The village of Seyssel, in the French Alps, has a history of viticulture dating back centuries, having built a reputation for floral-scented charmers from the local grapes, Molette and Altesse. Produced in the méthode traditionnelle and aged for two years sur latte, the Petit Royal is unequaled in the world of sparkling wine: alpine flowers, dried fruit, wildflower honey, and a toasty, yeasty note give this value sparkler an utterly delightful aromatic richness and complexity. Serve it with various salty toasts to kick off your next dinner party, or pop one open to liven up a night at home with a big bowl of mac and cheese.
The “Royal Seyssel” label, launched in 1901 by the Varichon and Clerc families, was considered the best sparkling Seyssel on the market. But when the operation was purchased in the 1990s by a Burgundian négociant, quality suffered, and in 2007 the owners closed the winery. Dismayed to see what their great local wine had come to, Gérard and Catherine Lambert teamed up with Olivier Varichon to buy back the Royal Seyssel label and recreate the wine that was once so renowned. The wines of Seyssel indulge in the same traditional methods used for Champagne, and take it a step further by aging for at least three years before disgorgement.
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.
Trust the great winemakers, trust the great vineyards. Your wine merchant might even be trustworthy. In the long run, that vintage strip may be the least important guide to quality on your bottle of wine.—Kermit Lynch
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