Graubünden is Switzerland’s largest and easternmost canton and the only one that trades in three of the national languages—German, Italian and Romansch. Despite its size and eye-popping beauty it’s not a common destination for outsiders except when it’s luxury they seek. The three-star chef Andreas Caminada is ensconced at Schloss Schauenstein and the high-brow resort towns of St. Moritz and Davos attract an international clientele. So it’s odd to me that many Swiss natives I know have never traveled there. That’s not to say the region is unknown or unappreciated at home. Almost every native is familiar with at least one of its culinary delights—especially bündnerfleisch, the umami-laden air-cured beef from the mountains; or the coarse-grained polenta from the southernmost tip of the canton; or the chard-wrapped meat-packets known as capuns; or the nutty buckwheat noodles found in the deceptively named pizzoccheri (not a pizza at all), Switzerland’s answer to poutine. As one would expect, there are numerous cheeses, as well, any one of which can offer up a reminder that there is life after Gruyère.
When it comes to wine, however, Bündner-Herrschaft—the ten kilometer stretch of vineyards between Fläsch and Malans—gets most of the attention and attracts most of the visitors. The attention is well deserved, but it means the nearby villages of Igis, Zizers, Trimmis, and the capital city of Chur, are shortchanged. To be fair, the beautiful old town of Chur is wonderfully scenic and on everyone’s list of must-visits, but the neighboring wines need some work. There is evidence that improvement is at hand but that’s for another post.
Beyond that, the Mesolcina Valley, or Misox—south of the main alpine ridge—produces a small amount of relatively anonymous wine. The few vines near Poschiavo—effectively part of the Italian Valtellina—take a backseat to the superior vineyards of the Moesa River valley, which insinuates itself into the Merlot-dominated landscape of the Lake Lugano basin. This part of Graubünden is decidedly Italian.
My most recent exploration of the area began uneventfully enough with a relaxed, early morning train ride from Geneva to Sargans—the Gateway to Graubünden and a sharp left-turn from Lichtenstein— before the afternoon morphed into something quite unexpected.
Warning: it’s not unusual for a native Californian of a certain age to experience flashbacks. And if not flashbacks, then the other common transitory mental state, dèja vu. I was sure I experienced one or both on this trip and Matthias Gubler-Möhr, co-proprietor of Weingut Möhr-Niggli, was the reason.
It turns out I first met Matthias years ago while visiting Viña Robles, a Cal-Swiss wine venture in Paso Robles, California, where he was working as an intern. In a bit of foreshadowing, he guided my daughter and I through a tasting of their Rhone-inspired blends. During our time together, which was unhurried, he spoke nostalgically about his home in Switzerland and how he looked forward to making wine there one day. When I mentioned I had spent some of my youth in Geneva, he perked up. But when I mentioned how poor I remembered the wines to be, he grimaced a bit. He began a spirited defense of Swiss wine and insisted that things were coming to a head there with a new mindset just taking hold. He indicated, too, that the scale of Viña Robles was not his style and that he was ready to do his own thing, but on a human scale, back home.
Before his dream could happen, however, there remained one little detail to work out: where to settle. That question was answered a short time later when he met his future wife, Sina, a newly arrived intern, who happened to share his desire to take the lessons learned on their travels back home.
By a twist of fate, it is her family who presides over Weingut Möhr-Niggli, the very place where we met again more than tens years later. Just a coincidence, or dèja vu?
The beauty of the Maienfeld vineyards have a lot to do with the magnificent views from up high. One can either gaze down upon the Rhine River as it begins its journey across Europe, or spy the thermal spa town of Bad Ragaz and its granite sentinel Mount Pizol. From this vantage point one can grasp the privileged situation of Bünder-Herrschaft and the protection it receives from inclement weather by the mountains that surround it. While rainfall is not low, 1150 mm on average, it’s not excessive. The regular foehn winds from the south are a crucial factor in the viability of these northerly vineyards and some say a key contributor to the sometimes over-ripe flavors of its Pinot Noirs. Pinot specialists from other parts of Eastern Switzerland will sometimes speak in modestly derisive terms about this “vulgar” aspect of Bündner-Herrschaft Pinots. Like Vosne complaining Gevrey is too masculine, I should think.
My initial tour of the vineyards was unusual and a bit unsettling. A warm and dry west wind sucked the moisture out of everything, including my throat. I was reminded of the Santa Ana winds of Southern California which almost always spark wildfires or the eerie off-shore gusts we associate with earthquakes in Northern California. I recall how happy I was to be outdoors where nothing could tumble onto my head from above.
The winds were disconcerting in another way: they were a reminder that precocious growth is subject to devastating spring frost. Without my realizing it, the locals were ready; which accounted for the oddly unkempt look of the vines. Unlike the vineyards of Geneva and Vaud, which are always neatly pruned and trained by this date in May, the vines in Maienfeld sported multiple, overly-long canes. It seems the Swiss practice of double-pruning (retaining a few extra canes per vine) increases the chance for tender new growth to survive a damaging frost. The technique requires the that first buds to appear (usually at the tip of each cane) be cut back immediately which delays the appearance (by up to two weeks) of those closer to the trunk. Once the frost threat has passed each vine can be pruned back to its normal configuration. Voilà, natural frost protection.
The Möhr-Niggli holdings in Maienfeld are small at four hectares, but with purchased fruit from local vineyards and a share from two sources in Basel-Landschaft they can scrape together thirty thousand bottles in an average year.
The home vineyards are worked sustainably and linked to an innovative Swiss government program known as ÖLN (Ökologischer Leistungsnachweis) or PER (Prestations Écologiques Requises) which ties direct cash payments (not technically subsidies) to approved farming practices. These include, among other things, the restoration of soils, biodiversity initiatives, and chemical use oversight. There is also a premium paid for meeting program goals on especially steep or difficult to work terrain. It’s a program that incentivizes sustainability while providing for needed accountability. That last part is important as Matthias welcomes the scrutiny.
The center of activity is in the upper reaches of Maienfeld were one finds the best parcels of the Möhr-Niggli estate. Stellibofel is a beautifully situated monopole at just below six hundred meters with striking views across the upper Rhine valley. It’s partially surrounded by large limestone-flecked stones arranged in dry-wall fashion. It feels like a large clos. Pinot Noir is king here with a few rows of Pinot Blanc and some newly planted Chardonnay as counterpoint. The vineyard is carpeted in grasses and dandelions and farmed without herbicides. The average age of its Pinot vines is thirty years.
Just below Stellibofel is its satellite appendage, Pilger. This is the source for the family’s signature Pilgrim bottling of Pinot Noir, a much-in-demand wine that holds its own among a collection of Switzerland’s finest. These special vines are a minimum thirty years old and mostly Swiss clones.
At the same elevation, towards the village of Fläsch, is the Neubruch parcel with more Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc.
Further below and closer to the village of Maienfeld is a small plot of Viognier at Badrus. Gutnerüel is a source for Merlot and in the felds (lower still and less tilted) there is more Pinot Noir.
Adjacent to the winery, in its backyard really, is the delightfully named Torkelwingert, a newly planted vineyard that will anchor the much anticipated Chardonnay program. Matthias is enthusiastic about the potential for this variety in Bündner-Herrschaft.
But Möhr-Niggli is not just a local kid. It is one of the few Swiss wineries with a footprint in two cantons. In addition to Maienfeld, Matthias’ uncle, Hans Sutter, owns vines in Maisprach in the canton of Basel-Landschaft. These vineyards border the Aargau Jura Park which means the Pinots share some of the cool climate characteristics from the nearby Fricktal as well as the famous limestone sediments known as muschelkalk. The Clos Martha bottling from the Sunnebärg parcel is named after Matthias’ grandmother.
New to the portfolio are wines made from two other climats in Maisprach: Röti and Eich. Even though the three sites are close together they are different geologically: the latter two sit atop the kind of red sandstone one finds in Vully, for example, and may be part of the same vein. The owners, Barbara and Heini Graf, preside over vineyards that average fifty years of age and enjoy a south and southwest exposure at 380-450 meters. The grapes from the Graf owned parcels appear to offer very concentrated fruit with an interesting grainy texture.
The Möhr-Niggli reds are all fermented in small open-top containers, most of them wood. Native yeasts are used when the fermentations are regular and untroubled (which is most of the time). The Pinot Noirs are a mix of Swiss and Dijon clones although Matthias is quick to declare a preference for the Swiss clones. He will add varying amounts of whole clusters depending on the vineyard source and the year. Presently the amounts range from 15-40%. He will vary the amount and character of wood for each cuvée.
The wines receive a short maceration and are then pressed off into barrels of varying sizes as noted below. Maturation varies between cuvées: twelve months for the village Pinot and sixteen months, or more, for the single-vineyard bottlings.
The whites are fermented for freshness and do not see a secondary fermentation. It will be interesting to see how the Chardonnay program evolves given Matthias’ desire to follow the Burgundy model.
The following tasting took place at the Möhr-Niggli winery in Maienfeld with Matthias Gubler-Möhr in attendance.
Pinot Blanc 2017, Maienfeld, Graubünden: (350-650 liter barrels; six months on the lees) Very pale straw in color. Slight leesy aroma with honey and powdery elements. Medium-bodied and bright with lively acids. The honey follows through on the palate with some lovely green almond flavors. I really like Pinot Blancs from this region—there are a number of good ones—because the best winemakers don’t try to make them into something bigger than they are. Let Pinot Blanc be Pinot Blanc!
Viognier 2017, Maienfeld, Graubünden: (25% new barriques; 6 months on the lees) Medium straw colored. Mildly exotic with some peach, pear, yeast, and a bit of oak. Not much flavor interest. There’s nothing wrong with this it just lacks what I want from a Viognier. Not especially textured in the way of a Northern Rhone. Matthias confessed to not liking most Condrieus and modeled this one after his California experience at Viña Robles. I told him I’m not a fan of Swiss Viognier (or most California examples for that matter) but he intends to persist because his clients like it. OK, but not my thing.
Pinot Noir 2016, Maienfeld, Graubünden: (Some purchased fruit from Maienfeld and Fläsch) Bright ruby in color. Herbal cherry aroma with spice and earth. The flavors are lovely and balanced between sweet cherry and raspberry. Very juicy. Flattering, satiny texture with a crisp, firm finish. This is a really delicious village-level wine that punches well above its weight. An incredible bargain at 22 CHF in a world of escalating Pinot Noir prices.
Pinot Noir, Graf 2016, Maisprach, Basel-Landschaft: (Swiss clones; 25% whole cluster; extended maceration) Dark, slightly brooding ruby in color. Warm nose of expansive cherry fruit and subtle gravelly elements. Palate is broad, spreading and beautifully textured. Ripe cherry flavors with notable pit-fruit concentration. Gravelly again, but not gritty. Slightly grippy but with a long spicy finish. Matthias says this comes from a warmer site but I’m not getting heat, just concentration.
Pinot Noir, Clos Martha 2016, Maisprach, Basel-Landschaft: (Swiss clones; 30% new barriques; 16 months in wood; later harvest) Very lively, bright ruby in color. Fascinating orange rind nose with a subtle new oak streak. Fat, unctuous, almost syrupy entry. Cherry pastille sweetness with a hint of green herbs and lavender. Exotically textured without any over-ripeness or heat. Really good Swiss Pinot is capable of playing at the extremes without ever crossing over. Despite all of the exoticism this remains an elegant, polished wine. Excellent.
Pinot Noir, Pilgrim 2016, Maienfeld, Graubünden: (30% new barriques; 16 months in wood; 40% whole cluster) Bright ruby in color. Super elegant nose of red cherries and red currants. Very juicy, showy red fruit that is sweet, concentrated and supremely elegant. Flavors are precise, perfumed and expansive. Tannins are fine-grained. Finish is sweet and very long. A wonderfully elegant wine.
If I was tasting the last two wines blind I would have guessed this to be the Martha and the first to be the Pilgrim. Another lesson learned.