Bugey, an Alpine hamlet in eastern France, might possibly be the wine world’s best kept secret. Halfway between Lyon and Geneva, Switzerland, Bugey is so small that it even eludes most French oenophiles' radars. Often lumped in with neighboring Savoie because of its size—which itself is relatively obscure and often grouped with the larger Jura region—Bugey produces an eclectic array of elegant, aromatic, and high-acid, low-alcohol wines that tend to travel no farther than local dinner tables. But, there’s good news for treasure hunters. Since earning its AOC status in 2009, these off-beat and affordable wines are slowly making their way to the U.S.
Bugey produces an eclectic array of elegant, aromatic, and high-acid, low-alcohol wines that tend to travel no farther than local dinner tables.
Amid a patchwork of forests and farms, Bugey's vineyards thrive in the crisp mountain air and clay-limestone soils of the Jura foothills. Steep roads wind through Bugey's 63 provinces and 500 hectares of vines. The region is largely rural, though it is home to a network of rivers and railways that have brought winemaking know-how from its neighbors. Truly at a crossroads, Bugey is bordered by Beaujolais to the west, Savoie to the east, Jura and Burgundy to the north, and Rhône to the south. It borrows grapes and influence from each, but makes wines that are all its own, including its most famous, Bugey-Cerdon, which wine writer Jon Bonné has referred to as "the happiest wine on earth."
Wine from Cerdon, one of Bugey's three crus—in addition to Belley and Montagnieu—is always sparkling, pink, and a touch sweet. Made from a blend of Beaujolais’ Gamay grape and Jura’s Poulsard grape, it’s a fizzy ambrosia redolent of wild berries. According to French law, this sparkler must be made by the méthode ancestrale, an old process for producing bubbly wine that predates that of the Champenoise. With low alcohol (around 8 percent), a hint of sweetness, and fresh minerality, this festive drink goes down incredibly (dangerously?) easy. There is no better wine with breakfast (think pastries!), and it makes a refreshing accompaniment to dessert. Even better—it won’t break the bank. Most bottles retail around $20.
But Bugey does not just make happy Cerdon fizz. Belley and Montagnieu contribute serious white, red, and rosé wines, too. Once a part of Burgundy during medieval times, Bugey produces earthy and ethereal Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but the real excitement comes from quirky local grapes. Altesse (also known as Roussette) is white and native to Bugey and Savoie. The Altesse de Montagnieu appellation, along the Rhône River, is one of Bugey’s hidden charms, well worth seeking out. With buoyant acidity and exotic perfumes of blossoms, violets, honey, and almonds, the best examples of these wines are luscious reminders of early spring sunshine. Slightly less obscure is the Mondeuse grape (sometimes mistaken for Italy’s Refosco), which can also be found in Switzerland and sparingly in Australia and California (where it yields a wine akin to Syrah). This spicy red produces fruity and bright wines with firm tannins, perfect alongside the fried frogs for which the region is known. One can also find sophisticated sparklers made in the méthode champenoise that draw out the best of both Burgundian and local varietals in unique blends.
Home to 19th century culinary hero Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Bugey counts a storied relationship to the pleasures of the table. Local wine and food such as Nantua crayfish sauce, dumplings, Comté cheese, and Bresse chicken (per Brillat-Savarin: "the queen of poultry, the poultry of kings") inspired the epicure to write The Physiology of Taste, which, in turn, inspired influential gastronomes like MFK Fisher. Perhaps thanks in part to the cool Alpine air that blows through the area’s foothills, and because this grape juice hasn't been shaped into an international style for export, Bugey wines are wide-ranging and terroir-driven, with a vibrant freshness that hums through each.
Four Bugey Bottles to Try:
Producer: Patrick Bottex
Wine: La Cueille, NV
Patrick Bottex is a benchmark Bugey producer, and his non-vintage La Cueille—a blend of Gamay and Poulsard grown on limestone slopes above the Ain River—encapsulates the pure, barefoot revelry of which this wine is capable. In the glass, this light and flirty rosé is a shimmery rhubarb color, with aromas of berries, watermelon, violets, and stone.
Producer: Yves Duport
Wine: Vieillissement Prolongé Brut
Vieillissement is made in the méthode champenoise, with a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, plus late-harvested native varietals Altesse, Mondeuse, Jacquere, and Molette. This organically and biodynamically farmed wine is so bright it practically vibrates in the glass. Its stony minerality is buoyed by sweet floral notes of lime blossom and honeysuckle, with hints of golden apple and brioche. Expect delicate bubbles and complex aromas that meld seamlessly, giving it a distinctive grace that one would expect from a Champagne three times the price.
Producer: Famille Peillot
Wine: Altesse, 2013
Franck Peillot is the fifth generation in his family to make Bugey wine. His 100 percent Altesse is medium-bodied and refreshing, with electric lemony acidity. It shows aromas of white pepper, stone, and honeysuckle, with a sweet-sour juicy pear sensation. This bottle would make an elegant pairing with cream and mushroom sauces.
Producer: Maison Angelot
Maison Angelot is run by brothers Eric and Philippe Angelot, who grow their grapes on both hillside and valley floor parcels in Belley. Mondeuse is a medium-bodied wine which appears cherry red in the glass. It displays notes of black cherries, game, sage, violet, and pepper that lead to a juicy raspberry palate. Thanks to an interplay between succulent fruit and firm tannins, this wine provides endless fun pairing opportunities, from picnics to spiral ham.