The renaissance of local grape varieties: Savoie

In their immense diversity, vine plants – grape varieties - are distinguished from one another by their physical characteristics (i.e., the shape and size of leaves, bunches), by their particular aptitudes to adapt to a terroir and to its historical and cultural traditions, and lastly by their singular ability to convey a particular place into wines of character.

In Pierre Galet’s Encyclopedia of Grape Varieties, he counts 9,600 grape varieties throughout the world, some famous, others unknown. Today, of the 450 or so original wine grape varieties in French vineyards, 300 have been eliminated or discarded, and of the 150 in use, 8 "noble" varieties make up 80% of the vines, often grown in regions far from their terroir of origin. This simplification is all the more massive as the "noble" grape varieties have been reduced to a selection of a few of their "clones", chosen according to one or two performance criteria.

Following the destruction caused by the major vine diseases of the 19th century in Europe, notably phylloxera, the reconstitution of the continent’s vineyards was long and laborious. In France, in the 1970s and 1980s, on the initiative of the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, which governs the AOCs), so-called "tolerated" grape varieties were uprooted and the so-called "authorised" grape varieties were replaced by "recommended" grape varieties. As the ampelographer Pierre Galet wrote, "this is a trend that will lead to the standardisation of grape varieties (...) In the long run, this will lead to an impoverishment of genetic diversity".

Under the impetus of winegrowers determined not to accept the domination of "noble" grape varieties in their vineyards, we are witnessing a return to indigenous, often forgotten grape varieties. For many winemakers, it is a way of fighting against the standardization of wine induced by the economic "rationality" of intensive viticulture.

Beyond the defence of a heritage which owes nothing to simple chance but everything to history, to the sense of observation and to the know-how of many generations of winegrowers of the past, it is the conviction that biodiversity constitutes an essential richness for the complexity of the wines themselves. This is yet another factor which motivates some winegrowers today in search of grape varieties specific to their terroir.

The Savoie region is an excellent example of the preservation of these indigenous grape varieties. Perhaps because of its remote geographical location, which meant that for many years it wasn’t seen as a particularly ‘fashionable’ region, the Savoie never abandoned its traditional grape varieties.

Jacquère, Altesse and Mondeuse reign supreme, with a quality that has been greatly improved, not forgetting the Chasselas from the southern shore of Lake Geneva, Gringet from the Arve valley, Bergeron from Chignin and Gamay from Chautagne. More recently, some forgotten grape varieties, sometimes miraculously found, are experiencing a renaissance, such as Persian, Mondeuse Blanche or Grise, Douce noire, and Joubertin, among others...