Should you ever spend any time skiing, snowshoeing, or simply enjoying the winter sights in French Alps towns like Megève or Val-d’Isère, you will no doubt want a glass of the region’s wine to go with your fire upon returning from the cold. You would do well with a bottle of Jacquère—Savoie’s signature crisp white wine— but if you are in the mood for a red that isn’t too heavy, try this lively Chignin Gamay from André and Michel Quenard. The Quenards have been making wine just west of the Alps for almost a century, and today they represent one of Chignin’s essential family domaines. André and Michel are now largely retired; Guillaume, the next generation, oversees the vines and the cellar, producing stellar wines from this off-thebeaten-path region. Even though he fashions this cuvée from the Beaujolais’s star grape variety, this is very much Gamay from Savoie, and not its neighbor more than a hundred miles to the northwest. With notes of mixed black and red fruit and a spine of minerality, Quenard’s Gamay is crunchier, more aromatic, and more succulent than most bottles you’d find in Beaujolais. Après-ski doesn’t get much better than this.
The Savoie is a picture of fairy-tale perfection: snow-capped peaks, rolling hills, and sparkling mountain streams. This idyllic region is where Michel Quenard farms twenty-two hectares of vineyards along the steep slopes around Chignin. His grandfather started the domaine in the 1930s. Though he slowly increased his vineyard holdings, he mostly sold off his wine. It wasn’t until 1960 that Michel’s father, André, began bottling under their own label. Michel joined the domaine in 1976. Today, he is joined by his sons, Guillaume and Romain. Their cuvées go beyond the simple “eclectic” that categorizes wines from Savoie; they are unique revelations that reflect the complexity of their terroir and the artistry of this master.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, there was little buzz about the wines of Savoie, the Alpine region hugging the Swiss and Italian borders. In fact, most wines from Savoie were some combination of overcropped, thin, searingly acidic, and painfully rustic; even the best examples rarely made it out of the local mountain resorts, where they were served as an après-ski to wash down many a melty croque-monsieur. But all that has changed, and today Savoie produces a number of top-quality wines in all styles, from simple thirst-quenchers to wines of substantial gravity. Kermit sought out some of these wines early in his career, having imported the spritzy, mineral whites of Apremont and Chignin in the late 1970s. With vineyards at the foot of the Alps that occasionally climb to higher elevations, Savoie is defined by its mountain-influenced climate and extremely rocky terrain, with abundant limestone. Thanks to a diversity of indigenous grape varieties, quality-oriented growers with the choicest parcels—steep and well-exposed—can craft anything from crisp, low-alcohol whites from Jacquère to deep, gamey reds from Mondeuse. More serious whites are made from Altesse as well as Bergeron, the local name for Roussanne, which the Romans planted on the slopes of Chignin around the same time as they introduced it to the Rhône Valley. Savoie’s diversity of styles and distinct sub-regions, from Arbin to Seyssel to the Bugey (technically not a part of Savoie, but included here for convenience) makes it a fascinating region for the thirsty explorer. There is no better place to look for brisk mountain refreshment.
For the wines that I buy I insist that the winemaker leave them whole, intact. I go into the cellars now and select specific barrels or cuvées, and I request that they be bottled without stripping them with filters or other devices. This means that many of our wines will arrive with a smudge of sediment and will throw a more important deposit as time goes by, It also means the wine will taste better.
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