Wines of the French Alps: Savoie, Bugey and Beyond by Wink Lorch, Wine Travel Media (2019)
Wink Lorch’s new book, Wines of the French Alps, is a slap in the face for those who bitch about the current state of wine writing or seek to trivialize wine expertise. This is a full-blown, old-school reference work with all the details a student of wine could want with just enough opinion and personal insight to keep things interesting. There is no doubt about the qualifications of the author — her expertise is well-established.
Lorch came to the Alps, as many do, to ski. Fortunately, her professional interest in wine came with her. After thirty years living part-time in the area, she has become the most credible witness to the resurrection of this historically vibrant — but recently moribund — wine region. Her new book is a dense, no-nonsense accounting of that history, what went wrong, how it’s recovering, and what the future holds. The amount of detail she culls from this relatively small collection of vineyards is extraordinary and a testament to her intimate knowledge of the region’s many nooks and crannies. It’s an even greater testament to her patience.
Even though the book covers a respectable 4,600 hectares of vines, one third the size of Alsace, it used to be much larger — it’s estimated that 87,000 hectares were productive in the mid-19th century. What was left after phylloxera, economic calamity, two world wars, and a demographic shift is now distributed in small, wide-spread pockets within six départments, several AOCs, numerous crus, and a handful of IGPs. Travel in the region can be difficult, especially during peak seasons, and the roads are often winding and congested. I can vouch for the time commitment needed and the dedication required to visit some of the more isolated producers.
Those who are familiar with her award-winning first book, Jura Wine, will recognize the structure of this one. It’s divided into four parts punctuated by numerous photos and maps.
Early in Part One, Setting the Scene, the author dispels a persistent myth about alpine wines — that they are from high altitude vineyards. Most of France’s alpine vineyards, like Switzerland’s, are located between 300 and 700 meters above sea level — hardly high elevation when compared to the highest vineyards in Spain or Argentina. But she is quick to point out that alpine vineyards do face outsized risks, including frost, hail, heavy rains, powerful and shifting winds and the extraordinary expense of working in steep terrain. Climate change has brought with it warming temperatures but also greater unpredictability.
On the cultural level she describes the love-hate relationship between the wine industry and the ski tourism industry and the near suicidal rush by cash-strapped vintners to sell barely finished wine to busy winter resorts. Many of those producers who have embraced quality are now seizing upon the next best opportunity, robust sales to enthusiastic export markets.
Among the leaders of the transition, credit goes to the Centre d’Ampélographie Alpine Pierre Galet (CAAPG) and its small army of volunteers. Among them, nurseryman, vigneron and organization president Michel Grisard, archivist Gilbert Nicaise, rare grape hunter and vice-president Nicolas Gonin, and biodynamic consultant Pierre Masson. Switzerland’s own José Vouillamoz is involved too, as the spiritual heir to Pierre Galet. Olivier Turlais, a Savoie native and consultant, is credited with single-handedly advancing winemaking science in the region while safeguarding traditional values.
Lorch writes authoritatively about all of them and is emphatic about recognizing their contributions.
Part Two, All About the Wines, delves into each region in specific terms. In her introduction the author refers to this as the textbook section of the book. It is intended to guide the reader through the intricacies of each appellation; the terroir, the permitted roster of grapes, the nuances of climate and weather, the methods of farming, and the styles and methods in which the wines are made. There is a cahier des charges for each AOC in the appendices.
There is even a short section on the distinctive sparkling wines made throughout the Alps and a discussion of the differences between ancestrale and traditionelle forms of production.
I was enlightened by her discussion of the individual crus which correspond to different villages and specific grapes. Thus a simple Vin de Savoie can be transformed into a cru Arbin when it is made from pure mondeuse. Likewise, the crus Marestel, Monthoux, Frangy or Monterminod can appear on the label when made from pure altesse. Interestingly, the old Haut-Savoie AOC Crépy has gone the opposite direction by renouncing the village name in favor of the more marketable Vin de Savoie appellation. The upshot: change is happening.
The even more obscure IGPs of Isère and Hautes-Alpes are given significant space as is the AOC Diois in the Drôme départment. The sparkling wine dominant Diois is best known for Clairette de Die, while the Haute-Alpes and Isère are best known for a few nearly extinct varieties like the white verdesse and the reds persan and etraire de la dui. The author notes that most new plantings here are worked organically by a mostly youthful brigade.
Part Three, Places and People — The Wine Producers, is a guide through the cellars of one hundred and twenty or so winemakers. In her words:
“The producers I have chosen to profile include almost all who export to English-speaking countries and most of those who are certified organic. I have also included the co-operatives and the larger négociants, as well as certain estates whose reputation has historically been good, but whose wine quality may have fluctuated through the generations.” (page 124)
The reader is quick to recognize that an experienced guide is leading the way with a detailed knowledge of her subject and the people involved. She is clearly at ease in the cellar and leaves one with the impression she is dispensing confidential information. The sense of discovery is that great. Several producers I’ve wanted to visit were brought to life by her informative descriptions. It is clear she has met with everyone she features in this section of the book.
This section will also serve as a guide for the tourist interested in visiting wine estates. All the best are listed here with contact information.
Part Four, Enjoying the Local Food and Wines, will appeal to anyone who appreciates regional foods, good drink and travel. Here the author lists her favorite hotels, restaurants and sights as well as specialty food and drink.
For example, no description of alpine France would be complete without a nod to Chartreuse, the famous liqueur made by monks, or the vermouths of Chambéry or the numerous local, herb-infused génépis.
One of my favorite beers from the Brasserie du Mont Blanc is recommended, as are two of my favorite regional specialities, diots (a pork sausage) and Reblochon (a cow’s milk cheese). I often purchase these directly from farms on my way to visit family in Entremont. There is even mention of the pasta specialty crozet which I enjoy at home as a gratin with Raclette de Savoie.
The author also highlights a local specialty that is nearly always available in the bouchons of Lyon and which I always order when I am there — Quenelles de Brochet (pike quenelles). They are exquisite when bathed in a sauce of crayfish and cream — a classic dish that originated in the lakeside town of Nantua.
“Wines of the French Alps is a more complete documentation on Savoie, Bugey and beyond than anything ever published, even in French.” Wink Lorch from the Introduction (page 15)
I couldn’t sum it up any better. There isn’t anything like it and it’s unlikely to be improved upon anytime soon. Any book that teaches me so much about wine and makes my mouth water is one worth keeping close at hand. It’s available from winetravelmedia.com