Even though it’s back from the brink, the grape known as Plant Robert remains endangered and little known. Absent a timely intervention it would have been lost decades ago to urban sprawl — in 1966 the last parcel in existence was condemned to make way for the A9 autoroute. Today its eight hectares are spread among several Lavaux villages, in tiny dollops, among twenty or so producers. There isn’t much of it to go around and restrictions on replanting willy-nilly virtually guarantees continued scarcity into the future.
Plant Robert (a.k.a. Plant Robez or Plant Robaz) has a few benefactors to thank for its survival: Pierre Paley whose parcel in Epesses was threatened with extinction; Robert Monnier who had the foresight to propogate cuttings from Paley’s parcel and the wherewithal to introduce them into the vineyards of Villette; and Robert’s brother Jacques who managed the commune’s vines and made the wine. Also crucial was the brothers’ plan to strengthen the variety through a program of massale selection before a gradual reintroduction into the vineyards of Lavaux. By 2007 there was a reported 3.7 hectares extant and today that number is slightly more than doubled.
Plant Robert has been positively identified as a bio-type of Gamay, but like all grapes adapted to non-native terroirs unique and sometimes beneficial mutations occur. Massale selection acts to preserve and concentrate the most favorable mutations to give each cultivar a particular local identity. So compelling is the Lavaux imprint that producers from Beaujolais are sniffing around in hopes of discovering an ancient bio-type that may improve, or at least diversify, the genetic stock of Beaujolais itself.
Its name, in whatever form, is thought to derive from the old French dérober (to rob) which perpetuates the legend that the original vines were stolen from unsuspecting merchants while transporting samples from Valais to Vaud. Whatever the origin of the name it is known that all gamay in Switzerland arrived from Beaujolais and may have been pre-selected there for the Swiss climate.
In 2002 an association of growers set in motion their plan to preserve and promote the integrity of Plant Robert. Their charter directs that only “mother parcels” (historic sites) —those with light, dry soils—within Lavaux can be replanted with Plant Robert. It specifies organic farming with a minimum density of 8,000 vines/hectare, harvested at a minimum of 85 oeschle, from low yields (1k/m2). Most importantly, the final product and methods of production are to be verified by a neutral third party, the OIC (Organisme Intercantonal de Certification), for certification. The symbols below must appear on the neck label of grower-members to guarantee authenticity and transparency.
It is generally asserted by experts that the main appeal of Plant Robert is its ability to display both fine and rustic characteristics. It tends toward a plummy fruitiness as opposed to the red fruit character of the Beaujolais crus. It is more likely to be spicier with earthy florals and a bosky, woodland aroma as well. When fully ripe a note of black pepper punctuates the finish. It is also distinctly different from other gamay wines found in Switzerland which tend to be a bit simpler and cleaner in their straightforward cherry fruit profile. At its best Plant Robert has a pleasing fullness of body without oversized structural elements—balance is key.
Needless to say, the opportunity to taste such a rarity in both horizontal and vertical formats is not to be missed. Fortunately, the Plant Robert Association makes it an annual event as part of the Cully Bazar which showcases local products, merchants and artists. The vineyards of Bourg-en-Lavaux, which include the original commune plantings of the brothers Monnier, offer a ten year retrospective of vintages while the other members offer their 2015 vintage. My tasting notes follow.
Plant Robert 2015, Yves-Alain Perret, Lavaux, Vaud: Transparent garnet in color with a blue-ish tint. Very flattering wild cherry aroma with earthy, floral tones. Deep cherry and wet stone flavors. Good concentration and elegant. Very pretty with balanced acids and tannins. Peppery finish. Lovely and complete. Very good.
Plant Robert, Villette 2015, J.F. & J. Potterat, Lavaux, Vaud: Brickish-ruby, some orange and transparent. Herbaceous, stewed-weed aroma to open. Not especially healthy smelling. Looks tired. Sweet palate and silky texture is a bit of a surprise. Green, stewed flavors persist with some spice. Finishes with bitter flavors and clumsy tannins. Not for me.
Plant Robert, Rouge Ardent 2015, Union Vinicole de Cully, Lavaux, Vaud: Ruby/garnet color. Furry, fruit skin nose. Clean cherry flavor but one-dimensional. Fruit cream suggestion but mostly hollow and simple. Finishes a bit watery and washed-out. Not much concentration or much interesting here. Correct at best.
Plant Robert, Le Chant de la Terre 2015, Domaine Mermetus, Lavaux, Vaud: Transparent garnet in color. Spicy wild cherry and herbs on the nose. Some cellar funk too. Full and round palate of ripe cherry with a green, bosky freshness. Plums too. Big, silky texture, robust flavors and a tingling finish. Fine balance and really delicious. Very good.
Plant Robert 2015, Commune de Corcelles-pres-Payerne, Lavaux, Vaud: Transparent garnet in color. Fresh but very shy, simple cherry nose. Somewhat diffuse. Palate is light- to medium-weight with simple cherry flavors, bright acids and a bit too much tannin. The wine is simple, albeit a bit washed out, but ultimately correct.
Plant Robert 2015, Domaine de la Chenalettaz, Lavaux, Vaud: Transparent ruby/garnet in color. Slightly herbal, stingy nose. Light cherry fruit and herbs with some wet concrete flavors. Texture is thin, washed out and slightly acidic. Again very simple and not very interesting.
Plant Robert, Villette 2015, Jean-Daniel Porta, Lavaux, Vaud: Transparent garnet in color. Gamay nose of spiced cherry, herbs and wet stone. Lovely sweet cherry fruit with earthy floral flavors. Nice silky texture with depth of flavor. Very balanced with appropriate acid and tannin. Finishes a bit weak and watery. Good overall.
Plant Robez 2015, Blaise Duboux, Lavaux, Vaud: Hazy, nearly opaque garnet with some orange. Lovely, complex aroma of fruit, herbs and hints of caramel. Serious and vinous. Mouthfilling with dark cherry fruit, brown sugar, herbs and a little reglisse. Layered and multi-dimesional. Pleasant touch of bitterness on finish. More developed than any other 2015. Lovely.
2006-2015 Plant Robert Vertical from the Commune de Bourg-en-Lavaux:
2015: Transparent ruby in color. Fresh cherry and herbs aroma. Palate is rich and sweet, almost silky. Perfumed, stone-fruit flavors. Juicy dark cherries. Very flattering. Clean, bright and fresh. Very good.
2014: Dark, transparent ruby with some bricking on the edges. Very savory, green and herbaceous aroma. Not a lot of fruit character. Palate is sweeter than nose indicates but flavors are clipped. Too much acid for level of fruit and too much raw, green tannin. Not especially balanced and lacking charm.
2013: Straight ruby with bricking edges. Soft, indefinite nose of sugar, caramel and earthy fruit. Herbs and cheesy funk on the palate that finishes short and overwhelmed by bitter tannins. This seems overly-wooded to me.
2012: Transparent ruby in color with slight bricking. Lovely nose of cherry/strawberry confiture. Warm and generous and gets better with air. Palate is a bit of a let down with a disappointing dryness. Medium-weight with dry, bosky fruit and dried herbs. Not bad but a tad disappointing after such a fast start. OK.
2011: Very light, transparent ruby with some bricking. Very herbal nose and a touch weedy. Palate is herbaceous and peppery with some sweet, medium-weight fruit. Ultimately a bit simple and too herbaceous. OK.
2010: Light ruby-brick in color. Developed looking. Lovely nose of cherry/strawberry confiture with subtle ginger and turmeric. Classy. Perfectly à point palate with flattering sweet cherry fruit. Beautifully textured and silky. Perfect balance into a perfumed finish. This is really good and one of my favorite wines of the morning.
2009: Light, transparent brick in color. Still fresh, somewhat minty, herbal nose. Bosky fruit. Palate is somewhat savory with herbs and sweet, slightly pruney fruit. Despite all of its ripe, dried fruit character it still exhibits nice balance on a bigger frame. This is also very good.
2008: Light, transparent brick with a bit more brown. Light chocolate/cherry nose just beginning to dry. Palate is light-weight and sweet with cherry/savory fruit that also shows drying. Acid is beginning to show in the finish. Slightly past its prime, so drink up.
2007: Darker ruby with browning. Nice cherry confiture nose. Loads of old, sweet fruit with chocolate notes. Very rich and powerful on a gamay scale. Very silky with loads of extract. Fat and delicious. Very good quality.
2006: Transparent ruby with light browning. Fresh, mostly minty herbs on the nose. Palate starts rich and sweet with dried fruit and fresh green herbs. Not as big as the 2007 but along the same profile. More elegant, more finesse. Also quite good.