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What Makes Savoie’s Wines So Prized?

A younger group of vignerons is shaking things up in this tiny alpine region

Wink Lorch By November 22, 2021
Les Terrasses Chignin Bergeron, a vineyard of Domaine A.M. Quenard backed by the Alps
Les Terrasses Chignin Bergeron, a vineyard of Domaine A.M. Quenard backed by the Alps. Photo by Wink Lorch.

A clutch of ruined watch-towers encircled by vineyards with a dramatic mountain backdrop defines the sprawling village of Chignin in France’s Savoie region, just off the route to the ski slopes. What the village lacks in shops and restaurants is made up for by around 20 wine estates. And most visitors arrive looking for one named Quenard or sometimes Quénard.

There are six separate Quenard estates and not all are related — insiders historically gave them quirky nicknames. Each Quenard domaine has built up its own local following and more recently, several have gained clients from far away, exports are inching up.

Chignin seems increasingly to represent a microcosm of Savoie; about one in ten Savoie bottles emerge from this village. Known mainly for its whites, the whole gamut of wine colors, styles, grapes, and appellations can be found here.

Chignin vineyards below La Savoyarde mountain

Chignin vineyards below La Savoyarde mountain, part of the Bauges range. Photo by Wink Lorch.

New winds are blowing

The Savoie wine region, which represents only 0.25% of France’s wine production, is coming out of the ski locker. An enthusiastic younger generation is emerging, some descended from two generations of active, full-time winegrowers — before, most were mixed farmers. Others have established their estates from scratch.

Guillaume Quenard of Domaine André & Michel Quenard is the grandson of André and son of Michel, both of whom did much via the growers’ association to put the Savoie wine region on the map. With 12 vintages under his belt, Quenard too wants to make his mark.

“My generation wants to combine modern vine-farming techniques with a return to the authentic ways that our grandfathers practiced,” he says. “I believe we have to protect the landscape as well as our terroir.”

Guillaume plans to plant trees and shrubs to increase the biodiversity of his vineyard land. He has established his own side project to test out not only organics in the vineyards but also the use of concrete eggs and clay jars in the cellars. Having already eliminated herbicides on the family estate, he hopes to convert it all to organics before too long.

At the other end of the village, another third-generation vigneron, Anne-Sophie Quénard, aged 25, has just completed her third vintage, working for her father Jean-François of the eponymous estate, currently in conversion to organics. She is keen to capitalize on Savoie’s unique grape varieties.

“I want to stop making Pinot Noir and Gamay, which other regions do so much better. We have other treasures, which are better adapted to our region,” she says. “Our grapes, such as Jacquère, Mondeuse, and Persan, respond better to global warming, with their natural high acidity and low potential alcohol.”

Anne Sophie and Jean Francois Quenard of Domaine Jean Francois Quenard

Anne-Sophie Quénard and her father, Jean-Francois Quénard with their estate wine. Photo courtesy of Domaine Jean Francois Quénard.

A closer look at the grapes

Chignin is a Savoie AOC cru for delicate, floral whites from the local Jacquère grape and for deep-colored, juicy reds, usually from Savoie’s emblematic Mondeuse grape, a relative of Syrah. In the right hands, both grapes give highly flavorful wines, but modest alcohol levels. 

The signature grape for Chignin is the Rhône variety Roussanne, here called Bergeron and with labels sporting the separate cru name Chignin-Bergeron. Roussanne thrives on these sun-drenched limestone rocky slopes, but with climate change, the grapes can become almost too ripe in warmer summers.

The best examples of Chignin-Bergeron are dry with a streak of welcome acidity, yet richly flavored, full of exotic fruit flavors, and are certainly food wines. They contradict the image of ethereal, light, early-drinking Savoie white wines, and like the intense but elegant whites from the Altesse grapes, labelled Roussette de Savoie AOC, show best after a few years of aging. 

Mondeuse reds from Chignin and beyond are also age worthy. Some taste like a cross between Pinot and Gamay, while others reveal the structured tannins and sometimes the floral character of Syrah, but with more rustic, earthier flavors and often 2% lower alcohol.

Several growers have small volume cuvées from the rare, recently revived, red variety Persan — labelled simply as Savoie AOC, without a cru, they show great promise giving plummy, long-lived wines.

 “I have spent more time as a consumer than a producer and I like to promote the richness and diversity Savoie has to offer.”

The newcomers

Ludovic Archer, with vineyards in Chignin, but working out of a container in an industrial park in the nearby wine village of Arbin, is representative of the newcomers without family vigneron ties. Previously a mechanical engineer, he changed careers to study wine and worked with Jean-François Quenard.

Having leased vineyards, already organic or now in conversion, he has just completed his third vintage and his reputation is growing fast. His wines include Minor Swing, a red blend of Mondeuse, Persan, and the rare Douce Noir. The range is full of life and fun, reflected in the jazz-inspired names and illustrated labels, commissioned from a different artist each year, something unheard of a decade ago.

Archer is unsure whether exports will be his route to future markets, preferring to focus on persuading his reluctant neighbors to buy his wines, for this is a rare French wine region where locals often dismiss the wines as just for the ski resorts.

With strong self-belief, Archer comments, “I have spent more time as a consumer than a producer and I like to promote the richness and diversity Savoie has to offer.” There is little doubt that he and other young colleagues are shaking things up in Savoie for the good of both consumers and the wine region.

3 Savoie wines to try:

Jean-François Quénard Chignin 2020 ($16)

From the Alps to your glass, in a flash, this is such a versatile wine and a perfect introduction to the mountain freshness of Savoie. These Jacquère vines are on steep slopes of limestone scree and glacial moraine, in conversion to organics.

NB: While the wine is labelled JP & JF Quenard on the linked site, this is an outdated name.

bottle of Denis et Didier Berthollier Mondeuse et Ma Goutte 2018

Denis et Didier Berthollier Mondeuse et Ma Goutte 2018 ($22)

Aside from Chignin’s Quenards, there are several other families making great wine, including the Berthollier brothers, who make this juicy red called And My Drop of  Mondeuse. From the warmer, clay-limestone, lower slopes of Chignin, it is redolent of dark red fruits with Alpine freshness. With very low sulfur additions, a small proportion is aged in 600-liter old oak barrels.

bottle of André & Michel Quenard Chignin-Bergeron Les Terrasses 2019

André & Michel Quenard Chignin-Bergeron Les Terrasses 2019 ($35)

This Roussanne combines elegance with opulence, providing a spicy, apricot finish. Full and dry, it makes a fabulous match with strong-flavored cheeses, or with rich-sauced dishes of firm-textured white fish, or white meat. It emerges from terraced vineyards just below a limestone cliff-face opposite year-round snow-capped mountains.