Domaine de la Ville de Morges: A Natural Pivot

A wise winemaker/photographer friend given to platitudes offered up the following: A perfectly focused photograph and a flawless wine are of no interest to me. I need more.

Buried in there somewhere is the observation that a focused photograph and a flawless wine both require technical proficiency to execute, but, without more, may fail to excite. Also implicit in the statement is a plea for tolerance and the fearlessness to value imperfection. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi comes to mind and with it a question: does the Buddhist monk with an oenology degree find the volatile acidity in a natural wine as meditative as he does the crack in an heirloom piece of porcelain?

My own encounters with the imperfect and the uncharitable occurred during my early days as a wine merchant. Many of those were spent entertaining students from the nearby oenology program at UC Davis with a series of wine tastings and discussions. For very little out of pocket, the curious critics among them could sniff and swirl the syrahs from Rostaing, Gentaz-Dervieux, Clape and Chave or the pinots and chardonnays from Jayer, Jobard and Coche-Dury. As highly regarded as these wines are today, they were not yet then considered gods and were fair game for critical demolition.

During the ensuing discussions I learned new words and phrases — brett, aldehydic oxidation, mercaptans, terpenes, phenolic ripeness, rotundone, ethyl acetate — and learned to associate them with characteristics in the wines we were tasting. I learned, too, that their presence in a wine was liable to ignite passions. What I thought made for an interesting grace note was too often dismissed as an inexcusable fault. Only then, as the faults accumulated and the discussion deteriorated, was an indictment handed down against the dirty French, their funky cellars, and their negligent inattentiveness. Incidentally, all of this was before the wave of tragically flawed Italian wines arrived on our shores to further fan the flames of discord.

Fast forward forty years and the discussion has barely advanced.

Hygiene and inattentiveness remain the Achilles’ heel of today’s natural and low-input wines, but, sadly, there is even less tolerance and more vitriol for the inevitable tics and foibles that define them.

All of these issues resurfaced at the presentation of a new line of zero-input wines from Domaine de la Ville in Morges—a winery hitherto known for bulk wine production. The leap of faith into the world of natural wine is a fairly new development in Vaud and a downright scary one for the risk-averse Swiss. For this, the Domaine deserves credit. It’s not everyday that a play-it-down-the-middle entity goes rogue. In case you’re wondering, there should be no concern. And I’m not being charitable. With only one exception, I couldn’t find fault with any of the wines presented, although some other tasters tried.

The initial commitment to natural is a modest one based on the sheer number of bottles made, but a highly promising one given the quality of the results. The 95% of the portfolio that remains traditional — the bread-and-butter of their business plan — has also been upgraded and as validation of the new strategy, Domaine de la Ville was named Winery of the Year in 2015 by the Grand Prix du Vin Suisse.

Marc Vicari

The new story actually begins in 2013, 460 years after the old one ends, when the city of Morges moved to privatize its fifteen hectares of vines and charged its new director, Marc Vicari, with refurbishing its staid bulk wine image. One of his first acts was to secure the services of oenologist Fabio Penta—late of the Vaud giant Hammel S.A.—and, soon after, the services of a young Frenchman, Corentin Houillon, as vigneron.

This last maneuver was calculatedly brilliant. Corentin blends the contemporary values of the youthful artisan—farming with intent, craft sensibilities and a commitment to transparency—with the street cred to pull it off. His uncle is the Jura rock star Emmanuel Houillon of Domaine Pierre Overnoy—a man who (and I paraphrase here) never made a wine with added sulfur and wouldn’t know how to, even if asked. The Jura-sur-Léman vibe is thick these days but it aligns perfectly with the politics of the local food movement.

Under Corentin’s guidance, the farm is well on its way to biodynamic conversion with patches of experimental cover crop and happy, music-making sheep—a distinct twang from tweaked trellis wires signals the presence of stampeding sheep. It’s the kind of pastoral dissonance that puts a smile on your face.

Four-legged weed-eaters have the run of the place

In the winery, responsibility for the Sélection Nature program has been ceded to Corentin and, here, the winemaking is as bare as it gets: native yeasts, skin-contact for the whites (macération pelliculaire), a lengthy cuvaison for the reds, zero-inputs, 100% malolactic conversion and no filtration. Even among Switzerland’s avant-garde this is quite a commitment.

An integral part of the afternoon was the participation of two other local artisans and one artfully roasted lamb (not pictured above).

Celebrated local fromageur Jean-François Burnet (Fromagerie de la Croix-de-Luisant), known for his skill and rigorous organic methodology, brought a range of his fabulous goat cheeses including a salty dried bouton à croûte jaunâtre, a delightfully chalky pyramide cendrée, and a tangy fromage frais. He also made for a delightful dining companion with strong opinions on goat herding and the commercial cheese industry in Switzerland. Spoiler alert: He’s just a little critical.

Jean-François Burnet

Also in attendance was Dessilia Bovey of the Moulin de Sévery with an equally impressive range of her family’s cold-pressed oils, vinegars and mustards. I was particularly fond of the Huile de Noisette (hazelnut oil) which I drizzled on the lamb and, among the mustards, I was most partial to the Gros Grains au Chasselas. Of course!

The real stars, however, were the wines. My impressions are noted below. By the way, I would encourage anyone who wants to learn a bit more about natural wine to seek these out. They are far from the most extreme examples out there and would provide an ideal introduction.

Chasselas, Parcelle 900, Sélection Nature 2017: (cuve sample) Bright yellow gold in color and hazy. Very compelling savory aromas with some evidence of yeast (batonnage). Freshly cut hay and other dried grass aromas. Herb and lemon flavors that are very rich and textured—presumably from skin contact. The tannins are textural, soft and without bitterness. Skin contact is a newish direction for Chasselas and one that deserves more scrutiny. I liked this quite a bit.

Chardonnay, Parcelle 902, Sélection Nature 2016: (60% skin contact for 35 days; 40% immediately pressed; aged in used oak) Somewhat dull orange-gold in color. Very pronounced cider and brine aroma. Evolves a bit to reveal honey, walnuts and curry spice. Starts with some pickle brine flavors and spice. Seems a bit dried at the edges, perhaps from wood. I’ve never been too taken with skin contact Chardonnay and I’m not sure it works well in that style. This is a bit edgy for me.

Pinot Gris, Parcelle 976, Sélection Nature 2016: A lovely ruddy, reddish-orange in color. Some delicate red fruit aromas with spicy and peppery notes. Some really lovely flavors of strawberry, Cherry Herring liqueur and hibiscus tea. Also hints at lavender perfume. Some tannins but soft and textured with a very long and perfumed finish. This is a really lovely orange wine that also happens to be zero-input. This is a real success and the best wine of the group. Also a great match for the bouton à croûte jaunâtre.

Gamay, Parcelle 982, Sélection Nature 2017: (cuve sample; third leaf after biodynamic conversion; thirty day cuvaison) Slightly cloudy ruby in color. Very fine red and black fruit with brambly back notes. Round, forward and juicy. This has lovely, tingly fruit that expands on the palate. A lot of saturation and freshness. Plays at the tangy edge of things but never crosses over. Clearly natural and unsulfured but never appears fragile. This is really good.

Gamay, Parcelle 982, Sélection Nature 2016: Bright ruby-crimson color and slightly hazy. In quite a reductive phase that partially freshens up with air. Very spicy with a slightly dried, cracking leather aroma. On the palate it’s edgy and very crisp. Cranberry and unripe strawberry quality. Very tangy fruit but more conventional without the natural tension of the 2017. I like the meat and the matter here but this is a bit awkward now. Judgment reserved.

Gamay, Parcelle 982, Sélection Nature 2015: (Partial whole cluster and maceration à froid) Cloudy ruby in color. Pronounced pinot-like aroma. Spiced, sour cherries and forest floor intensity. Deep, sweet flavors that are very saturated. Delicate strawberry intricacy, aromatic wood, and pine needle freshness. This really does drink like a Pinot Noir, and a good one at that. A real success that drinks well now but will develop beautifully in a cool cellar.

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