Luc Massy is one of the leading lights in the Swiss wine community. He is revered both as an ambassador for chasselas and as the soft-spoken force behind one of its most iconic brands. His tireless efforts have positioned Luc Massy, the enterprise—and its medieval-inspired label Chemin de Fer—as one of the few recognizably Swiss wines available in America and, further afield, in Japan and Asia for its affinity with those cuisines. He is a charter member of La Baronnie du Dézaley, an association of growers formed to identify and reward excellence in the appellation and, not surprisingly, his Dézaleys are consistent award winners and among the longest lived white wines in Switzerland. The family’s sterling roster of vineyards reads like a gazeteer—Epesses, Clos du Boux, Saint-Saphorin, Dézaley-Marsens and Dézaley—and within each village prime climats are secured. In short, this family enterprise has it all, including the next generation of ambassadors, sons, Benjamin and Gregory.
Generational succession is well underway here. Eldest son, Benjamin will take over the winemaking duties and the energetic Gregory will expand upon his current role as sales manager for Germany and Suisse alémanique. Together they form a dynamic team with a sense of family responsibility and an appreciation for the gift this generations-old business has given them. Their methodologies, learned from their father, are rooted in the vineyards with low-impact farming and minimal intervention in the cellar. Their focus is on chasselas but there are also some very attractive light-weight reds based mostly on gamay and pinot noir to be had. On a recent visit they showed me around the place, spoke of their philosophy, and allowed me to taste through their current line-up.
The Massy cellars are located on the Route de la Corniche in the village of Epesses. The family residence, located uphill from the cellars, is a beautifully restored XVII century Bernese nobleman’s retreat with a sweeping view of Lake Geneva. The Clos du Boux—a monopole and the only grand cru in Epesses—boasts an equally long history and surrounds the residence. Both are recognized as historically significant and are protected. Together they create an impossibly magnificent scene.
The cuverie is clean, simple and compact with barriques for the red wines, concrete cuves and stainless tanks for the whites and a large 10,500 liter foudre for the flagship Chemin de Fer. The chai is uncluttered and works partly through gravity flow thus minimizing the use of pumps and hoses.
The vineyards are farmed according to the principles of production intégrée or reasoned agriculture. They will treat the vines as necessary. The nature of the vineyards requires hand-harvesting and naturally derived yeasts are used throughout fermentation.
The whites are fermented in concrete cuves and stainless steel tanks for roughly 10 days depending on the vintage. Like most chasselas producers in Lavaux, Benjamin believes that malolactic fermentation is necessary to add complexity to this otherwise neutral variety. Sur lie aging in tanks is practiced for the same reason and the wine is only removed from the lees at the first hint of reduction. The Chemin de Fer cuvée is aged in the large century-old foudre pictured above. All of the whites with the exception of the Chemin de Fer are bottled within a year of harvest.
The reds are mostly destemmed and fermented for up to two weeks before transfer to barrique. After one year an assemblage takes place. An exception is the Dézaley red cuvée, Chemin de Terre, a field blend, whose individual components are fermented together. With the upcoming 2014 vintage the CDT will break with tradition and begin to see 24 months in oak before bottling.
The Lavaux Terroir
It is one of the most awe inspiring and complex grape-growing ecosystems in the world precisely because of its impossible to duplicate collaboration of man and nature.
Its basic geology consists of conglomerate rock—individual rounded stones “glued” together with hardened silt, clay or calcium carbonate—topped with various combinations of clay, clay-gravel, gravel and exposed poudingue (the local name given to this type of conglomerate). The porous nature of the poudingue allows for deep root penetration where calcium-rich nutrients and other dissolved minerals are readily absorbed. Some Swiss wine experts claim the soil-types of the Lavaux are readily identifiable in the wines. I’m not quite there yet but there is a strong mineral profile to the local chasselas.
The inevitable advance and retreat of ancient glaciers stripped the hillside to bare rock that is still exposed to the surface in some blessed locations. What top-soil remains is susceptible to erosion but for a stupefying network of stone wall terraces that climb from Lake Geneva’s shore straight up the hill at gradients between 35%-100%. There are 457 miles of these stone wall-supported terraces; some so small they contain only a single row of vines and are barely passable by a single worker.
Perhaps unforeseen, these walls are crucial to yet another aspect of the unique Lavaux terroir and its thermodynamics.
The Three Suns
This magnificent slice of rock gazes directly at the southern sun for most of each summer day and, as if unsatisfied, it greedily double-dips in the orgy of reflected light from the lake directly below. Thus, two powerful sources of light: direct and reflected. The third sun is the thermal heat stored in the stone walls each day. This collected heat radiates well into the evening until the freshness of most Swiss nights cools things off. The net result of the “three suns” is a climate akin to Mediterranean but with a smaller window of opportunity. Frosts, late and early, are a concern but the lake tends to moderate temperatures beneficially.
Epesses: The vineyards of Epesses are based mostly on clay. They occupy the upper reaches of the hill (above the Route de la Corniche) and give wines that are fresher and more appropriate for early consumption. Experimental and non-native varieties like sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc, along with chasselas, are most likely to be found on these upper terraces.
Clos du Boux: Not a village but an enclosed parcel with unique attributes. This is located just above the grand cru vineyards of Calamin. Its soil composition is nearly identical to Calamin—churned-up rubble from an ancient landslide predominantly clay but with some gravel—differing only in its proximity to the lake. Proximity is key, however: the “three suns” effect is diminished the farther uphill one moves from the lake. The wines from this elevation tend to be fresher with more cut and lack the sheer opulence of the more fortunately exposed climats.
Saint-Saphorin: Here we find much more gravel in the soils and a much fuller, more savory expression of chasselas. I find the saline character, and what I can only describe as a briny, umami flavor, to be more pronounced in the wine from this appellation. As special as it is, I find most Saint-Saphorins to lack the sheer power and class of the best Dézaleys.
Dézaley and Dézaley-Marsens: This is the crown jewel of the Lavaux. It is here that the “three suns” effect is most acute. It is also where the poudingue rises to the surface in bands and where the vines reach deep into the earth in search of water and mineral nourishment. In the spots where the poudingue is covered it is usually with a gravelly fill. Wines of power, finesse and the ability to age are the birthrights of appellation Dézaley.
The distinct AOC Dézaley-Marsens is located farther up the hill near the Tour de Marsens. Like at Clos du Boux, the resulting wines from the Marsens climat are fresher with a distinct mineral spine.
The following wines were tasted at the Massy offices with Benjamin and Gregory in attendance. They are eager to show off their wines and are justifiably proud of their work. By Swiss standards these wines are reasonably priced and well worth a try.
Epesses 2014 (sauvignon blanc): Pale straw color. From an experimental plot behind the chai and beneath the Clos du Boux. Very mild aroma of grass and fresh asparagus. Clean and well made but lacking much sauvignon impact. I will continue my struggle to find interesting sauvignon blanc in Switzerland. In the meantime, New Zealand has nothing to fear.
Epesses, LaCrosse 2014 (chasselas): Pale straw color. Fresh, up-lifted, green herb nose with a little vanilla bean in the background. The palate is fresh and ravishing with a citrus backbone, green herbs and fennel. Analogous to a good, entry level grüner veltliner with a dose of Swiss precision.
Epesses Grand Cru, Clos du Boux 2014 (chasselas): Medium straw color. Amplified notes of lemon, green herbs, fresh asparagus and spring pea shoots. Significantly more fat and texture than the above but still about freshness and charm. At this level one begins to see the salty, savory aspects of this unusual, quintessentially Swiss, variety. Finishes balanced and nuanced.
St.-Saphorin, Sous-les-Rocs 2014 (chasselas): Same medium straw color but a different animal altogether. Umami and savory notes abound: roasted root vegetables, miso and salty sea air. Very saline and minerally with an appealing viscous texture. In a heavier weight class altogether. Could this be the ideal condiment for sashimi? Apparently, it’s no accident that Japan is a major destination for Lavaux chasselas. This would fit right in there. Very good.
Dézaley-Marsens Grand Cru 2014 (chasselas): Light straw color. This is from the cooler, upper reaches of Dézaley near the Tour de Marsens. The freshness is back with white flower, yellow fruit (pineapple) and wet stone aroma. The palate is fresh and vigorous with a very appealing apple-like palate, citrus backbone and a smart, textured finish. This is also very good and a totally different expression of the variety.
Dézaley Grand Cru, Chemin de Fer 2014 (chasselas): Medium straw color. Broader, spicier and sweeter nose with more penetration and depth. The palate offers the near perfect synthesis of umami depth and the freshness of citrus, pineapple and apple acids. The salty-sweet yin and yang is intact and marks this as a Grand Cru chasselas worthy of its title. This is fat and luxurious and demands at least a decade of aging.
Dézaley Grand Cru, Chemin de Fer, “Grandes Millésimes” 2003 (chasselas): Aged in a 10,500 liter foudre. Medium gold in color. Noble aroma of roasted grain, buttered toast and baked pear. Just a hint of reglisse (licorice). The palate is textured, fat and unctuous. Saline flavors of brine, miso and baked pear. This, from a very warm year, is really well preserved and capable of further aging. Noble chasselas from the very heart of this iconic grand cru terroir.
N.B. This vintage is a selection from La Baronnie du Dézaley an association of vignerons dedicated to the promotion of the Dézaley appellation through adherence to a strict Charter of Quality. Wines chosen by the committee and designated worthy of the “Les Grandes Millésimes” assignation are bottled uniquely and separately and released only after extra aging in bottle.
Epesses, Crêt-Bailli 2014 (gamay): A barrique aged lieu-dit. Very pale ruby color. Fragrant, somewhat candied, red fruit nose. Slightly earthy and floral with lots of charm. Palate is earthy as well with notes of mushroom, strawberry and cherry. The acidity is fresh and inviting. A real lightweight charm and the perfect wine for lunch.
St.-Saphorin, Baillival 2014 (pinot noir/gamay): Another barrique aged lieu-dit and a monopole. Pale ruby color. With 50% pinot noir this shows a bit more sauvage fruit than the above. Wild cherry predominates with leafy undergrowth hinting around the edges. The palate is a bit grippier too, with slightly more depth of fruit and texture. A very easy to drink style that may gain a bit more fat with a year or two in bottle. This is a typical Vaudois assemblage.
Dézaley Grand Cru, Chemin de Terre 2013 (pinot noir/gamay/merlot/syrah): Aged in barrique. Medium dark ruby but still transparent. A nose of red stone-fruit, baking spice, mushroom and roses. Nothing overwhelms as everything balances effortlessly and with finesse. The palate is sweet with red fruit, aromatic, slightly herbal and softly textured with very fine grained tannin. This will be delicious with a couple of years in bottle.