It’s not exactly a secret garden — situated as it is mid-slope, in the middle of Valais — but Tsampéhro isn’t obvious either. From a distance it looks like any other vineyard along the Coteaux de Sierre, but upon closer inspection you might notice the low stone wall that surrounds it or the vibrant green, late-season cover crop that anchors the soil during winter storms and protects your shoes from mud. It’s hard to believe that just a couple of months ago you could have foraged a nice fruit salad from its now leafless assortment of trees — cherry, plum, apricot, peach, pomegranate, quince and fig. Everywhere else, it seems, there are vines and clumps of herbs whose piney scents make for a nice potpourri with the damp earth and wet leaves of fall. It’s in places like this where the Eden-like reputation of this temperate alpine valley is made. In fact, its name — local patois for champêtre or champs aux poires (pear orchard in English) — is an homage to its fruit-basket past.
This section of the Coteaux de Sierre (the western end) is an intermediate zone between Sion and Sierre with outcroppings of limestone, sand, gypsum, and the area’s signature mica schist — also known as flysch. All of these rocks can be found strewn about the slope as fragments or shards. In some spots the mica schist rises to the surface where its moist and crumbly texture can be seen and felt.
The complexity of this bedrock is best exemplified by two of the canton’s most important quarries which are located between the clos and the Route Cantonal. One is the source for much of the limestone used in the construction of legislatively protected murs en pierre sèche (dry stone walls). The other, a bit farther to the east, supplies the gypsum used in the fabrication of dry-wall and is an important component of cement.
A Plan of Action
Clos de Tsampéhro, the place and the idea, was five long years in the making. It owes its existence to the vision and real estate savvy of its owners, who managed to accumulate more than thirty parcels — from as many smallholders — against long odds, to create this quilt-like vineyard. But even before they secured the land, the business strategy and aesthetic vision of the original partners — Christian Gellerstad (board president), Joel Briguet (vigneron), Vincent Tenud (oenologist), and Emmanuel Charpin (sales manager; replaced by Johanna Dayer in 2017) — was already underway
Their first order of business was to rehabilitate dilapidated parcels and replace unwanted varieties with massale cuttings from some of the oldest Cornalin and Rèze vines in the valley. It was agreed early on that native varieties would form the backbone for each of the three blends they had in mind. These would be supplemented by several traditional and international varieties — making ten in all. Most importantly, each variety was matched to a specific, soil-tested parcel and the whole of it would be farmed organically.
Tsampéhro is not the most heroic Swiss vineyard — Domaine de Beudon, Mythopia and other examples of extreme farming offer more drama — but it’s not as physically demanding to work or as quirkily inefficient to manage as those others are. More to the point, the market segment they choose to occupy — upscale with corresponding prices — more than compensates for the challenges they face and justifies their “no-expense-spared” philosophy.
Today, Clos de Tsampéhro — all three hectares of it — is not only a living, breathing experiment in organic and sustainable farming, it’s also a glimpse into the future of agricultural land use. In many ways it’s a template for the efficient reorganization of Switzerland’s vineyards. Valais is well suited to consolidation of this sort. After all, it’s filled with week-end farmers tending impossibly small, non-commercial plots — more than 22,000 of them — with limited and increasingly unstable markets for the sale of their grapes. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of small farmers, but consolidation, as done at Tsampéhro, helps to create more financially sustainable businesses without distorting the current scale of family and made-to-measure farming.
At Tsampéhro, biodiversity is a watchword. In addition to fruit trees, herbs and ten varieties of grapes, there are water-conserving cover crops including red clover, red mustard, alfalfa and the weed-suppressing duo of oats and fescue. As a mix they work seamlessly together to retain crucial moisture from spring rains; to combat the ever-present problem of erosion; to aerate and build the soil; to make nitrogen available to the vine and manage other nutrients; and to add biomass. It’s imperative in this dry valley to preserve moisture for later use by the vines. Cover crops help to do this.
There is also a small potager (home garden) in one corner of the clos planted to botanicals necessary for biodynamic preparations: stinging nettle, sage, lemon balm, horsetail, and chamomile.
Tsampéhro’s emphasis on sustainable farming suits the newest partner, Johanna Dayer, just fine. When she isn’t out selling wine, organizing tastings, or studying for the MW exam, she can be found in the tiny guérite (cabin) above the garden preparing the botanicals for deployment in the vineyard. After drying on a specially constructed table, dynamisation awaits. Copper pots line one of the walls while a copper sprayer stands against another. All vineyard and winery compost is returned to the land after being nourished by some of these preparations. Others are used directly on the soil and on the aerial portions of the vines according to biodynamic protocols.
The principals have even accommodated the local fauna. Lizards are invited to make themselves at home in the man-made rock aggregations known as murgères. Bees, in particular, swarm to the lemon balm in the garden and will soon take up residence in their own hives to be located on site. Other pollinating insects can be seen streaming in and out of the vineyard’s own insect “hotel”.
There is even a kind of shrine to local history. A nearby pergola supports (or is it the other way around) a massive Humagne Rouge vine estimated at over one hundred years old (see header photo). I’m guessing the canopy can throw an impressive amount of shade in the summer months. It no doubt provides an ideal environment for al fresco dining and impromptu tastings.
The excellence of Tsampéhro’s position on the slope (an average elevation of 650 meters) is duly noted by other heavy-hitters. On the property just below is a still under-wraps, old-vines Humagne Rouge project headed up by two of Valais’ biggest wine celebrities. More on that to come.
Oh, and did I mention the view from here couldn’t be prettier?
In keeping with the no-expense-spared philosophy the cuverie and chai are newly constructed and quite impressive. Though not large, they are laid out Greek theater-style with ascending, semi-circular rows for barrels. At the bottom, center stage, are several 10 hectoliter oak uprights for the fermentation of the reds and the base wines for the sparkling program. As opposed to its stablemate, Cave La Romaine, the Tsampéhro wines see no stainless steel.
The sparkling cuvées are blends of Petite Arvine, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir which are aged for a minimum of 42 months sur lattes. There is no dosage for the Extra Brut and varying amounts for the Brut depending on the year. It’s my understanding that Pinot Noir will be play a lesser role in the blend going forward.
The ancient Swiss variety Completer is enjoying a renaissance in Valais where it is believed to have existed long ago. DNA testing has shown it to be a parent of the rare Valais native Lafnetscha. Whatever its origin and past importance, it is now a part of the Tsampéhro stable and since 2016 a single varietal bottling. It is lavished with 100% new oak and spends three years aging in specially constructed 218 liter barriques. Despite the famously high acidity of the variety, this cuvée does not undergo a malolactic fermentation and retains 3 grams of residual sugar. Johanna claims that this is unfermentable sugar and is characteristic of the variety. A fully-fermented Completer would often exceed 15% alcohol, so the high acidity is welcome and even necessary for balance.
The white cuvée is a blend of Savagnin (Heida) and the local Rèze. Yields are restricted to 700-800 g/m². The two varieties are hand-harvested and fermented separately in new barriques and aged for up to eighteen months. There is a regular bâtonnage and no malolactic fermentation. The success of this blend depends on the balance achieved. Rèze is a high acid variety while Savagnin adds richness and fullness but is prone to high acids as well. Both must show their best sides to make this a successful blend. Oak integration is key as well — too much unassimilated oak can render a sour, overly phenolic soup.
The red cuvée is a blend of Cornalin, Merlot and the two Cabernets — Sauvignon and Franc. Yields are low at 400-600 g/m². A week-long cold soak is followed by fermentation in 10 hectoliter oak uprights. The Merlot and Cornalin are fermented separately with a certain percentage of stems. The Cabernets are co-fermented and are destemmed. There is a light pigeage to moisten the caps. Élevage takes place in new barriques for a minimum of twenty-four months.
Extra Brut Edition V (2015): (Chardonnay 50%, Petite Arvine 30%, Pinot Noir 20%. Fermented in oak uprights, partial malolactic, 42 months sur latte, disgorged July 2019). Pale straw in color with a lively mousse. Aromas of lemon zest, yeast and brioche promise considerable finesse. The palate is incisive with citrus flavors that spread and develop into a delicately yeasty richness. Just a bit of red berry in the finish. This is an excellent early success.
Blanc Edition VII (2017): (60% Savagnin, 40% Rèze, 3.1 pH). Medium straw in color. Strong oak presence but not over the top. The fruit is lively and lemony with a hint of the pineapple I find typical of Swiss Savagnin. The palate has some lovely lemony and butterscotch flavors with just a bit of astringency from the wood. All in all, quite balanced and appealing as a young wine in need of a couple of years to stretch out. Promising.
Blanc Edition VI (2016): ( 62% Savagnin, 38% Rèze) Gold in color with some flashing green. Well integrated aromas of fruit and wood — a delicate mix of pineapple, wheat crisp, honey and butterscotch. I love the fresh acidity too and the mouth-filling, expansive texture. More honey and some pear-like fruit on the palate. It’s all beautifully integrated and expansive with a long, lingering finish. This is excellent.
Blanc Edition III (2013): (70% Savagnin, 30% Rèze) Yellow gold in color. Rich and thick textured, mouth-filling and almost oily. There are sweet notes of brown sugar and candied almonds with powerful flavors of nougat, barley sugar and candied citrus peel. I actually liked this more than others did, but there is nothing subtle about it. 2013 is a classic hot vintage and the ripeness of the fruit is clearly in evidence.
Blanc Edition II (2012): (78% Savagnin, 22% Rèze) Straw colored with some green streaks. At first (and for a while) very reduced with pop corn and astringent sulfur. Definitely more steely, mineral, and saline. Surprisingly layered and rich on the palate with some herbs and candied sweetness. Still reduced with significant aeration but the palate expanded to show more fruit and less abruptness. Judgment reserved.
Blanc Edition I (2011): (70% Savagnin, 30% Rèze) Straw yellow in color. Slightly oxidized nose and a bit cheesy with some candied lemon. There is some nice lemony fruit on the palate with some candied citrus. Just showing a bit of age but still quite delicious if not terribly exciting.
2016 “C” (Completer): Medium straw in color with some green flashes. Familiar Completer nose of creme brûlée, butterscotch and cream. Delicate. Wows the palate with some thick, weighty sweetness which seems to bury the acidity under its weight. Flavors are somewhat liqueur-like but yellow fruited with some brioche and cream. The acidity appears in the finish but I find the sweetness to be overly dominant. This needs some time for everything to come together. Judgment reserved.
Rouge Edition VII (2017): (40% Cornalin, 30% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc). Dark garnet with some black and blue depth. There are some savory new oak aromas with some mulberry, graphite and new leather. Very pretty and very Cornalin in its wild and rustic depths. The palate is a touch thick with saturated fruit and hefty tannins. On the palate it’s warm with more mulberry fruit. Finishes a touch bitter at the moment. Very good.
Rouge Edition VI (2016): (38% Merlot, 33% Cornalin, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc). Straight garnet in color but slightly transparent. Lighter weight than above with an unmistakeable Bordeaux-like presence. More cassis with a blackberry smear and fresh herbs. The palate is structured with cassis fruit and a bit of cedar. Fresh, coiled and tightly would. Very polished tannins and exceedingly well balanced. This is excellent.
Rouge Edition V (2015): (35% Cornalin, 33% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc). Garnet with some red flashes. Huge, warm roasted blackberry and creosote-tinged nose. If the above is Medoc then this is St. Emilion. Dark berry compote, somewhat vegetative and herbal flavors. The oak is warm but integrated and the texture is velvety and luxuriant. Clear warm vintage character. Smooth and ripe with a slight alcoholic burn to finish. Some smooth tannins to round things out.