It’s not everyday that a two hundred year old international treaty is invoked to settle modern customs and cross-border taxation issues, but France and Switzerland, or more specifically the Republic of Geneva, can break out The Treaty of Paris every now and then as an example.
Article One, Section Three of the 1815 Treaty — as well as several provisions from the concurrent Congress of Vienna — ceded lands from France and the Kingdom of Sardinia (the rulers of Savoy at the time) to the newly independent state of Geneva. The land obtained made possible a narrow passage to the rest of Switzerland which paved the way for Geneva to join the Swiss Confederation. The treaty also provided, in specific terms, a set-back of French customs borders from the newly expanded political borders. This allowed for a free trade zone between the two entities in recognition of Geneva’s isolation from the rest of Switzerland and its status as the economic engine of the surrounding region.
While the political borders have been constant since the Treaty was ratified, the zones franches boundaries remain a sore spot between the two nations and are disputed from time to time — most recently in the first half of the twentieth-century when France attempted a unilateral repudiation of its free trade provisions. The precedent for the carve out is well settled, however, and goes back to the 17th-century when Genevan’s were exempted from the duties and tolls extracted by the neighboring Savoyards on foreign commerce. The rationale is explained in this article from 1924:
“Connected with Switzerland by a narrow strip of land which is hardly four kilometers wide, the Swiss city of Geneva, with 140,000 inhabitants, finds itself shut in by the French regions of Haute Savoie and the district of Gex, of which it is the natural center and the commercial metropolis. In order to live and prosper, Geneva must be in a position to entertain free and easy economic relations with those essentially agricultural regions. It needs them for its food supply, and it is in those regions that the trade of Geneva finds its nearest market.” — Foreign Affairs, The Franco-Swiss Free Zones,
The treaty’s provisions, despite several challenges, have stood the test of time and were finally affirmed by the International Court of Justice in 1932. Today it’s not just agricultural products that pass between France and Geneva but also a steadily increasing stream of skilled French workers seeking higher wages — the advantages for both are obvious.
Astute readers of this blog will recall that one of the free trade zones created by the treaty involves the vineyards of Challex in France, which abut the vineyards of Dardagny in Switzerland. They are, in fact, an extension of Dardagny’s upper slope as it plateaus and begins to tilt and descend to the southeast and the Rhône River below. Forty of the fifty hectares planted there are Swiss-owned and part of the Geneva AOC — the words “Made in France” are nowhere to be seen.
The other ten hectares are French-owned under the Côteaux de l’Ain IGP with the hyphen-attached Pays de Gex added to distinguish it from other similarly situated grape-growing districts within the départment. Historically all of the grapes from the French-owned vineyards in Challex were vinified across the border at the Swiss cooperative, Cave du Mandement de Satigny, until it folded in 1993.
It wasn’t just the hardship created by the loss of this outlet, however, that contributed to the decline of the Challex vineyards, it was also the pressure from urban expansion and the need for housing and commercial development. As a result — apart from two tiny mixed-farm vineyards with limited wine production — there remains today only one commercial winery within the Pays de Gex.
For this reason, Frédéric Péricard of the Domaine de Mucelle is literally the last man standing.
The eight hectare Domaine de Mucelle is a dead simple affair with a no-frills, shed-like winery building and a cramped, unadorned tasting room that doubles as a mini-museum with dusty bottles from the past on display. What the facility lacks in ambiance it more than makes up for in hospitality and the quality of its wines.
Frédéric’s farming is a bit of a mixed bag. His vineyard’s are certified organic by Agriculture Biologique but he uses essential oils and other preparations instead of copper to fight mildew. He likes to harvest late in the season — sometimes too late, in my opinion — and according to the phases of the moon. His vineyards include the same mix of grapes that would be at home in Switzerland: Pinot Noir, Chasselas, Pinot Gris, Gamay, Gamaret, and a bit of Altesse for the sparkling cuvées. If he has done things right there is no need to chaptalize, which he abhors.
In the winery he works with native yeasts and with as little sulfur as possible but, for some reason, he filters everything. All of the wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks with the prestige Pinot Noir, the Gamaret and the dry Pinot Gris seeing some time in oak barrels.
The only variation to his routine is the early-harvested Chasselas destined for a zero sulfur-added cuvée which is fermented under a cap of carbon dioxide to prevent exposure to oxygen. This and the Gamay “Nature” are quite popular and can be found in the local organic grocery chain, Satoriz.
The pricing is generally below those of his neighbors in Switzerland with some incredible bargains to be had in his Chasselas “Nature” (€9), un-oaked Pinot Noir (€10) and Pinot Gris (€11).
2018 Chasselas, Côteaux de l’Ain-Pays de Gex: Pale straw in color. Clean aroma of fresh cut apples with a bit of chamomile. The palate is equally clean with bright, green apple and mild honey flavors. This is simple, light-weight and without any of the minerality or salinity many of the better Swiss examples are known for. This is good and well worth the €7 price tag at the winery.
2018 Chasselas, Nature — Sans Sulfites Ajoutés, Côteaux de l’Ain-Pay de Gex: Medium-gold in color. This is a different animal altogether. The nose offers some of the same apple but with an assist from the lees. It has much more complexity with dairy notes, caramel, and white flowers in a pristinely clean frame. The palate has added weight with complex flavors of apple, pear, creamy lees, toast and a salty, mineral backbone. This is excellent and a wonderful counterpoint to a very good Swiss example. As mentioned earlier, this is from early-picked fruit which argues well for a less is more approach to harvesting.
2017 Pinot Gris, Côteaux de l’Ain-Pays de Gex: A pale Sauternes gold color is highlighted by the clear glass it’s bottled in. This one has an exotic peach and dried mango aroma that seems to promise residual sweetness on the palate. Wrong! Even though it’s lush and even a bit waxy it finishes dry and with good length. In between are lovely flavors of dried and candied fruit. This actually reminded me a lot of a Roussanne (Bergeron) from nearby Savoie. The 14% alcohol is barely evident. This is one example of Péricard’s penchant for late-picking that really works. I loved this.
2018 Oeil de Perdrix, Côteaux de l’Ain-Pays de Gex: Tavel-colored with a pink-onion skin edge. The nose is a little ponderous and phenolic in an over-steeped tea kind of way. The first impression on the palate is one of bitterness and alcoholic heat. Slightly clumsy and top-heavy with some grippy fruit (strawberries?). Here’s an example of the risk of waiting for fully ripened fruit. A lighter, fresher style of rosé is the rage right now and a wine like this is unlikely to change that dynamic.
2017 Gamay, Nature — Sans Sulfites Ajoutés, Côteaux de l’Ain-Pays de Gex: Clear ruby in color. Opens somewhat fusty then turns all red fruit, savory herbs and sweet spices. Never develops anything more than that before beginning to fade. This seems a bit stripped, perhaps from filtration. There are some flavors of strawberries in balsamic with an apple skin texture, mild tannins and medium acids. Overall, this is a bit under expressive. Not bad, just a bit anemic.
2018 Pinot Noir, Côteaux de l’Ain-Pays de Gex: A beautiful, bright dark ruby in color. Raspberry-scented with just the right amount of fresh green elements. Plenty of raspberry fruit on the palate as well with some underlying spice and a grippiness from the greenery. Texturally like a ripe, juicy plum with a lot of satisfying saturation of flavor. Not Burgundy but a delicious, fresh expression of Pinot Noir from a wonderful, warm vintage. This is fantastic value for current drinking. Delicious.
2017 Pinot Noir, Élevé en fût de Chêne, Côteaux de l’Ain-Pays de Gex: Slightly faded ruby in color. The nose opens dusty with a bit of wet concrete. Maybe reduction? Whatever it is, it seems to subvert fruit expression. A bit like the Gamay above — seemingly stripped and unexpressive. Though the wood is not overly apparent the wine just kind of sits there. It’s overall dry, dusty and a bit disjointed. Not my favorite.
2017 Gamaret, Côteaux de l’Ain-Pays de Gex: Huge, opaque blue-purple in color. There’s a lot to like here and some that is overdone. Ultimately, the quest for super-ripe fruit works to the detriment of the wine. 15% alcohol is one issue, residual, even cloying sweetness is another. The nose is nice enough with rich plummy aromas and an earthy beetroot character that is typical for Gamaret. In this one acidity and tannins are invisible which gives it a fat, unstructured, somewhat syrupy texture. The style will probably appeal to those who like grapey sweetness and a soft, formless presence. I know this is a variety that can speak in softer tones, I just wish more people would try to make that happen.