AOC Vully: Traminer Front and Center

In June 2019 a team of international researchers published Palaeogenomic Insights into the Origins of French Grapevine Diversity, a study that used DNA testing to identify a medieval grape seed as that of the savagnin variety. This startling discovery placed savagnin among the oldest vinifera varieties known to exist with more than 900 years of continuous propagation.

Earlier, Dr. José Vouillamoz, the famed Swiss researcher, proposed an origin story for this “founder variety“:

Based on historical and genetic data, it seems that traminer (savagnin) was born somewhere between north-east France and south-east Germany, either through a natural cross between pinot and an unknown variety, or through a natural cross between two more ancient, undetermined and most likely extinct varieties.

With an established timeline, a place of origin, and a family tree worthy of a founder variety, savagnin is finally riding high. The spread of its DNA across Europe is particularly impressive: it’s a parent to grüner veltliner and sylvaner in Austria, furmint in Hungary, sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc in the Loire, räuschling in Switzerland, and petit manseng in the Basque Country, to name just a few of its offspring.

Nearly as impressive are the seemingly minor genetic mutations that have given wine lovers everywhere interesting variations on the same theme. Two that stand out are the color mutation, savagnin rose, and its own aromatic mutation, savagnin rose aromatique. This aromatic form of savagnin, first mentioned in 1827, probably originated in Germany where it is known as roter traminer, clevner, or more commonly, gewürztraminer.

Gewürz in Switzerland

Gewürztraminer allegedly resides in fifteen of the twenty six cantons of Switzerland, but it’s still considered a minor variety with only fifty-two hectares planted between them. I say “allegedly” because I question how many of those hectares are actually planted to the non-aromatic savagnin rose rather than to its aromatic other. After all, they look exactly alike. It’s the alarmingly neutral aromatic profile of so many Swiss gewürztraminers that gives me pause.

There’s no doubting, however, the provenance of Vully’s cache (the locals call it traminer) — all four hectares of it. It was brought to the village of Praz in the early 1950s by the Chervet family directly from Alsace in a half-hearted attempt to dislodge chasselas from local dominance.

The real story is how such a sparsely planted variety came to be the signature grape of such a tiny appellation.

Downtown Môtier

 Small Things

Lac Morat (Murtensee in German) is the smallest of the so-called Three Lakes of western Switzerland. Dominating its northern end is Mont Vully — supposed capital of the Helvetii tribe and namesake of the appellation. Despite its modest height of 653 meters, Mont Vully boasts an amazing 360° view of the Jura chain to the west, the French Alps to the south, the Bernese Alps to the east, and the Swiss plateau to the north. Visible too are the vineyards of Lac Neuchâtel and Lac de Bienne. It’s no accident that the ancient Roman settlement at nearby Avenches (Aventicum) was positioned so strategically and it’s not unusual to feel a mystical presence here.

Roman amphitheater in Avenches

In addition to the Roman ruins, the surrounding area is also known for its neolithic pile dwellings and UNESCO status. During the summer months the area is a magnet for tourists and vacationers from Bern and Fribourg who populate the caravan parks and summer cottages that surround the lake on its southern and eastern shores.

The northern shore is for wine.

As busy as the summer months are, the fall and winter months are another story. On most days there is a lonely bus that runs every hour on the hour through the deserted vineyard corridor. For context, you can board a bus in Sugiez (canton Fribourg) speaking German and get off fifteen minutes later in Vallamand (canton Vaud) speaking French. Fortunately the driver speaks both. This cultural and linguistic division probably held the wine industry back a few years, but the gap was finally bridged in 2012 when the two communes, Vully-les-Lac (VD) and Mont-Vully (FR), were joined to form the first inter-cantonal AOC in Switzerland.

The region has been off-and-running ever since.

One of the biggest influences for change was the establishment of a Quality Charter for two unlikely varieties: gewürztraminer and freisamer (known locally as freiburger). The idea was to differentiate Vully from the other wine regions of Switzerland which are mostly dependent on the dominant varieties of pinot noir and chasselas. It seems to have worked. Vully is a dynamic region with more than its share of young, progressive winemakers, some of whom have embraced organic and biodynamic viticulture while relishing the thought of working with unusual varieties.

The charter contains standards that far exceed those imposed by the AOC, particularly in the areas of yield (.8 kg/m² versus 1.1 kg/m²) and oechsle at harvest (87° versus 65°). The charter also includes some remediation of local customs: allowable residual sugar is capped at 8g/l (a repudiation of the schizophrenic Alsatian model as well as its own past); chaptalization is forbidden, as are aggressive manipulations. Upon certification the wine is entitled to use the name “Traminer” on the label. Otherwise, it must be “declassified” to gewürztraminer. What an indignity!

The charter also requires that all new traminer plantings come from a massale selection of the most resilient vines. This will ultimately lead to a unique expression of the grape as it evolves in this particular locale.

Of the twenty-four vignerons-encaveurs in Vully only eleven are signatories to the charter which means there is never very much to be had. The entire output of traminer accounts for only 3% of all the wine produced in Vully.

Sandstone wall in Vully

The Terroir

The Fribourg part of Vully, from Sugiez to Mur, occupies a narrow ribbon of land barely 250 meters at its widest. Within that width the vineyards may climb as much as 100 meters or so. This makes for steep vineyards at the top (terroir de pente) with a gentler slope nearer to the lake (terroir de fond). The predominant rock underlayment is molasse, a relatively porous sandstone, that is the perfect catalyst for freshness and fine aromatics in white wine. The specialty varieties are planted up-slope, while down below chasselas enjoys a low-stress environment in the deeper water-retentive clays.

The Vaud section, from Mur to Vallamand, is influenced by clay-based alluvial soils. Mount Vully is less of an influence here, the vineyards are less dramatic and, I would argue, the wines are less exciting. Only one of the eleven signatories to the charter, Cave des Marnes, comes from this part of the appellation.

The Wines

Now’s a good time to ask the obvious question: Could the locals have chosen a more unpopular grape to be their lodestar?

That’s a tough one to answer.

If their aim was to emulate the sweet, over-blown, slightly bitter, fatigue-inducing versions that have dogged Alsace for decades, or, to blithely copy the disappointing, innocuous and strangely non-aromatic wines from Germany and the rest of Switzerland, then the honest answer is — no.

But Vully has wisely decided to play the middle ground by celebrating all of traminer’s exoticism, its fleshy bits and singular oily texture, but in a decidedly dry, understated and balanced style. Dryness and consistency of style is a central tenet of the charter.

And it’s working.

 2018 Traminer, Cru de l’Hôpital, Vully: (Demeter certified) Longtime winemaker, Christian Vessaz, is the dean of Vully’s youth movement. Much of what is special about the area is thanks to his work. His sense of adventure and deep commitment to biodynamics is an inspiration to the like-minded artisans mentioned below. In fact, they’re all copains.

Christian likes to mingle different cuvées into a single blended batch. If one could look into his brain one might find a chessboard there with different winemaking processes as the pieces.

He might blend wine fermented in concrete eggs with some from wood. He might mix in a bit of skin contact wine. Depending on the vintage, one cuvée might finish its malolactic fermentation and another one might not. Throw them together. Why not? As a result, his traminer is always better with a couple of years in the bottle, as he proves each year at the Mémoires des Vins Suisses tasting where multiple vintages are poured.

The 2018 is from a hot vintage and is showing better as a young wine than is typically the case. It’s lush and rich but manages to keep a crisp edge from a loose matrix of soft acids. There’s mandarin, grapefruit and candied ginger on the nose with tell-tale roses everywhere. The genius of Christian’s traminer is that it never veers off into aromatic overkill or relaxed flabbiness.

2018 Traminer!, Savagnin Rose Aromatique, Javet & Javet, Vully: (Demeter certified) Etienne Javet is another dabbler. He seems to have mastered the intricacies of orange and natural wine production early in his career.

He makes a wonderful skin-contact pinot gris and a sans soufre Pinot Noir “Aime Terre” that I think is one of the best of its kind from Switzerland. There’s also a gamaret/merlot blend called “Sans Titre” which includes partially dried fruit — again, one of the best examples I know of made in that difficult (for me) style.

Etienne’s Traminer! (apostrophe included) is medium-weight and gorgeous. The rose petal and litchi fruit aroma is lovely and not at all overwhelming. It’s the kind of intoxicating scent one dreams about. It’s kind of sexy, really, and it lingers on the palate long after the wine is swallowed.

2018 Traminer, Domaine du Petit Château, Vully: (Biodynamic uncertified) For over two hundred years the Simonnet family has been tending vines in the village of Môtier. But the new generation of brothers, Fabrice and Stéphane, are not content with being slaves to tradition. They are on track for biodynamic certification, a major accomplishment here, with an emphasis on disease resistant crosses. They are one of the few growers in Vully to work with the German cross freiburger (pinot gris x sylvaner) as well as Swiss the crosses gamaret, garanoir, mara, and divico. They also make one of the best Burgundian-style chardonnays in Switzerland.

Their traminer is the richest of the three with pristine notes of mandarin peel, litchi fruit and rose petals with a textured, oily palate and a long, perfumed finish. This was a delight to drink on a warm, early summer night of confinement.

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