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Savoie: The Anomalous Hold Out of Eastern France

SavoieWinesStGermain

One of the joys of being a sales rep for a Euro-centric distribution company (read: the greatest joy) is having access to all kinds of wine that ordinary people wouldn’t give two buns about. In my particular case, I get to choose a selection of wines to take out as samples each week, and this week I decided to throw in a couple wines from the Savoie region of France. Because seriously, when do you ever get to drink wines from the Savoie?

When I say so, that’s when!

In all seriousness though, I know absolutely nothing about the Savoie. Most people don’t, in spite of their reluctance to admit it. Most of those self-styled Sommeliers love to boast about the Cotes d’Or but rarely dare to venture any further South into France. With the Savoie, you’re not just venturing South, you’re venturing EAST! The most exotic of all cardinal directions!

Savoie Truffle

The Savoie (pronounced sa-vwah) is an oft overlooked region in the relative-far-east of France, butting right up against the French alps, more or less bordering Italy and Switzerland. The region is, as one should expect of a place near the alps, MOUNTAINOUS, and the wines produced there reflect these alpine conditions in a fairly direct way: dry, mineral rich, with unusual character and limited fruit. Classically, we’re talking about wines (primarily white) that exhibit lighter bodies, lots of acidity, and curious notes of pepper and herbs. To further complexify the situation (the word complicate wasn’t complex enough to convey this concept), the region almost exclusively employs varietals that you’ve never even heard of, that you never really see anywhere else in the world. Chasselas, Jacquère, Altesse for whites and Mondeuse for reds? I mean, that last one sounds like an exhuberent French exclamation, not a sub-species of Vitis Vinifera. Sure, you’ve got some Chardonnay, Marssanne, and Gamay to keep things a little familiar, but on the whole the Savoie isn’t interested in playing your familiarity game. They do wines their way and it’s worked out fine for them for the last couple centuries. So stand down!

What all of this basically translates to is: for the majority of wine drinkers, the Savoie is not a wine region you really need to concern yourself with. For us wine nerds, however, what could be more enticing? “A wine region that NORMAL drinkers don’t need to concern themselves with?” Sign me up!

Because you don’t walk into a De Beers outlet when you’re looking for diamonds in the rough!

So anyway, for samples this week I took out the two wines I thought would be most interesting/enticing to my customers: a white and a red that come in around $18-$22 retail each, respectively.

Domaine Saint-Germain – Coutaz Saint-Germain 2013

This was the white I picked, specifically because it was the only Savoie blanc available in our catalogue. As near as I can tell, it is primarily – if not entirely – made from the unheard of varietal “Jacquere” (which sounds a lot like the Portuguese word for “crocodile,” but maybe that’s just me). I can’t know for sure because the website for this producer is only available in French. Even Google’s “translate this page” option cannot penetrate the mysterious depths of this unusual wine producer, so I’m just going to have to trust Wine Searcher’s description. Further Googling reveals that Jacquere is known for it’s clean, dry white wines that are relatively underpriced for their quality, with a “mountain-fresh” or “alpine-clean” quality, which are descriptors I suppose would appeal most to a marketing exec for a soap company.

Though I can totally see the mountain fresh thing: this wine has some prominent minerality. It’s like drinking lemonade out of a granite cup, which I’m just assuming is a thing that someone has somewhere in the world. Visually, the wine is extremely light, almost watery with a slight pale straw sheen. The nose, however, hits you right off with gravel and full-on lemon juice, with some lime zest thrown in for good measure. There’s a hint of white flowers, rock salt, and the barest element of white pepper in there too. On the palate: tangy is certainly the first word that comes to mind. Vibrant, dazzling acidity, and a full spectrum of citrus with a decidedly green apple thing on the finish. The body of the wine is very light, and unfortunately the finish is pretty light too. It lingers for a bit, but when it’s gone, baby it’s gone! Like, you’d never know you were drinking wine a few seconds ago. On the plus side, this means there’s no bitter aftertaste like a lot of other acidic whites (which I guess is what they mean by “Alpine clean”). However, it’d be nice to be left with something more than just a memory 15 seconds after the wine is gone.

Even though they come from a landlocked region, the Coutaz absolutely cries out for fresh oysters (there are a lot of lakes in the Savoie; I wouldn’t be surprised if the local cuisine made generous use of fresh water clams or something along those lines). I would happily drink this at an oyster bar over the more conventional Semillon or the… buh… more contemporary New Zealand Sauv Blanc…

Domaine Saint-Germain – Les Taillis 2012

Apparently, the Savoie is known mostly for it’s whites (this is one of the origination points of Fondue, after all). However! As with most places known for their whites, they make reds as well, and based on their lineup, I’d say Domaine Saint-Germain is particularly proud of their reds. I selected the Les Taillis because a) the price point seemed the most accessible and b) the varietal sounded the least intimidating. Mondeuse. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of that before. Mondeuse. Heh, it’s kind of fun to say.

It’s no laughing matter though: Mondeuse is a relatively ancient varietal that was almost completely wiped out by the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th Century. The surviving vines now reside almost exclusively in their tiny Alpine enclave, like viticultural hermits. The grape is known to produce aromatic wines of prominent structure, tart fruit, and pencil lead. Which sounds fantastic, right?

Well, the wine is definitely young and could stand a few years of cellaring. That being said, I was really intrigued by the nose. Like, I kept shouting things out as I smelled the wine, freaking out my housemate. I couldn’t contain my bursting curiosity, the wine smelled so cool! Tart red cherry, cardamon pods, freshly ground cinnamon… Carnation petals for goodness sake! Underlining it all was an unmistakable alpine minerality. Absolutely the kind of thing that transports you to another time and place.

On the palate, the wine’s youth sort of gets in the way of what could be a really intriguing wine 5 years down the road. Light body with big tannins and firm acid, and a whole mouthful of gravelly minerality. The first thing I thought when tasting the wine was: “This needs food.” So I got last night’s leftover steak out of the fridge and tried the wine again. The meat definitely helped, absorbing a lot of those tight edges and allowing the incredible spiciness of the wine to shine through. And man is this wine spicy, like… just so much cinnamon, allspice, and anise. I’d say the thing is a bit on the over-oaked side, but I don’t think they use much oak in the Savoie. I think it’s just the character of the grape manifesting itself as these vibrant aromatics. The wine is absolutely intriguing and has me a bit on the fence about what I really think about it. I’m intrigued enough that I may just buy myself a bottle and revisit it in half a decade to see how it’s evolved. I have a feeling this could be a really fantastic wine with the right amount of age.

Savoie? Savoie.

Overall… my curiosity is piqued. I would very much like to explore the Savoie even further. I mean, these are my kind of wines. Unforgivingly dry, uncompromisingly acidic! Let the New World enjoy it’s fruit, in the Savoie we eat rocks!

However, I totally understand that most people do not want to eat rocks when having a glass of wine. These are challenging wines, and wines that demand the respect of a proper meal and, in the case of the Mondeuse, an appropriate amount of cellar time.

However! Don’t let those preconditions scare you away from what is truly an intriguing and more-or-less undiscovered region of France. The joy of Old World wines is their sense of place, and these wines are so unique and so specifically tied to their home that you can’t help but imagine yourself sitting in a small cafe at the foot of the Alps when you drink them. So I encourage you to take the challenge: look up some recipes from the region, fire up the fondue fountain, and track down some Vin de Savoie!

Assuming you can actually find some in the States, that is…

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