Rise of the vine

There's more to the Savoie than skiing, writes Robin McKie.

Draw a line on the map from Geneva in Switzerland to Chambery in France, 80 kilometres to the south, and you mark the eastern boundary of a region that draws thousands of people each year.

They come to the Savoie Mont Blanc region, to Alpe d'Huez, Tignes, Val d'Isere and Courchevel, to spend days on the piste and evenings consuming vin chaud (hot wine) and fondue.

And that will probably have been their only contact with the wines of Savoie, famed for its physical beauty and for its walking, cycling, boating and skiing, but not for its vineyards.

However, Savoie whites and reds are undergoing a remarkable transformation. Until recently, the region's wine was sold fairly cheaply, to be swigged with raclette, the dish of melted cheese, or mixed with sugar, spice and lemon for vin chaud.

The region's winemakers have made a deliberate decision to take more care, producing less wine from each vine, using less fertiliser and slowing fermentation by keeping the tanks cool.

The region's grapes are rarely encountered elsewhere. Altesse and Jacquere produce exotic, fruity dry whites; Mondeuse produces rich, slightly peppery reds. And they are grown in some of the most beautiful settings I've encountered.

At Chignin, for example, the vineyards, on high, rocky slopes, are dominated by four ancient, ruined towers. So steep are the hillside terraces that grass is planted in strips between the vines to stop the soil being washed away.

"If you let your fermentation run too fast, you lose aroma - you need to keep it slow," says Pierre Abry, of the Cave de Chautagne (cave-de-chautagne.com) at Ruffieux, where the wine co-operative has built a museum dedicated to local wines and where visitors can taste and compare.

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The message is that quality has triumphed over quantity. A good example is provided by the chautagne blanc, produced at the Ruffieux co-op. It has a clean, slightly flinty taste and makes a fine aperitif. Similarly, the Chignin 2010 of Jean-Francois Quenard's Domaine Quenard (jfquenard.com) is delicate and slightly honeyed, while Christophe Richel's Mondeuse is a deep red, rich wine with a velvety, violet-scented taste. Richel is a friendly bear of man who will chat until the cows come home about his wine. His tasting cellar, like those of most Savoie producers, is cosy and clubby.

"We want people to be surprised at how good our wines are," says Pascal Barlet, whose family business, Les Caves du Prieure (caveduprieure.com), produces one of the region's special wines, Cuvee Eole. This is a distinctive sweet white made from early-harvested Altesse grapes that are left for months before pressing so their sugar content builds up.

A relaxed approach to wine appreciation is also easy in a region with such rugged charm. Lac du Bourget, a few kilometres north of Chambery, is the largest natural lake in France.

Take a boat trip on it in the morning, then visit a vineyard in the afternoon. Or hire a bike - there are electric ones to help on the hills - and follow a vineyard tour. Or you can, as we did, hire a Citroen 2CV chauffeured by a driver in full Maurice Chevalier kit, including striped blazer and straw boater.

Chambery is small and stylish, with narrow streets and Italian-style porticos. Income from Savoie's ski resorts has brought a prosperous, confident edge. Try the local food but, most of all, try the wines of Savoie.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Emirates has a fare to Geneva from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1860 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Geneva (7hr 5min); see emirates.com. There are regular trains from Geneva to Chambery (80min).

Eating there In Chambery, Le Bistrot is at 6 rue du Theatre, mains from €15 ($17.40); see restaurant-lebistrot.com. L'Atelier is at 59 rue de la Republique, mains from €15; see atelier-chambery.com. Cote Marche is at 60 rue Vieille Monnaie, three-course menu from €37; see cotemarche-restaurant.com. In Jongieux, 30 kilometres north of Chambery, the Michelin-starred Les Morainieres is on Route de Maretel, with four-course menus from €45; see les-morainieres.com.

More information

See vindesavoie.net.

- Guardian News & Media

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