If you could bottle intense sunshine, fragrant blossoms and cool Alpine air, you’d likely end up with Altesse. This white grape hails from Savoie, an Alpine region in Southeastern France that’s close to Italy and Switzerland.
“In my opinion, [Altesse is] one of the most aromatic, expressive and underappreciated grape varietals in the world,” says Oscar Chinchilla, beverage director/sommelier at Montage Beverly Hills in Los Angeles. “This is a varietal that makes a fresh expression of white complex wines [that are] food-friendly and a great conversation starter.”
Altesse is perfect for white wine lovers who believe they must sacrifice weight and depth for vibrant acidity. It’s a rare wine that can tick off all of the boxes.
What is Altesse?
There’s debate about Altesse’s history. Some thought it was brought to France from Cyprus, while others mistakenly believed it was a relative of the Hungarian grape Furmint. However, recent research has shown Altesse to have a close genetic link to Chasselas, a white grape grown in the similar terroir of Switzerland, though Altesse itself is indigenous to Savoie.
To add to the confusion, Altesse can also be bottled as “Roussette de Savoie” or “Roussette de Bugey,” a reference to the reddish or rousse hue that the grape takes on as it ripens and the regions it’s from. It’s also used in the Seyssel Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), where it is sometimes blended with Chasselas and the somewhat neutral variety Molette in sparkling wines.
No matter what Altesse is called, its limited production used to mean just locals, wine experts and seasonal tourists who sip it après-ski were familiar with the grape. But that’s changing.
“Over the last 30 years, the area has shown significant growth in vineyards, thus [there has been] more support to import overseas,” says Jonathan Sanders, sommelier for Justine and La Petite Grocery in New Orleans.
Sanders says that Savoyards consider Altesse to be the region’s most serious white varietal because of its age-worthiness and the fascinating ways in which it can evolve.
“In its youth, the grape yields high acid, citrusy wines with a slight almond skin on the finish,” says Rachael Lowe, the beverage director for Levy Restaurants, which includes the James Beard-nominated Spiagga. “As it ages, it develops a rounder, more viscous mouthfeel with more tropical aromas such as mango, papaya and often an apricot preserve tone, while still maintaining bright acidity.”
Lowe compares the flavor profile to a youthful yet crisper Rhône blend of Marsanne or Roussanne.
John Slover, beverage director for New York City-based hospitality group Major Food Group, says that Altesse is similar to Chasselas or Muscadet, minus the salinity.
“When you [smell] it, you can almost picture yourself taking a deep breath at the foot of the Alps surrounded by evergreens,” says Slover. “[There’s] distinct minerality, an underpinning of delicate sage or distinct pine with almond on the palate in its youth, which can age gracefully into a honeyed yet dry complexity.”
This is represented by bottles like the 2017 Domaine Eugène Carrel Roussette de Savoie Altesse, which “emphasizes ethereal mountain air-like minerality and Muscadet-like body,” says Slover. The 2009 Domaine Patrick Charlin Roussette du Bugey Montagnieu Altesse demonstrates its aging potential, a wine “remaining dry but evolving into pleasurable honey-like complexity similar to a Chenin Blanc.” And Slover calls the 2017 Domaine des Ardoisières Quartz a more modern style “while never losing sight of its Alpine underpinnings.”
Minerality is a hallmark of Altesse. Sanders says that high elevation and strong midday sun lend purity and balance. “The wine feels like it was forged out of a mountain,” he says. “These wines are not big and showy, but elegant and light without diminishing complexity, [and] flash pure minerality that is forward, but not aggressive.”
Altesse can balance mouthwatering acidity with aromas and flavors that span from fruit to flowers alongside a lush mouthfeel. This makes it a fun wine to pair with food.
Chinchilla recommends serving Altesse alongside caprese salad, pan-seared Parmesan asparagus and garlic-driven dishes. Slover likes youthful bottles with fresh cheeses, salads and savory herbs like tarragon. Older, richer bottles match the richness and intensity of tartiflette, a traditional Savoy dish of roasted potatoes, white wine, fresh herbs and Reblochon cheese.
Lowe turns to seafood and shellfish for young fresh bottlings, and squash, sweet potatoes, pasta and lighter meats for those with a little age on them. The wine’s notes of salt, lemon and stone work with grilled pompano or octopus with citrus and herbs, says Sanders.
Altesse may be unheralded for now, but it’s a safe bet it won’t stay that way.