Being at high altitude affects our body, our skin and even our breathing, but does it also affect the food we eat every day?
During Alpen Art’s very first oenology workshop I was lucky enough to meet the tasting event’s young sommelier Cassandre, so that she could tell me everything she knew on the subject. Cassandre, who qualified at the Tain l’Hermitage Sommelier School (Drôme region), shares her love of wine with her clients.
Wine from Savoie?
While they were once rich in vines, Savoie’s mountains don’t really have much high-altitude wine-production any more, something that’s down to the world wars and industrialisation. Today, you’ll find the last wine stocks clinging on at around 600 metres, compared to 1000 metres in the old days. Savoie is lucky enough to have a microclimate, which means that grapes mature much later and grape-harvests happen around the end of September.
Just so you know, you can find vines growing at an altitude of 1,500 metres in Switzerland!
Does wine change at high altitudes?
As you know, there is less oxygen and lower atmospheric pressure at high altitudes. Wines age more quickly, but become richer, developing in both taste and intensity with stronger flavours and aromas.
When transporting a wine made in the valley to a resort like Val Thorens (at an altitude of 2,300 metres), you’ll need to wait around a fortnight so that it can be enjoyed at its best.
How should I store my wine in the mountains?
Storing wine at high altitudes is very different to storing wine in the valley. In Lyon for example, hygrometry is around 70/80%, while in Val Thorens, it’s estimated to be 10%, which is why the air feels so dry.
For those without a cellar who still want to store their wine, Cassandre advises regular humidification of the area in which the bottles are being stored. A large jug of water positioned near your collection should do the job.
Placing a bottle on your apartment balcony in order to give it some fresh air is completely pointless… The very low temperatures risk losing it all its flavour.
The consequences of storing wine badly in the high mountains mostly affect the cork, which can dry out:
- Corks can shrink, thereby leading to ‘coulures’ (when the wine escapes)
- The flavour of the cork can be tasted in the wine
- The cork can easily break during opening
Which wine goes with which food?
It is always difficult to pair a specific dish with a specific wine. To solve this sort of problem, Cassandre follows one simple rule: pair local wines with local dishes. According to her, this gastronomic match never fails and really pays off when it comes to mealtimes. Overall, the most important thing is using quality products.
Here are her recommendations for typical Savoie dishes:
- For something a bit unusual, a classic Arctic char (freshwater lake fish) tartare goes well with a Savoie roussette (white), made from the Altesse grape variety.
- For something more traditional, a fondue will go perfectly with an Apremont (white) and a raclette with an “Anno Domini” Apremont by Jean Noël Blard; a fruity, mineral wine with a slightly salty finish that really quenches your thirst.
- A cured meat/cheese tasting platter will go with a 2015 Julien Viana Paroxysme vintage from the Baraterie Cellar (collection of world pinot noir and gamay wines). It’s a refreshing, juicy and very fruity wine.
Oenology workshops take place twice a month from 7pm at Alpen Art, Place Caron. Price: 18 euros. Ask for more information or book at Alpen Art. Contact Aurélie Rey +33 (0)6 11 11 93 87.
How about food? To eat well at an altitude of 2,300 metres, you need to eat fresh!
Éric Darut, head chef at the La Maison restaurant in Val Thorens (http://la-maison-valthorens.fr/), tells us about the difficulties he encounters every day in his kitchen due to high altitude.
First up is cooking time. In Val Thorens water boils at 85° as opposed to 100° at lower altitudes, which increases the time it takes to make sure that ingredients are fully cooked. For example, Éric explains that rice takes ten minutes longer to cook in Val Thorens. Making a risotto therefore takes much longer. The chef has to constantly fiddle with the temperature, bringing it slightly up or slightly down.
The second difficulty: the dry air! After trying to make brioche, the chefs realised that it was too complicated because it dried out much too quickly on account of the mountain air, making it really stodgy! This problem has a direct effect on what is available to put on dessert menus.
That’s also why, at altitude, the finished product doesn’t last as long because the air is so dry. With very quick fermentation, you have to eat food almost the moment it’s ready so that it doesn’t spoil, especially when it comes to desserts that dry out very quickly. A great excuse for gourmets!
In short, get stuck in to your blueberry tart before it breaks your teeth !
The recipe for pizza dough also had to undergo a few changes because of altitude. Éric makes his pizza dough lighter by adding less yeast than normal, which makes the dough rise more slowly but also makes it dry out much more slowly. It’s crucial for dough to be fresh to stop it crusting over in the blink of an eye.
In terms of related issues, the supply of fresh produce is often problematic, mostly because of the roads but also because of the weather. La Maison restaurant, for instance, only has one meat delivery a week. Organising the allocation of provisions and foodstuffs is therefore a huge job.
Finally, Le Panoramic Caron based at an altitude of 3,200 metres at the top of Cime Caron, can’t do any cooking at that altitude and having supplies delivered is a very delicate task because it completely depends on the weather and if the cable car is open or not!
It’s now clear that altitude plays tricks on us in all kinds of ways, but that the joys of the mountains make it all worthwhile.