Swiss Grapes: Salvagnin or Servagnin — Which Is It?

There’s almost never a thought given to the rare benefits of the Black Death pandemic of the Middle Ages but the existence of Servagnin de Morges is one of them.

The story begins more than 600 years ago in France with one of the most consequential edicts in wine history: (The Duke of Burgundy) Philip the Bold’s sweeping order of 1395 to replace gamay vines with pinot noir in the vineyards of Burgundy.

The health and well-being of his subjects may have been the official justification for the ban:

And this wine of Gameez is of such a kind that it is very harmful to human beings, so much so that many people who had it in the past were infested by serious diseases, as we’ve heard, because said wine from said plant of said nature is full of significant and horrible bitterness. For this reason we solemnly command you . . .all who have said vines to cut them down or have them cut down, wherever they may be in our country, within five months.”¹

But others argue the ban was financially motivated as the reputation of Burgundy wine was flagging in the imperial courts of Europe and ducal revenue was threatened.²

Other, deeper thinkers suggest it was a political maneuver to stem the increasing influence of wealthy families in the region or even a response to labor shortages caused by the plague.³

Whatever the motivation, history has proven it to be one of the most transformative moves ever, with rippling effects throughout the region—including Switzerland.

A little history: At the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th centuries the Black Death appeared to be winding down. It had become sporadic rather than widespread. Even so, its changing method of transmission, from direct contact to pneumonic, was particularly troubling. New methods of prevention and treatment focused on isolation and quarantine. Mountain retreats and pure air were considered therapeutic if not outright preventive.

fullsizeoutput_190With this as backdrop, Philip the Bold’s daughter, Mary, took up residence in the hamlet of Saint-Prex on the north shore of Lake Geneva to isolate herself from possible infection during her child-bearing years (she bore nine children and died at 42!). She obviously enjoyed her lakeside retreat and was apparently well looked after but was indifferent to the local wine which, coincidentally, was made from the despised gamay. Nevertheless, in appreciation for the local hospitality, she gifted the hamlet with some of her father’s favorite vines: the Servagnin bio-type of pinot noir.

Thus began the history of pinot noir in Switzerland. Its subsequent odyssey mirrors that of another local specialty, the obscure Plant Robert of Lavaux. (see related post: Plant Robert: A Tasting at the Cully Bazaar). Both bio-types came to Switzerland from France. Both are recognized by the Slow Food Foundation’s Ark of Taste program as unique and integral to the cultural identity of Vaud. Both were saved from extinction by individuals with clear foresight and a sense of history. Both are subject to strict charters of production and are self-limiting due to restrictive geographic boundaries designated appropriate for replanting.

Now comes the confusing part.

As the Servagnin vine spread to other parts of Switzerland it came to be known by another name: its synonym Salvagnin—as it was called in Neuchâtel and the Jura. Gradually, over the course of intervening centuries and before peaking in the mid-19th century, the petulant Servagnin (salvagnin) began to lose favor with growers who sought efficacy, consistency and bounty from their vines. The traditional Salvagnin (Servagnin) began to include increasing amounts of gamay, until 1960 when the first Salvagnin AOC regulations were adopted. With it, gamay officially became a significant part of the Salvagnin blend. The upshot: Servagnin and Salvagnin were no longer interchangeable.

Further dilution occurred in 2009 with the Règlement Sur les Vins Vaudois (Title 2, Chapter 2, Article 14) which expanded the list of permitted varieties to 29. Now Salvagnin need not contain any pinot noir at all—never mind Servagnin. Thus a wine that began life as pure Servagnin morphed into something quite different.

Happily, this isn’t the end of the story even though the bio-type Servagnin was near extinction. In 1949 the last parcel in Saint-Prex was scheduled for removal to make way for a gravel pit. What respect! Fortunately, local vigneron Werner Kaiser rescued a few vines to plant in his home garden. In 1978 he made them available to the local agricultural school, Agrilogie Marcelin, where it was rechristened as Servagnin and massale selected cuttings made available to interested growers.

With plantings again on the upswing, Servagnin has come full circle with its own AOC (created in 2000), a local charter of production and twenty or so winery adherents.

With time and familiarity it promises to be a proper red star within Vaud’s mostly white galaxy.

           Servagnin de Morges Charter  

1)   Only the original Servagnin clone of pinot servagninnoir grown in the district of Morges (which includes Saint-Prex) qualifies for the AOC
2)   Maximum yield: 50 hectoliters/hectare
3)   Minimum oechslé at harvest: 82°
4)   Minimum elévage: 16 months in oak barrels
5)   Earliest release: April 1 of the second year
6)   Certification: blind tasting by a duly appointed panel (Commission du Servagnin)
7)   If certified: must carry the signature red capsule
8)   If rejected: declassification to pinot noir

¹ The Drinks Business, 31 July 1395: The Banning of Gamay, Rupert Millar (29.06.2016)

² The Drinks Business, 31 July 1395: The Banning of Gamay, Rupert Millar (29.06.2016)

³ Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, Pages 19-21, Mark A. Matthews (University of California Press, 2015)

3 thoughts on “Swiss Grapes: Salvagnin or Servagnin — Which Is It?

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