The Vinea road-show organizers took pity on me this year and finally staged one of its tastings in my back yard of Geneva. Vinea is a Swiss wine trade organization that sponsors tastings of its member’s wines in various locations throughout the year, culminating in the epic, two-day Grand Prix du Vin Suisse in Sierre. It also conducts two noteworthy open competitions: the Mondial des Pinots and the Mondial du Merlot & Assemblages. But it’s the smaller tastings, like this one, that afford me the opportunity to taste unfamiliar wines and to arrange future visits with the folks doing the most interesting things.
One of the day’s discoveries has been hiding in plain sight for more than eighty years. Domaines Chevaliers, an upper Valais mainstay, was founded in 1936 and sold in 2008 to medical technology mogul and avid mountaineer Patrick Z’Brun. In the ten years since, Mr. Z’Brun has tweaked the business structure, renovated many of the property’s dry-stone walls and built a state of the art hospitality center. And he’s done it in a way that befits a mega-successful man of means. In some ways, his is a story that channels the California dream and not so much the typical Swiss reality of generational succession punctuated by hard work among the vines.
On the business front, Mr. Z’Brun has rebranded and consolidated two distinct entities under the Domaines Chevaliers umbrella: Vins des Chevaliers, which brings together several traditional lines, and Lux Vina, a new luxury label christened in 2017.
On the wine side, he has revamped the vineyards, including the aforementioned dry-stone walls, and trimmed the number of grape varieties from fourteen to nine. Purchased fruit will be de-emphasized and, presumably, the number of cuvées reduced. The ultimate goal is to reposition the winery among the very best in Switzerland. The inauguration of Lux Vina feels like an impressive opening salvo.
On this day, with son Valentin doing the honors, Vins des Chevaliers poured several wines from each of its lines—Tradition, Sherpa, Patrimoine and Gamme Signature—while Lux Vina offered a single cuvée, a stunning Petite Arvine.
The 2016 Lux Vina Petite Arvine “Altimus” is sourced from several sites including some steep, nearly inaccessible parcels in Chamoson, Loèche, Lens and Salgesch. The characteristic limestone schist of the upper valley is the signature terroir. Even though the wine is fermented and aged in oak there is very little wood to distract from its very pure Arvine expression. And because of its blocked malolactic it retains that pure expression from nose to tail. There’s loads of lemon confit, some pineapple and hints of cooked rhubarb with a pulsing mineral vein that some would describe as vividly saline. This is a very special bottle that promises so much more with time.
The 2015 Cornalin from the Patrimoine line is as fresh and bright as they come. Cornalin (rouge du pays) tends to ripen unevenly, even within the same cluster, much like Zinfandel. It’s also subject to sunburn so pre-emptive measures and careful farming are critical. New plantings of Cornalin are now being set in sunny locales but arranged in north to south rows and shielded from direct sun. Somewhat raisined flavors are fairly typical for the variety but this one has none of that. Instead, it offers clean and bright mulberry and dark cherry fruit with a fruit crème texture. It’s delicious now but will improve with age.
The 2015 Sherpa Rouge explodes my long held belief that Pinot Noir is a bad blending grape. Or, if not, then maybe it’s found the perfect partner in Humagne Rouge. Whatever the case, this blend really works on several levels. First, the blend seems to be a sweeter, plumped-up version of either on their own. It has all the wild, slightly feral character of Humagne and the intricately structured finesse of Pinot Noir. Together they swell and sweeten. I’m not saying it’s a blockbuster but if you like the softness of Merlot and the saturation of Cornalin then this may be an option. The price is right at 22CHF. And if you like philanthropy, 2CHF of every bottle sold goes to support the Swiss Sherpa Foundation.
The biggest surprise of the day was the final wine which was offered to me rather furtively from a stocking-covered bottle. I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was a 2016 Gamay “Vieilles Vignes” from the Signature line, it’s just that I guessed it to be a Syrah—and a good one at that. In my defense, it had none of the loose-knit, somewhat warm flavors I’ve grown accustomed to, and like, in Swiss Gamay. On the contrary, it was all about the kind of tightly-wound, somewhat cool, fresh fruit one finds in a modern Morgon, for instance, or, dare I say, a Côte-Rôtie. The wine is aged in barriques (80% with 30% new) and stainless steel cuves (20%). It’s not cheap by Swiss Gamay standards (30CHF) but worth every penny.