Rare Swiss Varietals

In addition to featuring a tasting led by Jancis Robinson, Day 2 of the Digital Wine Communication Conference also included a walk around tasting featuring 40 different Swiss Wine producers. It was…a lot of wine. And I tasted too many to keep track or take very detailed notes. But I did get to taste a couple of very rare wines that are worth talking about.

The first is Completer, also called Malanstraube. Some botonists believe the Swiss grape Lafnetscha is actually the same grape. Others claim it is merely an offspring that the completer grape is often mistaken for. But either way the varietal remains rare. According to the Donatsch family, winemakers at their eponymous estate, there are only 2 hectares, or about 5 acres, of this grape left in production in the entire world. Found in the Graubüden region of Eastern Switzerland, Domaine Donatsch cultivates over half a hectare of these rare vines. Traditionally these vines were used in the production of oxidized wines, produced in a style similar to sherry, Domaine Donatsch opts for a late-harvest off-dry wine. I was lucky to have the chance to taste the 2012. Off-dry, without being overly sweet this wine has a backbone of good acidity. Very tight the reserved nose nevertheless delivers distinct notes of crisp fruit and honey. This wine has the potential to age and would pair beautifully with soft, creamy goat cheese. Hard to track down, yes. Worth the effort, absolutely.

The other incredibly rare grape I got to experience is Räuschling. DNA mapping has proved Rauschling to be a cousin of the Pinot family and thrives in similar conditions. Found mainly in Northern Switzerland, this indigenous grape varietal is cultivated only on 17 hectares, about 42 acres, of land. Mainly used in white wine blends, I tasted the 2013 R3 from Luthi Weinbau. Produced using an ancient and native strain of yeast, produced from a sample pulled from a wine bottled in 1895, this wine’s distinct characteristics are enhanced by its aging on the lees. With a slight touch of fizz on the tongue, due to natural SO2 production in the cellars, this wine was a surprise on the first sip. With a complex nose of floral and citrus the palate is crisp and clean.

I also was able to enjoy a white wine aged in an amphora, an unusual oak-aged Chasselas and the unusual Humagne Blanche. The tasting was a test for my palate and a great introduction to the wide world of Swiss wine but now I face a bigger challenge … finding these intriguing Swiss wines outside of Switzerland.

Day 2: The Grand Tasting

Jancis Robinson. I got to attend a Swiss Wine Tasting led by Jancis Robinson and her Wine Grapes co-author Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. Squee…. ok wine geek moment over, let’s talk about the wines of Swizterland and the tasting.

Ok, rather than talk about the nitty gritty details of wine production in Switzerland, I’m going to refer to you this post and skip ahead to the good details.

The tasting began with two flights, each containing three white wines. The first featured the Iconic Swiss White Chasselas. Constituting the majority of the total Swiss Wine production, the first mention of this grape in Swizerland dates to 1716. While also used as a table grape for eating, this intriguing varietal produces engaging white wines. What we tasted:

  • Domaine Blaise Duboux – Epsesse, Cuvée Vincent Calamin, Grand Cru 2012. From the Lavaux appellation this wine is slightly reserved on the nose but delivers a subtle almost smoky character. With sharp acidity there was a touch of honey on the palate.
  • Chateau Maison Blanche – Yvorne, Grand Crus 2010. From the Chablais appellation is wine was also reserved on the nose but was very bold on the palate. Notes of Hawthorne are underlined with a slight saltiness.
  • Domaine la Colombe-Féchy, Raymond Paccot, Le Brez 2005. Also from Lavaux, specifically Fechy, this wine was green on the nose with notes of wet wool and a hint of salinity.

The second white flight featured another indigenous Swiss grape: Arvine or Petit Arvine, as it is sometimes called. First mentioned in the historical Swiss record in 1602 this is considered an orphan variety, meaning scientists have been unable to discover its origins. A specialty of the Valais appellation, this was my favorite of the two whites. What we tasted:

  • L’Orpailleur- Uvrier, Frederic Dumoulin, 2013. Very pale in color the nose delivered hints of grapefruit like citrus and maybe a slight hint of tank taint. Beautiful acidity highlighted a smooth and lingering finish with a hint of butter.
  • Provins Valais, Maitre de  Chais 2005. With a dark lemon color this wine also had a buttery note. With slight oxidative hints it also seemed slightly off-dry. But again notes of citrusy acidity highlighted a very smooth almost oily finish.
  • Domaines Rouvinez – Sierre, Chateau Lichten 2002. A single vineyard designate this wine also delivered grapefruit notes. Thinner on the palate than the nose would suggest it was nevertheless tight with surprising acidic tartness and buttery notes.

We then moved on to the red wines. The first tasting was of the international variety Pinot Noir. According to Dr. Vouillamoz there is ‘no aging of Pinots except from Burgundy,’ and as such these were all younger vintages with a mixture of production style. What we tasted:

  • La Maison Carée – Auvernier, J.P. et Ch. Perrochet, 2010. From the Neuchatel appellation this Pinot was produced in a stainless steel vat. Surprisingly reminiscent of smoked meats, the pale robe yielded a wine that was surprisingly fruity. Notes of red fruit and a good acidic structure made the wine almost sharp on the palate.
  • Peter Wegelin – Malans, Malanser Blauburgunder, Reserva 2011. Aged in oak in the Gaubüden appellation, the nose clearly demonstrated the oak character. Light and balanced the oak carried over onto the palate but was highlighted by red fruit.
  • Cave des Champs – Miege, Claudy Clavien, La Part des Anges, Fut de Chene 2012. Other barrel aged Pinot from the Valais appellation, this wine had a bold color but was surprisingly pale on the rim. Slight smoke character yielded a wine that was smooth and highly acidic. Cherry, vanilla, and licorice or even clove notes will ensure this wine is interesting with a year or two of age.

The final red wine tasting featured another international grape variety: Merlot. Typically not a favorite, these wines were nonetheless interesting. What we tasted:

  • Kopp von der Crone Visini, Barbengo, Balin 2009. From the appellation of Tessin this wine had a bold, yet not heavy, nose with hints of oak, smoke, dried fruit. Spicy and balance on the palate the wine was very smooth without being overripe, highlighting the simplicty of the winemaking.
  • Casa Vinicola Gialdi – Mendrisio, Merlo Sassi Grossi 2010. Also from Tessi this wine was reserved on the nose. Very young this wine was almost grainy with tannins and stringent acidity.
  • Domaine Grand’Cour – Peissy, Jean-Pierre Pellegrin, 2011. From the Geneva appellation this Merlot was very deep in color. However the wine was young with ripe fruit notes and sweet spice as well as crisp acidity.

A note about tasting notes: due to the hurried nature of the tasting my notes might be slightly reflective of those provided by J.R. She was often presenting her notes just as I was receiving the wines and beginning my own tasting. I tried to keep my notes as true to my personal opinions as possible but there may be some transference.

A Discovery of Swiss Wine

At the Digital Wine Communication Conference in Montreaux, Switzerlands I experienced my first taste of Swiss Wines. My first sip came from a glass of Chasselas, the iconic Swiss white wine that dominates the country’s production. To be perfectly honest I have to admit that I was not that impressed.

Then things changed….

Day two of the conference was busy with great seminars and amazing networking possibilities but the day was crowned with two spectacular tastings. The first, featuring six reds and six whites, was led by Jancis Robinson and her Wine Grapes co-author Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. (Pausing here for another geek out moment and a mental note. While note as widely known in the United States, Jancis Robinson is a prolific and influential personality in the world of wine. Now the mental note: start saving for a copy of the book.) The second was a free-style walk around featuring 40 different Swiss wine producers.

With 26 cantons and 4 official languages, Switzerland is a complicated country. But that is nothing compared to the Swiss wine world. With over 200 varietals, largely indigenous, understanding Swiss wines is an experience of epic proportions. Made all the more complicated by the fact that less than 2% of their total wine production are exported out of the country. And then further complicated by the canton/appellation of Vaud which received UNESCO World Heritage status in 2007. As such, this important wine region is severely limited in the changes they are allowed to make in their vineyards.

Yet the wine is well worth the effort.

Chasselas. Pinot Noir. Merlot. Petit Arvine. Syrah. Completor. The list of grapes is endless and the production styles just as diverse. Now I understand their appeal and have to wonder why more of these fabulous and intriguing wines are not available internationally.