In France, the little known wine region of Bugey is well off the beaten track. I have passed through it frequently, usually on the way to more famous wine destinations, always making a mental note to stop and explore. When I finally did so this year I immediately wished I had done it sooner.
Once part of Eastern Burgundy, Bugey is in the l’Ain department of France and is usually only mentioned briefly as a footnote in wine books, either to neighboring Jura to the North or more usually to Savoie to the East. Indeed, this wine region only finally achieved its Appellation Contrôlée status in 2009. That was a long time coming.
Yet before the devastations by phylloxera and two World Wars, Bugey was an important wine producer, when it had 7,000 hectares of vines planted. Today, Bugey is a much slimmer 500 hectares, consisting of small vineyards scattered widely amongst 63 villages. Most wine growing here is undertaken by small family concerns that rely on cellar door sales. Production is tiny, at just four million bottles per year, and consumption remains mostly local. Little wonder that Bugey wines are, unfortunately, rarely seen outside the region.
Improving quality has been the goal in Bugey since the mid-1950s and today there are some superb wines available, at prices that put Bugey’s better known neighbors to shame. The appellation itself is an intricate one, covering a wide variety of grapes, sub-zones and wine styles. White, red, rosé and sparkling wines are all made in dry and sweeter styles. This is a welcome diversity, as there is a wine to suit every occasion, but it works against the creation of a cohesive Bugey identity.
Sitting at the confluence of Burgundy, Jura and Savoie, Bugey has a rich mix of cooler climate grape varieties to choose from. In white, Burgundy has contributed Chardonnay and Aligoté, while Altesse (here called Rousette), Jaquére, Mondeuse Blanche and Molette are the mainstays inherited from Savoie. Look harder and you can find Viognier and Rousanne from the Rhône, plus a little Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. For the reds, Gamay was brought from Beaujolais to replant vineyards after World War I, Pinot Noir hints at an older Burgundian past and Mondeuse Noir hails from Savoie. Poulsard from the Jura also puts in an appearance. Sometimes these grapes are used to make single variety wines, at other times blends.
Bugey’s quiet charm lies in its quality, variety and small scale. The best wines convey a sense of terroir redolent of the beautifully unspoiled limestone hills, pretty villages and the clean mountain air. Naturally, they also make an ideal match for the regional cuisine.
There are some ambitious winegrowers in Bugey and 68 hectares are now organically farmed. An outstanding example is Jean-Christophe Pellerin, the owner of Domaine Pellerin, which is in the south-eastern sub-region of Bugey known as Montagnieu, which follows the North bank of the Rhône as it loops away from the Alps. This is a sun-trap; the vines have a south and south-west aspect, the river acts as a moderating influence and the hills radiate summer heat. Pellerin is a fifth-generation vigneron, who now farms his five hectares of vines Biodynamically. Pellerin converted from organic to Demeter-certified status between 2009 and 2012 and remains, so far, the only commercial BD producer in Bugey.
The domaine may be considered small at 5 hectares, but that is the average size in this region. Pellerin follows the teachings of Rudolph Steiner and viticulturist Pierre Masson and, as usual, pays close attention to the vines while following the rhythms of the sun and moon. His vineyards resemble a garden rather than a farm and I was impressed that other local winegrowers consult him for advice. He is held in high regard by his peers, a rather different experience to BD pioneers in some other wine regions that were once viewed with disdain. Perhaps that is a measure of how seriously Biodynamics is now taken, or perhaps it represents the open-mindedness of the Bugiste vignerons.
The Pellerin vineyards swarm with life and vitality; bees, butterflies and birds. A great deal of diverse plant life happily coexists between the rows of densely planted vines. He told me that his vines had reacted very quickly to the biodynamic preparations used to stimulate the natural defences of the plant against insects and fungal diseases. Occasionally however, Wild Boar present him with a destructive problem on a different scale as they are rather partial to grapes!
Pellerin grows Aligoté, Chardonnay, Rousanne, Viognier and Altesse in white, with Pinot Noir, Gamay and Mondeuse in red. This allows him to make a dozen different wines and produce around 25,000 bottles per year.
A variety of dynamised BD preparations are used according to the lunar calendar. In addition to manure (500) and silica (501), Yarrow (502) and Horsetail (508) are effective against fungal diseases, while Valerian (507) is used after hailstorms. Blackthorn Bark, Comfrey and Meadowsweet are deployed to improve the availability of mineral trace elements in the soil.
Jean-Christophe also follows the practices of Eric Petiot in the use of homeopathic amounts of essential oils such as orange, chinese lemon, oregano and eucalyptus. This has also led to a significant reduction in the need for copper (sprayed as Bordeaux Mixture) which is traditionally used against outbreaks of fungal diseases.
A machine is used for harvesting rather than hand picking the grapes, which seems counter to the natural ethos. However, while Pellerin accepts that this can compress the soil it has the advantage in that it allows him to be able to harvest the grapes quickly on the appropriate lunar calendar day – picking during a fruit day is optimal for any biodynamic practitioner and would be difficult to achieve otherwise.
In the winery, Pellerin uses a mixture of large old oak casks, terracotta, cement and stainless steel tanks. New oak is absent – that would obliterate terroir and the fresh quality of these lighter style wines. Pellerin is also keen to keep the amount of sulphur in the wine making process to the minimum necessary to preserve the wines, usually at just 40 mg/litre for the whites and 20 mg/litre for the reds. Compare this with EU law that allows up to 210 mg/l for white and I60 mg/l for red! (As an aside, the Demeter limits are 90 mg/l and 70 mg/l respectively.) Even here the sulphur used comes from a naturally occurring source in Italy. The wines are bottled without filtering – so decanting the reds is wise as a sediment is likely.
If you’re in search of tremendous value wines of high quality then my advice is to spend some time in Bugey and discover them for yourself. Start at Domaine Pellerin. Don’t just pass through this region, enjoy all Bugey has to offer: unspoilt scenery, lakes and rivers, extensive woodlands and spectacular mountain views, quiet pretty villages, local cuisine – and a warm welcome. I can’t wait to go back and discover more.
Domaine Pellerin: a case for Tasting – Cellar door prices from €4 – €12
Constellation 2013 11.5%
A bend of Aligoté, Altesse and Chardonnay grown on gravelly river soils. Dry white wine. High acidity conveys freshness, yet buttery and long. A good foil for a fondue made from the local Ramequin cheese.
Chardonnay 2013 12%
100% Chardonnay from limestone hillside soils. Dry style. Lemony freshness, mountain plant aromas and pronounced minerality. Incisive and a little riper. Local Trout from one of Bugey’s lakes would suit.
Chardonnay “Harmonie” 2009 13%
A BD conversion wine. Yellow colour, dry style white. Muscat-like floral nose, lots of lees ageing and battonage. Result is pure fruit flavours: apricot and peach with an attractive lingering herbal (fennel)? note. Much fuller but not fat, instead sleek. For me the best and most distinctive of his Chardonnay, an exciting wine. Perhaps this has a little Viognier or Rousanne in it? This deserves a roasted Bresse Chicken, no less.
Chardonnay “Platine” 2009 11.5%
A totally different Chardonnay from gravel soils on flat land. Floral nose, with orange peel and biscuit notes. Rounded, hint of oxidation – is that because of the low sulphur at this age? Reminded a little of Château Musar white (a compliment). A wine that would match Quenelle de Brochet sauce Nantua admirably.
Métisse 2011 12%
A blend of Gamay, Pinot Noir and Mondeuse. Smoky nose and small red fruits – redcurrant, strawberry flavours before a long finish featuring plenty of Mondeuse spiciness. Terrific blend, ideal charcuterie partner.
Pinot Noir 2011. 12%
Superb Pinot perfume, all violets and cherries. Very smooth texture, light character and slightly reductive, but just enough to add another dimension of complexity.
Gamay “Chatiere” 2009 11.5%
Hillside Gamay, so limestone soil, touch of reduction on the nose, very dry, plenty of unusual tannic backbone. Richly fruited, a Morgon-like gamay that has potential for further development. Out-performs many Cru Beaujolais, a terrific wine. Seems like Gamay can thrive when not grown on Granite. Food? Back to the Fondue.
Mondeuse 2011 11%
My favourite red in the Pellerin range. Dark, brooding, powerful and spicy. Will improve and develop over another 3-5 years. Real power that belies the light alcohol, very complete. Sold Out!
Pinot Noir “Seduction” 2009 11.5%
Secondary flavours beginning to show – earth, autumn leaves, hint of black truffle. Real Pinot silky mouthfeel and grace. Does what it says on the label. As Burgundian in style as a Premier Cru from the Côte d’Or.
Bugey Brut 2011 12%
Traditional Method fizz made from Chardonnay, Aligoté and Altesse. Fresh, vif, vibrant, bone dry. Nicely focused, No dosage, the natural 7g/l residual sugar balances high acids well. Sherbet Lemons and a bready note. Apéritif or seafood.
Grand Prestige Demi-Sec 2009 12%
Traditional Method made from Chardonnay and Aligoté. Rounder and fuller, an off-dry style rather than medium sweet. No dosage, 16 g/l residual sugar. Apples and grassy-tinged flavours, flashy acidity. Something sweet like the local Praline tarts would be good, or try a local cheese such as Tome de Belley, with its blue mould rind.
Classic Rosé Demi-Sec 2012 8%
Méthode Ancestrale, so the second fermentation bubbles are induced in bottle by cooling and rewarming. 100% Gamay, attractive pale red colour, with masses of bright red fruit, frothy pinkish mousse, perfect as an apéritif or with a light dessert (say Eton Mess). Blue cheese a good alternative – Blue de Gex isn’t that far away. Second fermentation is undertaken for Pellerin further south in the Diois, where Clairette de Die is made. This Ancestrale style is like the Bugey Cerdon made to the north of the Bugey appellation, individual and delicious. Beaujolais producers should really take note, this is a style worth developing commercially and would soon reduce the Beaujolais lake— Jean-Paul Brun Domaine des Terres Dorées already is!
Perrozan-Le-Pont de Lagnieu
Tasting room open Saturdays, or by appointment