Profile: Domaine de la Maison Carrée (Auvernier, Neuchâtel)

There is a very special quiet to a traditional wine village at rest. No people, no sounds, no stress and only meters from the past season’s slumbering wine behind the solid walls that line the street. For me, walking the streets is the perfect preparation for tasting. I call it calibrating the senses — listening carefully for the nuances of silence; focusing my eyesight on the smallest detail of shadow and light; sniffing for the slightest hint of wine being racked or bottled beneath my feet. It’s exhilarating, and especially so, when you’re about to meet someone who teaches you something elemental about a subject you think you know.

The Man

You’d never guess from his relaxed and genial manner but Jean-Denis Perrochet’s roots in this tiny village go back 900 years. A genealogy chart on the wall near his office says so. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century, however, that a branch of the family began tending vines and making wine; at the same time the Maison Carrée, a landmark in the village, was built. To some, such a pedigree can be fraught with responsibility and inevitability but Monsieur Perrochet is the ideal placeholder. He is a wine activist who has raised the bar for his neighbors and the region as a whole. In his own words,

“I don’t want to be critical of the past. The ones before us did their best with what they had. It is our responsibility now to take what we know; to improve what we can.”

If this means embracing new ideas, then so be it — but more often it involves new ways of thinking about old ideas. Biodynamics and sustainable farming are shining examples of this philosophy.

Vinum Magazine/Bio-Suisse Winery of 2016

When I asked about the state of organic viticulture and natural winemaking in Switzerland he was quick to respond:

“Years of mediocre winemaking and sloppy organic farming has conditioned the Swiss to reject organic wine as a class. This in turn has discouraged producers. Even if the wine is from organic grapes they are afraid to say so on the label.”

Despite the public’s reticence to accept organic wine, he is convinced it is the wave of the future. He cites the usual Swiss pioneers — Jacques Granges, Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, Raymond Paccot and French contemporaries Aubert de Villaine and Claude Bourgignon — as inspiration, but knows he is up against it in Auvernier. It’s no secret that biodynamics is an extreme practice even in more temperate Swiss climates, like Valais, but it is especially difficult in the marginal Swiss climates dedicated to pinot noir. It’s not an easy commitment to make but he is convinced that the health of his soil, the quality of his grapes and the characteristics of his wine have greatly improved since he introduced biodynamics. His stated goals of balance, finesse, purity, and the truest expression of terroir are found in the harmony of climate, plant and soil.

The Vineyards

With sustainability as a backdrop he insists on walking the vineyards with me to explain his theories about canopy management, cover crops, and soil composition. Almost immediately one can spot a Maison Carrée parcel amidst a sea of different parcels just by looking.

The first thing one notices, and this is a continuing theme throughout Perrochet’s vineyards, is the palpable, brimming life of them — especially when compared to his neighbor’s rather antiseptic, machine-ready look. His vineyards are robust and slightly unkempt (appearance only) with a thriving cover crop. The vines sport tight clusters of small berries. He likens the vine to a tree with some rigid vertical shoots and some that hang freely. He tolerates what some consider excess vigor but only if the leaves are small and compact.

From there, he segues into another favorite topic: canopy management and vine trellising. Even though 70% of Maison Carrée vines employ a vertical shoot positioning (VSP) system there are modifications to be made. Around the beginning of August a couple of shoots per vine are loosened and allowed to hang freely. He believes the added shade this offers is not only beneficial to the soil but also to the exposed clusters vulnerable to sunburn just before veraison. Indeed, Perrochet’s vineyards are fresh and cool beneath the canopy and the cover crop is vibrant and healthy because of it.

Cover crops also aid in the reduction of vigor in some vineyards.

The domaine is parcellated mostly around the village of Auvernier—seventeen distinct parcels there and one in Hauterive, east of Neuchâtel. Ten hectares in all — 3½ chasselas, ½ chardonnay, ½ savagnin, ½ pinot gris and 5 pinot noir — on slopes that rise gently from the lake toward the Jura. Each parcel is south or south-west facing and loaded with limestone of one sort or another. Some of it is mixed with clay to form a marly matrix, some with yellow rocks beneath red (iron) soil and some with broken white chunks just below a meager thirty centimeters of topsoil. Each has a distinct influence and speaks a different language. Monsieur Perrochet understands them all.

At the bottom of the hill near the lake is Les Abbesses a parcel devoted to ungrafted chasselas planted in 1976. It is sandy/clay/marl based. There is usually a separate cuvée of chasselas from this parcel. Here one finds healthy vines with a significant cover crop on gently terraced rows. The only terraces (if one can call them that) on the property.

At La Grand’Vigne both chasselas and pinot noir reign. Here one notices the distinctive lyre trellis arrangement with lots of leaves and shade. The robust ground cover here works to mitigate vigor through competition for nutrients as well as providing insect and microbial diversity. Indeed there is a cooling, earthy fraîcheur beneath the vines even on this warm day and the abundant flowers and vegetation makes for some pretty viewing.

La Brena is a half-hectare parcel of savagnin which Monsieur Perrochet is very excited about. It fits with his philosophy of localism in that the cultivar may even predate the appearance of chasselas. The grapes are very thick-skinned and resistant to rot and, in the end, may be a better fit for the region.

Les Lerins is the source for Perrochet’s only single-vineyard crû, Le Lerin.

“It always did stand out,” he says, “and finally I decided to keep it separate.”

Its soils are certainly distinct with a mere thirty centimeters of red, iron-rich topsoil over broken chunks of white limestone. It is noticeably drier in this climat with less ground cover and lower vigor. It is planted to a robust mixture of massale selected pinot noir, such as the late-ripening Mariafeld and the locals Cortaillod and Jura, as well as several of the Dijon clones. Past examples are pristine, crystalline, pure, and complex. Just what he is looking for from this terroir.

Slightly lower down the hill is Goutte d’Or with its very deep soils — 2 meters of clay-based topsoil over stony moraine. The Scott Henry trellising found here is recommended as an antidote to overly vigorous vines in deep soils. Pinot noir shoots are trained vertically, both upwards and downwards. The result is more than the usual number of clusters but with noticeably smaller berries. Because the lower shoots are closer to the ground sufficient airflow is mandatory to discourage rot. It helps that this area is windier than the others.

Vanel and its 200 square meter adjunct across the street — really someone’s backyard vineyard managed by Perrochet — is lyre-trained pinot noir. Among the many plants that comprise the cover crop here, strawberry is most notable. Now try to get me not to notice a strawberry aroma in the wine. Soils are deep here with a mixture of clay and  glacial rubble.

The Process

Only a quick peek through the cuverie and chai is enough to convince you that nothing much has changed over the years. There is no stainless steel or fancy machinery other than some old farm equipment, a Vaslin press for his pinot noir, and a small de-stemmer. If you love and appreciate wine made in a traditional way, then this is the place for you. He delights in showing you his ancient vertical presses made of wood and the ten or so early twentieth-century foudres. He won’t let you pass the giant concrete vat in the original cuverie or the series of smaller ones for the red wines next door — Rube Goldberg would be impressed. The only concession to modernity is the epoxy lining.

“It’s the traditional way,” he says.

It’s almost too simple, I think — where is the manic control of the modern oenologist?

“This is how we get the taste of our terroir.”

It’s a gentle forthright press you’re wanting?

Native yeasts also help to bring out the nuances of terroir and they are a significant feature here, just as they are with any natural winemaker worth his sulfur salt. Sulfur is never introduced at any time except after the malolactic fermentation and/or just before bottling and then never more than 45 PPM.

All whites receive a short maceration in the aforementioned concrete cuve before pressing in the enormous, wooden vertical press. The juice extracted is particularly clear and goes directly into oak: 228 liter barriques from Tonnellerie Billon in Beaune for the chardonnay and 2000-5000 liter foudres for the rest.

The pinot noir receives a two to three week cuvaison followed by pressing and aging in the same style barriques and mixture of oak foudres. Even the top cuvées, Le Lerin and Hauterive, receive the same élevage as the village Auvernier in a mixture of differently sized oak vessels.

Vineyard yields average 7 to 9 tons per hectare and total production is between 60,000 to 80,00 bottles per year.

The Wines

Bottled Samples—

Neuchâtel Blanc “Vin Sur Lie” 2015, Auvernier (chasselas): Pale straw in color with a leesy haze. Very bright, fresh and tingly nose of yeast and fresh baked bread. Delicate citrus (kumquat or mandarin) flavor. Somewhat muted but with additional flavors of toast and grain. First encounter with this wine was in July at the Bio Suisse tasting in Lausanne. Consistent notes.

Chasselas 2015, Auvernier: Pale straw in color. Lovely aroma of elderflower, lime blossom and fermentation notes. Elegant palate with notes of quince, lemon confit and an herbacaceous freshness. Vigorous and lively but on the simple side. Monsieur Perrochet believes chasselas should be drunk young and this is a delicious example of that philosophy. Recently bottled.

Œil-de-Perdrix 2015, Auvernier: 100% pinot noir. Three day maceration then vertical press and fermentation in oak foudre. Fairly dark, ruddy rose in color. Lovely herbaceous nose of steeped tea, rhubarb, beet tops and cherry juice. Impeccable balance in a large frame. Flavors are sweet and savory but perfectly dry with some tannin and a touch of bitterness. This is as close to rustic as you’ll find at La Maison Carrée. I love it.

Foudre Samples (unfinished) —

Pinot Gris 2015, Auvernier: Pale gold in color. Explosive nose of hazelnut and spiced bread. Spiced pear and fruit chutney flavors. Thick and unctuously textured. Finishes long, floral and sweet. I asked if there is any RS but Monsieur Perrochet mentioned he doesn’t use much sulfur at bottling, so no. This is easily the best pinot gris I have had from Switzerland and one of the best outside of Alsace. Superb. (1600 liters made)

Savagnin 2015, Auvernier: Straw/gold in color. Very restrained aromas of white flowers and lime leaf. Palate is bracing and acidic with an interesting waxy, nut-oil texture. Very muted flavors at the moment (mostly citrus) but with lots of undefined stuffing. Very difficult to read but Monsieur Perrochet is very excited about this new wine for the domaine. Lots of potential.

Pinot Noir 2015, Auvernier: Ruby colored and slightly cloudy. Explosive aroma of raspberry preserves and fresh, verdant undergrowth. Palate is textured with raspberry, dark cherry and delicate herbal flavors. Nice acidity (a real worry in this hot vintage) give enough definition to the flavors. This continues the streak of excellent Swiss pinot noirs in this important vintage. Very good potential.

Pinot Noir, Le Lerin 2015, Auvernier: An almost iridescent ruby color that grew darker in the glass. Somewhat restrained, tight nose of candied red fruit and spring foliage. Delicious but unresolved flavors of cherry compote, candied violets and kirsch. Tannin is well balanced and reassuring. This has the potential to be terrific. Le Lerin is emerging as one of the Grand Crus of Swiss pinot noir.

Pinot Noir 2015, Hauterive: Darker ruby in color and slightly cloudy. Even tighter still than the Le Lerin and equally impressive. Will we see a single-vineyard Dezalets from Hauterive in the future? I forgot to ask. Deep, dark cherry aroma with pit-fruit concentration. Sexy, peach skin tickle to the nose. Very ripe, concentrated flavors of cherry and a touch of feral meatiness. Tannins frame things nicely. Excellent potential.

Barrique Samples (unfinished) —image

Chardonnay 2015, Auvernier: Pale straw in color but very bright. Very muted aroma of lees, toast and lemon peel. Palate is more forthcoming with notes of green apple, lime, and roasted grain. Light-bodied with some sweetness and a mineral streak. Has a little Pernand chalkiness. Very undeveloped but promising.

Pinot Noir 2015, Auvernier: Slightly cloudy ruby color. Nose is tighter and less raspberry inflected than the foudre sample. More emphasis on the verdant aspects with the fruit lingering just below the surface. Otherwise raspberry/strawberry flavors that are fresher and less confit. Considerably more backwards right now but should add a nice firmness when blended.

Pinot Noir, Le Lerin 2015, Auvernier: Slightly cloudy ruby color. Fascinating comparison to the foudre sample. This exhibits more of an overlay of components with each layer distinct: fruit, herbaceousness, wood, acid, and tannin. Quite simply in a different state of development. Monsieur Perrochet’s philosophy of blending each wine from different size vessels is his way of insuring that his terroir speaks in its own voice. Typical barrique-only cuvées speak too much of wood. Once again, he is thinking ahead of the curve in a display of what-is-old-is-new-again.

Pinot Noir 2015, Hauterive: Ditto here, but the pit-fruit concentration shows through and gives this sample a few more handles to grab onto. Obviously unresolved and a little reductive but its class and breed show through. Lighter in color than the foudre sample but it darkened in the glass with air. Reductive aromas also blew off revealing ravishing red and black fruit aromas and a fresh herbaceousness. This is going to be good.

5 thoughts on “Profile: Domaine de la Maison Carrée (Auvernier, Neuchâtel)

  1. Sounds like you had a great visit to Auvernier! This is such a lovely village. I always enjoy reading your descriptions of the individual wines. Now I know which ones I should pick up for when our friends visit next weekend. Many thanks!


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