Standing in the vineyards between Ligerz and Twaan I often feel a little dreamy as I stare at the Bierlersee below and its signature landmark, St. Peter’s Island. From this vantage point I can only begin to imagine the serene isolation of someone living there alone, as the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau did for a short period in 1765. For him it was a time of exile and displacement as he ran afoul of church and state for his controversial writings. Despite this, he later described his time on the island as the happiest of his existence. From a man as deeply intellectual and worldly as Rousseau, that is a profound testimonial.
I wonder what Rousseau saw from the middle of the lake and what made him so happy? I like to think not much has changed since then, except, perhaps, for the railroad tracks that run along the edge of the lake or the autoroute which the tunnel-loving Swiss have wisely buried beneath the vineyards. There are a few extra weekend homes, as well, and other signs of modern life, but the near vertical expanse of vines, when viewed from the island, must look very much the same.
I also like to think it may have been the local wine that gave him joy. Maybe it was a fresh Chasselas from vineyards around the church, or a fruity Gamay—common before the introduction of Pinot Noir—that made him smile. Even more dreamy is the thought that Rousseau drank wine produced by a family that still makes wine today. Amazingly, there are still some of those around.
Andreas Krebs is the fourteenth generation of his family to live and work in the village of Twann and the adjacent hamlet of Wingreis. His daughters Lucy and Emilienne make the fifteenth. His wife, Sabine Steiner, has roots here as well. In fact, she is, perhaps, the more famous of the two in wine circles as proprietor of the highly regarded Steiner Schernelz Village winery in Ligerz. Her Chardonnay is celebrated as one of the best in Switzerland. But today is about Pinot Noir—Andreas and Sabine have assembled a small group of journalists and sommeliers for a vertical tasting of each of the family’s three Pinot Noir projects.
The Bielersee AOC (Lac de Bienne in French) is primarily a Pinot Noir area with slightly more than half of all vines devoted to it. Despite this commitment it takes a backseat to neighboring Neuchâtel for Pinot Noir honors. Even so, the gap is narrowing and both Andreas and Sabine are determined to close it for good.
In addition to his responsibilities at Weingut Krebs, Andreas is also winemaker for Gromann & Söhne, a high-concept, micro Pinot Noir project instigated by Zürich-based entrepreneur Thomas Gromann and his wife Keila.
As Thomas says: “I really wanted to see how the Bielersee terroir expresses itself when no expense is spared. I believe it to be a great terroir.”
Well, the early results are in and things look promising. Thomas is proud to tell you so: “At a blind tasting in Alsace the moderator mistook our 2010 Vogelsang for a Gevrey-Chambertin.”
Below is my account of the tasting at the Steiner Schernelz Village winery with all of the principals in attendance. As an aside, more than one journalist noticed there was not a single representative from La Romandie (I don’t count, because I’m a Yank) and they let me know it. Röstigraben is real.
Pinot Noir “Alte Reben” (Twann, Bielersee)—Andreas Krebs has been winemaker at his family’s winery since 2009. As befits such longtime residents they are owners of one of Twann’s best vineyards, Vogelsang, the source for their Alte Reben (old vines) cuvée. These are forty-year-old vines planted to a mix of Swiss clones. From the years 2009—2013 I found the wines to be a bit harsh, with rough tannins, and a lack of generosity in the mid-palate and in the finish. From the years 2014—2016 the wines seem to hit a stride with more generous fruit, assertive but balanced tannins, nice freshness, and overall better balance. I look forward to future vintages.
2009: Brick/ruby in color and transparent. Dark cherry aroma with strong cedar and evergreen forest notes—not unlike incense. Flavors of cherry and forest floor are beginning to dry out with substantial remaining tannins. A bit harsh.
2010: Burnt ruby in color with an onion skin rim. Slight notes of oxidation including bruised apple skin and earth. Lays somewhat flat on the palate with more apple skin, herbs, orange oil and an earthy, slightly bitter finish. Overly tannic and not especially balanced.
2011: Brick/ruby in color. Very herbal and weedy with a green, somewhat unripe aroma. Some tangy sulfides recall cured meat. There is some dark cherry fruit underneath it all but the finish is short and tannic. Improved a bit with air but the astringency is concerning.
2012: Brick/ruby in color. Very pretty, dense cherry kernel nose—a bit kirsch-y. Some sweetness on the palate with deep cherry fruit and caramel notes. Once again there is an intrusive astringency on the back palate. Finishes slightly bitter and overly dry. Maybe time will help to round things out.
2013: Ruby with a bit of onion skin on the rim. Somewhat reduced, matchstick aroma with leafy elements as well as cherry, strawberry and soy sauce. This is the first in this series with some sweet, textured and layered cherry fruit. It’s solid and firm with spice and a vague mustard seed flavor. Needs time.
2014: Solid ruby with a bit of bricking on the rim. Pretty, delicate nose of cherry, herbs and an unusual rubbery or latex character. The palate is spicy with cherry and herbs. Somewhat sharp and high acid with firm tannins. Starts prettily enough but could use a bit more generosity of fruit on the palate. Will benefit from some more age.
2015: Ruby/garnet in color. Dark cherry, black tea and coriander on the nose. Finally, some real sweetness and ripeness on the palate with saturated cherry flavors mingling with celery seed and dried herbs. Oaky mid-palate and finish is punctuated by a chamois texture. Very nice and the best of the bunch so far.
2016: Ruby/garnet in color. There is real freshness here with dark cherry and sweet spices. On the palate there is warm cherry fruit with a side of caramel apple. This is fresh and saturated with medium-grained tannins, fresh acidity and overall nice balance. Finishes firm with persistent flavor. Very good. The tannin management is much improved.
Gromann & Söhne
Pinot Noir, (Vogelsang) (Twann, Bielersee)—Sourced from Vogelsang’s oldest vines—only two barrels are made. Even though these wines are made from the same raw material as the Krebs Alte Reben the wines couldn’t be more different. Thomas assures me that they are made in exactly the same way but undergo an extended barrel regime in new oak. The resulting wines are softer, more textured, sweeter, and more finessed. They are also more aromatically complex, at least at the moment, but they lack a bit of the freshness found in the Krebs wines. Overall they are very impressive and, dare I say, Burgundian.
N.B. The different labels are a point of confusion to some but are easily explained. The original “Vogelsang” label ran afoul of authorities because it was never approved. The “Vieilles Vignes” moniker was adopted as a temporary measure until final approval was secured. The “Vogelsang” label will return in 2016. The “Le Petite Pinot” is a new second label for wine that doesn’t make the final cut. It may or may not be used each year depending on vintage and quality.
2015 “Le Petite Pinot”: Lovely, transparent ruby/garnet color. Tantalizing nose of tomato leaf, savory herbs and raspberry. Rich and textured in the mouth with saturated sour cherry/raspberry fruit. Flavors are also a bit jammy but focused. Medium-bodied but rich, sweet and tangy with a sour fruit finish. Nice grip and more weight than the color suggests. Very nice.
2014 “Le Petite Pinot”: Slightly cloudy ruby in color. Starts with fresh green herbs, leaves and stems but is a touch under ripe. Medium-bodied with cherry fruit and a pronounced flavor of herbs. Sharp acids strip the wine of any texture and cuts the flavors short. Seems a bit out of balance and resides on the lean, ungenerous side of things.
2015 “Vieilles Vignes”: Ruby/garnet in color. Aroma of kirsch-macerated red fruits and salted caramel. Dense stone fruit and raspberry flavors that are sweet and delicious. Saturated flavors with a wonderful silky texture. Transparent and fine but with weight and gravitas. Seamlessly constructed and really fine. Outstanding.
2014 “Vieilles Vignes”: Transparent ruby in color. Clean wild strawberry and celery seed aroma. Very savory flavors that are deep and persistent. Celery seed and cherry fruit give interest but are over-ridden with sharp flavors from high acids. Quite sour with furry tannins. May have been better to declassify all into “Le Petite Pinot.”
2013 Vogelsang: Slightly cloudy ruby in color. Warm strawberry jam aromas that are broad rather than focused. A bit diffuse on the palate with a bit of toast over wild cherry fruit. Slightly soapy with a bit of charcoal to finish. Seems a touch high pH but rich and sweet. I like this but it lacks the precision of some of the others.
2011 Vogelsang: Healthy ruby in color. Lovely Christmas spice nose with a bit of incense and holiday wreath greenery. Very sweet with ripe cherry fruit, cola spice, potpourri and an odd note of charcoal ash. Really complex in the best Burgundian sense with cascading cherry fruit and silky tannins. Very good.
2010 Vogelsang: Ruby with a bit of bricking and slightly cloudy. Opens with a bit of reduction but beneath it is cherry jam, spice and a certain meatiness. Lovely flavors that are sweet and cherry laden with, sweet spices and sandalwood. This has a bit of toasty ash as well. Really very good. I can see how this might have been mistaken for a Burgundy.
Steiner Schernelz Village
Pinot Noir, Buurehöf (Schernelz, Bielersee): The Steiner family’s best Pinot Noir parcel is planted to Dijon Clone 777. Like the Krebs wines I found significant improvement in the more recent vintages. The older vintages do start from a higher place, though, with riper fruit and better balance overall. For an earlier story on Sabine Steiner check here.
2009: Interesting ruby/orange color. Even more interesting, if atypical, panforte and dried fruit nose. Kirsch-macerated cherries with some savory fresh herbs on the palate and a satiny, sweet texture to finish. Drinks beautifully now. Sabine Steiner explained that this was aged in oak barrels from Pfalz in Germany which accounts for its exotic character. I really liked it for that.
2010: Russet/ruby in color. Luscious cherry jam nose with some cooked strawberry. The palate is a bit of a surprise in that it is slightly pinched and not as juicy as expected. The fruit is taut and a bit too erect. The flavors are cut short but lean towards savory, herbal and weedy. There is a slight drying astringency in the finish. Just seems out of balance, but maybe time will help.
2011: Garnet/russet in color. This has some attractive green, leafy aromas like hedgerows in summer. There is also some dried cherry and spice. The flavors are a bit earthy with some warm loam, green herbs and savory spiciness. The tannins protrude a bit in the finish but overall a decent effort that I’d be happy to drink.
2012: Very pale ruby in color. The nose is warm and delicate with some sous bois notes. The texture is sharp and pointed with some mild herbal notes, cherry fruit and earth. Pleasantly sweet on the edges but somewhat harsh at the core. Hard to evaluate now.
2014: Lovely, bright ruby in color. Ripe red fruits including cherry, cranberry and apple. Unusual citrus notes on the palate as well as bruised apple and cherry. Somewhat sharp attack with some finishing astringency. Overly tannic and sharp. 2014 continues to disappoint all over Switzerland, especially for the reds.
2015: Pale ruby in color. Gorgeous, spicy nose with dark cherry, fresh coriander and dried oregano. Palate continues the sweet/savory theme with silky fruit and real freshness. Very intense and layered. This is seamless, rich and saturated and drinks beautifully now, but will reward cellaring. Classic.
2017: Ruby red in color. Very intense dark cherry nose with some black raspberry. Fresh herbs and sous bois notes add complexity. The palate offers meaty, pit fruit density with some cherry kernel flavors. This is saturated, intense and long with dark berries, herbs and grippy tannins to finish. Excellent.