2017 Altesse, Une Touche de Fantaisie, Domaine Mermetus (Lavaux, Vaud)
Like a lot of orphan grapes, Altesse suffers from some persistent, seemingly unshakeable origin stories. But thanks to modern genetic sleuthing, we can say for sure it’s not from Cyprus—which means it never hitchhiked with Count Amadeus VI on his way home from a 14th-century dust-up in Constantinople. Likewise, we know that Anne, Queen of Cyprus, never brought it to her betrothed, Louis, the Duke of Savoy, a hundred years later. In fact, there is no evidence it migrated west at all and substantial evidence it never moved very far from home.
Does that mean we can finally dispense with the stubborn belief that Altesse and the Hungarian aristocrat, Furmint, are one and the same? Yes, we can. Their DNA is different.
Even the origin of the name Altesse (translated from French as “highness”) is subject to debate: Is it derived from the debunked royal connection or from its preferred habitat high on alpine terraces? That’s a tougher call, but one we need not resolve if we want to retain any sense of romance.
Altesse does indeed appear to be indigenous to Savoie, or, more specifically, to the Rhône River corridor between Savoie and the neighboring department of Ain, just downriver from Geneva. In fact, noted grape geneticist, Dr. José Vouillamoz, places Altesse among those ancient varieties with roots in the alpine hinterland—in what he calls the Lémanic Arc. This vinifera hotbed includes the Jura with its Savagnin, Trousseau and Poulsard varieties; Savoie with Mondeuse (blanche and noire), Persan, Gringet and Jacquère; and Switzerland with its signature grape, Chasselas. Each is enjoying an almost cultish moment right now and, as a consequence of their relative isolation, an extended period of discovery.
While Altesse and its stablemate, Mondeuse, can be found in Switzerland, you must look hard to find them. Unlike Mondeuse, which enjoyed a widespread, pre-phylloxera presence in Vaud, Altesse never achieved critical mass and today totals less than five hectares. The same characteristics found in the Savoie versions are found in the Swiss—meaning, rich, almost tropical fruit followed by a bracing, steely acidity.
One of Switzerland’s best is from Domaine Mermetus, a father-son collaboration located in the hamlet of Aran just above the lakeside village of Villette. Both Altesse and Mondeuse are specialties here and Vincent Chollet—son of Henri and current winemaker—has an enthusiast’s touch with both.
The Mermetus Altesse offers a telltale, not quite russet, yellow-gold color and a heady aromatic mix of candied nuts, honey and musk. Fleeting pineapple and mandarin essences are a tease. Plush dairy flavors add texture and melt into the substantial alcohol presence. Toast, honey and lemon flavors play in the center. This is rich, ripe and sweet on the front end—with a small middle hole—and a popping, perfumed, lemon oil finish.
All in one package: a delightful mix of textures, a near impossible harmony of weight and weightlessness, and a stimulating sweet-and-sour juiciness. Long live Altesse!