Re-thinking Altesse

By Alexander Wallace

Thierry Tissot's Mataret vineyard is an ideal place for the Altesse grape to achieve its full potential. Indeed, the grape seems to love the steep, calcareous, sun-drenched slopes of its native land: the wine regions of Bugey and Savoie.

Altesse vines in Frangy by Alexander Wallace

Sun-drenched? Well, yes. Contrary to many popular opinions, these are not regions of extreme mountain winemaking, with heroic effort required to get grapes to ripen. They are not particularly cool climate – at least not in the best sites. This isn't the Languedoc, of course, but neither is this Champagne or Muscadet. In some parts of Savoie they can get apricots to ripen. In Bruno Lupin's vineyards in Frangy, there are populations of cicadas. Even the altitudes are modest, with the mountains themselves providing only dramatic background scenery.

Altesse, also known as Roussette, is at home in these temperate hills and valleys. In the hands of capable farmers and winemakers, it can make wines that, according to the authoritative book Wine Grapes, "may be nutty or more exotically perfumed – even violet-scented – with flavours of honey and almonds, good acidity and the potential to age in bottle." That last bit is crucial: as opposed to Jacquère, Savoie's other native white grape, Altesse has the capacity to age very gracefully when well-made.

Altesse on the vine by Alexander Wallace

One of the recurring themes you hear about when talking to winemakers about Altesse is this evolution in bottle. As Thierry Tissot explains, "Altesse tends to produce wines that are muted when young. But then they gain lots of body, finesse, and length as they age. The wines become very elegant."

Indeed, for the first three to six months after bottling, the wines can be very closed. They will then open up dramatically; offering fresh flavors emphasizing stone fruits and citrus. They will still be quite lean at this stage, and young Altesse offers a pleasing bitterness on the finish.

Over the next few years, the aromatics will evolve, tending more towards honeyed, nutty, and floral flavors. The wine gets fatter, too, gaining body and a beeswax quality.

Even then, though, Altesse produces wines that are often understated and subtle, especially when lined up with other more powerful wines. As Thierry says, his Altesse is "not an exuberant wine. It won't jump out at you with open arms." You need to take a little time to concentrate of these wines to appreciate them properly, and they benefit enormously from being opened a little before drinking.

Thierry Tissot by Alexander Wallace

All this, of course, is provided the wine is well-made, and there are many pitfalls in coaxing good wine out of this delicate grape. First, there's the care in the vineyard. Altesse is, as the authors explain in Wine Grapes, a "delicate variety susceptible to downy and powdery mildews and to botrytis bunch rot." It is known to be finicky, and is certainly not the first choice for those trying to make their lives easy.

Then there's the issue of yields: according to Bruno Lupin, who makes wine in the Roussette de Savoie cru of Frangy, one of the keys to making good wines from Altesse is low yields: unlike some grape varieties, with Altesse you rapidly lose concentration as yields increase. The tradeoff here is harsh, so really keeping yields low is paramount. Bruno likens it to Viognier in that respect.

Bruno Lupin by Alexander Wallace

Once in the winery, there are other questions to answer. There are various approaches to lees aging and malolactic fermentation, which can affect the style of the wine.

But the big question is that of residual sugar. Altesse has plenty of acid, and in pursuit of a certain idea of balance, a large number of producer will leave a few grams of residual sugar in their wines, often just around or above the threshold of noticeability (about 5-10 grams per liter). This can soften out the acidity, but it will also change the balance and structure of the wine significantly, in ways that affect its ability to age well. The practice of leaving a little residual sugar in Altesse wines is extremely common in Savoie and the Bugey.

Both Bruno Lupin and Thierry Tissot are firmly against leaving residual sugar in their wines. For them, it's a misguided way of compensating, a way to take the easy way out that, in the end, diminishes the final product. For both of them, the greatest expressions of Altesse come from wines that are fermented to complete dryness, as only these can produce the appropriate structure and balance.

Altesse vines in Frangy by Alexander Wallace

All this is subjective, of course. But it seems no coincidence that these two producers, who make some of the most compelling Altesse wines, both insist on fermenting to complete dryness.

Stylistic questions aside, though, it's clear that, in this corner of eastern France, Altesse has huge potential. It is capable of producing structured, rich, age-worthy wines. These are not words that are often associated with the wines of Savoie and Bugey, but maybe it's time to re-think these pre-conceived notions…

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