The grapes of sloth: Nina Caplan relaxes in Savoie's vineyards

Buckets, bobsleds and a battery-powered bike.

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Two things I greatly appreciate: ski resorts in summer, when the chilly, white gloop has melted away, along with the people who so enjoy sliding around on it, leaving the restaurants that cater to their après-ski needs to the discerning likes of me. And cycling through vineyards, close enough to brush a leaf or nick a grape, with the sun warming my skin and that of the fruit whose grandparents will enhance my dinner.

Only rarely can I combine the two. Valuable vineyards are not for skiing on, no matter how deep the snowfall; and gradient, while a boon to both skiers and winemakers (vines respond well to difficult conditions and growing on thin-soiled slopes is hard), is not a friend to the kind of cyclist I am. Once, I cycled – rather, slip-slid, praying loudly as I went (and I’m an atheist) – down St Moritz’s Olympia Bob Run, the oldest such run in the world and surely the steepest. And there weren’t even any vineyards nearby to cry in afterwards.

The hills are alive. Photo: William Craig Moyes

Savoie is different. In Chambéry, you rent bikes and cycle out to vineyards planted shortly after Mont Granier collapsed in 1248, wiping out 16 villages and killing thousands. Ever since, the beautiful scenery has barely been inhabited, save by an amazing variety of mostly indigenous grapes, although there is one long-standing village that was saved, like me in St Moritz, by faith. Legend has it that the 13th-century rockfall parted just in front of Our Lady of Myans; the church’s “Black Madonna” is still revered for that partisan miracle. As I power-cycled up the neighbouring slopes, pausing to chat with mid-harvest locals bent beneath enormous buckets of grapes, I couldn’t help being selfishly glad that there was only one Virgin to protect a village and so stand in the way of an unrelieved swath of vineyards. And before you admire my power-cycling, I mean it literally: I was on an electric bike.

Appropriately, for a region with so many ups and downs, Savoie is a contradictory place. It borders Switzerland and Italy and has only belonged to France since 1860 but it feels very French. There is some superb local food to wash down the wines: Le Carré des Sens in Chambéry and the Auberge de Savières in pretty little Chanaz fed me wonderfully. The former is more self-consciously modern, with Mediterranean and even Asian influences, but both menus spill over with fresh fish, foie gras and local vegetation. In Ripaille, north Savoie, they make very good wines near the monastery: the phrase “faire ripaille” means to live high on the hog. Until Voltaire used it sarcastically, it meant just the opposite – to live abstemiously. As I wrote, a contradictory place. But the modern sense is more appropriate.

Working in the vineyards. Photo: William Craig Moyes

As well as the light, appealing white Jacquère, known as Robinet (“tap”) for its plenitude, the most interesting local grapes are Mondeuse, a frequently insubstantial red that in expert hands (such as those of Philippe Grisard at his eponymous vineyard or of his brother, Michel, at Domaine Prieuré Saint Christophe) has both brightness and blackberry-ish depth. Then there’s Altesse, which makes a floral white known as Roussette de Savoie that’s very good with those local fish. My favourite was Chignin-Bergeron, an apricot-like white made from Roussanne.

Collecting grapes. Photo: William Craig Moyes

I didn’t visit Ripaille but “faire ripaille”? Reader, I confess. Standout memories include a majestic breakfast at Château des Allues, a beautiful hillside manor house hotel run by a former antiques dealer and his chef partner; tasting and talking with the Apremont winemaker Christophe Richel; and rolling effortlessly past those sweating locals on my cheat of a battery-powered bike. It was like skiing, without the need for woollens or gravity. What price a miracle Virgin, when you can fall uphill? 

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

 

This article appears in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English