A Day at the Cooperative–Provins Valais

It’s not sexy, in fact, it’s one of those boring statistics that puts most people to sleep, even if it is true: more than half of all wine made in Italy, France and Spain combined is made in cooperatives. That’s a lot of wine but much of it is dreck destined for distillation, flex-tanks, or fancifully-branded bottles to be sold in undiscerning grocery stores. Some of it is ignominiously blended away in giant industrial parks in Germany or spilled in the streets of Languedoc by nativists in defense of their livelihood. Most coops were born of calamity—akin to public works projects—in an effort to rescue the little guy from the twin devastations of phylloxera and the Great Depression. Many remain today as monuments to an unforgiving Industrial Age and a reminder that the kind of threats back then remain a threat today.

Fortunately, some cooperatives have reinvented themselves and are thriving. That’s a good thing for those who care about wine.

Before looking at Switzerland’s main contribution to the cooperative landscape, Provins Valais, let’s look at two other successful, quality-driven, but opposite-ends-of-the-spectrum examples—the Produttori del Barbaresco, considered one of the world’s leading quality-driven cooperatives, and the newly trendy Producteurs Plaimont of Saint Mont in southwest France.

The Produttori, as it’s known, has a mere fifty-one members with one hundred hectares of vines, including a good portion from the great crus of the commune. It focuses on one grape, Nebbiolo, and on a traditional, straightforward style. It’s small enough to individualize each parcel and agile enough to instruct each of its growers in best practices. The results are a world-wide demand for a universally admired product. Their single-cru bottlings are reference points in Barbaresco. The annual production is an easily manageable and human-scale 420,000 liters.

The Producteurs Plaimont, on the other hand, is the impersonal, industrial cooperative gone cuddly. It was actually founded in the early 1970’s for many of the same reasons as in the past. Its leadership wisely plays up its portfolio of native grapes, distinctive pre-phylloxera parcels, and the all-important differentiating factor of social consciousness. It’s the first cooperative in France to allow employees to purchase shares and its Charter includes sustainability as one of its pillars. Its eight hundred members and fifty-three hundred hectares produce solid and in some cases distinctive wine that would do any grocery store proud. Annual production is around thirty million liters.

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Typical Valais schist

Provins Valais

Provins was founded in 1930 as a direct result of the Great Depression. Its original mission was to keep family farms afloat by centralizing the production and marketing of its member’s wines. Its founding followed a period of explosive growthfrom 1877 to 1930—when the overwhelming concentration of Swiss vineyards shifted from the German-speaking cantons, mostly Zürich, to Valais. The area under vine tripled during that time. Still, smallholders dominated the landscape much as they do today.

With customary Swiss efficiency, the old Provins instituted several initiatives to improve both the flow and quality of produce from its growing network of stakeholders. Because the quality of grapes varied wildly from plot to plot an initiative to pay farmers for performance instead of yield was established early on. Fruit handling was improved, at first with resistance from growers, with the adoption of small caissettes en bois (wooden boxes) to assure the gentle transport of grapes. Logistics also improved with the consolidation of several smaller communal cooperatives under the Provins umbrella. Better fruit, more carefully handled, and transported to the nearest and most efficient facility marked a key point in the evolution of the local wine industry.

In terms of today’s production, Provins resides somewhere in the middle of the cooperative landscape with a capacity of fifteen million liters. It produces twenty-percent of the wine in Valais and an impressive ten-percent of all Swiss wine. What distinguishes it from almost any other cooperative in the world is the size of its average holding—two hundred and fifty square meters per member. Let that sink in for a moment. At eight hundred hectares and thirty-three hundred sociétaires (members) it’s the near reverse of Plaimont with a mind-boggling ratio of members to land.

One benefit of this ratio is an unequaled workforce that tends to its own plots with the care and fanatical attention to detail of an owner. Increased control over raw materials and a new centralized winery completed in 2009 marked a renewed push towards quality. Four-hundred and fifty stainless steel cuves now stand at the ready to mitigate the enormous complicating factors: small lots, many varieties, and a near three-dimensional calendar of possible harvest dates.

There is also a strategic long-term plan: the Board of Directors has approved an initiative to increase its holdings by twenty-five percent—to one-thousand hectares. The plan includes acquisition, like the recent purchase of neighbor Régence-Balavaud, and an expansion of the métayage system already in place. Also underway is a big marketing push into German-speaking Switzerland, a long-time market of resistance. The premiumization of several lines along with the consolidation of others can only help with this marketing challenge.

Provins’ managing director, Raphaël Garcia, appears to be the impetus for a lot of this change including a new sense of transparency.

Les Domaines—A Kick-Off Junket

Part of the current attempt to upscale is the creation of a new premium line of single-vineyard wines known as Les Domaines. It’s a program intended to showcase several of Provin’s iconic vineyards including three owned by its largest member, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sion. God’s own vines, so to speak.

As part of the introduction Provins invited a number of journalists, buyers, dignitaries and other professionals to a week of events, including a bespoke tour of the vineyards on a vintage 1950’s Berna bus (see header photo). Damien Carruzzo, head enologist for the project (as well as for Provins’ controversial Valais Mundi project) guided us around as we previewed the upcoming releases.

I was also fortunate to latch onto the coat-tails of some of the other invited guests—most notably, the leadership team from the Agricultural Services Department of Canton Valais and its Chief, Gérald Dayer. I think they must have been amused by my French and voluntarily took me under their wing for no apparent reason other than typical Valais hospitality and kindness.

As a result, I was able to tap the knowledge of Pierre-André Roduit (head of the canton’s vineyards) who helped me understand the growing momentum for heritage varieties and the challenges of viticulture in this unique environment.

I was happy to receive unexpected insight into the fighting cows of the Hérens Valley from the ebullient Jean-Jacques Zufferey (head of animal husbandry for the canton). He even invited me to one of the competitions.

Jacques Rossier (the canton’s arborist) regaled me with stories of his time in California tending a farm near Sacramento while conducting research at nearby UC Davis.

The importance of the ever-present murs en pierres sèches (dry-stone walls) and bisses (water-conducting channels) to the heritage of the region was explained by Laurent Maret (head of the canton’s agricultural infrastructure).

Lastly, Guy Bianco (directeur of the canton’s Agricultural School) instructed me on the value of the world-famous agricultural school at Chateauneuf. It is the alma mater of many of the region’s top viticulturists and winemakers.

Their kindness and perspective made the afternoon’s experience that much richer.

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Damien Carruzzo

The Tour

The day began with a welcoming glass of the newly released 2017 Fendant (Chasselas) “Pierrefeu.” This represents one of the most visible products of the entire Provins portfolio with a production run of some 100,000 bottles. Despite its near ubiquitousness, it always represents great value and is trotted out when the powers that be want to demonstrate how well Chasselas can age. I’ve had excellent examples from the early nineties to back it up. This one is crisp, mouthwatering and, as the name suggests, slightly flinty with a touch of reduction. Excellent value at 13CHF and a perfect warm-up for the tasting that followed.

Domaine de Tourbillon: The harrowing bus ride (see header photo) through Sion and up the hill to the Tourbillon Castle and Valère Basilica is one I won’t forget. The narrow streets of the old town are clearly not designed for buses and seem barely wide enough for a horse and carriage. Nevertheless, our driver (and antique bus enthusiast) nonchalantly sounded his distinctive Klaxon horn as if to call on everyone to “watch me do this.” He did. And without so much as a scratch.

The vineyard itself casts an aura of spirituality and makes the journey here seem more like a pilgrimage. Here Provins manages approximately two hectares owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sion. This distinctive vineyard is dramatically situated in a saddle-like depression between the Basilica (think: pommel of the saddle) and the Castle (think: cantle) on a hill overlooking the Rhône River and the city of Sion. It is planted exclusively to Petite Arvine on the typical schist bedrock of Valais. On the day I visited in mid-May it was warm and dry and the bisse that runs through it was parched. One can sense the struggle here.

The 2017 Tourbillon Petite Arvine is chiseled and fine. It is resoundingly fresh with notes of lemon peel and bergamot. There is an herbiness to the flavors and a distinct saltiness to the finish. Very crisp and clean with enough flesh to stand-up to al fresco drinking. This was my choice to drink with lunch.

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The Chateau Tourbillon looms over the vineyard

Domaine du Chapitre: This is one of the signature sites of Sion: the Lentine Slope. The plot here was a gift to the Catholic Church from a repentant landowner and is now managed by Provins. It is visible from the Tourbillon site and hovers above part of the city. It is planted to Savagnin in a slightly lighter schist than at Tourbillon. The slope is notable for its extensive network of murs en pierres sèches (dry-stone walls). The Chapitre parcel is located mid-slope on several terraces.

The 2017 Chapitre Heida (Savagnin) is raised in Italian amphorae and highly textured as a result. It’s subtly scented with grapefruit and a bit of minty herbaceousness. Rich and almost oily on the palate, it has a slight riesling-like petrol and mineral quality. This is a very good rendition of this Valais speciality with none of the residual sweetness that can sometimes bloat less carefully made examples.

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The Lentine Slope above Sion

Domaine Tournalette: This parcel is located on the Savièse Slope to the west of Sion. This is another holding of the Catholic Diocese and is notable as one of the first vineyards to be planted with Diolinoir in 1980. It is actually composed of two parts: the upper slope is planted to Pinot Noir and the lower slope to Diolinoir. The pitch of the vineyard is more modest than in many other places so terraces are not necessary. The soils are primarily wind-blown loess which is light and powdery.

The 2017 Évêché Diolinoir takes its cue from late-harvested and partially dried fruit. It’s not as imposing as Amarone but borrows from its vocabulary. It is raised in both oak and in a distinctly Swiss vessel made from larch wood (mélèze). Larch gives a wood character that reminds me a bit of the redwood cuves of old California. Like redwood, it is a decay resistant wood that is often used in the construction of mountain chalets. I think it’s a perfectly well-made wine with some interesting larch-induced complexity, but not my style.

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Domaine Tournalette looking south (that’s our bus below)

Domaine de Clos Corbassières: The famed Clos Corbassières could be a cubist painter’s dream of a vineyard with its odd collection of randomly pitched parcels and claustrophobic terraces. It has an almost pre-historic, untamed look. It is located on—or rather clings to—Mount Orge and is partially owned by Provins. Do not visit here if you fear heights. Otherwise, a more beautiful piece of earth would be hard to find.

It’s coplanted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cornalin, Syrah and Humagne Rouge which are fermented together and aged for twenty-four months in new oak barrels. Unfortunately, I find the Cabernet element too dominant with a particularly green and herbaceous streak. I think it’s a shame that Cabernet is even included in this blend or that it is even planted in this special place. Native varieties make so much more sense here. Whatever my initial impression, this will require a few years to soften.

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Clos Corbassières

End of Day Reflections

This tasting confirmed, if only to me, that the real strength of the Provins portfolio is in the white wines. They can be quite good. It’s my opinion that the reds are a bit of a jumble. There is too much emphasis on international varieties for my taste, especially in the signature blends. In the end, everyone has to do what they think is right and my opinion is just that—an opinion.

I was very impressed, however, with the events of the afternoon and the commitment to quality I witnessed. Provins seems poised to take its place among the top cooperatives in the world with its modern approach, access to indigenous grapes, growing commitment to sustainable farming, and its privileged place amidst the picture postcard beauty of the region. That alone will serve it well in its tourism initiatives.

The day concluded with a lovely lunch at the Provins-owned and newly renovated Castel d’Uvrier. This historic building, turned public-space, is a perfect example of how a hospitality- and lifestyle-centered business can communicate its values to the public. Great food and great wine enjoyed in an historic and beautiful structure is a winning combination. The beauty of the region doesn’t hurt either.

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