There’s a slight claustrophobic ends-of-the-earth vibe to the Jurassian village of Soyhières (Pop. 433). It has the plain vanilla look of 1950’s Swiss functionality with a lingering undercurrent of separatism and a patois (Vâdais) all its own. The village itself offers none of the postcard images one expects from rural Switzerland but the seasonal pastures and intermittent wilderness just beyond its limits are the stuff of survivalist dreams. And even though it’s only four kilometers from the canton’s capital of Delémont (Pop. 12,550), it feels as though decades pass when you move between them. Life here is quiet, unhurried and uneventful which makes it perfect for the patience-testing pastime of breeding grapes.
Soyhières is not the first place I think of when I want to investigate important wine regions, but important it is. It turns out the narrow river valley where it’s wedged is ideal for the development of fungal diseases, especially those which beset the vinifera species. What better place to test the resilience of new PIWI varieties? If cabernet dorsa, birstaler muskat and pinotin are your thing, then Soyhières is a Côte d’Or of sorts.
In fact, the village motto has a familiar ring: If you can grow grapes here, you can grow them anywhere.
The Heart and Soul
Valentin Blattner is easily Soyhières’ most famous resident. As a non-native he searched long and hard to find it. He is an independent breeder who works outside the bureaucracy of university labs and the purview of corporate directors. His four hectares in Soyhières are farmed organically and he is resolutely anti-copper to boot. He has shepherded an impressive thirty five or so hybrid varieties into the world and he spends half of each year on the road teaching others about them. He has projects in Europe, North America and Asia where his creations are known simply as Blattners.
One of his most successful hybrids is the town’s namesake grape, sauvignon Soyhières. Like most Blattners, it is highly proprietary. He is loath to divulge the details of his work and is slow to name them for fear of revealing too much. Hence, new varieties like VB 5-24, VB 91-26-26 or VB CAL 1-22 go unnamed, just as VB 32-7 did before being christened with the Soyhières moniker.
Perhaps, the secrecy is meant to confuse.
Some sources will tell you that sauvignon Soyhières is a hybrid cross between sauvignon blanc and an unknown other from the Vitis amurensis species. But they’re just guessing. The other Swiss grape geneticist of note, José Vouillamoz, says there’s no way to know for sure. In his book, Cépages Suisses, he touts both cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc as possible parents on the vinifera side. And because Blattner frequently works with amurensis varieties (they are resistant to cold and fungal disease) they are assumed to be part of the equation as well. But Blattner isn’t saying. He uses the term resistenzpartner as a placeholder name to keep the world guessing.
Despite the fuss, there are only four hectares of sauvignon Soyhières in all of Switzerland. A fifth of a hectare is located in the village of Malans in Graubünden at the organic farm of Bettina and Heiri Müller-Weber. And it is from this tiny plot, Hof Wynegg, that the best example of the variety is sourced.
At 700 meters, Hof Wynegg is one of the highest vineyards in Bündner-Herrschaft. It has not been sprayed or treated with chemicals since 1992 and is currently a PIWI Eden with small parcels of johanniter, seyval blanc, and léon millot along with sauvignon Soyhières and a bit of pinot noir. The pinot is sold exclusively to Weinbau und Brennerei Boner & Rasi in Malans while the hybrids go to biodynamic guru Marco Casanova in Walenstadt.
Casanova’s sauvignon Soyhières is a revelation and one of the best wines made from a hybrid grape that I’ve tasted. For a variety with such a short history and very little visibility it’s hard to determine its potential and possible range without more to compare, but Casanova’s would be hard to improve upon.
The 2018 version is deep gold in color with a beautiful baked apple and spice nose. It reminded me somewhat of a developed New World chenin blanc with notes of honey and caramel, as well. I don’t know for sure, but I would wager on some skin contact as the tea-like tannic tug suggested. The palate is rich, almost oily, with layers of baked fruit, brown butter and malt with a bit of pleasant mealiness. My only criticism is the seemingly low level of acids which would add some missing freshness to the mix.
This represents a fine collaboration of Swiss talent: breeder, grower and winemaker, all in sync. Bravo!