Profile: Steve Bettschen — Living the Phusis Life

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Steve at the front door of his home

When I slow down enough to glimpse the future of Swiss wine it’s almost always with a next generation winemaker in tow just returned from an apprenticeship abroad and flush with new ideas and important contacts. Some of them are excited for the opportunity to blaze a new path apart from the previous generation’s and some are content to follow the current trajectory of slow and steady. Whichever path they choose there are several important questions for them to ponder—among them: Who will lead the industry forward and how will they influence its direction? Which grapes will play a part and how will they be grown? In what ways will climate change dictate these choices?

In my view, the old guard has navigated the change from quantity to quality well enough, but in many cases has failed to answer some of these questions. There is still too much chemical use in the nation’s vineyards and too many dubious varieties that don’t add value to the reputation of Swiss wine. To this day, with some notable exceptions, there remains an almost dogged determination to champion the kind of formulaic winemaking that stifles progress and innovation. All of this is not to criticize but to recognize that progress and change are afoot—yes, the pace is glacial at times—but all indications now point to a generational pivot within the industry. Identifying it’s leaders from among the youthful talent is no easy task—but it has become a priority. The good news: if you believe, as I do, that leaders reveal themselves, then patience, with a big helping of encouragement, seems a reasonable course.

Which brings me to one potential leader and a notable outsider (not born to the world of wine) named Steve Bettschen. He’s a slightly older member of the new generation with none of the advantages of a family born to the soil or the burdens of one saddled with tradition. He brings a rare sense of independence to the profession with a keen insight into quality. As a long-time retailer of wine, he has tasted thousands of bottles of the best wine in the world, and continues to do so—if the occasional descriptive post on his website and impressive collection of samples in his cellar are any indication. He strikes me as a man who sees the big picture but sweats the details. Even in a brief encounter he comes off as multi-faceted: quiet, thoughtful, bright, monkishly serious and passionately dedicated to making authentic wine. He appears to relish the freedom he has to explore technique and geography without worrying about what mom, dad or investors think. In that sense he’s like a couple of other young winemakers I’ve met, Markus Ruch and Paul-Henri Soler, in that they answer to no one but themselves.

That attitude was perfectly expressed to me when Steve volunteered the following statement:

“I do the opposite of what everyone says to do.”

I took that to mean he is somewhat dismissive of the Swiss wine establishment and the religious zeal they bring to stasis—but it may go even deeper than that. Ideas grounded in philosophy and aesthetics play a part as well.

None of this is to label Steve as frivolous, rebellious or without compass or model. He is quick to credit Marie-Thérèse Chappaz as his mentor and Raymond Paccot as a profound influence. Can you do better than those two?

The Philosophy

The name Phusis is Steve’s nod to the ancient Greek world-view of the interconnectedness of things and the influence of the unseen on how we perceive the world—with a little of Rudolf Steiner’s Agricultural Course thrown in.

“In sum, the term phusis, in the comprehensive sense, refers to the origin and the growth of the universe from beginning to end . . . the whole process of growth of a thing from birth to maturity.”  The Greek Concept of Nature, Gerard Naddaf, State University of New York Press, 2005.

A visit to the entertaining and informative website, Phusis.ch, is all that’s needed to make sense of his vision.

In it, he bundles wine with the arts, philosophy and science and in the subsequent mash-up creates the context and aesthetic framework for the wines that follow. The “interconnectedness” of things manifests in his pursuit of biodynamics and the unseen natural forces that seek balance. Notions of beauty and authenticity are reflected in the elegance and transparency of his wines. They are a crystal-clear and unmistakable reflection of his personality and a natural extension of his worldview.

A great example of Phusis-style eclecticism was on display at a recent salon hosted by Steve and his friend, the philosopher and communications guru, Michel Herren. It’s topic: The difference between perfection and excellence—accompanied, of course, by wine and nibbles. It was a perfect learning moment. The upshot: perfection is an inflexible standard that mechanization and industrial processes seek to reproduce; while excellence is a relative term that measures results only in terms of the cognitive and physical gifts brought to bear. In other words: Do the best you can with what you’ve got—versus—manipulate the thing you’ve got into what it is you want.

Steve embodies what he calls la vie phusis—the sum of opposites: he is a chemist and a philosopher; a luddite and a slick marketer; a micro-farmer of site-specific bespoke varieties and an itinerant sampler of what the world has to offer. He packs his biodynamically farmed grapes into the heaviest bottles imaginable—the only flaw in his otherwise green sensibilities—and sells them directly, by hand, to a small band of followers and a few top restaurants and shops. He wants to know who buys his wine and to engage with them—to complete the circle.

It was at a presentation of his winter offerings—in the hours before the other invited guests arrived—that I was able to sit down with him to taste through the line-up and hear about his winemaking methodology.

Phusis and metaPhusis

I’ve heard others describe Phusis and metaPhusis as first and second label wines. They are more correctly seen as estate-grown and non-estate wines. There is no stylistic difference between the two and no variation in the methods or techniques used to produce them. Obviously the estate wines are controlled from beginning to end, unlike the purchased grapes. The distinction is important because the entire life cycle of a thing is part of the Phusis conceit, so the clever use of the prefix “meta” signals a later evolution within the family hierarchy. Clear (I think) and consistent.

The metaPhusis wines are sourced from an ever changing panorama of Swiss vineyards spread among several cantons. The caveat: like anyone working without vineyards, there is no guarantee of continuity from vintage to vintage. This is part of the excitement and sometimes the disappointment of working in such a way.

The site in Neuveville, located at the southern tip of the Lac de Bienne AOC in canton Bern, is a treasure trove of rustically farmed varieties including rare plantings of Riesling and Saint Laurent. There will be much more to come from this somewhat wild and versatile site. The Durize (Rouge de Fully), from a parcel in Chamoson, will be lost next year but continuity is assured with schistous Petite Arvine from Chamoson, granitic Gamay from Martigny, and granitic Chasselas from lower Valais.

For the Phusis line, Steve farms exactly a half hectare of vines: a quarter hectare in Sensine, near Sion, and a quarter hectare in Sarraz, near his home in Vaud. Quantities are obviously limited. The Sensine parcel is the source for Petite Arvine from sixty year-old vines and a bit of the rare Humagne Rouge grown on an adjacent terrace. At Sarraz, old-vine Pinot Noir is planted on limestone just a stones throw from the village gare, within the Clos du Mormont, overlooking the tracks. Viticulture in this part of Vaud is ancient with some accounts citing activity as early as the ninth century. Both sites are farmed biodynamically.

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Clos du Mormont: The white dot in the upper-middle is the Phusis parcel

For both labels he works with native yeasts and with minimal intervention. However, he is quick to point out, without apology, that he is not a natural winemaker: “I believe in the judicious use of sulfur at bottling. Enough to preserve what’s in the terroir,” he says. From my point of view sulfur inputs are not a point of disqualification from the natural genre but I take his point that labels are merely descriptive and ultimately unimportant to him.

As evidence of his willingness to mix things up—literally—he beams when asked about co-plantation and co-fermentation as an emerging trend. (It’s ironic when we talk about ancient practices as emerging trends.) “I’m interested in field blends and what they can tell us about terroir. As a matter of fact, my source in Neuveville, while not strictly interplanted, has a checkerboard-pattern of varieties planted throughout the vineyard.” He plans to introduce a field-blend from the Lac de Bienne AOC next year.

For those who wonder about the Vin de Pays Romand designation on some of his wines there is a simple explanation. Cantonal law forbids the use of the Valais AOC when local grapes are pressed elsewhere even when the vineyards are owned by the producer. Non-AOC place names are banned as well. The laws vary by canton—another wacky result from inconsistent Swiss wine laws.

The Winery

The property itself is well disguised. It’s located off a trunk road and up a short drive made evident by a well-placed Phusis logo. The small farmhouse there is divided into two units—in today’s real estate parlance it would be listed as a rustic duplex. Beneath the living quarters is the chai with white wine in one room, red in another and bottle storage in between. A battery of oak vessels—both Burgundy pièces and Bordeaux barriques— repose solera-style in each room.  On my recent visit the chilly conditions were duly noted.

The cuverie is in a detached building located across a narrow courtyard from the house. It couldn’t be more basic. In fact, it’s a dead simple affair with a couple of small basket presses (500 kg of grapes per batch) and some small stainless steel cuves. Everything else is neat, orderly and suggests a monastic presence.

Some of the metaPhusis line

The Wine

All of the whites see some oak ageing, even the Riesling, but none are obviously or inappropriately oaky. They (almost) all finish their malolactic fermentation—remember he does the opposite of what everyone says to do—yet they all retain a firm acid spine and an enviable freshness that many dedicated malo-blockers never achieve. They are uniformly exceptional, supremely individual and instructional.

The reds are equally fine but veer closer to what I think of as natural without ever crossing the line. By that I mean they are vibrant, tingling expressions of grape and place. The have what I call chi, a palpable expansive energy, with savory notes beyond the simply fruity. I’m convinced they will age beautifully and gracefully.

My impressions follow. All wines were tasted with Steve at the winery in Sarraz unless otherwise noted.

Chasselas, Sur Granite 2016, metaPhusis, Vin de Pays Romand: (From granite terraces in lower Valais. Tasted in Geneva) Medium straw in color. Rich, honeyed nose that veers towards nougat and kumquat. Equally rich on entry with flavors of turrón and lemon curd. There is a cashew meat texture with a sustaining streak of minerality. Great length. This is really good.

Riesling, La Neuveville 2016, metaPhusis, Lac de Bienne: (From twenty year-old massale selected German and Alsatian clones. Neuveville is a limestone dominated vineyard with free-ranging vines) Very pale straw almost watery. Lovely, discreet nose of lemon and lime blossoms. Very fresh and youthful. Super-tight palate of lemony fruit and sour apple. Searingly dry. When I asked Steve what rieslings he likes he mentions Mosel but finds most German wines too technical. Very trocken style here in the Grosses Gewächs mold. No evident oak and no MF. Very malic acid driven. Some residual sugar might be useful here.

Rèze, du haut plateau 2016, metaPhusis, Vin de Pays Romand: (This is a revelation and a perfect example of what is meant by “alpine” when describing a white wine. The French term aérien is also appropriate) Very pale straw in color. Mildly and delicately floral with just the barest hint of lavender and alpine botanicals. Gentle lactic flavors with the ephemeral suggestion of Swedish cloudberries. Very racy and mineral. Its overall lightness and freshness is inspirational. This is a study in delicacy and finesse.

Arvine, Demi-Sec 2014, metaPhusis, Vin Mousseux de Pays Romand: (Méthode Champenoise—Petite Arvine from gneiss fermented en cuve. Two years in bottle and dosed with Arvine Santo 2012, a vin liquoreux) Straw gold in color. Somewhat heavy, honeyed and blocky aromatics. Palate is lively with a vigorous mousse but weighed down a bit by the dosage. Not particularly balanced. A bit like putting size 14 wingtips on a ballerina. It’s quite possible this may evolve into something interesting but at the moment it all seems a jumble.

Arvine, Extra-Brut 2013, metaPhusis, Vin Mousseux de Pays Romand: (Méthode Champenoise—Petite Arvine from schist with partial wood fermentation. Three years in bottle with no dosage) Pale straw in color with a faceted sparkle and a foaming mousse. Unmistakably Arvine with tell-tale lemon drop and candied lemon peel aromatics. Ripe fruit character but vigorous, lively and fresh. Sleek but with some give at the edges from judicious use of wood. It will be fun to watch this one develop. A wonderful example of the non-dosed style.

Arvine, Vieille Vigne Sur Falaise 2015, Phusis, Vin de Pays Romand: (One year to img_1486complete fermentation with 3 g/L residual sugar) This is spectacular and easily one of the best Swiss wines of my experience. It’s a gorgeously wrapped box of glazed fruit: apricot, most of all, but with lemon, mango and tangerine. At its incredible core is a perfectly rendered juicy sweetness with just a tug of finishing acidity. Its creamy oak is welcome here and a perfect counterpoint to the sheer exoticism of this unique wine. In the mouth you may be forgiven if its candied fruit suggests Sauternes, or, alternatively, Vouvray given its crisp finish. All-in-all an amazing success and a singular demonstration of the incredible range of this native variety. (Note: Two things here show Steve at his contrary best: MF finished and new oak. Both run against the grain of Swiss orthodoxy).

Durize, En Murgères 2015, metaPhusis, Vin de Pays Romand: (From a parcel in Chamoson. Tasted in Geneva) Medium garnet/magenta in color. This one sports a beautiful wild plum aroma that is slightly feral but not rustic. Reminds me a bit of the rare Friulian grape, Schioppettino. The palate is saturated with meaty blackberry fruit and tangy, spicy accents. Very youthful and a little monochromatic on the back end. Lovely cassis and violets to finish. My first experience with this variety is a good one. Too bad Steve loses this parcel in future.

Humagne Rouge, Sur Falaise 2016, Phusis, Vin de Pays Romand: (Planted in high density fashion on a schist terrace just below the Petite Arvine in Sensine) Medium garnet in color with a slight haze. Wild hedgerow and raspberry aromas with savory elements of celery seed and coriander. Palate is deep but not heavy with some cornalin-like sweetness and a wild pinot-like streak. Lots of raspberry fruit with an herbal, earthy edge. This is excellent and a great ambassador for the variety.

Saint Laurent, La Neuveville 2016, metaPhusis, Lac de Bienne: (From a parcel in Neuveville called Les Perrières. Saint Laurent is a natural crossing of Pinot Noir and Savagnin native to Austria. It is rarely seen in Switzerland) Crimson with bluish highlights and nearly opaque. Slightly reduced, smokey, stoney and sour cherry aromas. A bit one dimensional but that is typical for this variety. Palate begins firm and grippy then glides into bitter cherry, red currant and potting soil flavors. Minerally with abundant acids and substantial finishing bitterness. Very primary. Needs some time to loosen up but intriguing nonetheless.

Gamay, Sur Granite 2016, metaPhusis, Vin de Pays Romand: (From very isolated gobelet vines near Martigny on the way to Bovernier. Perfectly ripe bunches allowed whole cluster fermentation in this vintage) Lovely ruby and magenta color looks to be alive. Beautifully framed nose of raspberry and earth with a nice whiff of green stalks. Pristine red fruit on the palate with some chewiness and firmness. Lots of depth with real freshness, vigor and balance. A really fine gamay that is every bit the equal to a cru Beaujolais.

Gamay, Sur Granite 2015, metaPhusis, Vin de Pays Romand: (From very isolated gobelet vines near Martigny on the way to Bovernier. Tasted in Geneva) Dark magenta in color. Bruised apple, walnut skin and balsamic notes announce the nose. Very savory with some pickled plum flavors, an acetic suggestion and a leathery texture. This has some natural wine hallmarks but with more modestly fresh fruit. Very tasty, serious and complex for a Swiss gamay.
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Steve’s tasting table

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