Profile: Weinbau Thomas Studach (Malans, Graubünden)

 

To many foreigners Switzerland is a land of carefully cultivated myths and legends punctuated by beautiful mountain landscapes. The would be traveler, without knowing it, is seduced by marketing—eagerly shared by travel writers and recycled by hyper-efficient feedback loops. Thus, the watch industry and train system feed—and are fed by—the aura of Swiss precision and cleanliness. Banks and financial institutions enhance—and are enhanced by—the Swiss predilection for frugality and discretion. Idyllic images of happy cows and well-managed natural resources inure to the cheese industry, and vice versa; while the perception of skilled culinary artistry serves both the artisan chocolatier and industry giants alike—everybody loves Swiss chocolate, don’t they. Likewise, best-in-class hotel and restaurant management schools spawn the many tidy, efficiently run hotels and restaurants in every corner of the country. And on, and on. But what happens when one of these loops breaks down?

That’s when the time-worn legends kick in. The legend of William Tell, for instance, and the Swiss creation story. Tell’s fictional exploits are woven into the fabric of Swiss history and are a symbol of resistance and rebellion. His qualities of strength, determination, and courage—especially in the face of long odds—serve to fortify this tiny nation when collective self-doubt creeps in.

Even the well-known children’s story, Heidi, supplies needed spiritual fortification; despite uninvited hardships the little orphan girl finds peace in prayer and virtue in acts of kindness. Her message resonates in a country with no state religion and serves to bolster its staid secular underpinnings. To many outsiders these stories are stereotypically Swiss, but they are culturally significant and deeply embedded.

The image of Swiss wine is another matter. On the one hand, the industry is plagued by a never-ending loop of banalities. On the other, by a dearth of real story-telling that celebrates the aspirations of an outward-looking, dare I say “global”, generation.

The persistent trope that the Swiss have no wine to sell because it is all drunk at home suggests that the Swiss aren’t interested in export markets. For this reason many professional observers conclude that the category is irrelevant, or worse, too expensive. The fact is, most Swiss wine is irrelevant because it’s not very interesting. That makes it seem expensive. A look through any grocery store in small town Switzerland hints at the problem. There you’ll find row upon row of bland AOC wine with few distinguishing features and no stories to tell. Other banalities such as “Chasselas is Great with Fondue” or “10 Easy Hikes Through the Vine-clad Alps” may sell magazines but don’t encourage discovery and adventure.

Likewise, international competitions do little to add luster. Most of those attract the same recycled entrants which are rarely the very best of their type. Most high quality producers with limited stock don’t see the value of entering competitions where distinctive wines tend to get lost. Even the most prestigious showcase for Swiss wine, The Swiss Wine Tasting (née Mémoire & Friends), is not an end goal for many small producers because of the allocation commitments they are forced to make. For this reason, as many have told me, they can’t afford to participate, even if invited.

The local wine press does its part to tell a story, with some excellent commentary, but it’s The Wine Advocate’s regular foray into Switzerland that is its real lifeline to the outside world. Because wine is not yet a significant export product, positive reinforcement and outside recognition is slow to come. When it arrives—usually in a roll call of 90 point winners—it’s much appreciated by an industry starved for affection; but 90 points, in and of itself, does not a story tell.

This brings me to my main point: Swiss wine needs an image change and a recalibrated feedback loop. It’s not that hard to find great wine here and it’s not that expensive when you do. How’s that for a change of direction? I’ll go even further—some of it offers great value compared to equivalent counterparts from elsewhere. The only requirement is for you to search a bit, and not just in those spots the casual travel writer takes you to. Neuchâtel, Aargau, Schaffhausen and Bündner-Herrschaft vie for worldwide Pinot Noir supremacy while Vaud and Valais do their thing. I would argue it’s from the persistent telling of small stories that a consistent theme emerges: Who knew?

 

 

Self-Made Man

Thomas Studach embodies exactly what I’m talking about. He’s a Wine Advocate darling and a Gault-Millau Swiss Top 100 winery, but his work remains a mystery to many. He’s a regular, hard-working guy with an enviable business model: selling tiny amounts of highly sought after wine to a knowledgeable clientele—and he’s happy being small. When I asked about possible expansion from his current three hectares, he just shook his head as if to say, “I’ve got enough on my hands.” He manages to make ends meet despite the terrible risks small farmers face in this era of climate change. He’s self-taught, which means he never spent a moment being schooled in a posh foreign cellar, but admits to inspiration from his friend and mentor, Daniel Gantenbein. He’s not particularly well-traveled but his eyes twinkle when he recalls a road trip he took to the Pacific Northwest several years ago. Despite being a youngish man, he has thirty harvests under his belt—all in his hometown of Malans. He is what I would call a tweener: young enough to rub elbows with his mentor, yet experienced enough to earn the respect of those just coming up.

His breakthrough came with the release of his 1998 Pinot Noir which was lauded by the Swiss press before quickly selling out. He’s been a unicorn maker ever since. 1998 was also his tenth anniversary on his own. When I asked other writers and winemakers about him I was told he was somewhat reclusive and reluctant to receive visitors. So I was surprised and delighted when he accepted my second request for a visit. I found him engaging, a bit shy, but otherwise confident and serious.

The New Place

His recent move to a new building, formerly occupied by an uncle, created a bit of confusion. The plain, old-world exterior had no markings and offered no indication of what might be inside, so I took a half-open door to be an invitation to enter. Once inside I immediately recognized Thomas who was striding back and forth with a cell phone to his ear. I couldn’t help but imagine he was refusing someone else’s request to visit. After a minute or two he greeted me and then began a brief feeling-out process, before warming to the idea that his English was better than my non-existent German.

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Thomas in his church

The morning began with a tour of the facility, which he intimated is larger than his old digs. I found the cuverie to be almost church-like with a kind of matroneum on three sides from which I half expected a choir to break out in song. It would have been appropriate because the wines I tasted were almost mystical and full of gravitas. A couple of stainless steel tanks stood near the entry with other, smaller, tanks nearby. Otherwise the room had the look of someone just moving into a new flat. The upstairs, as it turns out, is a cozy tasting area complete with a long monastery table, sink and more signs of moving in.

Downstairs is a proper cellar with a small anteroom containing several barrels of Chardonnay and Completer. Frankly, I’ve seen more wine in a hobbyist’s cellar. The deadly frost of 2017 cut his volumes in half, so, sadly, part of the space is devoted to empty barrels.

Like all of Thomas’s whites the Chardonnay is fermented on native yeasts in INOX and then transferred to barrique (70% new) where it finishes its malolactic. The new oak imprint is strong but not in the least off-putting or out of balance. There is no racking and, despite this, no hint of reduction, either.

In an out of the way corner of the same small room I spied a barrel and a half of Completer. The fact that the two were sequestered suggested they might be off limits to visitors. I grew a bit concerned. After all, his Completer was one of the reasons I trekked here. It’s my contention that if Thomas made fifteen hundred cases of this sinewy nectar he would be an international superstar and Completer would be regarded as one of the great, oddball varieties.

Like a few others in the village, his comes from the higher slope, at 550 meters. The 2017 was picked late in October at 110º oeschle, long after everything else was put to bed. Acid retention—even when picked in November and at high sugars—is never a problem with Completer. Indeed, the modern style Thomas prefers requires late-picking and residual sugar to balance its acids. If you are thinking Riesling balance, then don’t. Even at elevated alcohol (14.5% and above) the acids show a steely edge but are never undigestible.

The traditional oxidative style also tends to mitigate acids but requires years of barrel-aging to do so. The old-school style is currently out of fashion, but thankfully a couple of devout practitioners persist and may one day reclaim bragging rights.

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Vines in the middle of the village near Kirchgasse

In an adjoining room is a crèche of slumbering pinot noir—some of the rarest in Switzerland. Thomas explains his Pinot philosophy this way:

“I don’t make enough of any one wine to play with single-vineyard bottlings. Instead, I try to build complexity by varying the technique and regimen of several small lots. In the end I get a deeper, more complex product by blending.”

The only concession to homogeneity is that all the reds are fermented in stainless steel on native yeasts. The difference-making part happens in several ways: first, by picking and processing each parcel (in effect by clone) separately; second, decisions about the amount of stem inclusion will vary, but are made on the fly; third, maceration times vary according to vintage and clone; fourth, barrels (François Frères, Chassin, Rousseau) are matched to each cuvée. His goal is to make each stand on its own before blending into a single wine. This practice has been very successful over the years and, as he told me, there is no reason to change it now.

While we sampled from the various cuvées he seemed to take particular delight in showing off each barrel; which signaled to me, a quiet confidence that he could play the single-vineyard game if he wanted to.

I was surprised to learn that Thomas prefers the Dijon clones for “their innate nobility”. This is no doubt the influence of his mentor, Daniel Gantenbein, whose own winery is dedicated exclusively to Dijon clones. On this day, my own preference was for the Swiss clone cuvées. They have what I call “verticality”: a stacked, compact, almost hierarchical, presentation of verdant freshness, fruit and structure. To my taste, Dijon clones populate another paradigm: “horizontality”. with broad, saturated fruit, a flat, one-dimensional presence on the palate, and a slight muddling of aromatics. I’ve made similar observations in various cellars across the country, so I don’t believe this perception is a one-off.

Studach has been organic since 2013 and is now dabbling in something akin to biodynamics. His vineyards maintain a juicy cover crop of native vegetation and are dispersed throughout the village in tiny, walled-in parcels and on the slopes to the south of town. His three hectares include 2.35 hectares of Pinot Noir (both Swiss and Dijon clones), 300 ares of Chardonnay, 150 ares of Completer, 100 ares of Pinot Gris and 100 ares of Merlot. His considerable reputation is founded on the former three. I’ve never even seen a Studach Pinot Gris or Merlot and was not offered either to taste on this visit.

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No nonsense graphics tell you what you need to know

The Wines

All wines were tasted at the winery with Thomas Studach in attendance.

Chardonnay 2017, Malans, Graubünden (tasted from barrique): (Fermented in INOX then moved to barrique) Pale straw in color. The nose is not hugely expressive at the moment but it is clean and fresh with an inkling of coconut and lemon. The palate opens more voluptuously than expected with notes of toast, lemon and spent yeast. Softly textured, but by no means blowsy, as well as creamy and citrusy. Really delicious but not ready.

Chardonnay 2016, Malans, Graubünden: Light gold in color. Butterscotch and toasted oak on the nose. On the palate there are lemon and roasted apple flavors that are crisp, fresh and angular. The beginnings of a creamy texture mark the palate and with it a bit fresh mushroom a la Chablis. Really interesting complexity with obvious youthful notes and some subtle signs of aging. Lovely and contemplative.

Completer 2017, Malans, Graubünden (tasted from Schuler barrique):  Pale straw in color. Zesty lemon curd nose with some quince perfume. Suggestions of butter and fresh cream but strapped onto a bracing acid spine. Paradoxically lean and richly textured (this is the genius of Completer—texture in harmony with acids). The more one chews this wine the more it relaxes. Finishes sweet and creamy with a vague tropical character.  Slightly green Swiss oak perfume lingers. I love this.

Completer 2016, Malans, Graubünden: Medium-straw colored. Compound notes of buttercream frosting, lemon, lime and quince. Razor sharp. Somewhat advanced flavors within an imposing structural sheath. Loosens up with some vigorous chewing. Butterscotch, caramel and quince flavors surrounded by sweet oak and cream. Mineral finish with green top notes. Long and perfumed.

Pinot Noir 2017, Malans, Graubünden (tasted from Rousseau barrique—Swiss clones): Ruby/garnet in color. Tight mixed berries and spice with a fresh green herbiness. Palate opens sweet and oaky before raspberry tanginess sets in. Beautiful freshness and vitality. At the moment the structure dominates, as it should, but with chewing and air the specter of a fabulously elegant wine emerges. Clean, fresh and vital. This will add backbone and freshness to the mix.

Pinot Noir 2017, Malans, Graubünden (tasted from François Frères barrique—Dijon clones): Opaque ruby in color. Some reduction with broad somewhat stretched out cherry fruit. Seemingly warm and soft. Flavors of cherry pie and raw oak. Only a little integration so far. Really muscular with firm tannins and an oaky finish. From the nose I would have expected a yielding wine but not so. Perhaps a bit awkward at the moment.

Pinot Noir 2017, Malans, Graubünden (tasted from Chassin barrique—Swiss clones): Bright ruby in color. A near perfect expression of verticality: very bright cherry fruit, verdant freshness, and a clear-cut spiciness. Palate is structured, if a bit sharp, with green (pine needles) notes, dark cherries, and a ras el hanout mix of spices. Each element is clear and distinct and of equal measure. A real joy.

Pinot Noir 2016, Malans, Graubünden: Garnet/ruby in color and virtually transparent. Somewhat reductive, cherry/raspberry fruit that is very spicy. Clearly backwards at the moment with savory red fruit and some leafy elements. A firm, green spine dominates. This seemed a bit awkward at the moment although I like the raw materials. Needs time but I anticipate an excellent evolution.

Pinot Noir 2005, Malans, Graubünden (screw top): Autumn ruby and a bit opaque. Wet autumn leaves with caramel and graham cracker notes. Convincing cherry compote and pumpkin spice flavors. Slightly singed, luxurious and highly textured. Almost syrupy finish with great length. Sweet spices and cherry liqueur to finish. Completely resolved but in no danger of turning. Really excellent.

Thomas experimented with screw tops for a while and now that some older examples are showing up in such good shape he is considering a revisit.

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