2017 Chasselas, L’Énigme, Domaine des Faverges (St-Saphorin, Vaud)
One of my favorite pastimes when researching a wine region is digging into the side stories — the whys and hows. For example, after tasting this wine and knowing nothing of the winery’s history, I wondered how the canton of Fribourg came to own property in the canton of Vaud. It turns out — as with a lot of European history — it involves murder, civil war, the Roman Catholic Church, and medieval engineering.
The Domaine des Faverges is a 15.4 hectare vineyard located above the village of St-Saphorin in Lavaux. Amazingly, it has had only two owners in 850 years: the Cistercian Abbey of Hauterive and the canton of Fribourg. How it came into the hands of the canton is a juicy, if somewhat convoluted story that I’ll summarize here.
History buffs are aware that the rise of the Cistercian order, a popular off-shoot of the Benedictine order, coincided with the spread of viticulture and technical winemaking in Europe. It’s the same group of monks who were largely responsible for the management of Burgundy’s vineyards, the development of the cru system, and the walling-in of church-owned parcels. As the Cistercian brotherhood spread, its affinity for hard-work, viticultural knowledge and engineering prowess went with it; and in 1137, a mere forty-seven years after the order’s founding, the Abbey of Hauterive, near Fribourg in Switzerland, was built and consecrated.
The abbey’s benefactor, Seigneur Guillaume de Glâne, came to the order after the violent murder of his father and uncle and, as the heir to one of Vaud’s wealthiest families, he gave generously to the fledgling brothers — including the very land that was to become Domaine des Faverges. During these early years the abbey flourished and expanded into a kind of mini-conglomerate with multiple interests in dairy cows, fields of grain, timber, and, yes, wine. The wine part put the engineering skill of the monks to the test as they were instrumental in building the famed terraced vineyards of Lavaux with its miles of dry-stone walls. The Domaine des Faverges is entirely supported by these walls.
But, as with any agricultural endeavor, periods of wealth and prosperity were followed by periods of decline and hardship. It was not until 1847 that things changed for good.
The Sonderbund War was a civil war between progressive, mostly Protestant cantons and conservative, mostly Catholic cantons. It proved to be one of the most polite wars in history but was nonetheless crucial to the establishment of the Swiss Confederation and its constitution. The Fribourg conservatives, after being granted some time to deliberate — and taking particular note that they were surrounded and out-manned — surrendered to the Protestant General Guillaume Henri Dufour without a fight. Tragically, there were some accidental deaths when an isolated group of soldiers misinterpreted a communique — but the General made good use of the mishap. From it, he and other humanitarians created an aid organization that later morphed into the Red Cross.
I love the disparate threads in this story.
By 1848 all of the abbey’s property was secularized and ownership reverted to the canton where it remains today.
The current structure of Domaine des Faverges is unusual and somewhat innovative. It’s divided into two parts — 6.6 hectares are farmed organically with biodynamic flourishes and the other 8.8 hectares are farmed conventionally. Gérald Vallélian manages the organic portion and Yvan Regamey manages the conventional portion. Monsieur Vallélian oversees the winemaking for both entities.
As evidence of its commitment to innovation the domaine collaborates with several research bodies including Changins (State University of Viticulture and Enology) and FiBL (The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture) in furthering the science of sustainable farming.
To me the most interesting portion of the domaine are the Bio Suisse certified vineyards and the excellent range of wines they produce. Of the 6.6 hectares 5.2 are devoted to Chasselas which goes into the minimal intervention, natural yeast-fermented Énigme which I report on here. Tiny lots of organic Merlot, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Syrah round out the Innovation line of the portfolio.
The production intégrée portion (Swiss certified sustainable) is also Chasselas heavy but includes several blended reds from the above mentioned varieties. The quality of the Tradition line is also quite good if a bit less committed to lo-fi principles.
Perhaps a bit under the radar is the canton’s 2.2 hectare vineyard in Vully which was also part of the Cistercian legacy. It is managed under contract by the Bourgeoisie de Morat and the great young winemaker Christian Vessaz of Cru de l’Hôpital. It’s farmed biodynamically and provides an excellent Gamaret de Vully for the Innovation line. It’s hard to find but worth the search.
The Énigme is always one of my favorite wines from St-Saphorin — a terroir that seems to give Chasselas a pronounced umami character. This is spot on in profile but extraordinary, dare I say Grand Cru-like, in terms of weight, texture and power.
Pale gold in color with a slightly reductive roasted mushroom and mineral nose. With air it develops an elegant white flower and lemon peel character with some delicate vanilla notes. What a chameleon. It has a substantial presence on the palate with salty soy sauce and mushroom flavors. It’s very textured, slightly grippy and savory with a lingering witch hazel-tinged finish. I love it.