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Provence Renegade: Domaine de TrévallonEloi Dürrbach of Domaine de Trévallon believed Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon made a compelling duo in a very particular pocket of Provence. Since the early 1970s, he's proved this slice in Les Alpilles, aka the Little Alps, can produce some of France's most celebrated wines.
Trévallon is situated in the remote village of Saint-Etienne-du-Grès, a limestone goldmine on the north side of the Alpilles mountains. Driving here from Bandol on one sweltering July afternoon, I began to wonder how Cabernet Sauvignon could thrive here. But upon arriving on the northern side, temperatures quickly dropped, and I immediately felt ushered into this new land, Baux de Provence. The garrigue shrubbery of the south gave way to a picturesque roadway leading to Trévallon.
The estate covers 17 hectares of almond and olive trees and vines, most of which are planted to the latter. Cabernet Sauvignon was widely planted here pre-phylloxera, but in the 1930s, the appellation system set rules establishing which varieties could be labeled under particular zones. Cabernet Sauvignon got the boot. Still, Dürbach knew Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah achieved something greater as a blend than each on their own, so he labeled his rouge under France’s lowly Vin de Pays category.
After whole cluster fermentation, the red wines age in large, old foudre, a critical element in giving them tremendous clarity and brightness. They call to mind the dark graphite and tobacco-inflected wines of Pauillac, with the black olive and violet of Côte Rôtie. Burgundy, Rhone, and Bordeaux take the lion’s share for most significant French reds. Still, the consistency and heights that Trévallon achieves each vintage are unsurpassed. Dürrbach has won the hearts of collectors across the globe!
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French Alpine Pleaser: Domaine Giachino
This year, I have been growingly curious about this alpine region over the more popular Jura. A couple of months ago, I wrote about Michel Grisard of Prieuré Saint-Christophe, who spearheaded much of Savoie's renaissance in the 1990s. Today, I would like to introduce you to one of the vignerons directly impacted by his work: Frédéric Giachino. This was the domaine that originally drew me to the Savoie, and they remain my absolute favorite, for their incredible price point and drinkability.
Frédéric is an OG in his own right. Native to Savoie, his grandparents farmed cereals, nuts, fruits, and a small vineyard planted with Jacquère. Frédéric asked if he could take over the vines and start a domaine. In 1988, this was a risky proposition, as Jacquère still had a bad reputation. Luckily, the rest of the region quickly caught on, with vignerons like Grisard leading the charge. Abandoned vineyards planted with native varieties were revitalized, and today, Jacquère is Savoie’s most popular white grape.
Though these are technically “natural” wines, the Giachinos are more concerned with respecting nature and capturing their sense of place. In the 13th century, the north face of Mount Granier came loose and spilled 500 million cubic meters of limestone into the valley below, where Domaine Giachino is now based. Between this and Savoie’s alpine terrain, the resulting wines are brisk, mineral-driven, and extremely enjoyable in Lorch’s words. Consider drinking Giachino’s Jacquère in place of a glass of Chablis, or their Mondeuse over a glass of Northern Rhône Syrah!
Frédéric also planted Altesse, Persan, and Gamay, among other native varieties. For years, he worked under lutte raisonnée, a farming practice that allows for chemical pesticides when necessary. According to Wink Lorch, it wasn’t until the early aughts when Frédéric met a group of vignerons farming organically, who would form a cohort called Pétavins—this introduction changed everything. In 2006, the domaine became organic-certified. And in 2015, the Giachinos inherited Grisard’s estate vineyard upon his retirement (They still produce the wines under the Prieuré Saint-Christophe label). Today, Frédéric is joined by his brother, David, and his son, Clement, who have helped carry the domaine into this new era.
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Next in Savoie: Domaine des Côtes Rousses
If you’re going to explore alpine red wines, then you must have the Savoie's most popular native variety called Mondeuse. One of the best examples we’ve encountered this year comes from a younger vigneron: Nicolas Ferrand’s 2018 Coteau de la Mort.
In Wines of the French Alps (2019), Wink Lorch describes Ferrand’s Coteau de la Mort as “a devout and serious wine,” comparing its taut youthfulness to that of meditative monks. The sultry yet playful wine label may suggest that this is a natural wine—and it is, given Ferrand’s biodynamic farming practices and minimal-intervention winemaking. For Coteau de la Mort, he does a semi-carbonic fermentation without any piegeage (pressing down of the skins), fining or filtering, a minimal amount of sulfur, and aging in larger format barrels. This wine has a stature comparable to Northern Rhône Syrah, with high-toned black cherry, black pepper, and pressed rose petals, but today, this 2018 Mondeuse bottling is also juicy and sleek.
Coteau de la Mort, or hill of death, was one of many ancient hill vineyards re-planted during Savoie’s renaissance in the 1990s, thanks to early champions, like Michel Grisard of Prieuré St-Christophe. In 2013, it became a part of the 1.5 hectares that Nicolas Ferrand purchased when starting Domaine des Côtes Rousses. Based in Saint Jean de la Porte, one of Savoie’s top crus for Mondeuse, this sub-appellation has distinct red clay soils (the inspiration behind the domaine’s name) in addition to limestone and moraine. Ferrand has farmed organically from the beginning, and utilizes horses and sheep in partnership with his neighbors. Ferrand is native to the area, but his family previously farmed cattle, making him a first-generation vigneron.
In the last decade, Domaine des Côtes Rousses has steadily grown to six hectares and so has the buzz. Lorch concludes her review saying, “Nicolas’s wines should become a staple in every Savoie wine lover’s cellar,” if only he can keep his minimal-intervention winemaking in check. Ferrand has our attention with this current release. The 2018 Coteau de la Mort is a refreshing take on this sliver of Savoie history.
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Savoie Savior: Prieure Saint-Christophe
"The world of Savoie wine would be much poorer without him and owes him a bigger debt of gratitude than is evidenced today. I salute you, Michel." — Wink Lorch, Wines of the French Alps
Last week, I wrote about Les Mémoires, Thierry Germain’s soulful, old-vine Cabernet Franc. I’m switching gears today and heading to the French Alps. If you enjoy white wines from the Jura but haven’t dipped into Savoie, you're missing out. One of the most important names to know is Michel Grisard.
This vigneron started Prieuré Saint-Christophe in the late 1970s, after running his family's domaine for a decade. His new sole intention was to produce high-quality, ageable Mondeuse, a powerfully deep red grape variety native to the area. Grisard succeeded but didn’t stop there: He was the Savoie’s first vigneron to adopt Biodynamics, played a key role in the local movement to revive the region’s many abandoned vineyards, by replanting them with indigenous varieties, and he also founded Domaine des Ardoisières.
Grisard devoted his career to championing Savoie, and the wine region is as popular as ever, largely thanks to his pioneering work. He retired after the 2014 vintage and gave his vineyards to the Giachino brothers (Currently my favorite producer in the Savoie). They have carried on Grisard's legacy and continue to produce wines from his former estate under the Prieuré Saint-Christophe label.
In addition to Mondeuse, Grisard also planted 1.4 hectares of Altesse—the finest indigenous white grape variety of Savoie, according to Wink Lorch, author of Wines of the French Alps. (If you don’t know about Lorch, she is a leading expert on this alpine region). Comparable to Burgundy’s Aligoté or Italy’s Trebbiano, Altesse offers an intriguing concentration of fruit with floral and nutty tones.
From the foothills of the Massif des Bauges, on clay and limestone soils, this estate produces one of the most linear examples of Altesse we’ve encountered. It interplays succulent pear with striking minerality, and a slight texture of fresh almond—a pleasing combination that’s compelling and delicious. The wine spontaneously ferments and ages in large oak casks to avoid any oak flavors.
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Savoie's Fresh Streak
Over the last few years, I've found myself reaching more and more for new cool-climate French wines. Of course, that has to include the Savoie, located just along the Swiss border in view of Mont Blanc. Although history is as steep as the slopes here, it's a younger name, Domaine des Ardoisières, that I turn to for alpine inflections and mineral spring purity in both the whites and reds.
Ardoisières works with two sites in the Savoie, Cevins and St. Pierre de Soucy, both farmed biodynamically since their 1998 founding. These vineyards were originally planted back in Roman times but were overtaken by forest as the region fell into obscurity. A group cleared these forests in the late 1990's for replanting, then in 2005, Champagne native Brice Omont took the lead on winemaking. This small-production estate has become the darling of the Savoie and a champion of the region's great potential.
From the clay-dominant hillsides of St. Pierre de Soucy, Argile Blanc is made of 40% Jacquère, 40% Chardonnay, and 20% Mondeuse Blanche. And Argile Rouge is 80% Gamay and 20% Persan. Compared to Beaujolais Gamay, this Savoie rendition has lighter body and more pepper tones. The fruit profile is more red raspberry than the accustomed plush, grapey Beaujolais traits, and the finish lingers with a brisk mineral flicker that's lip-smacking good! Both wines are aged for nine months in vats.
And from southeast-facing terraces in Cevins, Quartz Blanc is made of 100% Altesse and Améthyste Rouge is 60% Persan and 40% Mondeuse Noire. The heavy schist soils in Cevins give a racy personality and pulverized rock core that makes this one of my favorite French regions for crisp whites. If you haven't experienced Altesse, you're missing out! These being the most mineral-driven and age-worthy wines of the domaine, they're both aged 18 for months in barrel.