The public transport options in Switzerland are many and they’re famously efficient but is there another as quirky as the Vinifuni of Ligerz? Probably. A funicular is a thoroughly Swiss contraption that runs on rails in steep and difficult to access areas. It’s a mechanized version of the mule. When one is available it’s usually a good idea to use it unless you’re an experienced climber or just want to put your Fitbit to the test. But arrive late, as I did, for one of Vinifuni’s hourly ascents and you’ll never again fail to appreciate its usefulness in getting from Point A to Point B. Especially when Point B is a steep walk to a theoretical point in the distance.
The first goal of any uphill walk should be the half-way point. In this case the village church located mid-slope. My labored breathing was visible to nearby workers as vaporous clouds if not audible as tortured wheezing. They offered a bemused and (I’m guessing) sympathetic glance as I climbed upon the nearest flat surface—a stone wall of Jurassic limestone—to rest. How many times have they missed the funicular, I wondered. And how many times have they rested in this very spot because they did. Once reclined and composed I noticed something else: the splendid surroundings and the meditative early morning calm that is typical of nearly every wine village in the world. It never gets old.
My next stop was equally welcoming—a thoughtfully placed park bench at the foot of Untergasse, the narrow winding path that divides the slope horizontally and upon which the Steiner Schernelz Village winery is located. I stopped there to catch my breath, gather my thoughts and admire the view before proceeding the final hundred meters to the cellar door.
But before I describe my visit with Sabine Steiner I should mention something about the back end of the journey—the “must-come-down” half—and the meal at the end of the day.
I determined to walk downhill to the village, not because I had to, but because I deserved to after meeting the earlier challenge. And as luck would have it I soon found myself rewarded in the warmth of a hofbräu where the highly seasonal specialty, treberwurst, was the plat du jour (tagesgericht). This legendary pork sausage is a winter treat in these parts and a beloved part of local wine lore. Legend has it that freezing vignerons would gather around the community potstill during the distillation of that season’s pomace. With only a cold sausage for lunch, one enterprising vigneron placed his within the steaming pot of wash; not only heating his meal but infusing it with the essence of the distillate. Today that process is approximated in a decidedly less romantic way by spritzing marc directly onto slices of sausage. A handy shortcut that’s tasty enough but very likely a facsimile of the real thing. Nevertheless, it’s a delicious slice of seasonal dining in the Bielersee region and I highly recommend it.
Now to the business of wine.
The Bielersee AOC (Lac de Bienne in French) is a compact 240 hectares perched on a narrow strip of hillside between the lake and the Jura Mountains. In some areas this ribbon of pristine vineyard is less than 150 meters wide but stretches nearly ten kilometers in length from La Neuveville in the west to Biel (Bienne) in the east. It straddles the French-German cultural divide which is technically the cantonal border between Neuchâtel and Bern. It is extraordinarily picturesque with views of the lake and its landmark St. Peter’s Island, the magnificent Alps to the south and virtually all of Switzerland across the central plateau.
The appellation follows the pattern of the Neuchâtel villages where Pinot Noir is the dominant red grape and Chasselas the dominant white. Together they account for 75% of the Bielersee plantings. Soils are mostly clay and loam with extensive limestone deposits. They are similar to the Neuchâtel vineyards in this regard but with more pitch. And because they are closer to the lake than at Neuchâtel they receive more reflected light and are better fortified against frost and extreme temperatures. Because the appellation is so small, one of the smallest in Switzerland, its wines are relatively unknown.
The Steiner holdings are located above the village of Ligerz (Gléresse in French) in the hamlet of Schernelz tucked within the foothills. There are three distinct terraces to the commune’s vignobles, each with a different window for ripening. The Clos de Rive, the area nearest Ligerz, contains Pinot Noir and old-vine Chasselas. It is generally the first area to be harvested. The middle terrace, the area between the village church and the winery on Untergasse, contains the widest swath of important climats. The upper terrace, above Untergasse, is nearly one hundred meters above the lake and is significantly cooler. It is generally the last area to be harvested. The soils move from heavy on the bottom to lighter on top.
The majority of the Steiner’s ten parcels—6 ½ hectares in all—are located on the two lower terraces and are somewhat randomly distributed within them. The Clos au Compte is located at the top of the middle terrace and just below the Steiner winery. This is the source of their old-vine chardonnay. Buurehöf, their top Pinot vineyard, is located mid-slope and is planted to Dijon clone 777. Tribolettes, also found mid-slope but further west near the church, is primarily devoted to forty-year old Cortaillod clone Pinot Noir.
The present vineyard configuration is the result of some gerrymandering by village elders in the early 2000’s to consolidate holdings into fewer and easier to work parcels. In essence, randomly scattered holdings were traded between families until an efficient and sustainable pattern was achieved. The Steiner holdings shrank from fifteen parcels to ten although acreage remained the same. For this reason some vineyard history is a blank—guesses can be made about clones, the age of some vines, and past methods of cultivation—but there are no records to confirm the best guess. Some replanting and grafting is underway but with deliberation. The ultimate goal is to reduce the principal cepages to five—Chasselas, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir—although small quantities of Malbec and Syrah remain as a hedged bet against climate change.
Sabine Steiner is the enologist and public face of the enterprise founded by her father, Charles, in 1977. She is one of the thirty-something generation of Swiss vigneron(nes)—an influential leader despite her youth—like Steve Bettschen, Martin Donatsch, Valentina Andrei, Madeleine Mercier and Marcus Ruch. She’s a straight-shooter and by my reckoning a classicist—meaning she values product over process. She is not seduced by modern trends but instead seeks purity and intense mineral expression in her wines by mostly non-interventionist means. From my perspective she succeeds on all counts.
The Steiner vineyards go against the red wine bias of the appellation. Their production is more than 60% white and, because of its association with the Mémoires des Vins Suisses, is best known as a Chardonnay specialist. This is misleading and a disservice to the Chasselas produced here. Their various Chasselas crus currently enjoy a three-to-one advantage in volume over Chardonnay and within the universe of Swiss Chasselas are grossly underrated.
Pinot Noir is, of course, the most planted red variety with 23% of the acreage. It is the stalwart red of the portfolio with three distinct cuvées. Sabine’s early crush (the romantic kind) was Malbec which she encouraged her father to plant while she was still a communications student and not interested in a wine career. Today Malbec is her pet project. The Syrah plantings are equally limited but the wine expresses all the cool-climate characteristics one expects: red and dark fruits, white pepper and a savory freshness.
Not surprisingly, Sabine is a believer in biodynamics and is moving slowly in that direction. At this point the vineyards are functionally organic.
In the winery Sabine is a big fan of her old, ceramic-lined steel cuves which she laments are no longer made. She dislikes stainless steel for fermentation and is unconvinced by concrete eggs which she uses only on behalf of a private client. Wooden vessels come in all sizes: 2500 liter oak ovals and 600, 500, 300 and 228 liter barriques. All are unseasoned and a modest percentage are new. Even though oak is an important component of her flagship wines, Sabine is wary of too much oak character.
Sabine’s portfolio of Chasselas cuvées stands with any I’ve tasted in Switzerland. They run the gamut: from simple and delicious; to nuanced and layered; to terroir-driven and intellectual. They need to be better known. The key: leisurely harvests from vines spread up and down the slope—each parcel harvested at peak ripeness and with proper phenolics.
Her Chardonnays are quite simply delicious and, as I’ve said before, are among my favorites in Switzerland. She manages to coax both flavor and texture from her grapes even without the oak regime—something a lot of Swiss Chardonnays fail to accomplish. The Clos au Compte Chardonnay is a wild ferment in unseasoned oak barriques—half of which are new. The fruit is harvested around 88-90 oechsle depending on the vintage. There is no batonnage but at some point during fermentation the wine is racked and its lees are refreshed with oxygen before being returned to the barrel to finish fermentation. The family refers to these lees as “mayonnaise.”
Sauvignon Blanc is her most provocative challenge. She adores the wines of Sancerre and would like to borrow a bit of their electric minerality while retaining her delicate fruit and herbal profile. Her wood-aged cuvée, Summerrode, is a work in progress as she tweaks the oak component from vintage to vintage. In my opinion, it’s impressive if a bit overdone. I prefer her regular Sauvignon but a meeting between the two, somewhere in the middle, might be interesting.
The three Pinot Noirs are excellent. They are individual, distinctive and transparent. They express their terroir and clonal composition perfectly. It’s become increasingly clear that the Dijon clones, as expressed in Switzerland, offer a more horizontal palette of flavors, a lot of saturation, spiciness and moderate complexity. The Swiss clones, in this case Cortaillod, seem to express more freshness, raciness and structure. There is a crunchy vibrancy to the Swiss clones that I’ve noticed in other cellars as well. Some commentators from Oregon are beginning to question the Dijon only mix at the expense of the Swiss and heritage California clones of the early days. Time will tell.
While the Malbec and Syrah are limited to the tasting room they offer a glimpse into the future of the Bielersee AOC and the dominance of Pinot Noir. Climate change may be bringing other varieties into the mix which is precisely why Sabine welcomes their presence in her vineyards.
All of Sabine’s wines are gently pressed and fermented on native yeasts. All are aged en cuve except where noted.
The well documented spring frosts of 2017, a severe hailstorm in July and uncharacteristic drought-like conditions throughout the summer led to disasterously low yields across the board—up to 40% below average. There are only two barriques of Clos au Compte Chardonnay, for instance. However, quality appears to be very good. I was able to taste through a number of 2017s—from both cuve and barrel—as well as many of their 2016 counterparts—most of which are bottled. The following tasting took place in January at the winery with Sabine Steiner in attendance.
Chasselas 2017, Bielersee (cuve sample): Very pale straw in color. Pretty herbs, lemon and spice. Tight and coiled with a bit of CO2. Very fresh, clean and precise. Light-weight now and very appealing with mouthwatering acids and simple apple fruit. Polished and nearly ready for bottle.
Chasselas, Clos de Rive 2017, Bielersee (cuve sample): Pale straw in color. A array of fermentative and fruit aromas: yeast, bread, apple, pear and lemon. Layered pear and herbal flavors with a distinct mineral streak. Great depth and richness. Long and luxurious finish. This belongs in the discussion of great Chasselas crus. Unfortunately, replanting is underway and this is the last vintage for a while.
Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Bielersee (cuve sample): Pale straw in color. Delicate grapefruit and mild tropical fruit notes with background grassiness. Restrained but elegant with well defined flavors of citrus, fresh herbs and grass. Medium-weight and very fresh. Very crisp and ripe. If this was the default style for all Swiss SB I would be more encouraged than I am.
Chardonnay, Clos au Compte 2017, Bielersee (barrique sample): (Only two barrels made; no MLF) Pale golden color. Notes of creamy oak and herbs with some baked apple fruit. Very pretty Burgundian style. Detailed apple notes with some roasted nuts. Refined minerality with a lemony finish. Appealing freshness and weight. Very good.
Chardonnay, Clos au Compte 2016, Bielersee (barrique sample): Pale gold in color. Real complexity here. Apricot jam with some caramel notes. More confit fruit on the palate with fresh mango and buttery vanilla. Very ripe but with a lot of freshness. Medium-weight with a long fruit liqueur-like finish. Excellent.
Pinot Noir, Classic 2017, Bielersee (cuve sample): Bright, slightly cloudy carmine hue. A bit reductive with peppery black and red berries. Some licorice too. Very assertive, crunchy red currants on entry. Fresh with some green notes and peppery accents. Well defined and structured. A really nice village level Pinot.
Pinot Noir, Tribolettes 2017, Bielersee (foudre sample): Bright ruby in color. Complex savory, spicy, dark cherry fruit. Really compact and crunchy with cherry/pomegranate fruit. Layers are revealed upon chewing. Very savory with pleasing green and peppery elements. Sweet fruit and caramel to finish. Really good with all the elements to be fine.
Chasselas, BSA Non 2015, Bielersee: (BSA is short for Biologischer Säureabbau in German and indicates no MLF) Very pale straw color. Pure lemon and dried herbs—a bit like witch-hazel. Lacks body and texture but that may come with some age. Still seems lean and youthful despite hot vintage. Ultimately lacks interest for me. Lemony finish.
Chardonnay 2016, Bielersee: Light gold in color. Sweet cream, pineapple and fresh sawdust. Juicy on entry with delectable flavors of pineapple and barley sugar. Beautifully framed with juicy, mouthwatering acids. Super balance and freshness. Really delicious un-oaked style.
Chardonnay 2015, Bielersee: Medium gold in color. Cereal notes with a bit of caramel. Ripe, rich and sweet with fresh green herbs and creamed corn. Again, very complex and broad without any oak. Velvety and long. Finishes crisp.
Chardonnay, Clos au Comte 2015, Bielersee: Medium gold in color. Roasted grain, butter and aged Sauternes aromas. Apricot confit and beurre salé (almost fudgy) flavors. Amazing texture of buttercream cake and Sauternes. Still very lively but this decadent example reflects the heat of the vintage and a near term window for drinking. Luxurious and a bit of old-style California exaggeration.
Pinot Noir, Tribolettes 2016, Bielersee: Medium ruby in color. Compact, almost chiseled aroma of cranberry and pomegranate. Hyper- focused. Chewy, crunchy fruit that at the moment is one-dimensional. Lot of depth, though, and a lot of matter to unwind. I really like this but it’s one to wait on. Hard to evaluate today.
Pinot Noir, Tribolettes 2015, Bielersee: (10% whole cluster; Swiss Cortaillod clone) Dark ruby in color. Wildly expressive with tangy bitter cherries and pine needles. Ripe red and black currants with green elements and chewy, stalky tannins. Very good structure for this sometimes blowsy vintage. A real success.
Pinot Noir, Buurehöf 2015, Bielersee: (Only three barrels made; Dijon 777 clone) Slightly cloudy ruby in color. Sweet cherry with baking spices and subtle green elements. Broad spectrum flavors fan out on the palate. Cherry, strawberry and fine sweet spices. Very good structure for the vintage and showing well too. This has a lot of class.
Syrah 2015, Bielersee: Garnet/blue in color. Lovely ripe blueberry and savory elements. Very fresh, cool climate restraint even from a warm vintage. This is the challenge for Syrah in this region. Slightly, green with a bit of Syrah soapiness but just on the edges. Firm core of tight fruit (blackcurrants) with a firm, positive finish. Not a blockbuster but indicates the potential from these slopes.
Malbec 2015, Bielersee: (500 liter new oak barrel) Bright carmine in color. Blackberry and cherry concentrate aroma. Somewhat minty too. Primary currants on the palate with tons of saturation. Nice, fresh herbal elements that carry through to the finish. Broad and somewhat soft despite the overall concentration. I would like to see more definition although the saturation is impressive.