Swiss delights … with higher peaks on the horizon
16 February 2015
By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com
Most wine savvy people know that Swiss wine is not limited to using brisk and inexpensive Fendant to wash down fondue or raclette. Of course it is skiing season. Winter beckons such food and wine in a log cabin with a cosy fireplace on a massive snow covered mountain. Hot cocoa, anyone, after that fun on the slopes?
But when the weather gets warmer, I recommend that wine-chronicles readers in Europe (and beyond) schedule trips to Swiss vineyards this year, because fine wines await your drinking pleasure – and far beyond Fendant.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Fendant. Swiss wine promoters often and justly hype the great combo as raclette is virtually embedded in Swiss DNA, as this recent article notes. Although Fendant – made from the Chasselas grape – is the traditional match, other options can please your palate.
One caveat: During my visit in November 2014, I tried some Swiss wines that seemed as if they were attempting to impress, with some heavy winemaking, such as too much oak or extraction. I find that can be sometimes typical of regions/countries that seek export markets. Similar to some wines I have encountered in both Greece and in Virginia State, to take two (varied) examples. But overall, many fine Swiss wines beckon the true #winelover. Read on to find out …
Swiss wine pleasures
When I visited vineyards in early November last year in just one of Switzerland’s many wine producing regions, I was happy to discover fine whites and reds. Take for example La Maison Carrée, with vineyards in Auvernier and Hauterive, respectively west and east of Neuchâtel.
The vineyards of Neuchâtel cloak the southern slopes of the Jura mountain range that were molded by the Rhone glacier and stretch along Lake Neuchâtel. This domain’s vineyards enjoy fine sun exposure and drainage, at between 440 and 510 meters in altitude, covering a total surface area of close to 10 hectares (about 22 acres). They make wines from various varieties, including a substantial and lovely Pinot Gris, with sap and focus. I am not a big fan, generally speaking, of Alsatian Pinot Gris, which I find too often cloying. But this Swiss version was terrific.
Just as good: the Auvernier Pinot Noir Le Lerin from 2011, which proved fresh, with pure fruit expression. It is made from the best grapes picked by this domain and costs about 30 euros retail, but very much worth it. The grapes are grown in vineyards with deep limestone and clay soils. Aged for a year prior to being bottled the following Autumn, very little new oak is used so one appreciates pure cherry like fruit so often associated with Pinot Noir, along with pleasing wet stone aromatics.
Oak barrels of varying sizes are used, from 228 liters to 5000 liters, and it was charming to visit the chai. #Winelover community founder Luiz Alberto agreed that this was just about his favorite Pinot Noir of the entire trip, which was part of a press tour organized by the 2014 Digital Wine Communications Conference in Montreaux.
The Swiss press trip of the wine communication conference included a visit to the beautiful Domaine de Chambleau, where owners Louis-Philippe and Valérie Burgat graciously invited conference participants with refreshingly tasty Chasselas based wine called l’Esprit de Chambleau, see below photo.
Chasselas is used to make Fendant but this wine had more body than your typical Fendant, was very vibrant beckoning more sips – especially as it was paired with a delicious aged Gruyère that we could not stop pecking at. This wine has earned awards and I understand why.
The property, purchased in 1950 by the Burgat familly, sits high in the village of Colombier, in the heart of the Neuchâtel and includes a gorgeous cellar with curiously artificial candle lamps.
The family owns 12 hectares of sloped vineyards planted on limestone, clay and sandy soils. They tend to produce much Pinot Noir as well as Chasselas, but have more recently added Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Gamaret and Garanoir.
Trying too hard
On occasion however, I encountered wines that tried too hard to be … something that they were not.
We tried a Chardonnay 2012 from the domain, for example, with only partial malolactic, aged in 25 per cent new oak. I was not the only participant who found the wine too commercial tasting, too much vanilla and not enough fruit. It seemed like a wannabe California Chardonnay. A producer friend from Bordeaux, no stranger to oak, agreed. Indeed, Louise-Philippe said that they try to harvest as late as possible to get as much maturity, and the wine clocked in at between 13.5 and 14 degrees of alcohol that I also felt. Their Chasselas was more enjoyable to me – and seemed more authentic.
After sampling a series of solid Pinot Noirs, and a fun interlude of punching down the cap in a fermenting vat, we ended our visit with a tasting of their premium Cuvée Pur Sang Pinot Noir 2011, made from the best grapes from their harvest. It proved indeed delicious, suave, exhibiting dark cherry and richness, albeit with just a touch of heft, its 13.5 per cent alcohol ascertained. Many of the participants were justly impressed.
But I was more impressed with the price. At over 50 euros per bottle, it was not the best price/quality ratio. Although the style is different, the premium Pinot Noir from La Maison Carrée is a better deal for me, and I have already decided to purchase some of that. When you start hitting prices of 50+ euros per bottle from an “emerging region”, it is easy to think of purchasing a very good mid-range Burgundy instead.
Hits and misses over lunch
Over lunch at the utterly gorgeous Château de Boudry – a Middle Age building which today serves as an ambassador for the wines of Neuchâtel, complete with a vine and wine museum – we encountered yet more wines, starting with a curiously refreshing unfiltered white Domaine de Montmollin Neuchâtel AOC 2013, which tasted a bit like tart cider, but I liked it. Some wines made what seemed to me to be unsuccessful attempts at being modern or large-scaled. To impress wine writers. Take for example the Domaine Grillette Pinot Noir Graf Zeppelin Réserve 2011, which fetches some 40 euros retail, but is overcome by new oak and has a drying finish. No thanks…
The heavy and alcoholic Dimitri Engel Vins Pinot Noir Neuchâtel 2013 and an oaky Sauvignon Blanc Premier “Les Caderosses” Neuchâtel AOC 2012 by Grillette Domaine de Cressier also tried too hard to impress. Far better was the less presumptuous, with with brighter fruit, Jungo & Fellmann Pinot Noir Caves des Lauriers Neuchâtel AOC 2012. For a “blockbuster” style that proved more interesting: Domaine de Montmollin Pinot Noir “Haute Couture” barrique Neuchâtel AOC 2010. Although the 18 months in oak was evident, it seemed a bit fresher and more balanced than the aforementioned Graf Zeppelin.
It was a great experience to visit and lunch at the Château de Boudry, which features exquisite tapestry and charming interiors as you can see in the photo below.
MASTER CLASS SWISS WINES WITH JANCIS ROBINSON
Nearly 100 DWCC2014 participants benefited from a guided master class tasting in Montreux by none other than Jancis Robinson MW and botanist José Vouillamoz (along with Julia Harding MW, they co-wrote the definitive tome on varietals aptly called Wine Grapes).
As you can see in the photo from that master class, below, the Swiss export only a tiny percentage of their production, no more than 2 percent and much of that to Germany.
Swiss wine promoters I met on the trip said that one should not compare Swiss wines with those from other countries.
But consumers really have little choice, particularly when Swiss winemakers such as Caves de Chambleau make “Chardonnay Barrique”… With that in mind, reference points are endless. Burgundy or New World Pinot? California butter? Meursault? Oak staves? Meaty Merlot?
Yes, the Swiss have many indigenous grapes, but you do find Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Gewurtztraminer. Comparisons with other wines from other countries in such cases is inevitable, especially if the Swiss wish to export the wines.
As for the many domestic varieties, several insiders told me that many Swiss winemakers until recently did not face much competition from the outside world and thus grew complacent, but that the open market is forcing improvement in quality, which is good news.
Among the 12 wines at the master class, at least two seemed over evolved for their age, perhaps reflecting such complacency?
Take for example the Domaine la Colombe Fechy by Raymond Paccot Le Brez 2005 AOC Fechy Lavaux, with a dark color and nut aromas. At under 10 years of age, it seemed almost past due. But then came bright surprises of fine quality.
The Domaines Rouvinez-Sierre Chateau Lichten 2002 AOC Valais – an older white – was far less evolved and delicious, and among the most popular of the first flight of six wines tasted. Participants were asked to vote for their favorite wines. Of course, such preferences comes down to personal taste – as in all things sensory and sensual. For that reason, I found my Swiss wine treasure from domains that seek to exhibit pure fruit, freshness and less heavy handed wine making.
- Domaine Blaise Duboux – Epesses Cuvee Vincent Calamin Grand Cru 2012 AOC Lavaux: This seemed smooth and crisp, with a pleasingly light lemon peel aspect. Reminded Jancis Robinson of Muscadet. On palate more honied, she said. Relatively soft on the palate. 1716 first mentioned Chasselas. Origin from Macon, village named Chasselas… Also called Fendant. 1612 actually first mentioned as Fendant.
- Chateau Maison Blanche – Yvorne Grand Cru 2010 AOC Chablais: A richer profile. A bit more residual sugar? Racier and more grip on the palate Jancis Robinson said. Not sure I liked it as much as the first, which seemed more crisp and focused to me.
- Domaine la Colombe Fechy by Raymond Paccot Le Brez 2005 AOC Fechy Lavaux: For a wine that was not quite 10 years old, it seemed rather past due with hazelnut notes indicating more age than its vintage. “Tastes quite old to me,” Jancis Robinson said, employing the less than flattering “wet wool” description.
- L’Orpailleur – Uvrier Frederic Dumoulin Petite Arvine 2013 AOC Valais: This has a yellow fruit juicy mid palate. Very tasty. “Clearly wine with great class,” Robinson said. With grapefruit flesh not peel. Substantial. Favorite among participants. Regarding the variety: Arvine variety from Valais. It travels badly. Does it come from Aoste? Trend lately to go back dryer style.
- Provins Valais Petite Arvine Maitre de Chais 2005 AOC Valais: Wine 5 is indicative of style to leave residual sugar. The 2005 is woolly. Reminded Jancis Robinson of Pinot Gris, but not as heavy. That’s why I don’t like it..
- Domaines Rouvinez-Sierre Chateau Lichten 2002 AOC Valais: Grapefruit peel and salty in this last one more than the others. Was 2002 a successful vintage? Second favorite among participants … Perhaps my overall favorite among the whites. Which variety here?
Three Merlots and three Pinots. The Merlots pleased some palates more. I found myself sitting on a Swiss fence. The Merlots came across as more juicy, although one was commercial and boring. Perhaps tasters more accustomed to New World styles, found the Pinots to be less interesting?
- La Maison Carree Auvernier J.P. et Ch. Perrochet Pinot Noir 2010 AOC Neuchâtel: Strange that this seemed much more appealing on location. I loved the aromatics, the distinct and pure notes of cherry. But the vegetal aspect was there on the palate. Light tannins. Not sweet, and about as far and away from the New World as you could get. “Reminds me of an Alsace Pinot noir before climate change kicked in,” Jancis Robinson said … A luncheon wine. It got 13 votes nonetheless.
Peter Wegelin – Malans Malanser Blauburgunder Reserva 2011 AOC Graubünden: Perhaps the overall favorite with 35 votes. Reserva usually means oak aged and Robinson preferred this one as more dense and with fine balance. Still light and pretty. Oak detectable. But integrated. Perhaps smoother and more ready to drink than wine number 9 as well.
Cave de Champs – Miège Claudy Clavien La Part des Anges Pinot Noir Fut de Chene 2012 AOC Valais: Oakier. Vanilla. Slight sweetness at first. A bit young. Fresh acidity. This is perhaps most appealing. Juicy mid palate. 15 votes
- Kopp von der Crone Visini Barbengo Balin 2009 AOC Tessin: Dark fruit nose. Flinty. A touch dry on finish. Astringent and uninteresting to me.
Casa Vinicola Gialdi – Mendrisio Merlot Sassi Grossi 2010 AOC Tessin: Meatier nose. Plum. Rich and sap filled. Flavorful.
Domaine Grand’ Cour – Peissy Jean-Pierre Pellegrin Merlot 2011 AOC Geneve: This has more nuance and is the most elegant. My favorite.
Swiss wine is produced from vineyards planted in valleys and foothills over some 15,000 hectares, mainly in the west and in the south, in the cantons of Geneva, Neuchâtel, Ticino, Valais and Vaud. The French-speaking part of the country accounts for nearly 80% of total production.
Although not as old as Greek viticulture, the Romans planted vines in present day Switzerland and by the 17th century, wine production flourished there, according to Wink Lorch in her chapter of the Encyclopedia of Wine.
As in other parts of Europe, phyloxera devasted vineyards in Switzerland but unlike other Old World countries, the wines rarely saw much of a market outside the country. Surprisingly, perhaps, more red wine is grown than white. White grape varieties are grown on 42% of the country’s vineyard surface, and red grape varieties on 58%. According to data from the Swiss Federal Office of Agriculture, Swiss wine production in 2009 was just over 1.1 million hectoliters, divided into 527,000 hl of white wine and 587,000 hl of red wine – which may come as a surprise to some readers as one (too) often associated Switzerland with white wine. Fendant anyone?
Indeed, nearly all the national production is consumed within the national boundaries and the 1-2% of production goes outside of the country, mainly to Germany.
Will that change soon?
I am hardly a Swiss wine expert, but do appreciate wine and have experience tasting. My overall impression based on this and previous experiences with Swiss wines is that higher peaks can be reached when winemakers stick to finesse and elegance and avoid attempts at massiveness, such as extraction of too much new oak tannin or getting heady results from high alcohol. But that’s just me. Take your time, book some travel plans to Switzerland and taste for yourself … It is a breathtakingly beautiful country and the vineyards are as aesthetically pleasing as the villages you will encounter.
Here two useful contacts:
The official Swiss Wine website provides a treasure trove of information and would be a good start to plan your visit.
Nathalie Knovl is both a talented graphic designer (she did the official Hospices de Beaune 2014 photo) and tour guide for wineries in Switzerland. I met her at the #DWWC2014 as she lives in Switzerland and works with many wineries there and would be a great contact for you to plan your Swiss wine visits. You can reach Nathalie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other useful websites include: