Last night Wringer & Mangle just south of London Fields hosted a reception organised by Westbury Communications for four Swiss producers from the Valais Region. The space was packed with people who came for the wine and the exhibition of label art created for the producers. We were treated to excellent canapés and sounds, and the wines were flowing freely too. Not many people were spitting. There was even a Swiss TV team there to record our reactions.
The buzz in the venue made it quite difficult to have any meaningful conversation with the producers, but the wines were perfectly able to speak for themselves. The four producers were Provins, Domaine Jean-René Germanier, Domaine des Muses and Domaine Thierry Constantin. I already knew the first three producers, who would certainly count in most people’s top dozen best known domaines from the region (I’ve got a couple of wines from Provins and Muses in the cellar), but Thierry Constantin was a bit of a discovery.
UK availability is not widespread. Provins wines are available via Alpine Wines, as are Domaine des Muses and Domaine Jean-René Germanier. Some Germanier is also available through Hedonism Wines in London’s Mayfair. I’m told that Oddbins carry two or three of the Provins wines. Thierry Constantin currently has no UK importer, but there was a note in the list of wines from the event to the effect “if interested please contact Thorman Hunt“.
A note on Tasting: These wines are, within their context, all young. Some of the reds, in particular, can taste slightly unripe. When wines are grown at altitude they aim to exhibit a purity, and lack of heaviness. The tannins can make them seem unripe (someone said green). Of course when they have aged (I’m talking about the best producers’ wines) and the tannins have softened, the purity of the fruit should come through. I’m sure we all know how to taste young wines, but I often find people expect Swiss reds to be more or less ready on release. This is rarely the case and we are in danger sometimes of judging them in the wrong context.
Provins, founded in 1930 and headquartered in Sion, is actually the largest wine producer in Switzerland. Although that is very much relative, 10% of all Swiss wine is made by this organisation which, with 3,200 members, functions as a co-operative. They control 800 hectares of vines, but more importantly they produce 110 different wines. This means that whilst much of the Provins production is of everyday quality, and consumed in situ, they are able to produce several ranges of top quality cuvées.
In my view they are most effective when vinifying the traditional Valais varieties. Of the twenty-two ranges produced by Provins, “Les Domaines” are terroir wines which come from single sites, usually the terraced high altitude vineyards which make this region one of the world’s most beautiful to visit. The “Maître de Chais” range is Provins’ premium label (despite perhaps sounding generic to British drinkers). These are selections from the best plots. Both form the apex of the Provins quality pyramid.
Heida Chapitre 2017 (Les Domaines) – This is a single site wine, beautifully expressive of Swiss Heida. This variety is of course “Savagnin”. It is more towards the lighter style that some Jura producers would label “Traminer”, but even then you don’t quite get the full picture. Grown on the mountain terraces of the Valais, where you can find some of Europe’s highest vineyards, the variety takes on a purer air about it. It has a lightness. It is pale, crisp, clean, dry and mineral. A nice example.
Petite Arvine 2017 (Maître de Chais) – Petite Arvine is possibly the most distinguished of the Valais white varieties. It also seems to me that it is the most consistent across producers, and I’ve been drinking Petite Arvine from the Valais and the Val d’Aosta for certainly over twenty years. The variety usually shows quite floral aromas (as this wine does). The palate is dominated by white peach, but the finish comes with spice, quince-dryness and a little grapefreuit acidity. It tastes clean and fresh but has a little body, fleshing it out.
Humagne Rouge 2015 (Maître de Chais) – The colour is a lovely, bright, ruby red. The bouquet has cherry fruit and a touch of earth. There’s still some tannic grip which will soften after a further year or two (although this is not particularly a vin de garde), and there’s bright (but not dominant) acidity. Along with Cornalin, Humagne Rouge is one of the most important, and interesting to connoisseurs, autochthonous red varieties in the Valais. You can tell by the wine’s lifted quality that it comes from altitude, and you need to understand that this is not a wine where the fruit will show surmaturité. In youth, it shows a more floral side, and with age it can develop a more animal nature. Expect to pay a little over £30/bottle for the Petite Arvine and Humagne Rouge.
DOMAINE JEAN-RENÉ GERMANIER
The Germanier domaine, founded in 1886, is one of the Valais’ best known producers, including internationally, but you will see these wines in top restaurants and wine stores throughout Switzerland. They are based in the village of Balavaud, in the commune of Vétroz, just west of Sion. Jean-René currently runs the domaine with his nephew, Giles Besse. The domaine has always tried to produce wines with minimal pesticides but now they are in full conversion to organic viticulture.
Johannisberg Chamoson Grand Cru 2017 – Johannisberg is the Valais synonym for Silvaner (originally a Savagnin x Traminer cross, I believe), and this is a solid nod to that variety’s typical characteristics. It is a fresh, herby wine with a lifted bouquet which seems to reflect the glacial moraine on which the vines grow. The palate is also redolent of that minerality in a fine spine, finishing dry with slightly bitter quince. A fairly light wine, but as the Chamoson Grand Cru designation suggests, it has the potential to show a little more than it was showing on the night with perhaps an extra six months-to-a-year in the cellar. Retail approx £34.
Dôle Balavaud, Vétroz Grand Cru 2017 – This comes off gravels with alluvial deposits and large “galet” stones. Dôle is always a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay (like a Bourgogne Passetoutgrain). Generally I have found it difficult to discover really satisfying Dôles, although the appellation is very popular throughout Switzerland. This one is better made than most, and I suspect yields are not so high as in many. The scent is high-toned cherry and the wine has a medium to light body, but it does not, I think, aim for great complexity. The fruit has a silky side and there’s a bit of grip. It’s only around £26 UK retail, a Swiss wine many of us can afford.
Cayas Reserve Syrah 2016 – It’s funny. I drank a bottle of this from an earlier vintage around a year ago, a bottle which Swiss friends had brought over among half-a-dozen stuffed into their suitcases. I had little idea that this wine retails at over £50 in the UK. It’s not that they are mean…they are very generous, but I doubted they would bring a £50 wine among a generous six bottle gift. What I find worrying is that this backs up everything that is said about Swiss wine being so expensive in the UK. The Germanier web site lists the 2016 for CHF42 (currently around £32).
In the Valais 2016 was a late vintage, saved by a long, fine and warm autumn. The grapes come off schist on slopes on the right bank of the Rhône. They see a 22-day maceration, and after fermentation, 24 months in barrique (50% new oak). The wine is coloured dark burgundy red. The fruits are more black than red, quite plush, and there’s a clear smokiness at this stage. The wine is young and still shows the wood not fully integrated. It needs time, perhaps a minimum of five years. It will be very good with longer in the cellar. It does show the brightness and structure you’d expect off schist. I think many would find this hard to judge because of the oak at this stage. Pop it away.
Cornalin Reserve 2015 – This off-list wine somehow appeared on the bar. This native variety is, to my mind, potentially as good as the perhaps better known Humagne Rouge. It also gets a different treatment to the Reserve Syrah, being fermented in 400-litre open top vats, and then aged 12 months in the same vessels (with a lid attached). It has a violet colour and more cherry fruit and smokiness on the nose. It’s also more animal and meaty on the palate than the Syrah, with a bit of texture too. A wine to age for less time, and one to pair with game.
DOMAINE THIERRY CONSTANTIN
With all of these long-established producers, it’s quite nice to find someone more recently established doing well, although 2001 is not all that short a time to have been working the vines. Thierry makes wine at Pont-de-la-Morge, close to Vétroz (and therefore, to Sion). He only possesses 5.5 hectares of vines, but they are situated in some of those two communes’ finest locations. Quality is the only focus here, and as well as pursuing careful and thoughtful vineyard management, the domaine is noted for its very low yields. All the wines here fit the hand made, artisan, mould. Despite the small size of the estate, Thierry does manage to fashion around fifteen different wines each vintage.
Fendant 2018 – Fendant is the Valais synonym for Chasselas. Generally it is not a variety beloved of classical wine critics (who have clearly never tasted the versions made by Dominique Lucas, or Hanspieter Ziereisen). Swiss Chasselas performs remarkably well, both around Lake Geneva’s north shore (Vaud), and here in the Valais. It’s almost always a pale wine, bright and herbal with a dry acidity and a stony texture. The latter quality, which can sometimes remind me of stones inside the apricots for which this part of the Rhône Valley is justly famous, is particularly prominent here. It has crisp acidity and a quite light finish, but is an immediately attractive wine.
Petite Arvine 2017 – is a step up, with a deeper bouquet of lemon-lime citrus and pineapple. The wine shows a nice tension between nervosité and a little fat on the bone. The finish is nice and long, and there’s a good touch of salinity along with the stony texture. This, I think, will improve further with a little time in bottle.
Cornalin 2015 – was one of my wines of the day. The yield is around 35hl/ha, which is very low in a Swiss context. The nose has lifted dark cherry and a lick of red fruit acidity. The fruit is quite plump and plush (ripe too, 13.4% abv), but there is grip and tannin, which suggests that this will age well despite the attractiveness of the fruit. Thierry’s suggested food pairing? Saddle of deer. There you go.
All three of these wines retail in Switzerland for between 25 to 32 CHF, and seem good value at or near those prices, but as stated at the top of this article, they are not strictly available in the UK at the moment.
DOMAINE DES MUSES
This estate was founded in 1992 by Louis and Nicole Taramarcaz at Sierre, which is further up the Rhône Valley, below the twin ski resort of Crans-Montana. A decade later they were joined by their son, Robert, who has slowly taken over winemaking following his studies in Burgundy (Dijon). The vines are farmed ecologically, with minimal (but not no) use of synthetic applications, but they are committed to protecting indigenous flora and fauna.
Heida “Tradition” 2017 – is fermented, and then aged on lees, in stainless steel. The wine has a lovely lime citrus attack, showing nice balance between acidity and a little flesh. There’s a lightness to the wine, and yet I was told that this wine has ageing potential (conversely the Provins “Maître de Chais” Heida I own, not tasted here, is supposedly meant for consumption soon, so it can be hard to judge). Whatever its potential, I like it now, and I’ve been a fan of this domaine for several years.
Cornalin “Tradition” 2016 – As with the Heida above, this is a right bank wine. Imagine the sun-baked terraces above Sierre, perhaps facing the Val d’Anniviers on the other side of the river. Vinification is also in stainless steel, but here the similarities end. You get quite pure cherry and blackberry fruit which seems as lifted as the altitude at which the grapes are grown. There’s also a floral element, not so much with the bouquet, but oddly, on the palate. It adds something, neither herby nor mineral, but nice. There’s also a good lick of tannin, making this a wine to age for three or four years, if not a little longer.
Syrah “Réserve” 2016 – The four Reserve wines from the domaine are all made with French varieties, although both Syrah and Pinot Noir are very common in the Valais, and can produce fine wines. There are around 170 ha of Syrah planted in the Valais. This may be one of the smallest Syrah vignobles in any major Syrah-producing nation (there is little elsewhere in Switzerland) but it’s still not bad, and not massively behind the whole of New Zealand up until fairly recently.
This is a wine both fermented and aged in oak, with an élèvage of 18 months. It is quite dark-fruited, flavours accentuated by a little spice and a hint of liquorice. It’s a wine of depth and a wine (again) for ageing. It will certainly go a decade, I would suggest. But that said, it’s still a very attractive wine, a shame to open too soon but not a disaster if you did. Some Valais Syrahs get the oak wrong, in my opinion. This one doesn’t, unless you are perhaps very oak averse.
I’ve really concentrated on the wines. Some of the art is represented in the photos below, interspersed with some of the bottles. I always enjoy drinking Swiss wine, but there are far too few opportunities to actually taste Swiss wines in the UK. If the Swiss are serious about entering the UK market then tastings like this one are essential. They won’t crack things off the back of Alpine Wines‘ hard but lonely work, and the rare appearance of the wines of Domaine de Mythopia when occasionally shown by Newcomer Wines.
Of course, if you are the kind of adventurous wine drinker who I know reads my blog, you could always grab an exploratory six-pack from Alpine. That’s what my wife bought me for Christmas. If you do, go for the native varieties such as those tasted here, with some Chasselas from Lavaux’s steeply terraced Crus in the Vaud. It is time we encouraged more of them onto our market. Watch this space.
From top left, Joelle Nebbe-Mornod of Alpine Wines and a selection of the IWArtChallenge labels and assorted bottles at Wringer & Mangle