Skip to main content
Up Next

Rare Wines From the French Alps

The tiny alpine region of Isère is producing wines that will seduce you

Wink Lorch By December 1, 2021
vineyard of Domaine des Rutissons in Coteaux du Gresivaudan
Old vineyard of Domaine des Rutissons in Coteaux du Grésivaudan. Photo by Brett Jones.

Not long ago, winemaker Sébastien Bénard gave a bottle of his 2020 wine to an elderly man from whom he leases a vineyard near the Chartreuse distillery, not far from Grenoble in the French Alps. It was one of just 700 bottles he had made from the Servanin grape variety, of which there are only 2.47 acres productive in the world.

The vineyard owner was amazed to hear that the wine was now on the wine list of a three-star Michelin restaurant in the classy ski resort of Megève. Before Bénard took over, the Servanin grapes had been picked with a motley selection of other red varieties, fermented, and pressed, then put in a couple of barrels at the back of the house. The barrels were not kept full and the result would have been barely drinkable.

At a recent tasting of Isère wines near Grenoble, Sébastien’s Servanin was a revelation, vibrant and intriguing with a great depth of forest fruits. Tasters were excited to discover yet another rare grape from the French Alps being rehabilitated to add to the diversity of wines available. And Isère is at the heart of this movement.

Old varieties renewed

Bénard and others are planting more Servanin along with a plethora of other obscure varieties. Eventually from Isère, we should see wine from varieties such as Onchette, Mècle de Bourgoin, Joubertin, and Bia Blanc among others.

The red grapes Etraire de la Dhuy and Persan, along with the white Verdesse, are viewed as almost mainstream in comparison, yet there are tiny quantities of all of them, and in Isère they thrive.

It’s not only about the historic significance of these grapes, they are also seen as an answer to climate change — most of them ripen late, with lower potential alcohol levels than mainstream varieties. In the past, this was deemed a disadvantage. Today, it’s just the opposite.

Isère’s revival of its once important wine industry is not just about the rehabilitation of old varieties. Its winemakers are also dedicated to preserving and replanting traditional vineyard hillsides. This gives back a piece of heritage to the local communities, encourages biodiversity, and in the long run, gives more local employment opportunities as well as a sense of community.

Wilfrid Debroize of Domaine des Rutissons, the current president of the Vins de l’Isère growers, explained that to make this work, the vignerons needed to group together to galvanize change on this local level, encouraging newcomers to set up in the region and making sure they are given help with finding potential vineyard land and financial support.

Laurent Fondimare and Wilfrid Debroize of Domaine des Rutissons

Laurent Fondimare and Wilfrid Debroize of Domaine des Rutissons. Photo courtesy of Domaine des Rutissons.

The region

The freeway south from Geneva runs along the wide glacial valley of the Isère River. The approach to Grenoble is lined with industrial parks. You have to hunt to find the vineyards, just a couple of miles up from the valley floor, but when you do, they take your breath away.

These vineyards in the Coteaux du Grésivaudan subzone of the Isère IGP are scattered in between the forests of the Chartreuse Regional Natural Park and agricultural land, with a backdrop of the steep limestone cliffs of the Chartreuse Mountains and views across the valley to the higher, snow-capped Belledonne Mountains. The northern part is effectively an extension of Savoie’s vineyards.

The Grésivaudan is the most dynamic of the Alpine sectors of the IGP; some IGP Isère is located in the northern Rhône Valley. However, the Balmes Dauphinoises sub-zone, closer to Lyon, known internationally for the wines of Nicolas Gonin, and the higher altitude Trièves — not yet an official sub-zone, but the application is underway — are catching up fast.

Isère’s revival of its once important wine industry is not just about the rehabilitation of old varieties. Its winemakers are also dedicated to preserving and replanting traditional vineyard hillsides. This gives back a piece of heritage to the local communities, encourages biodiversity, and in the long run, gives more local employment opportunities as well as a sense of community.

In the 19th century, wines from Grésivaudan enjoyed a good reputation and there were thousands of acres. The decline has been dramatic, with industry and private houses proliferating, both of which provide much greater return than vineyard land. Today there are fewer than 173 acres of vines in all of IGP Isère but it’s extending, little by little.

The wines from Grésivaudan’s most respected wine estates, all less than 15 years old, have attracted interest from a handful of restaurants in nearby Grenoble, but mostly it is further away that they find their markets — selling to wine lovers in Lyon, Paris, or even in export markets. 

Locally, explained Debroize, “We need to get past the idea that Isère wines are simply plonk and we must impress the world with our quality.”

On the cards is to apply to change the rules of the IGP incorporating the most recently rehabilitated rare grape varieties, so that the labels show Isère rather than the broader Vin de France. “Everything is about diversity,” explains Debroize. More controversial is a wish to banish grape varieties that do not originate from Isère or the Alps.

The winemakers of Isère demonstrate a real ambition and a cohesiveness in approach that is rare to find in France. Debroize revels in what he calls their magnificent playground. He is convinced that their wines can attract sufficient customers locally and beyond to be self-sustainable, without the typical French government handouts; sustainable viticulture in the real sense. 

3 wines from Isère to try:

bottle of Domaine Giachino Frères Giac Isère Coteaux du Grésivaudan 2020

Domaine Giachino Frères Giac Isère Coteaux du Grésivaudan 2020 ($25)

Lovers of biodynamic Savoie wine may know Domaine Giachino whose vineyards are on the borders of Savoie and Isère. This delightful Isère red makes you want to sing the old French nursery rhyme from which the name comes. From a sandy, pebbly vineyard close to the valley floor, the juicy Gamay base is given a real kick by blending with Rhône’s Syrah and the rustic, evocative Etraire de la Dhuy.

bottle of Domaine Finot Isère Coteaux du Grésivaudan Etraire de La Dhuy 2019

Domaine Finot Isère Coteaux du Grésivaudan Etraire de La Dhuy 2019 ($25)

It is a joy to taste this pure Etraire de la Dhuy, skillfully made by low-intervention winemaker Thomas Finot, who grew up in the vineyards of Crozes-Hermitage. Aged in varied sizes of old oak barrels, try to imagine a more rustic, Alpine version of a tannic Pinot Noir. 

bottle of Domaine des Rutissons Isère Coteaux du Grésivaudan La Bête Rouge 2019

Domaine des Rutissons Isère Coteaux du Grésivaudan La Bête Rouge 2019 ($30)

This beast of a wine is brooding and earthy, rustic and rich in flavor, if mountain light. Matured in old oak by Rutissons’ partners Wilfrid Debroize and Laurent Fondimare, it comes from an organic field blend of pretty much everything that grows in Grésivaudan: Mondeuse and Gamay grapes play with Persan and its probable offspring Etraire de la Dhuy, along with the super rare Peloursin.