I moved to Colorado, because I am overwhelmed by mountains– their size, silence and beauty. Their omniscient presence. From my passion for climbing them to the character the remnants imbue in the wine I am most fond of drinking, rocks and soil hold me captive. They offer me nothing but joy and contemplation. So one can imagine the feeling I had as I approached the Savoie to visit Domaine Jean Masson in Apremont. Beyond their vineyards in the distance was an epic peak just bating its viewer to climb to the top. A vast, vertical face, not much unlike Half Dome, was the chief source of spectacle. Apparently, I learned that it was a massive piece that broke off in 1248, leaving a smooth, crumbly surface of agro-calcaire behind. I could hardly focus on the rickety roads before me. What a magnificent nugget of nature to behold.
Domaine Jean Masson has been around for about 200 years. All estate grown fruit, they are working off of some of the oldest vines in the region, as over 70% of their vines are over 60 years in age. They plant 10 ha of Jacquere, a common local white grape variety (or ‘race’, as they call it here) as well as a mere 0.5 ha of Altesse (or Roussette– as though either are all that familiar to an export market). Fresh, crisp whites are the rage in this region, as it is rather difficult to ripen reds, though not impossible depending on the site. These are wines that shine with local cheese, raclette and fondue… of course. But these brilliant whites are often forgotten in a multitude of other contexts. I learned that day that when made with passion and intelligence, they rival some of my favorites in Chablis and the Loire valley.
As with most of our producers, Masson would make another domaine who practices natural, organic viticulture. Between their rows, the grass and flowers grow wild taking up some nutrients and forcing the grapes to work harder for their meals. Just as a foil is needed to strengthen the protagonist of a novel, struggle is a crucial step in the character development of a grape.
After a survey of the vineyards and its thick, old vines, we descended into the cellar for a tasting. I was so thankful Jean-Claude’s son, Nicolas, spoke English so well, as he was our go-between for the visit. I learned that he was unsure of his desire to take the domaine into the future. He was young, a musician and eager to find his own meaning and purpose. Still, just a couple hours with these guys, I really hoped he would carry on the 200 year torch. I suppose, though, they didn’t continuously run it generation to generation. The family has owned the property for a couple centuries, but only some have had the bug to produce wine, so to speak.
They were eager to have me taste their full line of production. They make about 9 wines in total, each stressing something unique. He makes one for each of his children–that he says are like them. The ‘Lisa’ is elegant, wonderfully balanced but also quite complex and age-worthy. I tried two vintages (2012 and 2013) that really demonstrated how multidimensional it was with time, as it entered tertiary, mineral aromas with a little time. The ‘Nicolas’ was a bit more spritely, energetic, lean, and lemony. There was an electric quality to it, restless as it was on the tongue. It was quick to speak. Delightfully carefree and ‘of the moment’.
Their Traditional Vielle Vignes, their entry level I supposed, was actually from 80+ year old vines. Hardly simple, this wine expressed melon, white blossoms, and notes of agave on the nose. The palate confirmed this while adding refreshing orange citrus and white peaches.
The 2012 Dichiree was the first to really cause me to pause in my glass. It reminded me so much of Chablis– that steely note of stone meeting water. The palate of front was shy, but the finish was unusually voluminous. Lacking fruit along the way, a juicy pear met my tongue for the encore. Gorgeous stuff…
The 2012 Collection Jean Masson was reminiscent of the Dichiree with more dimensions of floral, fruit and citrus on both nose and palate. Still, the texture was just as tight, though the finish fell a bit short in comparison.
One hundred years really showed in the next selection, the appropriately named 2012 La Centennaire. There was more color to this white as well as more concentration of flavor on the palate. It felt more dense but did not compromise its acidic frame. In fact, its complexity was felt in its nerves– it had much to work through in coming months–even years– before it could string its sentences into something coherent. Once that happens, though, this wine seems to promise nothing less than near perfection. Everything is there just piecing itself together.
Coincidentally, his cuvee Bise is named for the chef of the hotel I am staying at right this moment: Auberge du Pere Bise. When he learned of this unlikely phenomenon, his French tongue got away from him. He was chattering on so quickly, his son needed to simply wait until he collected himself. I couldn’t help but laugh just watching his excitement for this news. Finally, his son relayed the message. His father named this wine for the chef, Sophie Bise. He made it like her. She is a powerful woman– the only woman to have a Michelin start in the Haut-Savoie, he explained. She is lovely and talented. He was very moved by her, it was clear. I found it such a small world that my hotel over an hour away had such a connection to this winemaker. It was meant to be!
The Coeur is quite literally that–the heart of his domaine. This is a collection of his favorite parcels combined into one bottle. A little Lisa, a little Nicolas, a little Centennaire, a little Bise… they all find their way into this assemblage of love, if you will. Holding his hand over his heart so as to demonstrate his passion for this wine, his eyes get wide and wistful. Oh, the French. Such emotion! But I love it. As I try this wine from both 2012 and 2011, I can understand why he loves it so much. His emotion is well translated in this cuvee. It offers up a little of everything described above. Plus, it is my nature to always trust the chef’s preference.
We had lunch at a nearby restaurant on the ‘Green Lake’ at a place called Saint Andre. Casual, they still managed to offer up one of the most delicious gourmet hamburgers of my life. I was so grateful to these guys and their generosity during my visit. They were very honored for a visit, as they can feel overshadowed at times by other ‘great’ regions in France. It is my hope that others discover the surprising, storied wines of this alpine region.