Bonjour les amis du vin, (hello friends of wine)
The highest peak of the European Alps is the monumental Mont Blanc, a year round glacier that is one of the most iconic vistas in all of Europe.  The dramatic 4,000+ meter high peak has been celebrated by mountaineering and ski enthusiasts the world over for centuries.  With such a massive presence looming above the surrounding valleys, the local agricultural tradition of the Haute Savoie gets relatively little attention on the world stage.  Certainly when visiting the region, one would be likely to find traditional Savoyard foods such as Raclette, Fondue, Tartiflette, in addition to the sundry cured meats that the mountain landscape, its people, and its traditions has provided.  However, the wines of the Haute Savoie remain obscure both in their homeland and abroad.  Slowly and surely,  their production continues to diminish as succeeding generations forego the vigorous lifestyle and difficult profitability of their parents’ craft, when vineyard land is simply more profitable as real estate than as a grape growing heritage.  Such is often the struggle between tradition and “progress”, I suppose………
Today’s introduction is a case in point: just before the autoroute enters the feat of engineering known as the Mont Blanc tunnel, at the very last exit prior to the toll, there lies the tiny village of Ayze.  This sleepy hillside town has been historically known since the 11th century for its production of principally bubbly but some still wine from a unique and genetically far afield variety known as Gringet.  Approximately one hundred and fifty years ago, there were over 400 acres of Gringet planted on these rocky slopes.  However, post the stresses of Phylloxera and the World Wars, not to mention the grape’s fussy uneven and late ripening tendencies, there has been a steady abandonment of this tradition.  Where there were once vineyards, there are now lovely mountain vacation homes.  Today, there but remain 54 acres of Gringet planted on Earth, with 30 of those farmed by the variety’s most brilliant stalwart, Dominique Belluard.
“it (Belluard’s wine) amounts to some of the most remarkable not to mention improbable vinous excitement and promise I have witnessed anywhere in France during the past decade.” -David Schildknecht of Parker’s Wine Advocate
Belluard, pictured above, is the third generation to farm Gringet in Ayze.  He produces roughly half sparkling and half still wine, all farmed biodynamically since 2005.  He is a tall, lean, chiseled dude;  his countless hours of labor on difficult soils have made him the man that he is.  He has not only made it his life’s work to preserve the legacy of Gringet, rather he has continued to evolve its expressiveness beyond anything that anyone had yet acheived.  He now nearly exclusively ages the wines in large concrete eggs, as opposed to wooden barrels or stainless tanks, preferring the aromatic clarity and textural nuance that the egg’s shape, flavor neutrality, and breathability allows in the finished wine.  He has even begun to experiment with an even more ancient vessel, that of terracotta amphora….we will have to wait and see how those trials unfold….Here are the incoming wines, with reviews from David Schildknecht of Parker’s Wine Advocate :

2009 Ayze Methode Traditionelle Brut $19
“Belluard’s 2008 Ayse Methode Traditionnelle – of which I tasted its middle, July, 2011 disgorgement – smells of apple blossom, toasted peanut, peat, and sourdough (these last two doubtless a function not just of the grape but of lees autolysis), as well as intimating the apple and diverse melon fruit that then juicily fills the mouth, saturated with fine mousse. That palate presence is accompanied by persistent smokiness; stony, chalky undertones; and an invigoratingly phenolic bite that suggests diverse fruit skins. This fascinating sparkler might well age interestingly, but I have had no opportunity to put that to the test. ”

2008 Ayze Mont Blanc Brut “Zero” $25
“Belluard’s 2008 Ayse Mont-Blanc Brut Zero originates in a single low-yielding parcel and I tasted its initial, November, 2011 disgorgement, or rather, he disgorged it for me and the bulk of it was to have been readied shortly thereafter. Subtly toasty and smoky, curiously peanut-scented as well as hauntingly floral in aroma, this displays yellow plum and Persian melon as refreshing and even more transparent to myriad mineral nuances than its “regular” counterpart. A hint of fresh ginger adds invigoration to a long if relatively understated finish. Belluard thinks this is a bit reduced and that his actual commercial disgorgement, once given a month in bottle, will be significantly more expressive. “2011 Gringet “les Alpes” $25  NOTE THE REVIEW IS FOR THE 2010….
“Belluard introduced the presentation of his 2010 Les Alpes with the remark that it takes six months after bottling – which this one hadn’t had that – for bottles of his Gringet-based wines to truly show their stuff. He would have been able to fool me about that! Hints of lentil sprout, lemon zest, and peanut mingle with bittersweet floral perfume and intimations of Persian melon that then fill out a lushly-textured yet brightly-citric palate. Chalk, struck flint, and iodine add an intriguing mineral dimension as well as setting up a vibrant interaction with fruits, legumes, and flowers. Belluard suggests enjoying this fine value over the next 3-5 years and I won’t demur inasmuch as what little experience I acquired with earlier vintages during my November visit was limited to the Le Feu bottling that he himself cellars.” 92 points2011 Gringet “le Feu” $32  NOTE THE REVIEW IS FOR THE 2010….
“Issuing from his steepest holdings, which are dominated by red clay glacial sediment, Belluard’s 2010 Le Feu offers a level of richness (albeit still at 12.5% alcohol) that goes well beyond that of the corresponding Les Alpes. White peach and fresh figs are ripely signaled in the nose and lusciously present on a lushly-textured palate. But here too, there are fascinating notes of lentil sprouts, toasted peanuts, bittersweet iris perfume, and myriad stony, smoky and crystalline mineral incursions that set up a delightfully dynamic interchange with fruits, flowers, and legumes in a long, shimmering finish. There is a remarkable sense of transparency, buoyancy, and energy here for a wine that tastes so ripe. I feel confident that it will remain exciting for at least 6-8 years. ” 93 pointsI heartily recommend these wines to fans of higher toned, dry wines like Chablis, dry Riesling, and any of the panoplie of floral/mineral driven wines found in moderate/cooler climates.  Whether for a geek or a novice, they hit the delicious mark, which is what counts in the end……the character of the 2011 wines is of a tender freshness that is both generous and brightly animated.
As always, if you have any questions or interests, feel free to contact me at rob@downtoearthwines.net.
To Dominique and his family, and their labor of love,
CHEERS!
RP