Every once in a while I come across a winemaker whose character and art defy description. Ladies and gentlemen, I have recently met such a man, his name is Paul-Henri Soler.
Mr. Soler came to my attention while I was researching the natural wine movement in Switzerland. He hails from the French side of the Jura but is married to a Swiss national and now lives and operates out of Meyrin, a small village tucked between the Geneva airport and the French border. He has been laboring there at the Ferme de Félix, his rustic winery/barnyard/residential compound, for the past ten years sharing the farm with other tenants, his family, two dogs and an assortment of cows and other farm animals. He maintains a bare minimum of winemaking paraphernalia, most notably an old stemmer/crusher, a few modest INOX tanks, twenty or so well-used barriques and one gnarly foudre. Everything is strewn within the confines of a small barn, a small outdoor courtyard and a small adjoining shed. The operative word is small. He learned his craft in Bordeaux but became disenchanted with the orthodoxy there. He is now anything but orthodox. He owns no vines but sources fruit from people he knows and trusts; from the villages of Dardagny on the rive droite and from Choulex, Carre d’Aval, Meinier and Gy on the rive gauche. His wines are available at a couple of natural wine stores in Geneva and he himself can be found at two local farmer’s markets selling his wine en directe—Grottes on Thursdays and Carouge on Saturdays. He is not content to just make the wine, he wants to meet the people who drink it.
As most of us who love wine know, it is quite often a single moment or a single bottle that transports us into the vast beyond of oenophilia, never to return. For Paul-Henri that bottle was a rare but legendary wine from the mysterious French winemaker Eric Callcut.
Despite a brief winemaking career (1995-1999) the Callcut name still carries mythic weight within the radical natural wine community. His reign paralleled the origins of the movement in France and he mingled with the anonymous but passionate practitioners who preceded him. Two of whom, the sisters Anne and Françoise Haquet*, are today considered natural wine royalty despite toiling ingloriously for decades near Coteaux-du-Layon with no inkling of their place within the natural wine community—their famous contemporaries Jules Chauvet, Pierre Overnoy and Claude Courtois were unknown to them. These plucky ladies tossed aside AOC regulations like vine-cuttings in winter and adopted the Vin de Pays sobriquet long before it was fashionable. To be honest their idiosyncratic portfolio often ran afoul of the regional tasting panels charged with defining and enforcing typicity. (Note to self: I need to find out what happened to their amazing cellar and whether it is still whole today.)
Out of this anti-establishment milieu the natural wine movement (radical branch) began to breathe on its own and Eric Callcut became a player. His main claim to fame is a cuvée of chenin blanc he called “The Picrate” which references the salt of picric acid known as saltpeter. Whatever its inspiration it created quite a stir and is today revered as a symbol of natural wine eccentricity and originality. One notable but seemingly unconvinced blogger, Jeremy Parzen in Do Bianchi, describes the 1998 “Picrate” in 2009 as “entirely stinky, cloudy, dirty, oxidized chenin blanc” when he tasted it at Pierre Jancou’s Racines wine bar in Paris. The estimable natural wine fanatic Alice Feiring, also present at this event, recently recalled the occasion:
“Yes, indeed I remember the wine. The saltpeter Jeremy talked about was reduction, probably the kind of great example of chenin grown on schist, quite lively, but not edgy or refreshing. . .I clearly liked it far better than Jeremy. But it was a long time ago.” (BTW look for Alice’s fabulous newsletter, The Feiring Line, and her other projects at: alicefeiring.com)
Two years later in another blog, Du Morgon dans les Veines , Guillaume NB, the author, finds the 1998 “Picrate” a puzzle of color, rich but not heavy, incredibly oxidized but in a friendly Jura-like way. His verdict: An amazing wine.
“The Picrate”, as it turns out, is Paul-Henri’s aha moment and has informed his style ever since. I was thrilled to find this direct link to a colorful period in the natural wine movement right in my backyard of Geneva.
Despite his natural wine bona fides Paul-Henri Soler is not a natural winemaker in the strictest sense. He does not own vines (neither did Callcut) and he does not control the practices of the vignerons he sources, but he does try to influence their choices. He admits to using sulfur but only when the malolactic fermentation is finished and there is sugar remaining after primary fermentation. In every other way he is an extreme minimalist and devoted non-interventionist. His methods speak of alchemy and his unconventional blends of vintages and varietals seem like lunacy. All of his wines are either labeled as Vin de Pays Suisse or labeled without origin except for his address. His cuvées, all cleverly named, are never the same from year to year so intuition and a trusty palate are his best friends. There are never any varietals named on the label. On my visit he flitted about from barrique to barrique formulating which wine under which label where, always with an eye to making the most interesting wine. His raw material is compelling.
His whites as a group can be tricky. They are uniformly oxidative, and in some cases volatile, and there is some evidence of variation from bottle to bottle. I came across this with the aligoté “Blanc de Comptoir” 2014. As my notes indicate the good bottle showed incredibly well while the second was a natural wine nightmare. The tricky part, as anyone who follows natural wine knows, is that wines like these have a life of their own and ostensibly dead wines can rise Lazarus-like when the planets align. We all have stories to confirm this phenomenon but it is a tough sell to the average consumer and the recent UC Davis graduate. The orange wine and natural wine movements have created an audience for this type of wine and I suppose it is fair to say that Soler’s whites fall somewhere in between these two groups.
The real highlights of his portfolio are the red wines. Each epitomizes the Soler style. Across the board they are light in color but pulse with passion and energy, with what I call chi. This life-force meme is the purported strength of an authentic wine and is the calling card of the natural wine movement. His reds are rarely over 13% abv and most are closer to 12% yet they are beautifully saturated, vivid and hauntingly aromatic. The savory aromas that uniformly abound include a kitchen cabinet full of dried herbs and spices, root vegetables and umami, from soy sauce to balsamico. The fruit character is always red and vibrant and provides the silky sweet notes on the palate. As I mention in my notes, these wines punch in a higher weight-class despite their digestibility and transparency. My impressions follow.
Blanc de Comptoir 2014 (aligoté): Old gold/coppery color indicative of oxidative/skin contact (orange) wine making. Amazing cider aroma of pear skin and dried fruit. Not alarmingly oxidized. Palate is slightly tannic, faintly bitter (again indicative of orange practices) and full of dried fruit and dried flowers. A intriguing bottle from beginning to end. Unlike any aligoté of my experience. (2nd bottle was undrinkable.)
Trinité 4027 NV (two vintages ’13/’14) (sauvignon blanc/charmont/gewürztraminer): Soler’s white version of Pépie (below), in other words a multi-varietal, multi-vintage assemblage. Here a kind of edelzwicker on steroids. Gold color and vaguely Rhone-like. On the nose some white flowers, nougat, honey and oxidized notes of over-steeped tea. Jarringly dry on the palate, with some tannins, and crazy flavors of past-due-date apples and dried fruit.
Grinopi 2014 (pinot gris): Reddish/pink watermelon in color. Fermented like a red wine with clusters and stems left intact. When fermentation begins within the berries he begins crushing by foot. Fermentation continues in open top boxes until complete and then transfered to barriques. Intense musk-y aroma with oxidized and varnish notes. Mouthfilling and full-bodied. Visceral and throbbing. Some residual sugar left behind.
Les Matines 2012 (chardonnay/pinot noir): Co-fermented hence his term vin “blouge”. Orange/salmon, the color of Tavel. Savory, herbal and rooty with coriander and celery seed. Palate is hefty and tannic. (My original notes before knowing the cépage: This seems to be a rosé version of the Pépie 5 below. My guess is that it is a true rosé made from extended skin contact.)
Les Fenêtres 2014 (pinot noir): A virtual twin of the 2013 in appearance. A shade leaner and considerably less developed on the nose. Seems to have everything it needs to develop along the same lines. Should be very good.
Les Fenêtres 2013 (pinot noir): Rive gauche fruit. Very light red/brick color with onion skin rim. Transparent and beguiling. Striking nose of red fruit, rhubarb pie, sweet spices, torrefaction and notes of vegetation (laurel). Not a powerful nose but very compelling. On the palate sweet and spicy notes unfold carried on a layer of rippling silk. This wine surprises in all regards. Some would think it feeble looking and dismiss it outright but I would have to include this in my list of excellent light wines that punch in a heavier weight-class. Very delicious. 12% alcohol never tasted so good. This one demonstrates how vivid a natural wine can be even when virtually transparent.
Pépie 5 NV (5 vintages ’14, ’13, ’12, ’11, ’08)(gamay/gamaret/pinot noir): Perhaps Soler at his best and most interesting. Very pale ruby but a shade darker than Les Fenêtres above with the same onion skin rim. Lovely reflection. A companion to above wine but much more savory with nutmeg, clove, coriander, celery and root vegetables. An odd combination but equally weighted and mutable. Palate is sweet and tingling, not lush, but full of chi. Flavors are herbal, slightly green and spicy with a balsamic note. Another interesting wine that would be lost in a grand tasting of heavyweights.
Rougy 2013 (gamay): Very pale garnet. The most simple and direct of Soler’s reds. Gamay is not my favorite variety from the Geneva environs. It does much better in the Valais where it can rival cru Beaujolais. Simple notes of red fruit on the nose. It just doesn’t have the underlying sweetness of the other reds to carry any interest. Not bad, but rather ordinary in this portfolio.
Vagabondes 2012 (merlot): The grapes are from Dardagny. Solid ruby color and the most opaque of Soler’s reds. The nose is compact, not as expansive as the others, with a real kernel of dense stone fruit, mulberry and caramel. The palate is solid, the least ethereal of the bunch, with straightforward and compact plum and mulberry flavors. This is the least developed red of the portfolio but with a modest chance of developing into something very good.
Soûl Stratus 2014 (gamaret): A Swiss cross of Gamay and Reichensteiner. Solid ruby to the rim. Slightly chunky nose of red fruit but without a lot of definition. Perhaps closed up or in that in between stage after bottling. Palate is a bit fuller than the others but without the obvious sweet fruit of the very best. I think this needs a bit of time to loosen up its strictly briary, slightly green fruit. Judgment reserved.
Vin du Dimanche 2013 (90% gamaret passerillage/10% gamay): I understand that this is Soler’s most popular wine. Mostly dried gamaret. Purple center, ruby then orange on the rim. Clearly the fullest body and most obvious outlier. Some cooked fruit but not overdone in the least. Warm red fruit with an expansive nose which just stops short of the very best. Herbs and sweet spices dominate. A little volatility. An interesting and expressive wine but not my favorite.
L’oie Rouge 2013 (gamay): Not a whole lot different than the “Rougy” noted above. I’m not sure why these were bottled separately except that they may have been from different climats. Nothing terribly distinguished here either.
2015 Barrel Samples
Les Matines 2015 (chardonnay): 100% chardonnay from the Rive Gauche area of Carre d’Aval. Barrel fermented in an old barrique. Very pale straw in color. Clean, bright nose of apple skin and Granny Smith apple. Texture has yet to develop so right now tart and crisp but ultimately full to medium-bodied. There is a lot of matter here but needs some time in wood to fill out and soften. Will develop nuance.
Pinot Gris 2015: Same procedure as the Grinopi above. This is slightly cloudy but with all of the opulence one can expect from this great vintage year. Too early to evaluate but an impressive start.
Chasselas 2015: Still fermenting in a small INOX tank. Cloudy, green gold color. Delicious juice with some sugar left. Very good weight and texture. This is from the very hot vintage of 2015 which has the Swiss all excited about a vintage of the century. The problem for native yeast die-hards is that the alcohol levels may inhibit fermentation beyond a certain point thus leaving unfermented sugar in the wine. Stay tuned.
Les Fenêtres 2015 (pinot noir): From barrique. Very consistent through 2013, 2014 and now 2015. Very pale color and utterly transparent. Sharp nose of red fruits and fermentation aromas. Has yet to develop characteristic texture of previous vintages or the complexity but all of the stuffing is here. I think it looks very good.