The train ride from Geneva to Sierre is a must do for every train lover and wine enthusiast. In an amazingly short two hours some of the world’s most jaw-dropping vistas are at hand. First up, the spectacular vineyards of the Canton Vaud and the UNESCO World Heritage Site vineyards of Lavaux. As a backdrop, as if the terraced vineyards are not enough, the Jura mountains loom to the west and north and the Alps and Mont Blanc to the east and south. Lake Geneva is seemingly everywhere while many other rustic tableaux and bucolic scenes compete for attention. At the village of St. Maurice the fabled wine river Rhône appears from nowhere merging with Lake Geneva near Montreux. But it’s the vineyards that star in this travelogue. They seem to be dripping impossibly from the mountainsides, as if Dali himself imagined them in his dreams, before melting into the small villages that give the local wines their names: Aigle, Fully, Vetroz, Martigny. These are names that may not be familiar to even the most knowledgeable wine consumer, or even professional, but they are at the forefront of Swiss viticulture and therefore deserve a place at any discussion of the world’s great wine lands.
Dig only superficially and you discover that the unique feature of the Valaisian landscape, its confusing patchwork of walled terraces and steeply pitched vineyards, owes its distinctive look as much to the customs of its people as to its particular geography. In the Valais everyone seems to have a piece of the pie with many weekend farmers tending to, or more frequently these days renting out their small parcels, for supplementary income. These micro-parcels are interspersed within or near the larger holdings of the growers and encaveurs. These are vineyards that are poor and fast draining composed of limestone (nearby marble quarries signal its presence) mixed with schist, granite and marl. Sierre itself boasts the sunniest and driest climate in Switzerland and coupled with the warm and dry foehn winds that consistently rip through the valley water can be an issue although rot and, most notably botrytis, are not. All-in-all this is a valley of hard working people, well-heeled tourists and weekenders from the larger cities wanting a piece of this vinous paradise and willing to pay for it. Valais wines rank among the most expensive in Switzerland and demand appears insatiable.
The home and cellars of Anne-Catherine and Denis Mercier overlook the town of Sierre from a high point due east of downtown on a rock formation known as Goubing. Here a modest residence and underground winery coexist with a portion of the family’s vineyard holdings. The Castle of Goubing, the only remnant of the 14th century wars, rests within the larger walled vineyard which itself is divided into smaller parcels of varying ownership. Because the vineyard retains historical status the Mercier cave is limited in size and scope and future improvement is highly controlled. They are not complaining. The annual three thousand cases of wine they produce is easily processed and contained within its cozy walls. Modern equipment including gleaming tanks of INOX steel, epoxy-clad cuves, a new stemmer-crusher and impeccable barriques stand ready while a series of naturally cool cellars neatly unfold beneath Goubing’s vines. A small tasting room for guests to retrieve their orders shares space with a small lab. Mercier’s wines are routinely sold out to a fanatical collection of loyal customers. Remnants will occasionally appear in the tony wine shops around Switzerland at substantial mark-ups. When I asked if there was an interest in increasing production the official answer was an unequivocal, “no”.
Since 2012 the wine-making duties have been ceded to the Mercier’s lovely daughter Madeleine, mother of twin daughters and a graduate of enology studies at the prestigious Agrosope Changins near Lausanne. Her travels have taken her to apprenticeships at Opus One in California and to the Schwarzenbach Weinbau in Meilen, Switzerland. She is a proponent of lutte raisonnée and terroir-driven wine-making. She believes that most of the work is done in the vineyard and for that task her father and mother lead the way. Indeed, they have given her a lot to work with.
The home vineyard of Goubing, even though quite small in area, boasts several micro-owners some of whom are not even known to the Mercier family. Its cépage includes pinot blanc, marsanne (ermitage)—especially for the late-harvested flétrie sur souche cuvée—pinot noir, sylvaner (Johanisberg), gamay and new plantings of cornalin. All vines are wire-trained, converted from gobelet a few years back, and south-to south-west facing. The only exception going forward are the new plantings of cornalin which will be north-west facing. Madeleine believes that the sun burn common to this variety is minimized with proper exposure and purer fruit expression with a minimum of cooked flavors is desired and expected. The vineyard area itself is relatively flat and characterized by one notable geographic feature: a large bowl behind the residence, perhaps created by rock excavations used to build the nearby castle, is notably sunny but susceptible to early and late frost. A Burgundian-styled pinot blanc is made from its fruit. At the south end of the vineyard are some trees that suck up the available moisture and so in the very driest years some drip irrigation is necessary. The vines used for the late-harvested marsanne are found in this corner. New plantings of cornalin are located in the south-west perimeter with more to come. Copper tinctures and copper sulfate are used only when necessary to control disease. Otherwise Goubing is farmed organically.
The Pradec parcel located above the centre ville next to the Château Mercier is home to virtually all of the syrah, all of the chasselas (fendant), some sylvaner, all of the savagnin (païen ), 70-year-old marsanne vines, pinot noir, gamay, all of the petite arvine, and an increased cornalin presence which is replacing some of the chasselas. More syrah and cornalin is a good thing because these appear to be the real strength of the portfolio. Small amounts of Humagne Rouge are slowly replacing some of the chasselas as well. The Pradec vineyard is steeply terraced with the familiar rocky topsoil typical of the Valais. Indeed as much as 30% of the topsoil is made up of small calcareous stones. The vines are all wire-trained. Since all of the domain’s chasselas is planted here most of the new cornalin, humagne rouge and syrah plantings will replace older, unproductive chasselas vines. Look to see more red wine coming from this iconic vineyard that hovers dramatically above the village. While not the steepest vineyard in the Valais, it is still an impressive sight and very difficult to work.
The Anchettes parcel is located outside and north of town at an elevation of 700 meters (2300 feet) and is home to more pinot noir. South-west exposure is critical at this elevation. The fruit from this vineyard provides the crisp backbone and pure, wild flavors typical of Mercier pinots.
The Corin holdings located at the western entrance to the city hosts small parcels of cornalin and syrah.
Ancien Sierre to the north-west not far from Goubing is a small source of pinot blanc.
All Mercier plots are worked by hand and display layers of natural compost mostly for moisture retention. Most harvests are completed within a six week window each fall, but according to Madeleine, 2015 was a one-off with the vast majority of fruit harvested within a three week period due to an unusually hot and dry growing season. The results of this unique vintage appear to be excellent, ripe, high-powered wines although crop size is down due to early flowering issues.
All fruit is sorted in the vineyard (there is no sorting table) by well-trained workers. Indeed, over half of the syrah crop in 2015 was deemed unworthy and dropped directly at harvest. The best fruit is then loaded into 15 kilo boxes and transported to the winery for processing.
As the boxes arrive laden with fruit they are immediately removed to the coolest parts of the cellar to chill for 24 hours. The whites are then pressed and begin fermentation in either barriques (pinot blanc and marsanne), enamel-lined cuves or stainless steel. All whites are fermented at or under 19ºC. Some experimentation is underway with barrel fermented petite arvine but the rest of the white grapes see no wood. In addition, the whites see no malolactic fermentation and are racked only when necessary. Fresh vivacity is the house style for all Mercier whites.
The reds grapes are all chilled overnight and then partially de-stemmed before a 7 day cold-soak in 500 liter tanks. After soaking, fermentation begins and lasts for 8-10 days at a temperature that never exceeds 28ºC. Once fermentation is complete the reds are transferred to barriques (gamay to stainless steel) for an extended aging period; again, racking takes place only when necessary. All of the reds undergo a secondary malolactic fermentation before bottling.
Syrah enjoys the extra step of post-barrique aging in stainless steel until after the next season’s harvest so that its reductive tendencies can be mitigated. Indeed, Mercier’s syrahs are pure, fresh and complex upon bottling and manage to avoid that awkward, reductive stink common to the variety.
Separate lots of pinot noir and gamay are held in stainless steel to be blended as Dôle the much maligned Valais specialty. Perhaps in an effort to elevate the blend there are experiments underway here with barrique-aged ancellotta and galotta as potential inclusions in Mercier’s Dôle. Check back later.
Fendant 2014, Valais (Chasselas): Shimmery pale gold in color. Attractive nose of pear, pierre à fusil, fresh herbs, and white flowers. Lush, fat, lemon oil palate with dense pear weight and a saline element. Dry conclusion. Very good fendant.
Fendant 2013, Valais (Chasselas): Very pale almost green color. Signature chasselas nose of musk (cat pee), pierre à fusil, quince, white flowers and herbs. Palate is fresh, vivacious and mineral with a bit more citrus than typical. Very nice fendant but I find this to be a bit neutral.
A note about chasselas from Swiss wine writer Chandra Kurt: “Indeed, maybe acidity is the key word for chasselas. Some feel there is too little, while others feel there is too much. But a high quality chasselas has just the right amount—and by right, I mean inconspicuous, an attribute perfectly in tune with Swiss culture.” The World of Fine Wine magazine Issue #43 2014 (@chandra kurt) (www.chandrakurt.com). Personally, I wonder more about the pH of Chasselas wines than the acidity. The hallmark oily texture and saline/mineral taste is common among wines with higher pH levels. I also find in chasselas a kind of basic (as opposed to acidic) quality as found when eating artichokes. This may be my imagination as I’ve never seen it discussed. It may be a case of high pH and high acidity.
Pinot Blanc 2014, Valais: Very pale straw color. Typical nose of fresh saw-dust and talc. Light-weight palate with bread, yeast, tropical fruit and lemon-cream. Snappy, crisp finish. A good pinot blanc.
Petite Arvine 2014, Valais: Solid gold in color. This is a bright and fresh petite arvine with all of the citrus suspects in attendance. Sleek is the term that keeps coming to mind to describe this lovely wine. The palate has some flesh but it is ultimately mouthwatering with lemon/lime flavors in a light-weight, accessible package. Madeleine is experimenting with a barrel fermented and aged petite arvine in 2015. I believe this variety can handle the extra weight and will show quite well when all is said and done but I like this style too. Maybe some of both is in the offing.
Paien 2012, Valais (savagnin): Luxurious gold in color. Very powerful nose of honey, melon, mango and marzipan. Incredibly rich and viscous palate. Very ripe surmaturité quality as this domaine likes to pick late. Great weight and sweetness on the palate with more of the marzipan and less of the tropical fruit. No malo-lactic here but hard to believe given how rich it is. Absolutely no show of acid. A really fine drink.
Marsanne 2013, Valais: Gold in color. Stone fruit nose with grilled nuts, honey and white flowers. Palate is rich and luxurious (barrel fermentation) with intense stone fruit flavors, honey and candied citrus peel. 15% alcohol doesn’t show at all. Long and viscous finish. Madeleine believes marsanne should be picked very ripe otherwise it can be insipid. After tasting this example and the one below I am convinced as well.
Marsanne 2012, Valais: Pale gold color. The nose fetches up acacia, white alpine flowers, honey and apricot skin. Very fresh and fascinating. The palate is middle-weight with stone fruit flavor, candied citrus peel and mineral salt. Very good. These are not as latent and saline as the great whites of the northern Rhone valley of France but a joy to drink nonetheless. Mercier’s marsanne (ermitage) is held one year in bottle before release. Madeleine claims this wine in particular needs some time to show its best. I find it delicious now.
Dôle 2014, Valais (Pinot Noir, Gamay, Galotta): Limpid garnet in color. Lovely nose of red fruit and dried rose petal. Light-weight palate with crunchy, fresh fruit. A little Dôle tang with a squeaky clean finish, if a bit short. A good example of Dole.
Dôle 2013, Valais: Garnet color with a little more depth than above. Clean cellar smell with red berries, green herbs, loamy earth and wet stones. Very youthful and fresh. Palate is positive and bursting with lightly herbal and exuberant red fruit. Very tangy and mouthwatering. Exactly what a Dôle should be: charming, inviting and delicious.
Pinot Noir 2014, Valais: Light ruby color. Very pale. Head-of-a-pin precise. Not complex but with a light and fresh nose of cherry and herbs. As with all of the Mercier stable more palate than meets the nose. Always an extra level of saturation and fruity sweetness than both color and nose would suggest. Delicious although an extra five years would serve this well.
Syrah 2013, Valais: Deep crimson with black notes. No reduction. On the nose lovely black fruit/red fruit balance and violets, violets, violets. Creamy figs, plums and mulberry with some new leather and gibiers. Seamless palate with all of the above and new oak creaminess (one third new oak used). 2013 was a very low-yielding harvest due to poor flowering in April. Great concentration within a modest frame. The genius of Mercier and Swiss winemakers in general is the acceptance that terroir trumps ambition. Over-extracted wines are virtually non-existent and the combination of fruit concentration and finesse makes the best marriage.
Cornalin 2013, Valais: Violets with hints of blue/black. Lovely berry cream fruit (as in aroma and texture) with cocoa. Somehow not developed but complete. Wonderful saturation of color and aroma. Mulberries galore. The palate is broad and textured with fantastically fragrant fruit. This Cornalin also has some length. This reminds me of some older bottles of Grange des Pères from the Languedoc in France. Excellent.
Not tasted but especially noteworthy is the late-harvested marsanne cuvée, flétrie sur souche. These vines located in the south-west portion of Goubing are usually harvested in January from anywhere between 130º to 190º oechslé in accordance with the LaCharte Grain Noble ConfidenCiel du Valais. This organization founded in 1996 requires that all member growers meet rigorous minimum standards for the production of sweet wine, a longtime specialty of the Valais. I look forward to my first sip of this allegedly great wine.