Swiss Grapes: Le Salon de la Petite Arvine 2016

A recent tasting at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Geneva brought together sixteen of the twenty-three members of the marketing collective Fully Grand Cru — devoted champions and enthusiastic purveyors of the native alpine specialty, petite arvine. On offer was the new 2015 vintage and a masterclass featuring a few older vintages in a range of styles.

Fully, somewhat hubristically, refers to itself as the capital of petite arvine. This ancient village, dating from Roman times, stands at the western entrance to Valais and its U-shaped valley near Martigny at the confluence of Lake Geneva and the Rhône River. Because Valais is blessed with a sunny, dry climate that produces much of Switzerland’s agricultural bounty — including the stone fruit crops cherries, apricots, peaches and nectarines—it is likened to California. Orchards such as these are always a sure-fire sign that the vine will thrive as well. It is an exceptional climat for petite arvine which does well in the wind-protected terraces of the village. Cantonal authorities have conferred grand cru status upon the vineyards of Fully which are the highest in the valley and among the oldest.

Geologically, its vignobles are uniquely situated upon some of the oldest rock in Switzerland. As opposed to the limestone and marly shale that is a feature throughout the rest of Valais, Fully sits atop gneiss—a hard, crystalline, metamorphic rock akin to granite. Its top soils, derived from ancient rubble, are nitrogen rich and punctuated with crystalline deposits. These deposits and the rubble created from them act as a powerful source of reflected sunlight that can confer upon the vineyard surface a bright, white sheen. This indirect, secondary source of light and heat is a ripening enhancement for the notoriously late-ripening petite arvine and is a peculiarity of this terroir.

Petite arvine itself is a native variety of unknown parentage. As mentioned it is late-ripening, susceptible to late spring frosts and it prefers a bit of moisture in the soil. It must be protected from the strong winds of Valais, which can be a challenge on the exposed south-facing slopes, but Fully offers natural protection due to its cul-de-sac orientation at the end of the valley.

Three main styles of petite arvine are made: dry, doux or off-dry, and full-blown late harvest or surmaturé.

Dry arvines are notable for their structural tension and nerve. A secondary or malolactic fermentation is a rarity thus fresh, lemony acids are a common denominator. Typical aromatic descriptors might include floral—white flowers, orange blossom, jasmin; fruit—grapefruit, lemon, tangerine, apple, melon, pineapple, guava, passion fruit, banana; vegetative—rhubarb, fennel, green tea, gooseberry, fresh peas, herbs; cooked—candied citrus peel, fruit confit, citrus drops, fruit preserves, fruit jellies; grain—bread, pastry, barley; and mineral—crushed stone, pierre à fusil, salt, petrol.

Wisdom has it that dry arvines peak at 4-6 years of age. In my opinion they should be given at least this time to settle in and then evaluated on a case by case basis.

With the exception of the Marie-Thérèse Chappaz stable, intentionally made off-dry and clumsily made dry wines with residual sugar are the least interesting to me. The sugars seem to compress the aromatics and can seriously alter the fruit/acid balance that is one of petite arvine’s most enduring characteristics. The great late harvest examples are another matter. These can be among the greatest sweet wines of my experience. Unfortunately I have not had many to enjoy.

What follows are some of the highlights of this compact and focused tasting.

Cave des Vignerons—Famille Thétaz:

Les Follatères 2015: Pale straw color. Aromatic notes of tropical fruit, mostly of banana, with lashings of marshmallow and a little acetic volatility. Sweet fruit confit on the palate but the wine finishes dry with a touch of typical saltiness. Good ripe style, a 2015 theme, with plenty of extract. Good acidity to boot.

Les Follatères 2014: Pale straw color. Much more mineral. Nose of pierre à fusil and slightly reductive. Palate is bracingly acidic with a lot of minerality and saltiness. Fruit very primary and fresh. Mostly of lemon and grapefruit. Clearly a cellar candidate. Very good. (for an aerial view of Les Follatères click here.)

Cave des Amandiers:

de Fully 2015: Bottled early for tasting. Still on its lees. Slightly cloudy and straw in color. Yeasty, autolytic nose with nice lemony lift. Some candied citrus as well. Firm, dry palate with lemony fruit. Nice extract. Very good potential.

de Fully 2014: Pale straw in color. Exotic nose of pineapple, dried fruit, nuts and cream. Palate is linear and pointed with brisk acidity. Lemony flavors with a lingering, slightly floral finish. Very good.

Flétrie, “Li Dzenëyou” 2011: (Picked 12 January 2012) Dark gold in color. Very primary, youthful aromas of dried fruit (mango/apricot) and spice. Round, juicy and succulent on entry. Apricot preserves, grapefruit marmalade, rhubarb and butter swirl in the glass and on the palate—and this is the genius of well made late-harvested petite arvine—the acids are bright and fresh despite the sweetness. Somewhat like Tokaji Aszú. No botrytis but nevertheless brilliant.

André Roduit & Fils:

Les Seilles 2015: Pale straw color. Aroma of orange children’s aspirin and grapefruit peel. The palate is rich and sweet with candied grapefruit peel flavor, candied nuts and spice. Very good length but finishes slightly hot (2015 again). Very good.

Cave des Amis:

de Fully 2015: Pale straw color. Very ripe aroma of melon and pineapple. Similar flavors that lay flat and are a bit on the heavy side (residual sugar?). Again very good ripeness but I worry a bit about the balance. Finishes a bit heavy, sugary and/or alcoholic.

Cave Philippe & Véronyc Mettaz:

de Fully 2015: Pale straw color. Made from young vines. Very fresh aroma of lemon rind. Palate entry is sweeter than indicated by the nose. Nevertheless very bright with lemon and mouthwatering acids. Very young and primary. Needs some time.

Les Mûres 2015: Pale straw color. Lovely nose of passion fruit and witch hazel, bordering on petrol. Palate starts linear and focused with fresh, bracing acids. Perhaps a bit citric right now. Otherwise lots of lemon and grapefruit. This is actually very nice and one of my favorites of the tasting. Will reward patience.

Les Claives 2014: From a famous granite terrace. Pale straw color. Lemonade, lemon drop nose with a hint of acetic volatility. Palate is still primary with a strong citrus profile. Seems a bit disjointed at the moment but it seems to have plenty of stuffing to evolve positively. I am a bit concerned by the volatility however.

Cave Marie-Thérèse Chappaz:

Grain Arvine, “President Troillet” 2014: (6gr/l residual sugar and 1/4 malolactic) From Les Claives. Light gold in color. Marvelously integrated nose of lemon essence, grain and flint. Palate is sweet upon entry with more lemon, nuts and a singular emollient texture. Rich and fat with balancing acidity. As usual, this producer is a master of her raw materials with no two cuvées alike and each more interesting than the last.

Grain Blanc 2011: (100% petite arvine—22gr/l residual sugar) Somewhat vendange tardive in style like an off-dry Alsatian pinot gris. Aromas of pear, grain and fresh cream. Texture of slightly mealy, grainy pear but very oily and fat. Sweet but perfectly balanced and still very youthful. Pleasant, balancing acidity. I get the impression this can evolve forever. Foie gras anyone?

Domaine La Rodeline:

Les Claives 2014: Pale straw color. Herbal, somewhat green aroma with a lemony lift. Very focused. Palate starts medium-bodied with nice fruit extract. Simple citrus flavors predominate with some fennel. Acids kick in mid-palate and carry through to finish with flavors intact and supported. Needs time.

Les Claives 2013: Pale straw color. Lemon drop and candied lemon peel nose. Palate begins with sweet, candied lemon extract and saltiness. With the mid-palate comes an acid rush that washes away all that preceded it. Awkward after such a pleasant start. Obviously needs time.

Gérard Dorsaz—Caveau des Ursulines:

Ma Petite Arvine 2014: Pale straw in color. Pronounced cool, green aromas of fresh peas and pea shoots. Underneath and on the palate fruit confit, sweet extract and plenty of zesty, lime-like acidity. Full to medium-bodied with a nice herbaceous kick to finish.

Ma Petite Arvine 2013: Pale straw in color. Interesting nose of lemon, fennel and bee pollen. Still youthful and undeveloped. Palate starts lemony but ventures into cream and honey. Very fresh and appealing. I liked this very much.

Benoît Dorsaz:

Les Perches 2014: Pale straw in color. Lemon, leafy and slightly green aromas a la grüner veltliner. Palate is crushed stone, citrus (lime?) and medium-bodied. Finishes with bracing acidity. (for an aerial view of Les Perches click here.)

Quintessence 2012: (2/3 of cuvée from barrique and 1/3 from  stainless cuve). Pale gold in color. Aroma of late-harvested fruit: honey, Grand Marnier, spice and vanilla. Mostly dry with a rich and luxurious texture. Flavors echo the nose but again cunningly dry. Balanced and lovely. This is very good and a good model for more ambitious experiments with petite arvine.

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