A recent visit to Miège was my first trip to the vineyards since the devastating frosts of late April. From all reports I expected worse but was still struck by the sheer randomness of it all. Spring began optimistically with an early bud break, courtesy of a lengthy and uncharacteristic warm spell, followed by an ill-timed, record-breaking cold snap. Heroic efforts throughout Switzerland to save budding vines—including helicopters, sprinklers, smudge pots and candles—went for naught or were minimally effective. It was just too cold for too long.
According to form, Valais was hardest hit and nowhere in Valais more so than the coteaux de Sierre. A walk through the vineyards tells the story. Entire rows of otherwise healthy looking, leafy vines were without clusters and some—with only the barest hope of ripening—sprouted nascent, barely formed secondary shoots. Some parcels even appeared completely unscathed, but upon closer inspection portended a logistical nightmare: perfectly developed clusters alongside frost-affected, woefully late flowers—all on the same vine (see photo). All of this suggests a long, drawn-out harvest with multiple passes and some pyrrhic choices to be made. A lot of fruit will be dropped. And when it comes to winter pruning, extra work and surgical expertise will be required to salvage next year’s crop.
The only good news is that a lot of the damage is isolated leaving some sections untouched. Even though it’s still too early to tell, dramatic losses are expected.
And so it seems slightly ironic that on this day—one of record heat in June (are you sensing a climate theme here?)—I was to meet Sandrine Caloz to discuss the ravages of a bitter cold spring. I first met Sandrine at the Cinquième Glorieuse tasting in Martigny the month before and was so impressed by her wines and her confidence that I immediately wanted to know more. With a little digging I discovered that her wines are imported into the U.S. by none other than Neal Rosenthal—one of the American importers I admire most. For decades Neal has been a champion of small family wineries who do the right thing—sustainable farming on special terroirs, using traditional methods with traditional varieties—and, because of his imprimatur, I felt I already knew exactly what to expect when I arrived at the small cellar door in Miège. I wasn’t disappointed.
Add Sandrine’s name to the growing list of young winemakers already making a difference on the Swiss wine scene. She is a full-fledged member of Junge Schweiz—Neue Winzer—a think tank and support group for young Swiss talent—and a noted advocate for sustainability and social consciousness as part of her business model. Her definition of terroir includes employee welfare and fair wages (not always observed in this business) and she practices what she preaches. The family employs a number of Eritrean refugees who work the vineyards (quite enthusiastically, if my walk through the rows is any indication) and live among the family. Caloz works with the federal government on an unofficial program for on-the-job viticultural training, which is a win-win for everyone, especially in this time of refugee neglect and labor-challenged vigneronnes.
Sandrine is quick to point out that this is still a family enterprise. Her grandfather, Fernand, planted the first vines in 1960, bottled the first wine in 1970, and today, in retirement, is one of the few people I know who still enjoys pulling weeds by hand. Her parents, Anne-Carole and Conrad, took over the business in 1987. Conrad was one of the pioneers of organic viticulture in Valais and, in Sandrine’s opinion, is still one of the best farmers around. Their well-tended vineyards extend all the way to the front yard of her parents’ home in Miège, while the cuverie and chai are located below Sandrine’s residence a little up the street from her parents.
The winery is a dead-simple affair with several stainless steel tanks and enamel-lined steel cuves, a stemmer-crusher, a couple dozen barriques and an old bottling line. Most of the material is moved by gravity. Fermentations are done in stainless steel tanks on native yeasts with the assistance of an occasional pied à cuve to get things moving. Aging occurs in the neutral confines of enamel-lined cuves before bottling. Barriques are used for chardonnay fermentation and for the élévage of proprietary blends—Mouton Blanc and Mouton Caloz. Future lots of old-vine pinot noir are destined for barrique aging as well.
The family holdings are a mere six hectares located in Les Bernunes—a large amphitheater of vines with a footprint in Sierre, Veyras and Miège—in that order, according to elevation—and in Miège proper. Les Bernunes is steep, mostly terraced and includes several lieux-dits of importance: Les Clives, La Mourzières and Les Cheppons. The tiny parcels of Poutaroua (cabernet franc) and La Tsapouige (sylvaner) are flatter and higher up in the village. La Prali and Les Crévaïs, where the pinot noir and chardonnay hail from, are cooler, north-facing parcels closer to the village of Salgesch. The entire domain is certified organic and, as Sandrine hints, destined for biodynamics in a future life.
Soils are of ancient origin, mostly calcareous schists (see header photo) of the kind that dominate the eastern portion of Valais north of the river. Vine roots are encouraged to dig deep, to fracture the many layers of rock, in search of moisture. And precious little moisture there is.
The prevailing assumption of most organic and biodynamic vignerons outside Valais is that life is easier here. The dry climate (the driest in Switzerland) and prevailing winds do, in fact, coalesce to discourage vine disease but, as Sandrine contends, that’s not all there is to it: “Herbicides are the big issue. Without them weeds proliferate and choke the vines. What little water we have can’t be wasted on weeds.”
To demonstrate the phenomenon Sandrine directed my attention to a neighboring parcel (photo below). “Look what happens when you skip one season of herbicide application,” she said while pointing to a tangle of weeds. “We’ve always mown ours and now we do it less frequently with each season.” Because of this and the other requirements of sustainable farming, Sandrine estimates that organic vineyards in Valais cost twenty to thirty percent more to farm than conventional ones and that most of the extra cost is labor.
The soil is worked according to variety and particular need. Some varieties benefit from tillage while others are content with mowing. Still others, petite arvine in particular, enjoy a little water when things dry out. Knowing your land and your vines involves equal parts intuition and experience. Sandrine believes her father, Conrad, taps into both.
Generally, parcels ripen from the bottom-up with the late-ripening varieties petite arvine, savagnin, cornalin, syrah and humane rouge at the bottom of Les Bernunes (bottom for Caloz, but really mid-slope). The early-ripening sylvaner, cabernet franc and chasselas thrive near the top of the coteau in Miège, although there is excellent Chasselas from La Mourzières. Cool climate varieties such as pinot noir and chardonnay are planted on north facing slopes slightly higher up.
Sandrine is critical of the local trend of canopy thinning for more sun and wind exposure. She finds it completely unnecessary from a disease prevention standpoint and counter-productive for proper ripeness. Some varieties, cornalin for instance, tend to sunburn while others tend to lose freshness with too much sun exposure.
A small expansion effort is underway in Les Bernunes with the additional planting of the precious cornalin and humagne rouge varieties. Despite the emphasis on native varieties Sandrine is also reconsidering the status of pinot noir in the family vineyards.
While most of the current interest is rightly focused on native varieties the great, untapped potential of pinot noir as a Valais specialty is gaining traction. Several vignerons I’ve talked to, including Sandrine, have expressed a desire to up their pinot game. While many sites on the south-facing slopes are simply too warm and better suited to native varieties there are excellent cooler, north-facing sites that are perfect for the production of fresh, fully-ripened pinot noir and chardonnay. Important names like Robert Taramarcaz and Marie-Thérèse Chappaz are sourcing pinot noir from the left bank of the Rhône and are retrieving the fresh aromas and flavors one seeks from the variety.
In 2016 Sandrine isolated a patch of old-vine pinot noir from Les Crévaïs and modified her usual fermentation regimen. A substantial portion of whole cluster pinot noir (70% of the cuvée) was sandwiched between layers of whole berries—approximately 15% above and 15% below in one of the enamel-lined cuves. After some soaking, fermentation was hastened by the addition of a pied à cuve with regular pump overs. The results are impressive.
After one year in new barriques the wine is remarkably fresh and possesses a depth of flavor and intensity not often found in Valais pinots. Why should pinot noir from Neuchâtel and Graubünden dominate the Swiss landscape unchallenged? The answer is coming forthwith.
Generally, the Caloz whites are lively and expressively fruity. Their simple straightforwardness belies an innate complexity and capacity to age. I find them fascinating and among the most desirable in Switzerland.
The reds tread a similar path: bright, fresh fruit on the surface with a brooding, feral savoriness at the core. They are so delicious in youth that there is a real danger none will be left for mid-life enjoyment.
Most of the following wines were tasted at the Cinquième Glorieuse event in May and the rest at the winery in June. Sandrine Caloz was in attendance at both events.
Cave Caloz, Miège, Valais
Fendant, La Mourzière 2016, Valais: Straw colored. A slight reduction gives way to honey and white flower aromas. Overall very bright and fresh. Lovely spiced lemon flavors with snappy acidity. Nicely textured and round with a tingle to finish.
Johannisberg, La Tsapouige 2016, Valais: Straw with some green highlights. Spicy, floral nose with lots of mandarin and orange. A real mouthful of floral and citrus oil perfume. Medium-bodied and low acid but with great presence. Very easy drinking with good length and persistent flavors. Very nice.
Pinot Gris, Cuvée Olivia 2016, Valais: 5 grams residual sugar. Named for Sandrine’s youngest sister. Sweet honeyed nose with subtle tea-like notes. Very rich, sweet and round with enough stuffing to gracefully assimilate the sugar. Alsatian style and weight without the gravitas. Quite good.
Muscat, Les Cheppons 2016, Valais: Pale straw in color. Really lovely rose petal and bergamot nose. Since my introduction to muscat was through a 1971 Trimbach I am always seeking likenesses. This is one. Very fresh and floral in the mouth but also delicate and admirably dry. This kind of wine is a joy to find and drink. Reminds me of a simpler time.
Petite Arvine, Les Clives 2016, Valais: Bright straw color. Laser-like lemony nose with a hint of volatility. Flavors of lemon drops and barely sweetened lemon curd. Searing acidity punctuated by volatile notes. This is more structure than fruit at the moment but with such a nice group of whites to enjoy now, one can afford to wait on this one.
Païen, Les Bernunes 2016, Valais: Dark straw in color. Bass notes of blonde tobacco and chestnut honey. Very ripe greengage and exotic flowers too. Fleshy, plum-like fruit on the palate with a weighty, textured extract. Lots of creamy, stone-fruit saturation. Big and rich with a free-flowing peacock’s tail to finish. Excellent.
Chardonnay, Barrique, La Prali 2015, Valais: Medium straw colored. Subtle dairy and wheat crisp scents. Tightly-wound fruit, mainly Fuji apple, with mild oak, vanilla and cream. Understated and elegant with no single theme dominating. A wonderful example for Swiss chardonnay enthusiasts (are there any?) and a great template to follow.
Pinot Noir, Les Crévaïs 2016, Valais: 15% whole cluster and stainless steel fermented. Transparent ruby in color. Spot-on ripe cherry nose that borders on confit or slightly cooked. Lovely pit-fruit intensity with sweet cherry and fresh herbs. Warm, round and very pretty. Very nice.
Pinot Noir, Vieilles Vignes 2016, Valais (barrel sample): 70% whole cluster and barrique-aged. Slightly darker and more garnet that above. Dark cherry with more freshness and vigor. Precise, dense cherry fruit with fresh green herbs and flattering tannins. Nothing cooked, nothing frivolous. This is a wonderful pinot noir that promises a longer cycle of development than above. Excellent.
Dôle, La Mourzière 2016, Valais: Transparent garnet in color. Very pretty but potent nose of spice and red berries. Palate starts firm and tangy but gives way to delicious berry fruit. Crisp and racy in a somewhat natural wine style. This is really good Dôle and further evidence that this AOC is experiencing a renaissance. Great value to boot.
Humagne Rouge, Les Bernunes 2016, Valais: Bright ruby in color. Tight wild berry notes with feral, gamy scents (gibiers?). Palate is structured and tightly wound with tangy wild berry, earth and underbrush flavors. Very youthful and undeveloped. More finesse than power and more wild than rustic. Lots of potential.
Cornalin, Les Bernunes 2016, Valais: Dark garnet in color. Signature black fruit scents with roasted notes and tar. Rich and sweet with dark cherry, blackberry and roasted mulberry flavors. Dark fruit filtered through charcoal flavors linger through a sweet and lengthy finish. This has the potential to be outstanding.
Cabernet Franc, Poutaroua 2016, Valais: Dark garnet in color. Warm, broad, roasted red and black fruit aroma. More warm climate than Loire with ripe, round, thickish fruit. Soft and a bit loose-knit but offers interesting, saturated flavors of plummy fruit and savory edges. Soft tannins offer a structural suggestion.