most genuine elixir from Savoie’s towering mountain facades.
Gamay has found a home away from home in the vineyards of Savoie, high on a mountain in the hands of the Quenard family. The chilly Alpine climate and rocky limestone soil of Chignin allow for a unique expression of the grape: lean, juicy, and explosively aromatic, with a salivating minerality that keeps you coming back for more. Unassuming enough to be uncorked for the most trivial of reasons, it radiates a vivid fragrance of smashed raspberries, then briskly and crunchily greets the palate before finishing on a note of powdered stone. Drink it frequently, slightly cool, and with gusto.
Scaling the western flank of the French Alps, the Savoie region is off the beaten path for most travelers. Yet those who do visit this mountainous haven will be thrilled to discover stunning scenery, delicious local cuisine, and a thriving Alpine wine culture based on a variety of indigenous grapes. This Chignin bottling from the Quenard family, a local winemaking authority boasting several generations’ worth of experience, spotlights seventy-year-old Mondeuse vines clinging to steep, high-altitude limestone rubble—an extreme terroir that requires serious determination and physical endurance to farm. While Mondeuse can tend toward the rustic, this one is refined for a year in wood foudres before bottling. It has often been likened to a cross between Pinot Noir and Syrah: bright, elegant, and floral, with suggestions of wild fruit, blood, and minerals.
Drinking distilled spirits, beer, coolers, wine and other alcoholic beverages may increase cancer risk, and, during pregnancy, can cause birth defects. For more information go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov/alcohol
Many food and beverage cans have linings containing bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical known to cause harm to the female reproductive system. Jar lids and bottle caps may also contain BPA. You can be exposed to BPA when you consume foods or beverages packaged in these containers. For more information, go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov/bpa