A cycling tour of Chambéry Cluse, one of Savoie Mont Blanc's wine regions

Explore this verdant area on two wheels to discover some of Savoie Mont Blanc’s unique wine appellations — as well as the area’s fascinating history.

Savoie Mont Blanc's wine region is divided into three areas. Pictured above is Chautagne and Jongieux, around Lac Bourget.

Photograph by Lac Savoie Mont Blanc-Monica Dalmasso
By Angela Locatelli
Published 20 Dec 2021, 07:06 GMT

The northern face of Mont Granier drops abruptly. From a wide, flat summit, the precipice simply falls away, its sheerness dizzying to behold. Its outline, at the northern end of the Chartreuse Regional Nature Park, looks like an unfinished sketch, as if the artist had been interrupted, forced to wrap things up, move on to a more pressing landmark. The story of this mountain, however, is a tale of crueller upheaval: in 1248, relentless rain caused a landslide of biblical proportions, which destroyed five villages in the valley below. When the dust settled, a changed landscape was left to bear testimony to the disaster.

 As is often the case, upheaval seeded resilience — from locals, and from the land itself. In time, the displaced clay and limestone proved fertile ground for growing vines. So much so, in fact, that the foothills of the mountain — an area known as Cluse de Chambéry, to the south of the city — is now home to the highest concentration of vineyards in Savoie Mont Blanc’s 4,942-acre wine region.

To discover this tumultuous landscape, I’m up early this morning, with experienced local guide Randa. Hiring e-bikes in Chambéry, we head out on one of three Savoie Wine Route itineraries, signposted trails designed to help visitors discover the region’s vinicultural scene. Green fields roll out to the horizon, backdropped by the Bauges Regional Nature Park, until small patches of vines start lining the path. We take a pause: Randa points to the Belledonne mountain range looming in front of us, their peaks still white in early summer; on our right, I catch my first glimpse of Mont Granier. After the landslide, its height was reduced by over a half, but its north face remains one of France’s highest cliffs.

Our destination is Apremont, meaning ‘bitter mountain’, one of two white wine appellations sited at the bottom of Mont Granier’s slopes. (Abymes, to its south, is no less evocative, loosely translating to ‘chasms’.) Vineyard after vineyard now unfurl around us as we head for a wine-tasting at Maison Philippe Viallet. A certified ‘Savoie Mont Blanc Excellence’ company (a title that celebrates ‘the best’ of the region), it’s making strides towards more energy-efficient methods of production, with solar-powered storage buildings and water-management systems.

Wine at Le Moulin de Léré, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Vailly.

Photograph by Violane Gouilloux

I try the sparkling Crémant de Savoie, floral and fruity; a smooth Monterminod; a Chignin-Bergeron of golden hues, which foreshadows its richness in flavour; and a Mondeuse Arbin. But the star is the Chateau d’Apremont Savoie, made from Jacquère, the most widely planted of Savoie’s 23 wine varieties and one of seven unique to the region. It’s fresh and lightly lemony, with just a hint of flint: this white is made with grapes that thrive on the debris of the landslide.

Back on the road, we pedal on south, reaching the hummocky Abymes countryside. The path winds through more vineyards, ivy-adorned stone farmhouses and sartos (traditional winegrower’s huts). Then, Randa points out a boulder among the vines. Mont Granier is so far in the distance, it’s incredible to think parts of it could have reached these fields, but from that point on I notice them in every other backyard — reminders of the uniqueness of these vineyards, the heritage behind the bottles they produce.

After two steep climbs, we stop at the top of a hill, panting, almost at the end of our tour. Below us is the tiny Lake Saint André, another feature of this landscape formed during the landslide. I try to imagine what that night must have been like — a chilling rumble, a cascade of rocks. Then, the effort and patience of the winemakers, who tended to every patch of soil. Today, the lake is still, the trees around it mirrored on its surface. I catch my breath; this view, like everything else here, has been hard-earned, and it’s all the better for it.

Frédéric Molina.

Photograph by Violane Gouilloux

A Q&A with Frédéric Molina, chef at Le Moulin de Léré

Just like its wines, Savoie Mont Blanc has an enviable natural larder, where chefs like Frédéric Molina use seasonal, local ingredients in creative dishes. In addition to a Michelin star, his countryside inn in Vailly holds a Michelin Green Star for its sustainability efforts. He tells us more.

As a chef, you travelled around Europe, Asia and Australia. Do your dishes include influences from other countries?
Of course, it's always about that — those influences, my story and local flavours.

I love the cuisine of the world, but what’s important to me is to base my work on those influences and ideas, and then use local products. To me, it makes no sense to use ingredients that come from far away.

You create new menus every day, based on the ingredients your suppliers bring you. How does it work?
It’s very exciting! At the beginning I lacked experience, but over time I started seeing results: not everyone will understand or like what you do, but you have to believe in yourself and persevere.

When it comes to our menu, we always start with a traditional dish and develop on it. I like the juxtaposition of contemporary cuisine within a traditional space. It also has to be simple, it’s all about that.

How did you decide to make more eco-friendly choices?
It’s not something I chose — it’s always been part of me, of my education. I grew up in the countryside; we had a garden and animals, we’d only buy a few things and produce the rest ourselves. When I became part of the food industry, I went a lot further with that. I wanted to transform everything, not to go down a path that didn’t feel right.

What does the Michelin Green Star mean to you?
It’s not only a recognition of our efforts, but also of our beliefs, of everything we do. Bringing this topic into our job, into our life, was important to us. At the same time, I don’t want to preach; we’re not part of an industry that’s going to save the world. There’s still a lot to do, and it’s important we remember that.

Savoie Mont Blanc is a popular cycling destination. Above, cyclists tackle the Col du Galibier mountain pass, which can be reached from Valloire.

Photograph by Savoie Mont Blanc-Alban Pernet

Beyond the vineyards

There are over 30 microbreweries in the region. Brasserie des Cimes, a brewery in Aix-les-Bains, welcomes visitors for tours and tastings. Alternatively, head to Archimalt, a cheerful pub in Saint-Alban-Leysse that serves its house beers on tap.

Where to eat

Pinson: After working at Paris institutions including Alain Ducasse’s RECH and Maison Lasserre, Michelin-starred chef Adrien Trouilloud now runs this city-centre Chambéry establishment. The inventive menu features French specialities such as simmered escargots alongside Mediterranean and middle-eastern ingredients including feta, halloumi and hummus.

Restaurant Le Saint André: This restaurant serves traditional cuisine right next to its namesake lake, in the heart of the Combe de Savoie wine region.

Where to sleep

Le Moulin de Léré: Above the Michelin-starred restaurant, this charming, intimate inn — a renovated 17th-century wooden mill in Vailly — has five themed bedrooms, with views of the countryside and peaks around it. Its location is ideal for nature lovers, who can discover the Chablais Alps, which dominate the surrounding landscape, or head to Lake Geneva, located just a 20-minute drive away. From €90 (£75) in low season.

How to do it

Located in south-eastern France, right in the heart of the French Alps, Savoie Mont Blanc is a region that includes all the resorts, towns and villages of the country’s Savoie and Haute- Savoie departments.

The region is easily accessible via train or airplane. New Jet2 flights will link London, Leeds, Bristol, Manchester and Birmingham to Chambéry from December 2021 to mid-April 2022.

Savoie’s wine region is divided into three areas: Cluse de Chambéry & Combe de Savoie, just south of Chambéry; Chautagne and Jongieux, around Lake Bourget; and Leman and Arves, further north around Lake Geneva. To explore Cluse de Chambéry, rent e-bikes at Synchro Vélostation in Chambéry; from there, it takes around one hour and a half to cycle to Lake Saint André (following the signposted Savoie Wine Route itinerary, travellers can cover a bigger loop to Fréterive).

For more information, head to savoie-mont-blanc.com

Published in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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