Look at a current political map of Europe and you might notice the outline of a limp handshake (choose your own piece of anatomy) where western Switzerland meets France. It looks limp for a reason. As a one time exclave—entirely surrounded by France and the old Duchy of Savoy—Geneva existed as an on-again, off-again city-state aligned with—but not yet a member of—the burgeoning Swiss confederation. It was not until The Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the subsequent annexation of land from the French department of Ain that Geneva was finally joined to the rest of Switzerland. The same Congress also annexed land from the Duchy of Savoy—doubling what was taken from Ain—and adding it to the hinterlands to the west and south of the city. So when the Republic of Geneva offered itself to the Swiss confederation that same year, it was with a swollen dowry, a land bridge to the rest of the country, and more or less fixed, if limp looking, international borders.
Today this tacked on area remains largely agricultural with one important AOP—the cardoons of Plainpalais—and two important viticultural zones: The Mandement and the wedge-shaped area between the Rhône and Arve rivers (aka: Entre l’Arve et Rhône).
The Mandement is Geneva’s largest wine area at 854 hectares, anchored by Switzerland’s largest wine commune, Satigny. The Mandement takes in the entire right bank of the Rhône River from the western city limits to the French border. And though it’s just minutes from downtown it’s one of the canton’s least visited areas. There is only limited access for tourists and almost nothing to attract locals except for the vine-clad landscapes and several medieval villages that seem fixed in time. As an ancient Allobroges stronghold viticuilture is thought to have existed here well before the Roman occupation.
Many in Geneva are proud of this viticultural heritage, but, arguably, no one as passionately as Françoise Berguer, the octagenarian proprietor of Clos des Gondettes.
My introduction to the wines of Les Gondettes was by chance at a well-stocked wedding reception bar. I was intrigued by its rather outré label—a cartoon-like rendering of a carnally engaged twosome (a rabbit and a boar, for those keeping score)—so I asked the barman to pour me a glass. I immediately noticed its blue plum color and thick blackberry nose. And though I didn’t find it especially complex, it had a certain velvety charm that was hard to resist.
Later, with a bit of research, I discovered this particular cuvée, Emotion Sauvage, was made from Chancellor, a hybrid variety developed in France 150 years ago, but these days at home in the American northeast. (The copulating characters on the label represent the interspecies marriage of two misfit cultivars).
Digging deeper, I also discovered that the aforementioned Madame Berguer is not your typical old lady. She was the first female to graduate from the state wine school at Changins in 1954 and the first woman to head up a family winery. One newspaper account from 2001 describes her exploits as an activist-vigneronne and an overall pain-in-the-ass. She single-handedly led a revolt of local producers against the regional marketing arm by refusing to pay compulsory dues. She argued that the agency was unresponsive, ineffective and, worse, hemorrhaging money and that growers were better off freed from its tight-fisted grip. She enjoyed considerable celebrity for this somewhat un-Swiss-like stance. Later she transformed her tasting room into an art gallery featuring local women artists and tied her wine marketing fortunes to the principles of creative expression.
It’s somewhat odd then that none of her wines exhibit the bombast and shrill notes we come to expect from similarly gifted and colorful winemakers. In fact, Les Gondettes is known for its assortment of solid, somewhat rustic, but very good value wines from its twelve hectares in Satigny, Choully and Dardagny. The winery itself is old-fashioned with ancient foudres, no barriques, and all the quirky accents that only benign neglect can bestow.
Bottom line: the entire Les Gondettes portfolio represents solid, honest winemaking without bells and whistles. The most expensive wine is a rare interpretation of the Savoie grape, Mondeuse, at CHF16. At the low end is a ridiculously good Gamay for all of CHF9.50. In between is a serviceable Pinot Noir for CHF11.50, an uncommonly good Garanoir for CHF12.50, and a classy Chardonnay for CHF11.50. And when you conjure the image of Madame Berguer giving her rigid middle finger to the establishment you begin to realize what a good deal you’ve found.
2016 Muscat, Geneva: Pale gold in color. Aromas of rose, sandalwood and musk are what you expect from this variety. There is a simple grapiness to the palate with some of the characteristic bitterness that fully dry muscat and gewürztraminer are prone to. This could benefit from a little softening sweetness. Not bad, just lacks some punctuation.
2015 Chardonnay, Choully, Geneva: Pale straw in color. So simple. Very shy nose with bergamot, toasted grain and dried grasses. Clean lemony fruit segues into wheat crisp on the back end with some mild dairy flavors weaving in and out. Clean, poised and utterly dry. This reminds me of a simple but well-made Mâcon. Needless to say, a great value.
2015 Gamay, Choully, Geneva: Slightly turbid ruby in color with a bit of brick at the edges. Blurred cherry fruit with spices and herbs. Surprisingly layered with sour cherry, dried twigs, earth and spice. A bit dry on the edges but with a youthful core. Nicely structured for mid-term aging with a final acid kick. Lacks a bit of freshness but overall a good drink and a nice value.
2016 Garanoir, Dardagny, Geneva: Translucent garnet in color. Nice aromas of ripe plum and sweet berries. There is a bit of rhubarb and earthy root vegetables as well with a bit more freshness than its twin, Gamaret. Clean and well delineated wine that is brighter than one expects from this family of bio-types (Gamaret, Garanoir and Mara) which can veer towards muddiness (geosmin). Very nice wine and one of my favorites.
2014 Gamaret, Dardagny, Geneva: Garnet in color with purple flecks. Distinct blackberry and smokey charcoal notes. Some unexpected gaminess too, like a theoretical crossing of Syrah and Zinfandel. A touch reductive with some cured meat funk. Substantial weight on the palate with more gaminess, thick dark fruit and just a bit of chewiness. Seems at an in between point right now; not youthful, yet not developed.
2014 Pinot Noir, Choully, Geneva: Brickish ruby in color. Sweet cherry fruit is a bit muted with dried, twiggy notes. There is a bit of dustiness too. Muted cherry fruit works the palate among dried herbs and aromatic wood. The most evolved wine in the portfolio. This is a rustic interpretation of Pinot Noir that fairly represents the genre and is well worth its CHF11.50 price tag. I can think of a few Pinots in this price range from more celebrated regions that are not as honest.
2013 Mondeuse, Dardagny, Geneva: Reddish garnet in color. Warm blueberry fruit, dried tobacco and caramel notes on the nose. Rippling black fruit that’s all smooth and seamless. Rich, sweet and palpably expansive. Not as tangy and minerally as the best examples from Savoie, but clean and nicely rendered. I like this.
Not tasted: Chasselas (Choully) and Altesse (Dardagny)