Every year on the third Wednesday in January, at five-o’clock sharp, there’s a party in the charming Swiss city of Neuchâtel. It’s not a raucous affair with loud music or wild dancing; instead, it’s a dignified civic event with some costume-clad celebrants and some excellent young wine to drink. Good wine, however, is in the eye of the imbiber—and to those suspicious of visual anomalies, the cloudy stuff poured at this party might raise some eyebrows.
Welcome to Chasselas Non Filtré, Neuchâtel’s answer to Beaujolais’ third Thursday in November. This festive occasion trumpets the start of a new selling season and offers a first glimpse at the new crop of Chasselas. It’s a hazy first look, indeed.
Chasselas non filtré is not just unfiltered, it’s intentionally bottled with its fine lees in milky suspension. And to make sure those lees are used to good effect, the bottle is vigorously shaken—here I’m reminded of a child with a Sno-Globe — before its contents are poured and allowed to breathe on their own. And just to drive home the point, the event’s motto, Laissez-vous Troubler (or, in English, “Let Yourself Be Disturbed”), is not a commentary on mental health but an importunity to shake things up a little.
As is frequently the case in Switzerland, there are several stories for every tradition and the origin of Chasselas non filtré is no exception. Because its beginnings are relatively recent, everyone agrees on the date — 1975 — and the protagonist — Henri-Alexandre Godet — but the circumstances surrounding the event are as murky as the wine.
The quasi-official story is the one usually told and it involves the troubled harvest of 1974 when very little white wine was made. The shortage prompted Monsieur Godet to bottle a small amount of the younger vintage to satisfy an under-supplied market. For whatever reason, he did so without filtration.
A second version of the story, whispered to me by a veteran winemaker in a secretive sidebar, is that Monsieur Godet had no stock of filter pads at the time of bottling. The confident tone of my source and his long-standing friendship with Monsieur Godet (since deceased) lend credence to this account.
A third story, reported by Laurent Probst in his excellent blog Vins Confédérés, claims that a friend of Monsieur Godet was so impressed with the wine when tasted from barrel that he asked for some of it to be bottled as is. I have found nothing to confirm this report.
I’m tempted to cobble together all three stories to create yet another version of the truth.
What It Is
Chasselas non filtré differs from regular Chasselas in that its fruity esters are left intact (not metabolized) and its texture enhanced by a milk of magnesia-like chalkiness from the lees. The tropical fruit elements of banana, pineapple and guava are, indeed, front and center and not unlike the bubble-gum and tutti-frutti esters found in Beaujolais nouveau. A grounding touch of reduction keeps the whole thing from going off the rails in a fruity explosion, but don’t expect to find any of the complex mineral notes of fine Chasselas from a great terroir. This is simple, less cerebral stuff, but utterly delicious in its own way.
Not everything is rosy however. One producer laments that Chasselas Non Filtré kills the market for anything older; which is ironic, since everyone concedes that unfiltered Chasselas has an enhanced capacity to age. Yet, no restaurant in Neuchâtel wants to be stuck with an older Chasselas once the new stuff is released.
Then there is the related mantra that the local Chasselas doesn’t age as well as Chasselas from Lavaux, or that the local terroir does not support the characteristics necessary for extended aging.
To put this conventional wisdom to the test, I’m putting some of both away in a cold cellar.
What I’m Putting Away
The 2018 class of Chasselas non filtré is not as cloudy as in some vintages. The simple explanation has to do with harvest dates. The earlier the harvest the longer the lees have to settle. Conversely, a late harvest equals cloudier wines. This was explained to me by Louis-Philippe Burgat of Caves de Chambleau who began picking his Chasselas in mid-September. As he told me, “That’s rather early when you consider mid-October harvests are not uncommon.”
Of the thirty or so wineries in attendance there were two stand-out wines for me: The Caves de Chambleau “Non Filtré” from vines located in Colombier and the J.-Ch. Porret “Non Filtré from the Domaine des Cèdres in Cortaillod.
The Chambleau is perhaps the more serious of the two with the characteristic fruity aromas we expect but with some grounding yeasty, bread-like aromas as well. Structure, in the form of acidity, gives definition and backbone with some lemony zing in the finish.
The Porret is more gourmand and hedonistic with well integrated, almost creamy lees. The barrel regime is apparent in the texture and sheer richness of the fruit. Along with the characteristic fruity esters is a dairy side to things with flavors of yogurt and ricotta. A very individual wine in a crowd of fruit-bombs.
A notch or two lower but still very good are the Domaine Saint-Sébaste “Non Filtré”, the Le Landeron “Non Filtré” of Chantal Ritter Cochand, and the Lavanchy Vins “Non Filtré” from La Coudre.
These are all textbook but ultimately a little more simple and direct.
A Stroll Around Town with Time to Kill
With a little time to kill before my train to Geneva, I went in search of what is billed as Neuchâtel’s only serious wine bar, Chauffage Compris (Heat Included). It’s a warm, charming little place with a substantial after-work following. In it I found a fully-loaded Enomatic and a diverse menu of potted terrines that spans much of the animal kingdom. I settled on a jar of pheasant terrine studded with hazelnuts and a glass of Syrah from the Domaine du Grand Brûlé—owned by the canton of Valais—in Leytron. I think potted meat is seriously underrated and this one did not disappoint.
Most fun of all was the impromptu blind tasting offered to me by the congenial barman, Jimmy, who plunked down a glass of cloudy white wine, seeking, it seemed, an acknowledgment of the challenge he presented. I gladly obliged.
One sniff and my senses returned to an earlier time. Only a half-hour or so, but clearly back in time. My imagination retraced the twisting streets of the vieille ville; past the confounding aromas that emanate from the fondue joints and kebab stands; to the very steps of City Hall—still crowded with youthful late arrivals—past the clustered knots of the medievally-garbed; to the very table of Monsieur Porret and his wonderful Chasselas non filtré.
There was no doubt.
“This smells like Chasselas from Cortaillod”, I said to Jimmy.
“J.C. Porret makes Chasselas like this”, I added, perhaps unnecessarily.
Jimmy winced in defeat. I left behind my calling card.
Things move like lightening in small town Switzerland.