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Mountain Wines - Not that kind of Piste

It is often noted that the best wines come from the very limits of vine growing capabilities – the coolest climates, the most extreme terroirs – and mountain wines are no exception. You might think that snow capped mountains seem like a stupid place to plant vines, but there is certainly method in the madness!

We wine fanatics often use the word ‘terroir’ to refer to the wine’s sense of place, which is a fancy way of talking about the environment it was grown in. Soil is one factor – with drainage and composition playing a part in grape quality and even variety (as some varieties respond better to different soils). Aspect is another, as this can be the difference between a grape getting enough sun to ripen, and not. Proximity to water can be a big factor as well. Sometimes even the other plants in the vineyard can affect the final wine. It’s these factors which come together to make each wine producing region, and in some cases, each plot of vines, unique.

So what is it about the mountains which makes them prime growing spots? Well, firstly, steep slopes allow for great sun exposure, and surprising warmth in the summer. The steep slopes also allow for good soil drainage, which makes the vines dig deep and work hard. The altitude means that cold nights help keep the balance of acidity in check. Many of the vines in the region are also planted next to large lakes, which help to temper the temperature swings and prevent frost in the crucial growing seasons. There’s the method! Because of the often challenging terrains, many producers still harvest by hand, and use traditional methods where modern machinery would be unable to help, and we think the wines are all the better for it. That means that they have a close eye on quality, and a personal touch. It also means that many producers work without chemical intervention.

Perhaps the most famous mountainous wine regions are in the Savoie in France, and in bordering Switzerland, in the Valais. Up in the Savoie you’ll find a whole host of (mainly white) grapes which are, more or less, unique to this area, such as Rousette, Chasselas, Rousanne and Jacquere. You’ll also find reds made from Gamay, Pinot Noir, Mondeuse and Persan. The wines here are often leaner, more savoury and complex than you might find elsewhere, and grape varieties such as Jacquere are often characterised by a stream-like minerality. Naturally, they are excellent matches for Alpine cheeses, fondues, or creamy potato dishes, and have excellent capacity for ageing (if they ever make it that far). Switzerland also uses many of the same varieties, as well as some of its own such as Petite Arvine. Much of its Gamay and Pinot Noir goes into a blend called Dôle, which is a pretty excellent Sunday Roast wine. Whilst there is some mass-produced stuff, there are pockets of Switzerland where not much has changed since Heidi roamed the mountains, so wine production is often small, and expensive, but is so worth it when you can get your hands on it, as the good stuff from passionate producers tends to disappear pretty quickly.

Perhaps you’ve had your interests piqued by a recent ski trip, or have been craving fondue (as I frequently do!), but if you’d like to know more about mountain wines, check out our website here, where there will be 10% off selected Mountain wines throughout February.