Profile: Weingut Fromm (Malans, Graubünden)

The year 2020 promises to be a corker for one of Graubünden’s leading families and most accomplished wineries. The year will mark Georg Fromm’s fiftieth harvest in Malans, the fifteenth anniversary of his first single-vineyard Pinot Noir—Schöpfi—and the tenth anniversary of his largest cruSelvenen. Given this convergence of important anniversaries, I would think a blow-out party culminating in a retrospective tasting is in order, but as Georg told me: “I haven’t been very good at maintaining an inventory of older vintages.”

Fortunately, he’s good at a lot of other things. Like pioneering Pinot Noir in one of the most remote places on earth—no, not Graubünden, but New Zealand. He was one of the first to spot the potential of Marlborough for more than just Sauvignon Blanc. And to prove it, he established the renowned Clayvin Vineyard in the Brancott Valley with a high-density mix of Swiss and Dijon clones. It’s a model he successfully emulated in reconfiguring his own vineyards in Malans.

Since divesting in New Zealand and focusing on Switzerland, Georg appears to be enjoying a less hectic life, albeit, with fewer frequent flyer miles. From my brief time with him he struck me as a quiet, thoughtful man with a distinct but underlying sense of humor. While his son Marco opened bottles and spoke to me about upcoming changes to the winery, Georg would move from room to room, to take a phone call, or just to indulge a grandchild’s desire to play. Everything about the visit was relaxed and casual.

img_3506-1When I asked him what he thought the vineyards looked like in the early 20th century—when his grandfather started—he wandered off to retrieve some old reference books. He returned with a very old one—a coverless, chewed-up copy of Weinstock und der Wein by J.M. Kohler (1869). As he thumbed through the crunchy, yellowed pages he off-handedly remarked that the book was a gift from a friend who had purchased it from the estate of Frank Zappa. Yes, that Frank Zappa. Who knew? He seemed as delighted by the book’s provenance as by my look of incredulity. The image of Frank Zappa curled up with a glass of Completer, while reading an ancient Swiss wine text printed in German Gothic script, was mind boggling to me. I’ll be sure to listen to my copy of Burnt Weenie Sandwich with renewed attention.

Unfortunately, the book didn’t offer us much help in imagining Malans back then, but it did give us some insight into early land surveying and the old Swiss unit of measurement known as the juchart. The juchart was a rather flexible and somewhat interpretive unit of measurement that corresponded to the amount of land a man and a horse could plow in a day. It was interpretive in that the measurement ultimately depended on whether the land was flat or hilly and to what degree. The amount of calculation necessary to formulate a picture forced us back in time, to ninth grade trigonometry, in fact, so we agreed to give it up. He figured it was safe for me to assume the vineyards were far less substantial than today.

The Process

What is certain is that changes are underway. Georg is slowly transitioning out of the everyday and ceding the winemaking duties to his nephew, Walter. Walter spent fifteen years in Tuscany as winemaker at the Azienda Agricola Vignano in the hills near Florence, where Merlot was a point of pride. And even though in Graubünden it’s the ugly stepchild—with a tiny, almost insignificant footprint—Georg and his team have ambitions to make theirs one of the best in Switzerland. Success has come early. The 2015 Fromm Merlot finished third in a blind tasting of thirty Merlots, mostly Ticinese, much to the surprise of tasters and the delight of Georg. He was so thrilled he made a copy of the article for me to read on the train ride home. Bottom line: Walter has made his presence felt.

Marketing and sales, Georg’s weak spots, are now handled by his son, Marco, a charming fellow who speaks English with a Kiwi-Swiss German accent. He was most recently in Zürich in the restaurant business following graphic design studies there. His first task back home was to organize the cellar, assess the inventory of older bottles, and take stock of what to keep and what to sell. Since then, he has updated the written materials for the winery, improved its website (including its very useful English language version), and straightened up the graphic design of the labels.

He also has opinions and influence over the direction of the house-style. Especially among the whites. Traditionally these have always been a bit sweet in the Swiss fashion, but lately, there is a concerted effort by Marco and Walter to dry things up. This means picking earlier than in the past which preserves freshness and acidity. They admitted that this is still a work in progress that sometimes requires the prophylactic addition of cultured yeasts. The one concession is the Müller-Thurgau which will retain a touch of residual sugar. Otherwise, the Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer will settle in at the dry end of things.

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Georg Fromm explains the juchart–image courtesy: Yanik Bürkli / Südostschweiz

The Vineyards

As the villages of Bündner-Herrschaft begin to establish their own identities the individual parcels within them begin to emerge as well. In Malans the venerable Completer Hälde and the seminal vineyards of Spiger and Selvenen are generally regarded as the best in the village—as are Eicholz in Jenins, Stellibovel in Maienfeld and Spondis in Fläsch. It is from among these few that further parcellation is underway. In Fromm’s case it is the division of Spiger into the three crus of Schöpfi, Fidler and Spielmann. While there is not a lot to distinguish one from the other in terms of terroir, they do differ in vine age and clonal mix.

Parcellation is nothing new to old-world vignerons. It’s the essence of the French AOC (now AOP) system and gives rise to the complicated hierarchy of crus in Burgundy. We see echoes of it in Piedmont with myriad crus (that word again) in Barolo and Barbaresco. Likewise in Germany and Austria. California’s Josh Jensen created crus (Mills, Reed, Selleck and Jensen) out of thin air (and limestone bedrock) at his outpost of Calera in the Gavilan Mountains of Monterey County. And now in Switzerland we are seeing more of the same with growing differentiation along the Burgundian model. Whether it proves successful and truly reflective of quality remains to be seen.

Not everyone is on board with parcellation, however. The Donatsch family has created their own three-tiered hierarchy of wine based on a selection of their best barrels, regardless of origin. Their Tradition, Passion and Unique bottlings trump site in favor of consistency.

Others, like Thomas Studach and his mentors, the Gantenbein family, make a single cuvée from multiple sites with a complex house-style in mind. In Studach’s case, he will vary his fermentation and élévage regimens for each of several micro-cuvées and blend all into one.

It could be that not everyone is as blessed as the Fromm family with its mix of sites, diversity of genetic material, and fifty years experience to call on. Their sites break down as follows:

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Schöpfi is the original Fromm vineyard and one of the first vineyards in Malans. It was acquired by Georg’s great grandfather in 1912 and subsequently developed by his grandfather. It is small at 65 ares and replanted with Dijon clones almost twenty years ago. It is characterized by a high sand content derived from centuries of erosion and painstaking retrieval from the mixed sands near the Rhine.

Fidler is even smaller, at 28 ares, with tiny yields of only 600 bottles in a good year. It’s all Swiss clone Pinot Noir (AM 10/5 and 2/45) with vines around 36 years old. It’s been a vineyard-designate since 2012.

Spielmann is the last vineyard to be acquired and is the smallest at 26 ares. The vines are still young at 11 years old but the wine is already emerging as one of the biggest and most structured of all the crus. It is planted to a healthy mix of Dijon clones including 115, 667, 777 and 824. Spielmann has appeared on the label as a stand-alone since 2013.

Selvenen is a rather large climat and, like Spiger, is shared among several owners. The Fromm parcel is one of the largest single holdings at 1.3 hectares. It’s planted with Chardonnay, 47-year-old Swiss and 20-year-old Dijon clone Pinot Noir and has produced a single-vineyard bottling since 2010.

Ratschelga is the vineyard near the home and winery overlooking the village and with views down the valley towards the village of Zisers and the cantonal capital of Chur. It is planted to a mix of grapes including Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. It’s a pretty, peaceful spot with a number of benches around its perimeter which were most welcome on my walk around the village.

These established vineyards are soon to be supplemented by an additional two hectares courtesy of a rare expansion of vineyard sites within the canton. Land use authorities have placed a moratorium on development above 600 meters to preserve forested lands. Existing vineyards above that elevation are allowed to remain but that leaves little down below for expansion. A small five hectare parcel was recently approved just east of the village from which the Fromm’s acquired two hectares. They will plant more Chardonnay and Pinot Gris which is confirmation of their commitment to improve their white wine standing.

The vineyards of Malans are a mix of glacial deposits, rubble from the looming mountains above, and a base of limestone-rich schist. All Fromm vineyards are Bio-Suisse certified organic since 2015.

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Ratschelga Vineyard looking south

The Wines

All wines were tasted in the Fromm cellars with Georg and Marco in attendance. They were not tasted blind.

Riesling—Sylvaner 2017, Malans, Graubünden: Silvery straw in color with a hint of green. Some reduction but otherwise spicy and herbal. Palate is a bit flat and heavy with 10.5 g/L residual sugar. Not overly sweet though with a bit of grapefruit bitterness. Finishes clean. (INOX fermented).

Pinot Gris 2017, Malans, Graubünden: Gold with the faintest ruddy blush. Lots of pear, hazelnut and flint on the nose. There is a fresh mushroom flavor with fresh herbs and bright apple. There is a stony and delicate bergamot finish. In an attempt to craft a truly dry wine they may have left a little ripeness on the vine. This is clean, sound and correct but lacks a bit of stuffing.

Gewürztraminer 2016, Malans, Graubünden: Near colorless to pale straw. Floral with orange flower water notes. Very mild. A touch citric on the palate with mild rose flavors and characteristic, but muted, Gewürz spiciness. Very crisp and high acid finish. This too lacks stuffing and flavor interest. The change to dry wines of balance continues.

Chardonnay 2016, Malans, Graubünden: Pale straw in color. Interesting fresh ginger aroma with sawdust and minerals. Very elegant light oak, citrus and minerals on the palate with a refined, powdery texture. Focused crisp finish with lemon oil and spice. This is very nice and comparable to a well made Mâcon cru.

Chardonnay 2005, Malans, Graubünden: Beautiful healthy gold in color. Wheat crackers and celery stalk on the nose with creamy, brown butter notes. No hint of oxidation. Palate is sweet and soft with lovely pear-edged fruit and candied lemon peel. This is really lovely and complete. This is a real complement to their wonderful Pinot Noirs.

Pinot Noir 2017, Malans, Graubünden (Early bottling; Steel tank fermented; Aged in 3000 liter barrel.) Pretty rose/garnet in color. Chalky cherry notes with green herbs. Clean cherry fruit with a bit of stalkiness. Bright and fresh but a bit simple. (This was rushed to bottle at the request of a distributor. The main bottling will occur in August when Georg thinks it will be ready).

Pinot Noir 2016, Malans, Graubünden: Lovely mid-garnet in color. Highly spicy nose with some vivid feral elements. Some resiny (sinsemilla) notes as well. This is intense with raspberry fruit, fresh green elements, spice and grippy tannins. Youthful, vigorous and full of promise. This is a village wine that offers more than most.

Pinot Noir 2006, Malans, Graubünden: Very healthy ruddy garnet in color. No creakiness whatsoever. Offers a lovely warm nose of dark cherries and earth. The palate is dense and textured like cherry meat. Rolls easily on the palate. Finishes sweet and silky textured. No edges and without seams. This is really brilliant and shows what life was like before the single-vineyard crus.

Pinot Noir, Selvenen 2016, Malans, Graubünden: Pretty ruby/garnet in color. Interesting nose of spent charcoal and apple skin. Smokey even. Palate is plummy, fullish and a bit minerally. Very structural with assertive tannins and commensurate acids. A touch of bitterness to finish. This has all the raw materials to age beautifully but is a bit awkward today.

Pinot Noir, Selvenen 2015, Malans, Graubünden: Full garnet color. Warm, broad nose of dark cherries and incense. This is kind of what I expect from the Dijon clones. The palate is super saturated with cherry fruit, wood spice, and a lovely green freshness. The finish is long and structured with appropriate tannins and acids. There is a bit of heat in the finish which reflects the hot vintage. Really very good with a long life ahead.

Pinot Noir, Schöpfi 2016, Malans, Graubünden: Bright garnet in color. Starts reductive but is beautifully transparent after that. Really lovely, subtle cherry pie fruit with sweet spices. Palate is ripe and sweet with some of that green freshness. Temptingly chewy with slightly grippy tannins and more green freshness to finish. There is real class here that will show itself on the twenty-fifth anniversary (2030) of the birth of this cru.

Merlot 2015, Malans, Graubünden: Bright garnet in color. Fresh potting soil aroma with dark plum depth. On the palate there are tangy plum and earth elements that are still very primary. Solid rather than delicate with a restrained use of oak. Yet to develop a texture that indicates Merlot but this should develop nicely. I can imagine how this might have impressed the judges with its freshness from among the sometimes overwrought, over-oaked Merlots from Ticino.

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