Back in the day when a young musician/vintner named Thomas Donatsch introduced oak barrels and chardonnay grapes to the cellars of Bündner Herrschaft he was considered a pariah. Nowadays, in the vernacular of the tech world, he would be celebrated as a disrupter. Such was the opprobrium he endured that fines and official censure followed. Thankfully, he was not easily shaken by authority and today he stands with the likes of Robert Mondavi in Napa, David Lett in Oregon and Max Schubert in South Australia as a wine visionary. Unlike these icons, however, Thomas works in the relative anonymity of rural Switzerland and is little known except to his colleagues and the active but rarefied world of pinot noir adepts.
His home in the Graubünden village of Malans is an unlikely backdrop for any sort of revolution. It’s so tiny, it doesn’t seem to have a center. It is mostly sleepy and shuttered at mid-day except for the convenience store by the main fountain, where I found myself waiting for an early afternoon appointment. After a simple but sustaining sandwich of bündnerfleisch and good bread, enjoyed on the park bench outside, I walked the remaining few steps to Zum Ochsen, the Donatsch family tavern and winery. Its cellars have graciously received the curious and peripatetic from around the world for decades; each visitor hoping to discover the secrets of this remote terroir and the magic it makes with some of the world’s most fickle grapes.
While Thomas and his wife Heidi remain active, mostly with the tavern, it is their son Martin who is winemaker and face of the family enterprise. He brings winemaking savvy from his stops around the world, as well as charm, focus and a marketing intellect that has streamlined the portfolio and simplified its presentation. The list of Martin’s achievements is impressive. He was twice named Champion du Monde des Producteurs de Pinot Noir in consecutive years and his 2013 pinot noir “Unique” was judged outstanding in Decanter magazine’s “Best Pinot Noirs Outside of Burgundy” tasting in 2015. He has taken his father’s life work and made it his own—this is what generational succession should look like.
Demand for the scant wine produced is overwhelming. Seventy-five percent of the 30,000 bottles sold each year goes to the best restaurants in Switzerland and Germany. The rest to a loyal following that has changed little over the years. A substantial backlog of requests from new customers goes unfilled. On the rare occasion the Donatsch label can be found in a retail store it is always at a significant mark-up.
The Bündner Herrschaft
This scenic north-south valley runs from the town of Sargans to the doorstep of the Chur Valley. The gathering upper Rhine River bisects its entire length. It’s vineyards are protected by two prominent mountain ranges—the Rätikon to the east and the Glarus Alps to the west. It is the warmest region among the German-speaking cantons and falls roughly in the upper third of the nation in annual rainfall. Despite its relatively modest size it represents the largest contiguous vineyard area in Deutschschweiz.
Its distinctive soils were formed over time by the physical and chemical weathering of mountain walls that loom above the vines. Broken rock, crushed stone and other debris have collected to form talus cones or scree, a common feature of mountain landscapes. Beneath a layer of clay, 25-50 centimeters deep, lay several meters of chalky limestone and crumbly limestone layers. This is an ideal soil-type for deep root penetration and the pinot varieties that flourish here.
Each village—there are four of them—has its own growing conditions but a similar geography. The upper slope, or halde, is planted to the white varieties, while the flatter terrain, or feld, closer to the Rhine is planted to pinot noir and in some cases old-vine chardonnay.
Grape cultivation here dates back at least a thousand years. Pinot noir, which covers 80% of the total 432 planted hectares, dates from 1632 and the first references to the native cultivar, completer—with a mere 2 hectares extant—date from 1312. The other main cultivars are sauvignon blanc (9 hectares), pinot gris (10 hectares), pinot blanc (11 hectares), and chardonnay (15 hectares). This is clearly pinot noir country.
While the vineyards of the Bündner Herrschaft are especially privileged it is perhaps the village of Malans that is most privileged of all. From a vantage point of 700 meters one can see the valley below and the unique geography and climatic influences that permit viticulture in an area that would otherwise be inhospitable. Malans is advantageously located at the crossing of the “T”—the east-west to north-south juncture of three valleys. Its vineyards face southwest and receive more sunshine than any of the neighboring villages. It is also strategically positioned to receive the maximum benefit from the foehn winds. These warm alpine winds are crucial for temperature regulation and their antiseptic drying effects in this rainy region. Mildew and rot are thwarted by the appearance of the foehn and the grapes are noticeably flaccid from evaporation when they blow. The effects are profound.
Donatsch works its vineyards as naturally as possible. There are no herbicides used and the only spraying is to the vine itself to prevent oidium and rot. Compost and manure are used in the vineyard. The winery is essentially run according to the phases of the moon. Racking, bottling and most other activities are performed according to the lunar cycle. Sulfites are used sparingly.
The Donatsch holdings are distributed among a number of different climats. Bovel, east of the village at 650-700 meters, is devoted to muller-thurgau—destined for the tavern’s house white—and pinot blanc, the key component of the house crémant. The high acidity from this parcel precludes much else from growing here.
Just below Bovel, also east of the village, is an iconic vineyard dedicated to one of the rare Swiss originals—completer. The Halde (also known as Completer Halde) is a striking, southwest facing amphitheater of vines. Ironically, from the mythology surrounding this variety, Bündner Herrschaft derives much of its folklore. It is alleged that the monastic practice of Compline, completorium in Latin—prayers to signify the end the working day—was followed by a glass of wine pressed from this grape. Because of its searing acidity it was made in an oxidative style for drinkability. It was the lack of interest in this style going forward that lead to its near extinction. Martin speculates that the completer harvested during this ancient time was actually pressed in the 14th century cellar his family recently purchased before being transported to the bishopric in Chur. A particularly juicy story if true. Perhaps a search of church records is in order.
Today Martin picks completer in November when sugars are high and acids are manageable, like a late-harvest wine. He then ferments as he would a chardonnay, in oak. The residual sugar (around 5 grams) is naturally balanced by the stubborn acids. The net effect is of an intriguingly textured, dry wine. Early examples appear to age very well.
From Halde we move to the western side of the village and the Frassa parcel where new plantings of chardonnay, pinot blanc and completer are located. This is a gently sloping parcel that is more feld than halde. Because the grapes from Frassa are generally lower in acid they are often blended with wine from the higher slope. Purchased chardonnay grapes to supplement the “Tradition” cuvée come from this area as well.
Further west is the acclaimed Spiger parcel which was once bottled as a single vineyard pinot noir. The move away from single vineyard bottlings was calculated by Martin to guarantee a consistent product within a newly established three-tiered hierarchy. Spiger is planted to a healthy mix of Swiss clone 10-5 and Dijon clones 828 and 115. In a nod to global warming a massale program of Dijon 115 from this parcel is underway. The idea is to segregate the higher acid, later ripening Swiss clones on the lower slope, while banishing the lower acid, earlier ripening Dijon clones to the upper slope where acid is easier to come by—1 gram of acidity is gained for every 100 meters of elevation. It is hoped this prophylactic measure will mitigate some of the effects of rising temperatures.
The Selvenen parcel, adjacent to Spiger, is home to newly planted completer, old-vine pinot noir and experimental plantings of sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon. The “Unique” bottling of pinot noir is mostly from Selvenen but can include other selected barrels from other parcels. The measured re-introduction of completer is underway here but only on the best sites when there is room to do so. Completer needs a lot of warmth and only the best parcels have enough.
Martin’s chardonnay and pinot noir portfolios emulate Burgundy’s AOC template. The “Tradition”, “Passion” and “Unique” brands equate to the Burgundian Villages, Premier Cru and Grand Cru levels in ascending order of quality. They are not necessarily terroir-based alone but are the result of rigorous barrel selection. The flagship brand “Passion” is never sacrificed to produce the next level “Unique”; it receives first choice of barrels until the desired levels of quantity and quality are met. Other than that the “Tradition” is aged in previously used barriques and tonneaux; “Passion” is aged in 30% new oak; and “Unique” is aged in 100% new oak.
The chardonnay and pinot blanc are picked on the early side to accentuate the minerality of the terroir. Before pressing the whites are allowed to soak for 12-16 hours and after pressing left overnight in fiberglass cuves to settle. You won’t find much stainless steel in the Donatsch cuverie; Martin does not like the acidic tinge that results from its use. He laments that his beloved fiberglass cuves are no longer available.
Using a combination of native and natural yeasts the fermentation is begun in new and used oaks barrels for roughly twenty days. Aging takes place on the gross lees with an occasional batonnage. The whites spend a rather short time in wood, 9 months in some cases, to preserve minerality.
The pinot noir is harvested by hand and placed in small boxes for transport to the winery. Sorting in the vineyard is followed by a triage in the cuverie. After de-stemming and a short cold-soak in fiberglass, fermentation is begun with both native and natural yeasts. The caps receive frequent punchdowns and there is no external temperature control.
Tonnelleries sourced: Damy, Taransaud and François Frères.
The Donatsch wines are made as true vins de garde. As such they may be hard to approach when young, just as a great Corton-Charlemagne or Gevrey-Chambertin might. Indeed, Corton may be an apt comparison for the chardonnays: the chalky minerality of Pernand-Vergelesses and the hill of Corton can be likened to the austere minerality of the Donatsch whites.
The pinots, on the other hand, are marked by a certain chewiness and subtle tannic backbone that I find in old-school Gevreys. The aromatics may differ but the general structure is strikingly similar. Only time will tell.
The following wines were tasted with Martin and Thomas in attendance. It is great to hear Thomas speak about his Burgundian influences and his clear passion for the Côte d’Or. He is also a Bordeaux freak as evidenced by his collection Château Mouton-Rothschild (every vintage from 1938 to the present). Spectacular!
Pinot Blanc 2015, Malans, Graubünden: (barrique fermented—used oak) Pale straw/gold in color. Zesty lime and white flowers on the nose with a little talc. Very focused flavors of citrus and hints of grain. Acids are ample and slightly creamy. Very fresh and linear in structure.
Chardonnay, “Passion” 2015, Malans, Graubünden: (barrique fermented—1/3 new) This is the flagship chardonnay. Subtle cream, butter and butterscotch on the nose. Creamy lemon and fresh herb flavor with an electric streak of minerality. Very incisive demeanor with loads of life and potential ahead of it. Excellent.
Chardonnay, “Unique” 2015, Malans, Graubünden: (barrique fermented—100% new) Rich and toasty nose with sweet spices and citrus. Slight reduction. Flavors of grain, nuts and lemon peel within a deeply mineral core. Latent extract superseded by vivacious structural acids. Really long. Excellent.
Completer 2015, Malanserrebe, Graubünden: (barrique fermented—used oak) Straw colored. Fresh nose evokes the Friulano variety at its best: green almond, quince and white flowers. A green almond flavor persists with 5 grams residual sugar and balancing acids in spades. Perfect balance. Should evolve for decades. Every cellar should have a few of these.
Completer 1999, Malanserrebe, Graubünden: (100 year anniversary bottling) Mature Sauternes gold in color. Fabulous nose of dried fruit, tobacco, tomato leaf and amontillado-like nuttiness. Martin calls it a chameleon. Enters sweet but finishes dry. A real marvel. From an oxidative first impression to a growing chorus of aromas and flavors. Finishes with honey and barley sugar flavors. An incredible amalgam that I refused to spit.
Pinot Noir, “Tradition” 2014, Malans, Graubünden: Garnet colored. Very primary nose of red and black berries, forest floor and dry brush. Ripe berry palate with earthy flavors and a fresh herbaceousness. Grippy tannins. Delicious now but will keep for a while.
Pinot Noir, “Passion” 2014, Malans, Graubünden: Dark garnet with ruby highlights. Slightly more somber nose of earth and dark fruit. A deep and concentrated palate of fresh fruit and grippy tannins. Black cherry flavors with a fresh stemmy greenness. Earthy with a slight mushroom edge. Very savory. This one needs time. Excellent potential.
Pinot Noir, “Passion” 2013, Malans, Graubünden: Very light crop/50% of usual. Dark ruby in color. Intense nose of slightly jammy, cooked fruit. Somewhat wild flavors of red fruit and a feral meatiness. Very concentrated and saturated but still with grip and structure. Great length with supporting acids. Will develop more complexity with time. Excellent potential.
Pinot Noir, “Unique” 2014, Malans, Graubünden: Dark garnet color. Brooding nose of green herbs, forest scents and dark berries. Fresh palate of green herbs, leaves and dark red fruit. Deeply profound, chewy fruit is latent just beneath the surface. Somewhat backwards and dominated by fresh green aromatics right now. As this beauty unfolds it should prove profound.
Pinot Noir, “Unique” 2013, Malans, Graubünden: Dark ruby in color. Nose is fresher and less cooked than the “Passion” but just as intense. Undifferentiated but concentrated red fruit aromas with herbs and bark. Very structured and unyielding with a slight bitter finish. This seems a touch backwards at the moment. Still very impressive in its concentration.
Pinot Gris, “Föhnbeerenauslese” 2014, Malans, Graubünden: Harvested in December. Gold color with very ripe pear, honey and spice aromas. No botrytis thanks to the foehn. Luxurious, liqueur-like palate with baked pear and honey flavors. There is also a nice savory aspect to the palate. This is really very good and should continue to develop for several years.
“Vintage” 2013, Malans, Graubünden (pinot noir): Lovely, bright ruby color. In style somewhere between an LBV and an unaged Colheita port. Really a mistelle of some substance. Vibrant cherry/raspberry liqueur nose and flavors with a quite manageable 19% alcohol. Really delicious and fresh tasting. Would make a fascinating Colheita-style drink with a bit more barrel age.