Recently I spoke with one of Switzerland’s great wine professionals, Jérôme Aké Beda. Not only is he co-proprietor of the highly regarded Auberge de l’Onde in Saint-Saphorin, he is also its Maître d’Hôtel, sommelier and resident wine philosopher. He was named Gault & Millau’s Best Sommelier in Switzerland in 2015 and he is co-author, with Pierre-Emmanuel Buss, of the excellent reference work Les 99 Chasselas à Boire Avant de Mourir (The 99 Chasselas to Drink Before You Die, Éditions Favre, 2014).
He is a familiar face at wine tastings around the country, a member of numerous jury panels, a regular guest on television programs about wine and a frequent interview subject for too many publications to mention. He is, in other words, the go-to-guy for things wine related in Suisse Romande. His gregarious and fun-loving nature is infectious and disarming but his deep knowledge of wine and discerning palate should not be underestimated.
In his role as ambassador and educator he is particularly keen on extolling the virtues of chasselas. He is most fond of aged examples and delights in highlighting the little known capacity of chasselas to age well.
For this short interview I was excited to learn his thoughts on natural wine especially as it pertains to the Swiss market. What follows is a transcript of our brief exchange.
AS What are your general thoughts on the natural wine movement?
JAB To be sure, more and more people I meet are interested in natural and no-sulfite wine but there is a lot of misinformation. For instance, the majority is convinced that sulfites are the cause of their occasional headaches. While I respect everyone’s viewpoint there has never been a study that proves sulfites are the cause of these post prandial headaches.
It is my experience that wines made from organic grapes and vinfied in that spirit are the most stable and give the clearest and most durable expression of terroir. Wines of the natural camp are much more variable as to their stability but do offer a lot of sensory interest and a lot of tasting pleasure when they are young. When poorly handled natural wines are prone to oxidation and secondary fermentation in the bottle.
AS Have you had any interesting encounters with natural wine?
JAB Yes, as I mentioned before natural wines don’t seem to age well. I have yet to encounter an older natural wine that gives me as good an experience as when it was young.
AS What is the general prevailing industry attitude toward natural wine in Switzerland?
JAB I would say that the natural wine movement is still in an embryonic state in Switzerland as compared to France. Organically farmed wines are gaining ground however.
AS Is there a Swiss mindset that works against natural wine?
JAB No, apart from the winegrowers, the awareness of organic, natural and biodynamic wines is in a state of flux among consumers. The growers have more important things to do than to oppose natural wines.
AS What are the impediments to natural wine becoming mainstream in Switzerland?
JAB Consumer awareness. I think that natural winegrowers need to organize an independent body that collectively showcases their wines at fairs and public tastings in the larger cities of the country.
AS Are you aware of an organization within Switzerland that promotes natural wine?
JAB Not to my knowledge although in Geneva you hear a lot of talk about natural wines. It may be because of its proximity to France.
AS Are you aware of any champions of natural wine in Switzerland? Wineries, retail stores, wine bars, restaurants, etc.?
JAB In Geneva and Lausanne you will find an emphasis on natural wine at the retail outlet Le Passeur du Vin. In the Canton Vaud there is a young winemaker committed to natural wine, Yannick Passas, at La Maison du Moulin in Reverolle.
AS At your restaurant, Auberge de l’Onde, is there demand for natural wine? Do your customers ask about it?
JAB Yes, we occasionally have guests who ask us about natural wine but I have to say the proportion is rather small.
AS What other thoughts do you have about the state of natural wine in Switzerland?
JAB Personally I think that all wine made with respect to the environment, with minimal intervention and with minimal artificial additions is where we are headed in the world of wine.
Since Jérôme mentioned Le Passeur du Vin, one of my favorite wine shops in Geneva, and La Maison du Moulin, a producer I am not familiar with, I picked up a couple of bottles of Yannick’s 2015 Gamay Violette des Prés and a 2014 Chasselas (VdS) for an impromptu tasting.
The chasselas is impeccably dry with notes of tarragon, fruity olive oil and honey. The palate is bright and lemony. It is light-bodied, clean and fresh. This is from the Alpha ID line of basic, quaffing wines for everyday drinking with price points to match.
The gamay from biodynamic vineyards in Coinsins—near Nyon and part of the La Côte AOC of Canton Vaud—has all the hallmarks of a natural wine. It comes from the Origine line which is designed to express the character of individual parcels. This sublime gamay begins as many natural wines do—slightly funky and underwhelming. With air it comes to life as its initial uplifted and volatile notes morph into floral and red berry aromas. The palate develops quickly with tangy red fruit and a savory, green herb freshness. It is lively and light on its feet with lip-smacking acidity and a digestible measure of alcohol. It continues to grow in the glass as it darkens in color. There is a definite sense that the wine is alive and unfolding. It has what I call chi—a term I use exclusively to characterize a fine, natural wine.
My thanks to Jérôme for pointing me in the right direction.