There’s no easy way to shake things up in conservative rural Switzerland. Take the wine business, for example, and the plight of Markus Ruch. Some nonplussed locals have asked how a newcomer has the nerve to charge more for his wine than do legacy wineries. Other local skeptics want to know why he plumps for biodynamics when conventional agriculture works just fine. Still others wonder why he does women’s work by pruning his own vines. The really curious observer might even ask—What’s up with all the amphorae? Markus has heard it all and his comeback is simple: Sometimes an outsider is best equipped to tap the latent potential of an historic but long dormant wine community.
Markus Ruch came to Schaffhausen after several turns at banking and a fortuitous stage at the winery of a family friend. Bitten hard by the wine bug, he followed a convoluted path from there. First to Ticino—where he discovered the rudiments of biodynamics at Christian Zündel—then to Burgundy—where he developed natural winemaking chops at Domaine Derain—then on to Valais, Tuscany and Chile before landing at the feet of his mentor, Hans-Ulrich Kesselring, at Schlossgut Bachtobel in nearby Thurgau. It was there that he discovered the potential for pinot noir in the far northerly reaches of Switzerland and it was from there that he embarked on the final leg of his tour—the search for a terroir befitting his adopted variety.
Markus is nothing if not a hard worker. He is the only employee of his cobbled together, three hectare micro-estate spread among postage stamp-sized parcels in the hills near Hallau. The diminutive scale allows him to work by hand, one vine at a time, even when it comes to pruning—a task traditionally dominated by local women.
“I don’t trust anyone else to get this right,” he quips before explaining the gradual process of transformation he has undertaken—he aims for less vigor in his vines and better management of light and air flow. He even speaks emotionally about them—especially the come-to-Jesus moment when he nearly ripped out a 50 year-old parcel of Swiss clones in favor of new-fangled massale cuttings from Burgundy:
“In hindsight, leaving those vines in the ground was the best thing I could do. They are at the core of everything happening here today.”
His premonition is now conventional wisdom. Early reports from other Swiss regions indicate that early ripening Dijon clones and climate change may not be a good mix. Later ripening Swiss clones add freshness and spice to the more deeply fruited, less structured Dijon transplants. In Ruch’s vineyards Swiss clones are harvested a full twenty days later with greater phenolic ripeness and stem maturity. They will always make up the bulk of his plantings going forward. He’s not against Dijon clones, he says, it’s just that he’s not in Klettgau to make Burgundy:
“I’m here to make the best wine possible. I believe this is a special terroir with the potential to make some of the best pinot noir in Switzerland. That’s why I’m here.”
The main grape growing region in the canton of Schaffhausen is located west of the city in the triangle-shaped valley known as Klettgau. Schaffhausen stands at its easternmost point; at its western extreme is the German city of Klettgau; and at its northern apex is the Swiss wine village of Schleitheim (see satellite image below). As recently as 450,000 years ago the Rhine River flowed through the Klettgau Valley before meandering to its current location several kilometers east. The river has left an indelible imprint: rich, alluvial soils that support mixed agriculture—vegetables, grains, fruit orchards and the ocassional randomly placed stand of wild plum trees.
The Klettgau is otherwise surrounded by forests including the famed Schwarzwald (Black Forest) to the north. The increasingly important concept of biodiversity has a paradigm here.
Klettgau could be the poster child for current research linking microbial terroir to regional differences in wine style and character. Early research results have linked flourishing microbial diversity in the upper soils to bespoke local characteristics in corresponding wines. The takeaway: the more diverse the microbiome the stronger the regional character. The implication is that synthetic additions (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers) strip the soil of its microbial diversity and ultimately defeats the expression of terroir.
In February 2017 eminent wine authority Jancis Robinson presented a round-up of ongoing research into the notion of Microbial Terroir at the Pinot Noir NZ conference. In one study, from the Goddard Lab in Auckland, New Zealand, three areas in particular are singled out as accessories to increased microbial diversity:
1) In comparative studies biodynamic methodologies outpace both conventional and organic practices in the creation of greater microbial diversity.
2) Crop diversity (the number and range of other crops) within a region increases microbial diversity in both sub-soil and winery populations.
3) The presence of native forests around established vineyards likewise enhances microbial biodiversity.
Markus Ruch’s vineyards benefit from all three.
As mentioned, Klettgau bottom land soils are alluvial and rich—the product of river flows and ancient glacial activity. They are extensively farmed.
The hillsides were formed, as much of Switzerland is, by the movement of continental plates and subsequent uplifting of various strata. A variety of rock substrates including numerous calcareous marls and sandstones comprise much of the local geology and are a common feature in many of the Swiss vignobles.
More importantly, Klettgau is the beneficiary of an unusual meteorological phenomenon. Incoming weather fronts seem to split as they pass over the valley sending rain to the margins. It results in some of the lowest rainfall in Switzerland—400-700 mm per year on average versus 1200 mm everywhere else nearby.
Klettgau summers are sunny and warm and the vines are stress free even in periods of relative drought due to the water retaining capacity of the prevailing limestone sub-soils. By Swiss standards the vineyards of Klettgau are gently to moderately sloping and are relatively easy to work. This is truly a blessed area and virtually untapped as a leading source for pinot noir.
Markus Ruch’s holdings break down as follows:
Schlemmweg, Gächlingen: The tiny village of Gächlingen lends its name to the south-facing hill that lies slightly isolated from the rest of the Hallau slope. It was the first place Markus took me on our tour of the vineyards. I noticed its “apartness” when I drove from Neunkirch to Hallau on an earlier tour through the valley. It reminded me then of the Hill of Corton in Burgundy rising as it does like a bright, shining face exposed to a broad expanse of sky. I immediately recognized it as a special place ideally suited to the vine.
Markus’s lieu dit, Schlemmweg, is mostly fossilized limestone known as muschelkalk—the remnants of an ancient sea bed—with patches of molasse (sandstone). The soil is demonstrably alkaline with a pH of 8.2. It is due-south facing, moderately sloped and located between 350-400 meters above sea level. The older portions of his parcel are planted to the Swiss clones Mariafeld, 2/45 and 10-5 at a density of 6000 vines per hectare. In newer sections massale cuttings from Romanée-Conti are planted at a density of 10,000 per hectare.
Chölle, Hallau: The Chölle lieu dit is located above the village of Hallau. It surrounds the highly visible landmark church, Bergkirche St. Moritz (see header photo), which looms above the landscape. There are varied soils here: clay and red sandstone below the church, clay and limestone above it. Markus has parcels in both locations.
The oldest vines in his portfolio are located here—60 year old Swiss clones—along with some newer plantings from the Gevrey-Chambertin estate of Dominique Derain in Burgundy. The exposure is to the southeast with a slightly steeper gradient than at Gächlingen. Markus’s parcels are between 400-450 meters above sea level.
Haalde, Hallau: The Haalde lieu dit is the steepest vineyard in Hallau sitting at 480-540 meters above sea level. Markus farms a miniscule half hectare of Wädenswil and 2/45 pinot noir clones with an average age of 35 years at a density of 6500 per hectare. There is also a small amount of riesling. There is roughly 30cm topsoil then kalkmergel (marl) a kind of clay and chalky limestone mix. This part of the Hallau vignobles is mere meters from the Black Forest and benefits from the microbial diversity it contributes.
Cool, cool, cool . . . is the TR mantra. I heard the words more than once during the course of my visit. They are code for cool climate but also for the fresh and focused style of wine he prefers. As an aside, he mentions the decidedly cool pinot noirs from Jean-Denis Perrochet of La Maison Carrée in Neuchâtel as his ideal model. Not a bad model in my opinion.
Klettgau is blessed with a mild, extended growing season. Ruch takes full advantage of it by harvesting pinot noir a full 115-120 days after flowering with none of the overripe characteristics that are too common these days. He was almost apologetic while tasting through his 2015’s which tasted more “cooked” than he likes but confessed that trying to manipulate the wine is worse. He is a harsh judge as I found the wines to be quite appealing even for such a hot and dry vintage.
All farming is done biodynamically and he uses various tea preparations for mold and mildew control. Compost from local farms is used to nourish the soil.
As his cuverie and other facilities are rudimentary, all cellar work is decidedly non-interventionist.
Ruch’s whites are good but he is not convinced by them. He admits to being puzzled at the process of making them in the conventional way. He is more pleased by experiments with amphorae and skin contact fermentations and thinks this is the direction he will go when all is said and done. It’s only his fear of marketplace rejection that prevents him from going all in.
All fermentations are spontaneous using native yeasts. Whites are fermented in stainless steel while the pinot noir is fermented in concrete cuves. The reds are aged in 228 liter barriques from the usual French sources. He is fanatical that all parcels are fermented separately and then assembled . He uses minimal amounts of sulfur at bottling.
All wines were tasted with Markus in his office at the winery in Neunkirch.
Muller-Thurgau, Klettgau 2016, Klettgau, Schaffhausen: Pale straw with green highlights. Nice aromatic nose of grass, spice and lime. Light-weight and very fresh. Flavors of citrus, spice and green herbs. Correct and unassuming. Fragrant finish. Good.
Rheinriesling, Klettgau 2016, Klettgau, Schaffhausen: Straw colored. Herbs, flowers and peach elements on the nose. Deeper, serious weight. Heavier with earthy notes and musky fruit. Geranium and bitter melon flavors lack a little acidity. A touch clumsy. Lacking minerality and a bit of definition. OK.
Pinot Noir, Klettgau 2016, Klettgau, Schaffhausen (Swiss clone sample): Garnet colored. Very spicy, aromatic nose with balsam notes. Bright cherry flavors with forest floor and earthy flavors. Somewhat resinous. Clean, long and energetic.
Pinot Noir, Klettgau 2016, Klettgau, Schaffhausen (Dijon clone sample): Darker, turbid garnet. Instantly less energetic than Swiss clone sample. Broader, flatter nose of cooked cherries and earth. Cherry confiture flavors with a bit of cola spice. Less freshness and seemingly less acid. More heat with less energy.
Pinot Noir, Chölle 2016, Hallau, Schaffhausen: Garnet colored with a bit of turbidity. Deep cherry aroma with hints of kirsch and spice. Nice green freshness. Lovely vibrancy to the palate. Echoing cherry fruit somewhere between fresh and cooked with a compact, lip-smacking finish. This is mostly Swiss clones. Very promising.
Amphore, Klettgau 2015, Klettgau, Schaffhausen (muller-thurgau): Golden with green and amber highlights. Dry, pear cider notes with lots of vegetative asides, curry and charcuterie (noticed before we started in on our smoked meat lunch). A bit of Christmas spice to boot. The palate is dry and not quite as rich as expected. A touch meager. Cidery and herbal notes dominate the flavor. Not as complex as one likes from “skinfluenced” whites. Finishes short and without persistence. 45-55 year-old vines from three parcels. OK.
Pinot Noir, Klettgau 2015, Klettgau, Schaffhausen: Slightly turbid ruby color. Very ripe cherry and raspberry scents with a bosky, green freshness. Nice medium-weight in the mouth with flavors of dark cherry, ginger, earth and herbs. Sweet but nicely framed with both acids and perfectly chewy tannins. Very good villages wine.
Pinot Noir, Chölle 2015, Hallau, Schaffhausen: Slightly turbid garnet in color. Warm red currant and dark cherry crème nose with a fuzzy new suede swagger. Very appealing, thick textured palate of glossy fruit. Seamless red berry flavors share center stage with fresh green notes and slightly grippy, suede-like tannins. Acids are buried beneath layers of fruit which lend a somewhat unfocused overall impression. Hedonistic, lavish pinot noir that finishes long and forcefully. Very good.
Pinot Noir, Haalde 2015, Hallau, Schaffhausen: Garnet in color. Warm nose of dark berries and spice. Notes of kirsch and noyau. Peach skin texture with flavors of plum, cocoa and vanilla. Sweet new oak too but balanced. Fat, layered and slightly better defined than Chölle above. Reined in by fresh, green herbal notes with spicy reinforcement. This is excellent.
Pinot Noir, Schlemmweg 2015, Gächlingen, Schaffhausen: Garnet in color. Warm nose of slightly cooked orchard fruit. Thick, almost California-like texture, sweet red berry and cherry fruit. Ripe and fat. Acids are again buried beneath billowy, softly rendered fruit. These are cherubic pinots for pleasure seekers. Markus seemed almost apologetic for the sheer sexiness of the vintage across his line.
Pinot Noir, Schlemmweg 2013, Gächlingen, Schaffhausen: Markus opened this last bottle to demonstrate what he strives to achieve in his pinot vineyards. Deep garnet in color. Like the first cool breeze to break a lingering heat spell. Initial fresh green chili notes evolve into a very precise cherry and noyau mix. Not primary but still not developed either. The birth of complexity. Concentrated stone-fruit flavors backed by an athlete’s frame. A lengthy sweetness and cascading flavors make for a memorable wine. Sit back and wait for this one. Excellent.