The angelic mien and soft-spoken pitch of Christian Vessaz, winemaker and director of Cru de l’Hôpital in the village of Môtier, does not fully assuage a gut feeling I have that beneath the reserve are two frantically paddling feet—a not inappropriate image in this lakes region of the Swiss plateau. It also happens to be an accurate depiction of this busy, multi-tasking, ascendant personality. How he came to be one of the great young winemakers in Switzerland is another story.
The fateful 2002 accord with representatives of the Bourgeosie de Morat (owners of the Cru de l’Hôpital) to assume control of this historic but under-achieving property was, as he says, “A win-win situation.” He elaborates: “For me, the prospect of total autonomy and the encouragement to make needed changes was most attractive. On their end, they got a qualified candidate ready to take the job when no one else was interested.”
Right place at the right time? Yes. . .but. . . conveniently, there were no other applicants.
Vully to put it bluntly is not very sexy. It’s situation between Lac Neuchâtel and Lac Morat is a virtual no man’s land known more for its Gâteau du Vully and neolithic pile dwellings than for fine wine. A lonely bus that runs every hour on the hour is the only public transportation through its mostly empty corridor. It’s cultural and linguistic divisions (röstigraben)—yes the language flip-flops from French to German and back without warning—are reinforced by its split AOC—Vully in Vaud to the southwest and Vully in Fribourg to the northeast. Each has its own coterie of hyper-local followers but neither offers a comprehensive plan nor a progressive image. The political boundaries only add to the confusion: this was recently rectified—in early 2016 Bas-Vully and Haut-Vully morphed into the single commune of Mont-Vully. All in all eight villages comprise the newly named commune with an aggregate population of 3,518 people.
Change has come at an opportune time as a new identity is being forged. First, in 2012, the two halves of appellation Vully merged to form a single, inter-cantonal appellation. Then, in 2013, a charter of quality for the freiburger (pinot gris x sylvaner) and traminer (gewürztraminer) varieties was established. This far-reaching charter contains standards that far exceed those imposed by the AOC in the areas of yield (850g/m² versus 1.1 kg/m²) and oechsle at harvest (87° versus 65°). It also includes some remediation of local customs: allowable residual sugar is capped at 8g/l (a repudiation of the Alsatian model as well as its own past); outright bans on chaptalization and other manipulations; and a required six months rest in neutral vessels before wine aged in barrel can be bottled.
Got that? The sidebar below outlines some key dates and events.
Key Dates in History
1973 First traminer vines planted in Vully ♦ 1983 Local traminer wins international competition in Ljubljana, Slovenia ♦ 2002 Christian Vessaz hired at Cru de l’Hôpital ♦ 2011 Vully-les-Lacs a commune in Vaud incorporates villages of Bellerive, Chabrey, Constantine, Montmagny, Mur (VD), Vallamand and Villar-le-Grand ♦ 2012 Vully appellation created: includes parts of Vully-les-Lacs (VD) and Mont-Vully (FR) ♦ 2013 Vully Charter of Quality created ♦ 2016 Communes of Bas-Vully and Haut-Vully in Fribourg join to form the single commune of Mont-Vully which includes villages of Joressens, Lugnorre, Môtier, Mur (FR), Nant, Praz, Sugiez and Sur-le-Mont
The northeastern half of Vully (FR) occupies a narrow strip of land, barely 300 meters at its widest, wedged between Mount Vully and Lac Morat. The vineyards slope from north to south—steeply at the top (terroir de pente) and more gently nearer the lake (terroir de fond). The predominate soil base is molasse, a relatively porous sandstone, that is the perfect catalyst for freshness and fine aromatics in white wine. The specialty varieties are planted up-slope—pinot gris, traminer, chardonnay, gamaret, malbec and pinot noir—while down below chasselas enjoys a low stress environment in the deeper, water-retentive soils.
The southwest reaches of the appellation in Vaud are influenced by deeper, clay-based, alluvial soils. Mount Vully and its slopes are only a rumor here as the landscape is more open and notably flat or rolling. Again chasselas does well here. Christian’s fear that chasselas responds negatively to stress, particularly the water and nitrogen deficiencies that can lead to bitterness, is mitigated in the deeper soils of the area.
It helps that the Bourgeosie de Morat retains ownership of some of the best vineyards in the region including the renowned Côte Fichillien, Champerbou and the distinct terroir of Mur (translated means “wall”) which defines the border between Vaud and Fribourg. In addition Vessaz buys in grapes from the villages of Praz, Nant and Sugiez in the northeast and from Christian’s family vineyards in Chabrey and Vallamand to the southwest.
Fichillien: The holdings in Fichillien are the centerpiece of the domaine. At its base (terroir de fond) the old-vine chasselas destined for the Cru Fichillien is found. In its middle portion the traminer and pinot gris are perfectly situated. At the top (terroir de pente), where the soils are drier and warmer, malbec and gamaret flourish providing the raw material for the Elévation de Fichillien blend.
Champerbou: This is a new terroir located between Fichillien and Mur. Like Fichillien it is mostly molasse with a bit more clay. A single cru chardonnay has been made from this vineyard since 2014. Christian is especially high on the prospects for his chardonnay. He is partnered in a new venture in the Mâcon region of France and plans to use some of the techniques learned there on his Champerbou cuvée. Look for some more flesh and minerality in future vintages.
Mur: As mentioned earlier, the village of Mur lies at the border between the cantons of Vaud and Fribourg. Here the soils are more clay based with some limestone—an ideal medium for pinot noirs of power and character. (Note: The white sign at the top right hand corner of the header photo is Cru de l’Hôpital’s parcel in Mur.) Christian believes that the power and concentration achieved there warrants a single cuvée. The pinot from Mur is late-picked, fermented by parcel and receives extended barrel-aging.
Cru de l’Hôpital has been biodynamic since 2012 and is Demeter certified.
Christian is looking for precise aromatics, minerality and a modestly fleshy texture in his white wines. Above all he is seeking balance. To accomplish these goals he utilizes a number of techniques designed to frame each vintage. For instance, some cuvées will be split: half may macerate and ferment as whole berries while the other half is pressed off; half may rest in concrete eggs and the other half in stainless steel; half may finish its malolactic fermentation while the other half is stopped. Depending on the characteristics of the vintage he may mix and match these techniques to suit both the vintage and the preferred house style. He likens the process to a chef’s use of salt and pepper.
All white cuvées, with the exception of the village chasselas, are aged on their lees. If any reduction presents itself the wine will be drained off, the lees refreshed with oxygen, and then reunited with the wine.
New and second-use barriques from Damy are deployed for the fermentation and ageing of the Chardonnay Champerbou cuvée.
The reds are fermented separately as varieties and then assembled. A mix of new barriques, neutral oak and stainless steel is used for ageing red wine. The village pinot noir is fermented in stainless steel before elévage in large barrels and stainless steel. The pinot noir from Mur is fermented by parcel before an extended elévage in neutral oak barrels. Seguin-Moreau is the tonnellerie of choice for the reds.
Native yeasts and spontaneous fermentations are the rule throughout.
The first set of notes (in black) is taken from the Mémoire & Friends tasting in Zürich in August. Notes in red indicate a re-tasting at Cru de l’Höpital with Christian Vessaz in attendance. These will indicate any differences between the two tastings with some answers to questions I posed in the original notes.
Chasselas, Fichillien 2015, Vully: Pale straw in color. Very appealing, even haunting, crushed apricot nose. Very pure and delicate. Finesse! Very sexy palate of perfumey peach and apricot skin. Pin-point balance and again that word: finesse. So delicate, so refined.
Consistent notes. Part whole berry fermentation, partial malo, partial concrete egg ageing and batonnage.
Pinot Gris 2015, Vully: Straw colored. Distinct peach jam notes. Again very delicate and refined. Palate has some lovely candied fruit—lemon and lime—with stone-fruit concentration. Finishes a touch hot. These wines are so pure in flavor and so beautifully textured I would have guessed they were amphorae wines. I forgot to ask.
Consistent notes. Partial INOX, concrete egg and barrique fermentation. Perhaps the texture I noticed earlier is the concrete egg influence. It sure seems to make a mark.
Traminer 2015, Vully: Straw colored. Lovely, again haunting, rose petal nose. So pure. Delicate floral flavors literally perfume the mouth. Kiss me, I will never taste better. Persistent flavor and length. Lovely. Traminer is a house specialty here and to my mind they have a big lead.
I noticed a very slight buttery character at this tasting that I didn’t notice the first time around. I must say it made for an even more interesting wine. This is the Mémoire des Vins Suisses selection.
Traminer, Fichillien 2014, Vully: Straw colored. A little reduction on the nose blows off to reveal pineapple notes. Leaner and more minerally than the 2015 above which is characteristic of the vintage. Fresh lemon flavors and a lean, wound-up texture. Needs time.
Chardonnay, Champerbou 2015, Vully: Pale straw in color. Back to earth here. Cream, butter and oak on the nose. Very shy fruit. Palate is delicate with lemon fruit, vanilla and cream. A bit tight and wound up. I wonder about the fruit going forward.
Chardonnay, Champerbou 2014, Vully: Straw/gold in color. Oaky nose with unripe apple sharpness. Flavors of butter, raw nuts and burnt sugar. Still lean and a bit ungenerous but a bit more developed with a plusher texture than the 2015. More integrated aromas and flavors as well.
These chardonnays are fermented in new and used barriques after a short maceration on the skins.
Pinot Noir 2015, Vully: Pale ruby color. Oodles of cherries on the nose with some spicy complexity. Very fresh and bright. Palate reveals a bit of earth and tangy cherry fruit. Light-weight and just a bit sweet and rounded. Young but delicious now. Continues a streak of excellent pinot noirs in this vintage. Fermented entirely in stainless cuves. Very nice.
Pinot Noir, Mur 2014, Vully: Very healthy, dense ruby/garnet color. Interesting nose of gingerbread, cola and ripe black berries. Perhaps a touch over ripe? Not very pinot. Again dark berries, cola and an American oak-like overlay. (I forgot to ask). Again not very pinot. Interesting but a touch overdone for me.
This showed better the second time around. Still a very ripe style (these are the last picked grapes in mid-October) but a bit better balanced than I noticed before. Whole berry maceration and fermentation with 20% whole cluster. Aged in used oak to preserve freshness and terroir. Lovely potential but I would like to see it reigned in a little bit.
Réserve de Bourgeois 2014, Vully (pinot noir/gamaret/diolinoir): Matte garnet in color. Very gamaret nose, meaning blackberries and earthy floral notes. A bit meaty to boot. Christian agreed that the gamaret dominates the pinot noir which is completely overwhelmed. Pinot may add acidity and some definition. Otherwise, soft and textured on the palate with full dark berry flavors. A bit one dimensional but not bad.
Elévation de Fichillien 2013, Vully (gamaret/malbec): Sturdy garnet color. Very pretty red fruit and candied violet nose. Weird waxy texture but very interesting berry fruit cream flavors. More gamaret than malbec I think because tannins are soft to non-existent. And that texture? I have to try this again sometime.
Well I got my chance to taste this again sooner than I thought I would. Notes are consistent with two exceptions. The wine is more malbec than gamaret and the texture, while creamy, is within normal bounds. The gamaret flavor dominance of the Réserve crystallized the difference for me. While I don’t think of most malbec as finesseful they are usually more so than gamaret. Christian thought the Elévation was showing a bit like a Super Tuscan which I think is a spot-on comparison. This is very good.