Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chateauneuf-du-Pape hog the press when it comes to French wine, and truly great wines these are, but down France’s less trodden roads and along its fringes can be found some of this great wine nation’s most fascinating wine regions, and one of them is Savoie (sav-WA). Also known as Savoy in English, and Savoia in Italian, prior to the finalization of France’s current borders, there existed a kingdom that encompassed what is now southeastern France and northwestern Italy just south of Switzerland and Lake Geneva. Tonight’s wine hails from the French side.
Savoie is breathtakingly beautiful sub-Alpine region, and like so many heavily mountainous vine-growing regions in the Old World, Savoie is home to scads of ultra-local vine varieties, and Altesse is one…or maybe not…Altesse is the currently preferred name for this white varietal, but as is stated clearly by the label on this bottle, the older name of “Roussette” is used to demarcate the appellation which is fully known as “Roussette de Savoie” though the more “modern” name of Altesse also typically appears on most labels, and this wine is no exception to that trend.
Like so many minor and obscure grape varieties from out of the way places, legends abound regarding their origins…Guess what? Altesse or Roussette or Ignam or Arin (two other aliases for this mysterious grape) or whatever one decides to call it, conforms nicely to this trend. In trying to find the most deeply rooted origins of this grape, someone along the line noticed that Altesse bears a great similarity, in terms of flavor and aroma as well physiologically, to the noble Hungarian (yes, Hungarian) white grape variety Furmint which is one of the several but most important grape that goes into making the truly great “Wine of Kings”, and indisputably one of the world’s greatest sweet wines, Tokaji. And if that isn’t enough of a curve ball for you, wait, there’s more. Grape scientists investigating Furmint’s origins, taking the very un-Hungarian-sounding as starting point for their research, eventually discovered a very obscure grape from Italy’s northeastern Friuli region called…Formentino (A-HA!) that bore similarities to Furmint beyond the obvious one in terms of their monikers. Documents exist detailing the dowery of a Friulian noble woman that was married into the Hungarian court, and among the assets transferred were cuttings of vines that very likely were the Friulian Formentino.
So, did Altesse come to Savoie via the geographically closer region of Friuli, or via Hungary? Is Formentino actually Furmint? Is Altesse some isolated clone of Furmint? Are any of these varieties actually kin? Despite all that we know about genetic mapping, it’s actually quite difficult to definitively make these determinations, and as of this writing no one is certain. One thing that is certain however is that Altesse has been in Savoie for a very long time, and there is minimal disputation that it is the region’s noblest white cultivar.
With this very elegant and slightly austere wine I dished up two glosses of two Savoyarde dishes – a Gruyere and fennel salad with a minced onion and aromatic herb dressing as a starter, and then a take on another local classic: Coq au Vin Jaune (the local sweetish, oxidized white wine similar to Fino Sherry) et Morilles that I fudged with a mix of white wine and Rainwater Madeira and Shiitake ‘shrooms instead of the traditional wine and morels, both of which are hard to find and very pricey…creme fraiche brings the sauce together. Braised carrots on the side.
Eugene Carrel Roussette de Savoie 2012
Bright, very pale gold color. Fine and a somewhat astringent nose of pear, white currant, and green melon fruit aromas with supporting notes of white spices, dried white flowers, and hay. In the mouth the wine presents a solidly structured medium body with a minerally, “nervous” acidity and fresh flavors of Granny Smith apple, grapefruit, gooseberry, lemon verbena, and almond. Very clean and crisp quinine-flavored finish.