First, let us tackle how you say the name of this region, Savoie, or sometimes spelled Savoy: “Sav-wa.” A fairly common misspronunciation is “Sav -oi.” It’s kind of like the difference between saying cow or bovine.
Savoy is on the eastern side of France, where Switzerland and Italy both border. To the northeast is Lake Geneva in Switzerland. This is where the Chassalas is heavily planted. From the western side of Lake Geneva, starts the Rhone River that flows, at first, west into France. It is joined by the Ain River that flows by France’s Jura wine region, then joined by the Slone River that flows by France’s Burgundy wine region, to the city of Lyons. The Rhone River then takes a turn south through the famous valley and out to the Mediterranean. Savoy is on the western side of the Italian Alps, where Italy’s Piedmont region resides. Out of Italy is the Isere River that flows west to meet the Rhone River south of Lyons. Chambéry is the capital city. Lake du Bourget is just north of Chambéry. These rivers are political boundaries in France. Savoy is a weird wine region where it seems to be in four pieces across four different departments (states)—the Savoie, Haute Savoie, Isere, and Ain, that akin themselves the names of the rivers that flow through them.
Early inhabitants of southern France were the Celtic Allobroges, which was part of the territory of Gallia Transalpina. At first, they were able to resist Roman penetration but were finally conquered in 121 BC and their territory was later called Gallia Narbonensis.
Eventually, Romans were able to concur this province, north of the Alps, which included Languedoc and Provence. It was established in the late 2nd century BC. The Allobroges had been cultivating the ancient vine Vitis Allobrogica long before the Roman conquest.
We can’t go to this region without mentioning Hannibal. Hannibal’s crossing the Alps in 218 BC with his elephants was one of the major event of the Second Punic Wars and one of the most celebrated achievements of any military. It proves how strategic the Savoy region was to both Italy and France.
The region went through serval hands of ownership, from the Burgundians in 437 to the Frankish kingdom of Burgundy in 534. Somewhere in there the name “Savoy” was assigned to the area south of Lake Geneva.
Fast forward a little to the 11th century where feudal lord Humbert (the Whitehanded), founder of the house of Savoy, came into control. Humbert and his successors, during the Middle Ages, built a considerable state for themselves and the House of Savoy. Their control extended east, across the Alps, into Piedmont and Lombardy regions.
By the 14th Century, the House of Savoy, now under Amadeus VIII, had gone through a series of gradual territorial expansion. Amadeus was elevated to Duke of Savoy by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund in 1416.
The 17th century brought about economic development to the Turin area, and the House of Savoy took part in, and benefitted from that. Charles Emmanuel II developed the port of Nice and built a road through the Alps toward France. And through skillful political maneuvers, territorial expansion continued. In the early 18th century, in the War of the Spanish Succession, Victor Amadeus switched sides to assist the Habsburgs, and via the Treaty of Utrecht they rewarded him with large pieces of land in northeastern Italy, and a Crown in Sicily. Savoy rule over Sicily lasted only seven years (1713–20).
Annexed by France in 1792 during the French Revolutionary Wars, Savoy was restored to its traditional rulers in 1815. The treaty of Turin concluded between France and Piedmont-Sardinia on the 24th of March 1860, resulting in the Duchy of Savoy and the County of Nice being annexed to France.
Modern day Savoy is a rather isolated region, just flung out there. The two big industries are viticulture and skiing. On the southern side of Savoy is Mount Blanc, at 4,810m (Europe’s highest peak) above sea level at its peak. The peak of which is sliced in two between France and Italy. Which you would think would be interesting enough, but when you add and increasing number of Vino-tourists, how do you keep them all abiding by the law when one side of the mountain has one set of laws and the other has a different? Do you know you crossed over into the other country mid-way up the mountain? More than that, the modern-day, tourists come to the region more to ski than to drink the wine. But it seems to be changing, thanks to the modernization of winemaking techniques and the enthusiasm of local vintners. So, you got drunk skiers? Why not? Germany, along the Mosel, deals with the same thing, perhaps?
The whole Savoy wine region is all of 2,000 hectares under vine. In total it produces the big, big number 0.5 percent of all the wine in France. Of which 70 percent of the vines produce white wine. Its a higher elevation, which is better for white grapes to get to full ripeness over most red varietals.
Situated just south of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva, the region physiographically constitutes an almost purely Alpine Mountain landscape. Much of the region’s limited farmland is devoted to cattle raising and dairying, and cereals, vines, and fruit (apples) are grown. Forests are an important resource, and cheesemaking and sawmilling are important industries. Traditional chalets in the northwest of Savoy are built of wood, while the chalets in the high Alps are largely built of stone. Farms tend to be highly fragmented. Savoy is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic; Protestantism has made few inroads.
In the world of wine, Savoy is considered to be of Alpine climate with Continental and Mediterranean climate influences. Given the highest peak, Mount Blanc, is included in the wine region, it is to say that the whole area is of a higher elevation. The mountain ridges create rain shadows for which the vines can enjoy long sunny days. The steep slopes also add hours of sunshine, which lengthen the growing season. Compensating factors to the highlight that brings the cold is the number or lakes and rivers. The lakes receive the sun’s warmth during the day and hold the warmth farther into the season, thus making the fall weather slightly warmer than would otherwise be. The rivers are important, as the air above is moved along the path of the river, which reduces the spring frost risks.
There is a large patchwork of soils in the region, which causes the vine growing area to be in pieces where there is appropriate types of soil. Where vines grow, the soil consists of moraines (glacial deposits, alluvial soils, and river terraces [river stones over clay]).
The highlighted white grape that grows here is Altesse (al-tess). Strangely, it is not produced much anywhere else in the world. It enjoys the high elevation, cool climate, big-sunny, not-much-rain days, the low humidity and alluvial soils. It needs the entire season to ripen and is the only varietal allowed in the appellation of Rossette de Savoie. Roussette means “reddish” in French. The grapes have a slightly reddish skin, kind of like Pinot Grigio has a graying skin color.
Some wines are characterized by high acidity, minerals, bouquet of violets, and mountain herbs, bergamont, honey, hazelnut nutty character and full-bodied. To balance the high acidy, some wine makers will leave a thread of residual sugar in the wine.
In youth, wines will display high acid, citrus, slight almond skin on the finish. In youth, it composes to the profile of other Rhone wines, such as Marsanne or Rousanne for body. It compares to Chasselas or Muscadet (minus the salinity) for body.
If allowed to age, the wine will develop a rounder, more viscous mouthfeel, with more tropical aromas, such as mango, papaya, and often an apricot preserve tone, while still remaining brightly acidic. It is suggested to age the wine for three years to achieve full taste. The acidic nature lends itself to the ageing for this length of time. Allowing the wine to age adds an element of elegance.