A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Altesse/Roussette - Jongieux, Savoie & Montagnieu, Bugey, France

It's kind of hard to believe that it's been almost two years since I wrote about the Jacquère grape from Savoie and the Mondeuse grape from Bugey in the eastern Alpine regions of France, but it's true.  It is also true that I haven't written any other posts on wines from those two regions since those first two (though I did write the section on Savoie for the AG Wine iPhone/iPad app).  The reason is pretty simple: these are small regions in France that not only don't make very much wine, but also don't export very much either.  They're big skiing areas that attract a lot of tourists, and much of the local production is consumed within the region by the tourists and the locals.  Jacquère is getting a bit more common on US shelves, but it's not becoming a mainstream wine by any stretch of the imagination.  It's much more difficult to find wines made from some of the other grapes from these regions, but I was recently able to try three different wines featuring Altesse, which is also known as Roussette, so I'd like to talk a little bit about that grape today.

Though it is found almost exclusively in Savoie and Bugey in eastern France, Altesse has long been suspected of being an import from somewhere further east.  Its first mention in print is in 1774, and the story given at that time was that the vine was brought to the region from Cyprus by one of the local princes.  The name Altesse means "highness," and it was long thought that this name came from the fact that some royal or noble person brought the vine to the area from somewhere else.  I would have assumed that "highness" was a reference to the altitude of the Alpine vineyards in the area and not to the stature of its alleged importer, but that explanation seems to have been a bit too pedestrian for some early historians.  Wine Grapes gives at least four different explanations that have been scattered through the literature which purportedly give an account of how and when Altesse came to the vineyards of Savoie with dates varying between the 14th and 16th Centuries.  Some say the grape came from Cyprus, while others say it came from Turkey.  In the latter part of the 20th Century, the great French ampelographer Pierre Galet suggested that the vine actually came from Hungary, and, further, may actually be the same as Furmint, since he believed it did not appear to bear any relationship to any other French cultivars.

It looks like Galet, and most of the early historians, were probably wrong about Altesse, though.  While I can't find any specific paper directly comparing the two grapes, the VIVC database does have DNA profiles for both Altesse and Furmint, and it's pretty clear that they're not only different grapes, but also probably not even that closely related.  Wine Grapes says that Altesse is actually more closely related to Chasselas, and if you speak (or read) French, you can read a little bit about that here.  Chasselas is thought to be native to the area around Lake Geneva, which sits right on the border between France and Switzerland and which is just northeast of Savoie.  If Altesse is closely related to Chasselas, and Chasselas is essentially native to the region, then it stands to reason that Altesse is also likely native to the region, and is not an import from some exotic eastern land.

Altesse is also known as Roussette in many places because the grapes begin to take on a reddish hue as they ripen and the French word for reddish hue (or russet-colored) is rousse.  It is particularly susceptible to a variety of fungal infections (both downy and powdery mildews as well as botrytis).  Altesse is found most often in the Roussette de Savoie and the Roussette de Bugey AOCs, which are in Savoie and Bugey respectively, as you may have guessed.  There are a few village names that can be appended to either AOC, and it used to be the case that wines labeled with a village name needed to be made from 100% Altesse, while wines simply carrying the Roussette de Savoie/Bugey label could have up to 50% Chardonnay added in.  This practice is no longer allowed, and all wines labeled either Roussette de Bugey or Savoie must now be 100% Altesse.  As of 2008, there were almost 900 acres of Altesse in France and just a little bit in Switzerland (compared to the nearly 2500 acres of Jacquère in France).

I was able to try three different wines featuring the Altesse grape.  The first was the 2009 Famille Peillot Altesse from Bugey, which I picked up from my friends at the Wine Bottega for about $18.  The wine is from the village of Montagnieu, which is one of the villages allowed to append its name to its wines.  In the glass the wine was a pale silvery lemon color.  The nose was reserved with a little bit of pear and chalk, but not much else.  On the palate the wine was on the lighter side of medium with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of lime peel and light lime citrus along with some white pear, green apple, a touch of pineapple and chalk.  It had the hallmark clean, fresh flavors, zippy acidity and solid minerality that I associate with Alpine wines and it had them in spades.  It was lithe and nervy and was a real pleasure to drink.  It represents an excellent value at only $18 and was still drinking very well after sitting in my cellar for over a year (I do sometimes lose things down there).  I found myself wondering how much different an Altesse wine might be closer to the vintage year, so when I came across a 2011 wine, I snapped it up.

I picked up the 2011 Domaine Eugene Carrel Roussette de Savoie from my friends at the Spirited Gourmet for about $17.  This wine is from the village of Jongieux, which is a village that can add its name to Vin de Savoie wines, but not to Roussette de Savoie wines (there is a separate cru designation called Marestel that can be added to the label for Roussette de Savoie, but this wine doesn't appear to be from that particular area of the village).  In the glass the wine was a medium lemon gold color.  The nose was fairly intense with fresh cut lemon, white pear, green apple, lime peel and chalk.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There were flavors of banana, pear, lemon, green apple and a touch of lees with a strong, stony mineral finish. The banana is much more present as the wine warms up, though it does eventually blow off a little bit.  The nose was much more intense on this wine than on the previous one, but I thought it was a bit flabbier on the palate and wasn't quite as focused.  It's still a very nice wine for the money, but if I was forced to choose between the two, I'd reach for the wine from Bugey most of the time.

The final wine that I tried was a little bit different.  It was the 2010 Côtillon des Dames from Jean-Yves Péron in Bugey, and it was an orange wine made from a combination of Altesse and Jacquère grapes.  I picked this wine up from my friends at the Wine Bottega for about $25.  In the glass the wine was a medium orange/amber-bronze color and was a little cloudy.  The nose was fairly intense with honey, peach, honeysuckle flower, orange and pink grapefruit aromas.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with high acidity and a light tannic grip and maybe just a slight tickle of CO2.  There were flavors of peach, grapefruit, honeysuckle and Meyer lemon along with a slight oxidative cidery tang.  The flavors were rich and intense, but also nicely fresh and citrusy.  The nose was just gorgeous and it was a little difficult to move past it and actually drink the wine.  Once I did, though, I found it lithe and electric as the citrus fruits really danced around the bright nervy acid core.  This was definitely my favorite of the three Altesse wines I tried, though it's not exactly a traditional bottling.  If you come across it, though, give it a shot as it's a really fantastic bottle.

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