Freewheeling in Savoie

A v�lo �lectrique proved an ideal way for Dominic Rippon to explore the exquisite hillside vineyards near Chamb�ry

On a bright summer’s day I found myself at Chamb�ry M�tropole v�lostation, listening impatiently to the list of safety instructions; unable to concentrate on anything other than wondering which of the dozen contraptions on display would be mine for the day. There was one with the word ‘Sporting’ emblazoned on the side. It was worth asking.

I have used electric bicycles a few times, hitherto always with companions, and it divides the population into those who are unnerved by the whinny and tug of the motor, and those who relish the chance to re-find their inner ten-year-old self. I was in the latter camp as ‘Sporting’ and I lurched off towards the v�loroute leading to the vineyards south-east of Chamb�ry.

As the suburbs thinned out and the hills began, the v�lo �lectrique came to life; sensing the effort required, its motor propelled me uphill into the most southerly of Savoie’s vineyards, eating up the kilometres without the need for regular oxygen breaks. I arrived in the village of Apremont sooner than anticipated, with a final shunt up the Coteau des Belettes to Jean-Fran�ois Mar�chal’s family estate.

Apremont is one of 15 superior cru villages that are allowed to append their names to the Vin de Savoie AOP (the new appellation d’origine prot�g�e). The Savoie-Apremont appellation is for dry white wines, made mostly from the jacqu�re grape, which gives spritzy lemon-scented blends when grown on the village’s clay-limestone soils.

“When I was 14,” Jean-Fran�ois exclaimed, “I already knew that I wanted to make wine in Apremont.” So it was that he began planting vines on the higher slopes of his parents’ farm. Today, he owns ten hectares of vineyard, shared between the jacqu�re, altesse and marsanne white grapes, with a little gamay and pinot noir for the production of ros�, and mondeuse for red.

Jean-Fran�ois’s cosy estate and chambre d’h�te perch majestically above the vines of Apremont and the valley beneath; the fashionable vineyards of Chignin and Chignin-Bergeron hug the lower slopes of the mountains to the east. After a bracing ap�ritif, I bade Jean-Fran�ois farewell and whizzed downhill towards Lac de Saint-Andr�, the bike’s motor breaking my descent by stealing back some of the energy used for the earlier climb. I arrived at Restaurant Le Saint-Andr�, on the lake’s eastern shore, just in time for a fortifying plat du jour, washed down with a refreshing glass of gamay. Then I continued east towards Chignin.

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The vineyards of Chignin are unmistakeable, even from several kilometres, peppered as they are with the ruins of the village’s medieval fortifications. This is a historic wine commune with a warm micro-climate; shielded by mountains from the cool northerly winds, farmers are able to grow almond and fig trees alongside their vines. Uniquely in Savoie, the village of Chignin boasts two separate crus: Chignin, for the production of dry white wines from the jacqu�re grape, and Chignin-Bergeron, for fuller-bodied, longer-lived whites made from the roussanne, more commonly found in the torrid conditions of the Rh�ne Valley.

“The roussanne grape has historic pedigree in our vineyards,” Jean-Fran�ois Qu�nard explained when I arrived at his Chignin estate. “These are south-west-facing slopes that drain well: perfect conditions for ripening the roussanne.”

First on the tasting menu was his ‘entry-level’ Chignin, a notably richer, riper wine than the Apremont I had sampled earlier in the day. Next was a single-vineyard Chignin, ‘Anne de la Biguerne’, made from a parcel of gnarly old jacqu�re vines. Its flavours were intense, tight and mineral, with a delicious hint of white pepper spice.

When the Chignin-Bergerons were uncorked, the contrast with the previous two wines was remarkable: aromas of peach and passion fruit leapt from the glass; on the palate, the wine was lower in acidity than the more citrusy jacqu�re, but its silky richness filled every corner of my mouth.

After a tour of the Qu�nard estate, I kicked off back down the hill to rejoin the cycle path through the valley to Chamb�ry. The battery warning light began to flash and I settled into a leisurely, economic rhythm. As the late afternoon sun made silhouettes of the mountains above Apremont and locals returned from a day’s lakeside languor, my thoughts were not only of the day’s journey, but of when I might return to these alluring vineyards of Savoie.

Estate Details: Domaine Qu�nard Jean-Pierre & Jean Fran�ois, Le Villard, 73800 Chignin

Tel: (Fr) 4 79 28 08 29