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Tasting through these Alpine whites was one of the most provoking wine experiences I had in 2020. Sometimes, I enjoyed a bottle in two parts, over two days, and other times over a handful of hours, from the early evening until my final sip after midnight. And yes, we all know that wine changes (hopefully in a good way), after opening and exposure to oxygen, but the astonishing purity of development in these wines was reflected, and was defined by, the purity of flavor and structure that the wines both began and ended with - a seamless story of citrus, orchard fruit, herbs, and minerals tip-toeing from one glimmering point to another. Most bottles defied any pattern of "highs and lows", of "highlights," instead offering their entire play of simple, focused, and beautiful changes as their gift. I don't mean to be dramatic, but I am sincerely haunted by this. I am still trying to figure out exactly what I tasted in each.
Before diving in, I would like to acknowledge the work of our friend Wink Lorch, and her book, Wines of the French Alps. It is 384 pages of notes and opinions, covering the producers, wines, and specialty foods of the Savoie and the country's other Alpine regions - a priceless resource. Wink is offering a 10% discount on this book, as well as her book, Jura Wines, when purchased directly from her website and using this promotion code at checkout*: chamb1012021
Domaine Curtet, the estate run by Marie and Florien Curtet, with vineyards in Motz and Serrieres en Chautagne, has a delicious Jacquère and Altesse blend, Tonnerre des Gres. It is tepid, it is shy, but it reveals amazing depth and character if given a moment of thoughtful consideration. The nose displays delicate apple and pear, with a hint of bitter herbs that transforms over time to something slightly candied, with accents of almonds. To me, the palate is Chablis-like, with assertive minerality, but a sneaky tenderness. Also, the only reds in this offer, Autrement Rouge and Frissons des Cimes, are from this estate. The first is a blend of Gamay, Pinot Noir, and Mondeuse. It begins with crisp red fruits, but develops an array of blue, black, and red forest berries, and a very appealing softness on the palate. The Frissons des Cimes, is a hunky Mondeuse that starts off very earthy, full of mulch, but transforms into a plummy Syrah-like wine, with olives, pine, and meat, along with bold graphite. The slopes that the couple work once, just a few years ago, belonged to Jacques Maillard, one of the Savoie's most celebrated low-intervention winemakers. Florien, who had been working under Maillard, was able to take over the coveted, well-tended fields after Maillard retired. Wink Lorch writes that "the early success of this couple is well deserved," and that Marie and Florien "are taking this now certified biodynamic estate to perhaps even greater heights."I can't wait to taste their wines in the future vintages, but also to revisit the 2018s after a year or so. Outstanding bottles, all three.
In a short email exchange, Marie explained to me that her and Florien "think that wine is made in the vineyard and not in the cellar." In her argument against intrusive cellar-methods, she wrote, "like kids, if you have done a good job on the vineyard, you can let them express themselves on their own."
In 2017, Mathieu Apffel, a Jura-native, was able to release wine under his own name. Not new to the Savioe-scene, he had been producing wines with a partner since 2013. It was only when he was able to purchase vines, mostly in the village of Saint-Baldoph, that he was able to spearhead his own project. The soil here is rich in glacial deposits - clay, limestone, full of mica-schist and quartz. Mathieu has 4.5 hectares, the 3 hectares being the vines in Saint-Baldoph, and the remaining 1.5 found nearby in the village of Saint-Alban, soils heavy with gravel. He works organically, having converted the vineyards that he purchased to fit that philosophy. He does not fine, nor filter his wines, and he adds zero sulfur at bottling. I was amazed at how well the Avant la Tempete and the Terrior de Saint Alban held together the next day, seeing as they received no SO2 at bottling. The Avant la Tempete is 100% Jacquère, and begins with citrus and saline aromas and flavors, which impressively evolve into more substantial characters of lemon pith, orange zest and yellow apple. Even the structure grows in weight. The Terrior de Saint Alban, an even-split of Altesse and Jacquère, has a fresh, grassy nose, and distinct lemony aromas from the start, a bit more pungent than the Avant la Tempete, and has an edgy and spicy palate. After 12 hours open, the spice becomes much darker, and lovely flavors of fresh green herbs arrive.
"As a winegrower, my aim is to express the diversity of my farm’s environment into the glass of wine : soil, climate, wildlife and flora and personality of the people working inside it," Mathieu wrote me in an email. "I produce mainly white wines and I like them to be light and fluid though structured by the limestone of our soils. I work the vineyard organically and use biodynamics to enhance energy inside the farm’s ecosystem. Most of my cuvées are fermented and bottled without addition of SO2 in order to keep the wine alive and maintain the farm’s energy inside the bottle." In my experience with the wines, the vitality that Mathieu wants to protect through his winemaking is absolutely there in the glass.
Although less well-known than Gilles, his winemaking cousin, Adrien Berlioz stunned me with his 100% Roussanne, as well as the Jacquère-Altesse blend, Les Gueux Blanc. The Roussanne, named Raipoumpou, is gold in the glass. Aromatically, it is full of apples, herbs and smoke, along with a very interesting smell of yellow berries. Les Gueux, is cleaner in color, similarly bold in it's character. There is baked bread on the nose, dry grass, and flowers. The palate is minty and citrus-driven. These bottles are the strongest in aroma and flavor that we're offering today - so much flavor packed into these wines. There isn't much online about Adrien's estate, once known as Cellier des Crayes, but Wink has plenty of information in her book. "His vineyard holdings have changed over the years, but all have been in Chignin, Montemélian and Arbin... mostly on relatively steep slopes, so most of his viticultural practices have been essentially manual." He has been certified organic since 2012, and working towards biodynamics. He only uses native yeasts, and insists on malolactic fermentation in all his wines. "Adrien is a perfectionist from grape to bottle," Wink writes, "and it really shows in his wonderfully precise wines."
The artful, healthy winemaking practices of the hard working men and women of the Savoie have something to give you. If you want everything you can get from the wines in today's offer, be patient with them. These are well made wines and they can deliver the drinker a very special experience if they are allowed to. Think about each sip. Reflect on the flavors and aromas that existed an hour or two ago - are they the same as they are now? When I treated the wines this way, I was rewarded with a deep connection to what I was drinking. It is a different way to enjoy wine, but maybe we all need to give ourselves an evening to relax and contemplate something. I believe, whether you expect it or not, you'll be thinking about these wines for a long time after the bottles are finished. Marie Curtet's last sentence to me in her email was this: "Life is beautiful and we try to have a lot of life in our wines." David Hatzopoulos
*Offer valid until 2/15/21
100% Jacquère , labeled Vin de Savoie, from the outstanding young producer, Mathieu Apffel . Vines were planted in 1956 to soils of clay, limestone, schist, and quartz, with southeastern exposure. Fields are farmed organically. In the cellar, after a direct pressing, the juice goes through alcoholic and malolactic fermentation in stainless steel before resting on the lees in barrique. The wine is bottled without fining or filtering, and zero SO2 is added. On the first night, the wine is clean, with a soft purity in texture, and cut by a crisp edge of assertive acid and a real stoniness. It was a very good wine. The second night, however, the wine was exceptional. Without losing any of its stern, well-focused zing, it took on savory flavors of dried lemon peel, orange zest, yellow apple and sea salt. It even developed a little more flesh on the palate, a great contrast to a previously simple, high-toned mouthfeel. This is the bottle that convinced me to always revisit Alpine whites after a night open. So much is revealed if you do. David Hatzopoulos
This is a blend of 50% Jacquère and 50% Altesse from Saint-Alban made by the exciting young producer, Mathieu Apffel. The Jacquère vines were planted in the 1950s and the Altesse vines were planted some 40 years later in the 1990s - both to limestone soil of southern facing exposure. Vines are tended organically. After a direct pressing, the juice ferments and ages in 2/3 stainless and 1/3 barrique. Aging is done on the lees. The wine is unfined and unfiltered, bottled without added SO2. This white, when compared to Apffel's 100% Jacquère, Avant la Tempete, shows more yellow citrus upon opening, with more floral characteristics. The nose also delivers aromas of salt and healthy green grass. The palate offers lemon and white pepper, with a clean structure lead by dash of crushed limestone. The Terrior de Saint-Alban transforms if tried again the day after opening, just like the Jacquère. The drinker discovers green herbs, darker spice, and more savory citrus on the nose and palate. Such an engaging and thoughtful wine if treated with patience. David Hatzopoulos
Some of the most exciting Vin de Savoie that I've tasted recently come from Adrien Berlioz at Domaine du Cellier des Cray. The Cuvée des Gueux Blanc '18 is a blend of 60% Jacquère and 40% Altesse from Chignan, with vine age averaging 50 years. Exposure of the silty clay and limestone soils is to the south. The estate is certified organic. Grapes are hand picked and whole clusters are pressed. Juice is racked after 48 hours and fermentation and malo are left to occur naturally. The wine is aged for 6 months in stainless tanks and on the lees. The color here is a light, fresh lemon. After getting some air, the nose is fantastic - bold aromas of herbs, toasted bread, dry grass, salt, and white flowers. On the palate, the wine is zesty, with flavors of mint and tangy yellow apple. Structurally, there is a hint of tannin and a medium level of acidity. A lot is packed into this bottle. Drink now. David Hatzopoulos
From the Chignin Bergeron appellation, the Raipoumpou is an 100% Roussane produced by Adrien Berlioz of Cellier des Cray. Young vines, averaging 10 years in age, are planted to clay/limestone soils and cared for under certified organic methods. Hand harvested, whole cluster grapes are pressed, and juice is fermented with natural yeasts. Malo also occurs naturally. The wine is aged in stainless tanks for 9 months on the lees. The result is a golden Roussane, with a beautiful nose and palate. Aromas of crushed stones, aged apples, bitter herbs, smoke and yellow cherry are powerfully expressed. Flavors of lemon, lime, and spicy orange mix with smoke, salt and stone. The wine has a good vein of acidity, keeping this complex wine stunningly drinkable. This bottle is unique, having tasted nothing like it before, but it is just as approachable as it is fascinating. Drink up - it's delicious. David Hatzopoulos
Vin de Savoie of Gamay, Pinot Noir, and Mondeuse, farmed organically by Marie & Florian Curtet. The 36 year old vines are planted to Mossiac limestone and have an exposure that ranges from west to southwest. In 2018, whole bunch fermentation was done for 4-5 weeks before pressing. Afterwards, the wine was aged on the lees in concrete tanks for 11 months, then lightly filtered before bottling. Only a touch of SO2 is added. The wine has a black core with light magenta edges. The first night open, the nose was full of tart blueberries and red cherries, and the palate echoed those aromas, but with a salty edge. Structurally, it was sparky and vibrant, with very little tannin, instead relying on a beam of acidity for definition. On the second night, the nose has become floral, with dark roses, crushed raspberry, blackberry, and blueberry. The palate expresses obvious pomegranate, raspberry, and black cherry flavors, followed up by a lingering hint of graphite. On the second night, there is more tannin, on the gums and on the back of the tongue. The acidity has softened. Two different sides to a wine - both delicious. Marie and Florien definitely know what they're doing. David Hatzopoulos
The 2018 Frissons des Cimes is a Vin de Sovoie made from 100% Mondeuse by Marie & Florian Curtet. Organically farmed 50 year old vines planted to sandstone, with a western to southwestern exposure. In the cellar, whole cluster fermentation, without pump overs or push downs, lasts 4-5 weeks before pressing. The wine is aged in concrete tanks for 11 weeks, filtered lightly, and bottled with just a small dose of SO2. This is a dark wine - with shades of black purple and red in the glass. Starting off with the pungent smells of manure and mulched forest floor, these hearty, heady nose drifts into a calmer character, with very pleasant aromas of black plum, blue berries, pine, kalamata olives, olives, and roasted meat. The palate is full of crunchy, zippy graphite, with additional flavors deep red cherry and salt. If you're a Syrah drinker, this is a must-try. With very solid tannins, that fall mostly on the gums, and medium acidity, boasts fantastic structure. Drink now, or enjoy between now and '26 - though it seems to have the fruit and body to last even longer. David Hatzopoulos
The 2018 Tonnerre Des Gres from Marie & Florian Curtet is a Vin de Savoie from Jacquère and Altesse. Organically farmed vines, 28 years in age, were planted to Mollassic limestone soils with a west/southwest exposure. The grapes are pressed, and fermentation/aging is done in concrete tanks over 9 months on the lees. The wine is bottled after a light filtration and a small dose of SO2. Brilliant lemon hue in the glass. Aromas do not pounce out, but float - sliced, tart yellow apple and pear, lavender, and bitter, unripe nectarine. There is flinty smoke. As the glass warms, smells of almonds and faint licorice appear. The wine has a wonderful palate, with yellow apples, clementine zest, bitter herbs, and a stony, mineral zing. The fruit on the finish gives way to a lingering saltiness, stiffened by a focused core of acidity. There is a softness in the mouthfeel though. A touch of flesh that is hard to describe. There is something so ethereal about this wine - a ghostly quality, in texture more than anything, that reminds me of a superb Chablis. David Hatzopoulos