From the top of the slope in Dardagny (see header photo) there is so much to see. There are the undulating vineyards, of course, and the sleeping-cat form of Mont Salève in the distance. Close by is a mystical place of geological importance — the end of the Jura and the beginning of the Alps. To the southwest the mighty Rhône glides along to a narrow gap on the horizon with the Savoie vineyards beyond. Geneva itself sparkles on the edge of the lake where its signature plume of water, the Jet d’Eau, punctuates an otherwise modest skyline. This is not the highest point in the canton but it is, perhaps, the most strategic — a fact not lost on its original inhabitants, the Allobroges. Nor on the Romans who came later, always on the lookout for the next strategic stronghold.
This area also marks the western end of the Swiss plateau — that precious vein of farmland that occupies the center third of the country between the Jura and the Alps. In geological terms it’s a classic molasse basin formed from the cast-off rubble of the emerging Alps. This is Switzerland’s sandstone basement and its undisputed breadbasket. The plateau extends from the northeast corner of the country, near Lake Constance, to the southwest corner, near Lake Geneva, where it narrows and the glacial till that covers it is shallowest. Indeed, in the Mandement — just west of Geneva and near the top of the slope in Dardagny — the sandstone substrate actually peeks through to the surface.
Sandstone, or grès as it’s known, is a common geological feature of Swiss vineyards, especially on the edges of the plateau. In Dardagny, its’s overlain with calcareous till from the Jura, so it can drain and retain water as needed.
Once the sightseeing ends it becomes obvious that this is a special place with an enormous sky and healthy, sun-seeking vines. Even though the predominant exposure is north-by-northeast there is never any shortage of sun and the vines are snug and protected from moist southwesterly winds. A northern exposure also means they are fully exposed to the drying effects of the Bise winds which whip along the western shore of the lake from the northeast as they chase the Rhône downstream.
Today the vineyards of Dardagny encompass 190 hectares with ten independent wineries and several small growers who supply the Cave de Genève cooperative. Domaine Dugerdil is one of the most celebrated — a small wine farm of 8.8 hectares led by one of Switzerland’s most respected winemakers, Sophie Dugerdil.
Sophie’s path to the family winery was not predetermined. After a stint as a physical education instructor she did two tours with the Red Cross: first in Nepal, working to free political prisoners; then in Sri Lanka, to reunify Tamil fighters with their families in the wake of a prolonged Civil War. As with many young ex-pats the tug of home and family proved too hard to resist. She returned to Switzerland, still not certain of her future, but with an idea that wine might play a part. She went on to earn an enology degree from Changins and made the commitment to learn viticulture while on the job.
Sophie is the fourth generation to work these vineyards. Her great-grandfather was first, followed by her grandfather. Tragically, he died soon after inheriting the vineyards leaving his wife, Sophie’s grandmother, to manage things. Without the necessary skills to make wine, she sold the grapes to the local cooperative until her son, Sophie’s father, was able to take over. When he did, he made a bit of wine but also continued to sell most of the grapes to the same cooperative.
Sophie emerged in 2004 and almost immediately made changes. She no longer sold grapes in bulk but used the entire output to make wine. In the vineyards she began to work organically and eventually secured the Bourgeon certification from Bio Suisse, a third party organization that oversees organic farming in Switzerland. Today, she is moving toward biodynamics with ongoing experimentation in a couple of plots.
By her own admission, she is not a natural winemaker — she sometimes uses cultured yeasts and a bit of sulfur — but that doesn’t stop the excellent local natural wine retailer, Le Passeur de Vin, from promoting and stocking her wines. She has begun to experiment with native yeast fermentation and the results are spectacular. Her IndiGenève Garanoir was my favorite wine of the tasting and from what I’ve heard the sold out IndiGenève Chardonnay is excellent as well. I think we can expect more of this type of experimentation from Sophie.
In the cellar she values gentle extractions and abhors too much manipulation. Punchdowns are kept to a minimum. Her aim is to retain freshness without an excess of oak, when it’s used, or too much reduction. There is some bâtonnage on the whites to enhance texture but the MLF is usually blocked, especially in warm years. Her stainless steel-fermented whites are fresh, clean and bright while the oak-aged cuvées are uniformly more spicy and texturally more viscous.
The reds run the gamut from fresh and juicy, to softly transparent and floral, to structured and rich. They are all of high quality with a capacity for near- to mid-term aging.
The Dugerdil vineyards are a mix of plots from various parts of the slope or coteaux. La Brive is the lowest in elevation at 425 meters and is located near the bottom and on a flat part of the slope where a small creek flows. It is planted to Chasselas, Pinot Blanc and Savagnin. It’s one of the best known climats in Dardagny and the source for their neighbor and friend Emilienne Hutin’s excellent Gamay “La Briva-Vieilles Vignes”.
As the vineyard begins its upward sweep — toward the middle of the slope — one finds Les Pins (457 meters) the family’s largest parcel and greatest mix of varieties. These include Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Gamay, Garanoir, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Les Pins is another important climat and is perhaps the best situated of all.
The highest point in Dardagny is at Communailles (505 meters) where the family’s Marselan, Merlot and Pinot Noir vines are located. The western limit of Communailles is the actual border with France, but the vineyards there extend like a tongue into the French village of Challex as part of the Zones Franches — a designation that allows Swiss ownership within France and entitles the products made within its boundaries to the Genève AOC. Geneva’s total of 1410 hectares of vineyards includes 122 hectares located within the various Zones Franches.
One of the first questions I always ask winegrowers in Geneva is whether they have any Mondeuse in their repertoire. I’m a fan of the variety and I’m chagrined that Geneva let it slip away post-phylloxera when it was the dominant red grape in the region. When I asked Sophie this question she smiled knowingly and promised her first Mondeuse would arrive in 2019. She planted some three years ago on a parcel called La Tuilière (483 meters) next to some Pinot Blanc. La Tuilière is on the north side of the Dardagny slope which abuts the Grand Bois de Roulave, a small riparian woodland, separating Dardagny from France and the village of St. Jean-de-Gonville.
The Dardagny slope is gentle enough to permit mechanization but the Dugerdil parcels are farmed by hand, including harvest. Production in a good year is around 50,000 bottles but climate events in 2017 limited production to 30,000 bottles and in 2018 to only 20,000. She is looking to export some of her production when output returns to normal.
I was very excited to taste these wines as I had only enjoyed them on occasion and usually when distracted. This tasting occurred in the Dugerdil cellars with Sophie in attendance.
2017 Pinot Blanc, Dardagny, Geneva: (From 30 year-old vines in La Brive and La Tuilière) Medium straw in color. First, powdery heliotrope notes that morph into dried apricot and lemon peel. Then, juicy mirabelle prune that seemed to saturate the taste buds. Palate is rich, fresh and very pure with a lemon oil finish. Stainless steel-fermented without MLF.
2017 Pinot Gris, Dardagny, Geneva: (From Les Pins) A slight pinkish tinge to an otherwise straw gold color. This is a bit exotic. Initial aroma of jasmin, yes jasmin, with some toasted almond. Medium-weight on the palate with a pear-like texture and flavor. Somewhat rich and surprisingly powerful. What seemed floral and delicate to start turned serious and weighty. No Alsatian ambiguity here. This is dry with some nice finishing crispness. Again stainless steel-fermented without MLF. Very good.
2016 Savagnin, “Fût de Chêne”, Dardagny, Geneva: (.2 hectares in La Brive; 300 liter oak foudres) Straw gold in color. Super spicy oak notes compliment the slightly nutty aroma with some lemon confit. (I want to say the oak dominates a bit, but it works so well together I can’t). Rich and nutty with some delicate vanilla, caramel and sweet spices from the nose. Some lemon confit and bright acids to finish. This is delicious and a revelation.
2017 Gamay, Dardagny, Geneva: (From Les Pins) Lovely ruby in color with a touch of gamey reduction and herby green elements. This is an appetizing mouthful with sweet raspberry fruit and noticeable, edgy tannins. Somewhat structured and primary but fleshy and fresh. This is also very good but could use some time to come together and balance out.
2017 Garanoir, “IndiGenève”, Dardagny, Geneva: (From Les Pins; native yeast fermentation) Plummy blue/purple in color but not opaque. Fragrant plums and earthy flowers make for a compelling nose. Kind of a medium-weight mash-up of Pinot Noir and Mondeuse. The wine is very fresh and clean with an earthy, floral palate, mild tannins and pleasant acids to finish. Highly fragrant. Excellent.
2015 “Typiquement Vôtre”, Dardagny, Geneva:(70% merlot/30% cabernet sauvignon; barriques) Garnet colored with some black reflections. This has a toasty nose of oak and black currants with some reductive notes of curry spice. More savory spice on the palate with some tight black olive, slightly sweaty fruit. Finishes somewhat tannic from the oak and clearly needs a bit of time to come together and soften.
This cuvée is assembled from selected barrels of merlot and cabernet which are aged separately. The new oak character comes mostly from the merlot.