The first thing you notice about the wine country in Aargau is what you don’t notice: vineyards. That’s because Aargau, in contrast to the comparably-sized but contiguous vineyards of Bündner-Herrschaft and Klettgau, offers a different proposition—discreet micro-parcels scattered in hidden, often heavily wooded valleys. In other words, rather than monoculture, Aargau offers a diversity of microclimates and the opportunity for enterprising winemakers to tease out the nuances of each while working several at once.
Aargau’s vineyards are most visibly dense in the wine villages of Schinznach, Oberflachs and Thalheim (in the Schenkenbergertal), and in the northeast of the canton near Klingnau (Unteres Aaretal). These are the famous names of the region and the ones most likely to appear on a bottle. Everywhere else the vineyards are isolated and hard to find, particularly in the northwest corner near Frick. The names there, while important, are less well known: Elfingen, Herznach, Oberhof and Wittnau. These are among the most challenged sites in Switzerland, meaning they lack the mitigating circumstances of some other areas—heat-retaining stone walls, reflective lakes and rivers, and warming winds. I believe the struggle results in greater aromatic complexity and finesse.
Geologically, the diversity makes for an interesting puzzle. The northern half of the canton sits atop the so-called “Jura Table” (the unfolded part of the chain) where the ancient mountain range peters out and its famous limestone sediments disappear east of Klingnau only to resurface miles away in Schaffhausen. The region is also a drainage basin for several of Switzerland’s important rivers—among them the Aare, Reuss and Limmat. The latter two join the Aare near the town of Baden before emptying into Aargau’s other great river, the Rhine, near Koblenz. The predominant soils are gravel and clay near the rivers, marl on the slopes, and blue clay (à la Pomerol) in the vineyards of Klingnau. These various soils overlay chalky, fossil-bearing limestone (muschelkalk) in the west of the canton, and rocky limestone everywhere else.
Situated as it is near Zürich, Aargau is one of the most heavily populated of the Swiss cantons and one of the least mountainous. That’s not to say it’s flat. The ear-popping bus ride up and over the grade between Aarau and Frick is proof of that. And the canton is one of the few places in Switzerland where new plantings are possible. Consider the fact that in 1881 there were 2,681 hectares of vines compared to 390 hectares today. The numerous side valleys with bare, south-facing hillsides—and the odd cow or two—suggest both an abundant, vine-laden history and an intriguing blueprint for future growth.
The climate is continental with dry and sunny conditions throughout the growing season and cold, wet winters. It’s no accident that Frick, Beaune and the Willamette Valley in Oregon share a propensity for fine Pinot Noir—they all share roughly the same latitude and some of the same climate challenges. And as a geographic appendage to the southwest German state of Baden, it’s no surprise they share Pinot Noir as their signature red grape.
The ownership structure of Aargau’s vineyards is a bit like that of Valais’. In addition to dedicated wine estates there are hundreds of smallholders (thousands in Valais) who either feed the local co-operatives with grapes, make their own wine, or lease their premises to landless winemakers. This system is a boon for a new generation of Swiss vigneron(ne)s not otherwise born into wine. Tom Litwan is one of these and he plays the free agent role like a boss.
Tom’s love of wine developed from his time in the hospitality industry in Chablis. He began work there with no real interest in wine but quickly developed a taste for the local product. He spent two years there developing his palate but still had no thought of becoming a winemaker.
His real wine education began later at the progressive Geneva winery Domaine des Balisiers, where he spent seven years working closely with the Pillon and Schlaepfer families, while learning the secrets of organic farming. His studies culminated with a degree from Changins. He has been in Aargau since 2006 and is just now fine-tuning his portfolio of climats.
Tom recently moved to Oberhof from his former winery site in Schinznach in part to develop his own vineyard. The move also placed him closer to Wittnau, an important source for Chardonnay and, more recently, a promising source for Pinot Noir. The village of Elfingen is also nearby, a consistent source for excellent Pinot Noir, and he continues to work his well-placed parcels in the Schenkenbergertal villages of Schinznach, Oberflachs and Thalheim. For those keeping track, that’s a total of five and a half hectares spread among six different villages. That’s what I mean by micro-parcel diversity.
Tom’s wines can be challenging to taste early in their lives and even harder to taste, unformed, from the barrel. He works reductively and is undaunted by a considerable sulfide presence in his wines—sometimes to the dismay of other winemakers and skeptical tasters. There are several components to the recipe: wild ferments, no battonage, no racking and a bit of sulfur at the press for the reds. The very pale transparency of his Pinot Noirs is another signature of the reductive process as are the pronounced matchstick aromas in the Chardonnays. These aromas tend to blow off with aeration, but when persistent they require significant bottle age to resolve. At least that’s the hope. Along with his distaste for racking he is even more strident against the use of copper to sop up excess sulfur in recalcitrant barrels.
His preferred cooperage—Chassin in Rully, France—may contribute to the reductive style of winemaking. This from their website:
“Our barriques and tonneaux are often characterised by a reductive reaction on the wine they contain, guaranteeing freshness and clarity until the end of the ageing process. White wines age better in wood with this kind of toasting, drawing enrichment from the wood compounds, without being exposed to strong oxidation. Red wines improve their structure, lose astringency due to gradual oxidation, while maintaining their fruit flavours.”
A perfect example of the difficulty of judging Tom’s young wines occurred to me when I wrote about the 2014 Thalheim Pinot Noir in 2016 and again in early 2017. In response to a glowing review from The Wine Advocate, I wrote the following:
I’m not sure how you can evaluate this wine right now. I’ve tried it twice: once in August 2016 at the Mémoire & Friends tasting in Zürich where it was virtually undrinkable and then in January 2017 from a purchased bottle . . . Definitely improved the second time but still a work-in-progress. I think Tom Litwan is a very talented winemaker so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I recommend holding this wine if it is in your cellar. In the meantime I think Reinhardt’s score is too high and at least deserves a question mark.
On both occasions I withheld judgment and recommended holding the wine. I’m glad I did. When I tasted it again on this trip it was nearly resolved and quite obviously a special wine.
Tom recommends a minimum of four years aging for his reds and beyond that a bit of aeration when opened. He was spot on with this one. Sometimes wine criticism can be a humbling experience.
Tom’s Pinots are not just about technique and process. He has strong opinions on farming—biodynamics makes for better fruit—and on the type of genetic material he prefers—the classic Swiss clones.
That preference places him in the middle of a hot debate in Switzerland. Some modernists, like the highly respected Gantenbeins of Fläsch, are all in with Dijon clones, arguing they make the most noble wines. Others who crave complexity are committed to a middle ground that includes both Dijon and Swiss clones. Still others prefer the acidity and freshness of the Swiss clones and skew things in that direction. Not Tom Litwan. He prefers the pure expression of Swiss clones and their ability to translate Swiss terroir. After all, he quips, he’s not making Burgundy.
In practical terms the Swiss clones offer greater resistance to disease, thicker skins and a propensity for high acids despite late ripening. He harvests his parcels up to two weeks later than others with Dijon clones and with higher acid levels. Perhaps more importantly, Swiss clones offer a welcome hedge against climate change and warming temperatures. Indeed, winemakers in Oregon are reporting an increased homogeneity among wines made primarily from the Dijon clones. It’s believed warming temperatures are responsible. Ironically the Swiss Wädenswil clone was one of the original wave of clones to be planted there.
It’s hard to argue with Tom’s results. When fully resolved and free of reduction his Pinots are among the most aromatic I’ve encountered in Switzerland and among the purest. They are uniformly characterized by a weightless transparency that belies the wealth of complex fruit aromas and flavors and the sheer classiness of their texture and structure. I think they can be rightly placed among Switzerland’s best.
All wines were tasted on my visit to Oberhof with Tom in attendance. None of the 2017s were bottled but all had finished their malolactic fermentation. He is also working on a méthode champenoise cuvée that is still a work in progress. I don’t review it here.
Riesling-Sylvaner, Schinznach Rägnisbuehl 2017, Aargau (Müller-Thurgau): (INOX cuve sample) Pale yellow and slightly cloudy. Both spicy and floral aromas abound. On the palate there is texture and weight with lovely perfumed flavors. Impeccably dry with no residual sweetness. This is easily the most serious MT I’ve tasted. Tom mentioned he is not looking for simple primary flavors but treats this like he does his Chardonnays, except for the oak. Really lovely.
Chardonnay, Wittnau 2017, Aargau: (barrique sample) Medium straw in color. Mild reductive notes with some fresh chervil and cream. Vibrant lemon and delicate herbal notes on the palate. Crisp acidity, very fresh and bracing. Lively acids frame its medium body. Very Good.
Chardonnay, Schinznach Wanne 2017, Aargau: (barrique sample) Dark straw in color. Beautiful citrus aromas with delicate fresh herbs. More dimensional and weighty than above. Full-bodied without the slightest bit of fat. More citrus with a creamy, oaky texture. Minerals on the back end. Nice and crisp with chiseled features. From vines planted in 1979 and crushed with the stems. The yield was half the usual, netting one barrel. Just excellent.
Zweigelt 2017, Aargau: (barrique sample) Dark, nearly opaque garnet/purple. Dusty violets and cassis on the nose with some sour cherry. Bright cherry flavors with significant acidity, mild tannins and a slightly grainy, stony texture. Could use a bit more depth of fruit but a nice clean and fresh example of this variety. Zweigelt is now popping up a bit in Switzerland. The fruit is sourced from the home vineyard in Oberhof and from Wittnau.
Pinot Noir, Wittnau 2017, Aargau: (barrique sample) Bright, healthy crimson in color. Very Pinot aroma of dark cherry, raspberry and fresh green elements. Beautifully balanced palate with ripe, mixed red and dark fruit, vibrant acids and just enough chewiness to hold it all together. Not a blockbuster but a lovely Volnay look-a-like. Really pretty and flirtatious. 10% whole cluster. Very promising.
Pinot Noir, Oberhof 2017, Aargau: (barrique sample) Dark ruby/garnet in color. Somewhat reduced but not overwhelmingly so. This is more rustic than Tom’s other Pinots, but it’s his first go-round with this vineyard. It’s big, dark and intense with some green, earthy elements and some forest floor aromatics. A bit clumsy at the moment. Substantially more tannic as well. I expect this cuvée to gain in finesse as Tom takes over the farming of this plot.
Pinot Noir, Elfingen Rüeget 2017, Aargau: (barrique sample) Ruby in color with a slight walnut colored edge. Very raspberry with a summery thicket-like, almost feral, nose. Appealingly fresh and vaguely green. Rich cherry and raspberry flavors with spicy intensity. Very crisp with broad, ripe tannins. Rüeget refers to a u-shaped dip in the hillside which translates as “donkey’s back.” Excellent.
Pinot Noir, Oberflachs Auf der Mauer 2017, Aargau: (barrique sample) Impossible to judge. Very reduced and utterly closed up. When I asked whether racking might help he said he didn’t want to expose it to air and that he would allow it to resolve itself, no matter how long it takes. This is one of Tom’s top parcels in the Schenkenbergertal. It’s name refers to the limestone wall (mauer) that surrounds the vineyard and which traps heat. Judgment reserved.
Pinot Noir, Thalheim Chalofe 2017, Aargau: (barrique sample) Medium to dark ruby in color. Very pure cherry and raspberry aromatics with a bit of stoniness. Chewy pit-fruit density with bright raspberry highlights. Very ripe with crisp raspberry acidity. A lot of depth and finesse in this one. Raw linen now but will turn into silk. Chalofe is the local word for “lime kiln” which gives you a clue as to the underlying geology. Excellent.
Pinot Noir, Elfingen Rüeget 2016, Aargau: Slightly cloudy ruby in color with a noticeably advanced rim. Very spicy cherry aromatics. Pure cherry crème with underlying sweet spices. Luxurious, long and chewy. I’m getting a cooler, fresher vibe from this parcel than from the Schenkenbergertal cuvées. I think it’s a cooler site. Very good.
Pinot Noir, Thalheim Chalofe 2016, Aargau: Dark ruby in color and transparent. Sweet mixed berries with fresh green herbs on the nose. The biggest and broadest of all Tom’s cuvées and in this vintage one of the most tannic. Very concentrated with saturated sweet cherry fruit and palpable green elements. Decadent yet fine. Present but barely noticeable acidity. Real Grand Cru weight and class. Maybe the best of the group.
Pinot Noir, Thalheim Chalofe 2014, Aargau: Medium-ruby in color and slightly cloudy. Still some reduction but dissipates quickly. Both fresh and slightly cooked strawberry aromatics with sweet and savory spices. Very pretty, sweet and silky. Sweetly concentrated strawberry and cherry fruit. Palate staining-saturation reads weightless but registers weighty. This has come on strong in the last two years (see above) and will continue to improve. Delicious.