Savoring Savoie

The stunning view from our home in Les Houches, France.

Following our two short days in Lyon, Riley and I miraculously packed up our little rental car with all our luggage (and one humongous bike box) and headed up into the French Alps. We were on our way to meet up with his pals from Cambridge because months ago they had challenged one another to the biggest climbing stage of the Tour de France. No small endeavor - this stage is nearly 80 miles, summits 3 mountains, and took place over the course of a day with nearly 100-degree heat! Considering that I start rolling backward when I attempt a hill, it was clear from the start that I would be supporting from the sidelines and simply enjoying my week in the mountains.

Here's my husband Riley, mid-way through his stage of the Tour de France.

Our group of twelve spent the week in an incredible Airbnb in a small village just outside Chamonix, called Les Houches. We filled our days with picturesque hikes, quiet time for reading or chatting on the deck, and best of all, we gathered together each evening for a delicious home-cooked “family dinner.” Each night a couple took charge of the menu, hoping to outdo the previous night with a more elaborate meal, and I took on the fun challenge of picking out wines to match. Our group had a diverse taste in wine so I focused my energy on wines that would match our food as closely as possible while introducing the group to new local varietals that we could all enjoy.

Naively, I thought that our week in the mountains would be a short respite from “wine scouting,” but as I picked out wines each evening I kept noticing the signs and labels for Savoie. After a little probing in my sub-par French, I learned that we were right in the heart of the Savoie wine region! I had vaguely heard of the region before, but couldn't remember ever tasting any of the wines.

With a bit more research it was easy to figure out why most people are unfamiliar with wine from the Savoie - this small but touristy region rarely exports any of its wine because they are eagerly consumed by the influx of tourists each year.

Additionally, more than one person alluded to the fact the winemakers in this region only recently began to focus on real quality and complexity, likely contributing to the previous lack of respect or attention for the Savoie wines.

My favorite wine shop in Chamonix, France.

For those who haven't heard of the Savoie region, it's an international mecca for mountaineers. Nearly every store sells gear for climbing, snow camping, and skiing, and everywhere you look you are surrounded by the imposing beauty of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. In the summer months visitors spend their time trekking, cycling, paragliding, and river rafting in the Rhone river, while the winter months are almost exclusively reserved for skiing. The bright blue sky, vibrant green grass and wildflowers, and the icy glaciers covering craggy mountains are a continuous summon to the valley-dwellers below.

As you can imagine, the result of all this physical activity is a hearty appetite and the local food lives up to the challenge! In the winter it's fondue, in the summer it's raclette, and apparently all year long the regional specialty is a dish you have to earn - made almost entirely of potatoes, cream, and bacon. And what do these mountaineers look forward to in their glass with their hearty meals of melted cheese? For the tired and hungry mountaineers, nothing says job well done quite like that first glass of the unique white Savoie wines that pair with the local dishes. These wine smell and taste like the mountains and the fresh air, and I can only hope that a simple sip of this wine brings them straight back to the Alps, no matter where they are in the world.

While red wines are produced here in limited quantity, white wines are the real specialty of this region.

The most common varietals are Jacquère, Roussanne, and Altesse, and they make up about 2/3 of total regional production. The most typical representation of the Savoie white wines is the Jacquère. Keep your eye out for the vineyard names of Abymes and Apremont - these vineyards sit just at the foot of Mont Granier, a limestone mountain in the Chartreuse mountain range. The Jacquère wines are typically light in alcohol with a delicate floral aroma of apple or citrus fruit. It's great for an aperitif, and it's adored by Alpine skiers for being the perfect pairing with a warming dinner of fondue. While I enjoyed the Jacquère, and even ordered fondue in the middle of the summer just to try the pairing, it’s not the kind of wine that knocks your (ski) socks off. It’s delicious and refreshing but not very complex. If you can find a bottle that managed to escape the slopes, I'd recommend pairing it with creamy pasta or chicken dishes, or simply enjoying it on its own before dinner (assuming you don't eat meals of melted cheese as often as they do here).

We had to try it - here's my mid-July fondue dinner!

One wine that grabbed my attention was the Chignin-Bergeron. One of 16 crus of the Vin de Savoie region, this cru (or officially recognized grouping of vineyards) comes from the village of Chignin and is made from the Roussanne varietal - referred to locally as Bergeron. Typically a Rhone varietal, in this region its golden hue, honeyed aromas, and slightly nutty flavors forced it to stand alone in a crowd of delicate white wines. Long days of sun during the growing season help bring these grapes to full ripeness, while the cool Alpine climate ensures a slower ripening and a refreshing acidity in the final product. It paired beautifully with the salmon the guys grill out on the deck, as well as our salad with fresh fruits, nuts, and goat cheese. I think I won over a few members of our group with this wine - and I noticed an increased interest in trying the local white wines I brought home in the following days. Mission accomplished! 

The third common white varietal in Savoie is called Roussette de Savoie. Made from the Altesse varietal, it has an Alpine-like quality and freshness. You can practically smell the sap-filled trees and taste the minerality of the rocks in the glass. It pairs well with the fresh fish from the Rhone river and nearby lakes, as well as the local melted cheese specialties of Raclette, Tartiflette (that hearty dish of potatoes, cream, and bacon I mentioned earlier), and Fondue. 

While sitting on our balcony looking out at Mont Blanc I couldn’t help but think just how incredible it is to travel to new regions and find wines that uniquely taste like where they are from. For anyone who thinks I sound like one of those annoying wine nerds, describing the nose of a wine as a “freshly cut garden hose,” bear with me. If only you could take a sip of Roussette in the Alps, then you’d understand what I’m talking about! This wine embodies the idea of terroir to me - the surroundings, the soil, the weather, and even the mood of the city, it's all here in the glass. While I wish the Savoie varietals were more widely exported for everyone to try, I'm afraid the experience just wouldn't be the same without the setting. Maybe it's a good thing those ski bums don't leave enough for the rest of us - at least they're enjoying it the way it should be! That being said, if you do manage to get your hands on a bottle that escaped the slopes, you can pretend you've spent the day mountaineering on Mont Blanc or jumping moguls on the Chartreuse mountain range as you savor the wine of Savoie!

Another shot from Riley's bike race through the Alps.