Swiss Grapes: Completer — The Answer to a Prayer

This article first appeared in Trink Magazine — Issue 04-07-2021

By traditional measures, my first year of college was a waste. I spent a lot of it playing cards with a gang of liberal theologians at a Jesuit university in California. Towering above the group was our guru, the truest Renaissance man I’ve ever met — priest, medieval scholar, professional clown, and director of his own traveling circus. He spent most of each year wandering from one Catholic university to another, plying his gift for persuasion, but when in town he always made time for cards. When not lobbying for Christ, he was partial to Texas Hold ’em, Marlboros, and red wine.

One night, as the card game was winding down, he announced that he was ready for his last Completer before, once again, hitting the road. I didn’t think much of the word — Completer — but I remembered it when it came up years later in the context of a rare Swiss grape variety. 

Completer — The History

Completer was first officially mentioned in 1321 in an inventory of property owned by the Bishopric of Chur in what is now eastern Switzerland. That date makes it one of the oldest varieties known to exist.

Back then, the wines were most likely well-aged in wood to counterweigh the fierce acidity common to the grape. It’s also likely all varietal characteristics were completely extinguished. Modern examples, when not oxidative in style, tend to involve a minerally core with tropical notes like passion fruit, mango and pineapple. Many of the better examples are harmonized with aromas of fresh cream, fresh pastry from lees contact, and wood vanillins.

None of this mattered to my friend. As a medieval scholar and Jesuit priest, he was obviously familiar with the Catholic office of Completorium (Compline in English), the last in a series of prayers to mark the end of each day. He was equally familiar, no doubt, with the customary glass of wine the Benedictine monks of Chur would enjoy when their daily obligations were completed. The wine they drank came to be known as Completer — a name which attached to the variety itself at a later date.

Completer is an orphan grape, meaning its origins are unknown. It is a white variety that shares some genetic characteristics with its Alpine brethren — most notably the northern Italian varieties Marzemino and Pignolo Spano. A hypothesis of Italian origin is supported by history — the Chur diocese extended well into the Alpine valleys of Valtellina and the Vinschgau, both in modern-day Italy, and the bishopric, along with its satellite monasteries, exerted significant control over the transalpine trade route between Italy and Germany.

Chief among the monasteries within the Chur orbit was the one at Pfäfers, overlooking the Bündner Rheintal in St. Gallen. As a leading intellectual and cultural center, the Pfäfers monks were well-traveled, well-connected, and somewhat independent from Church authority. This relative autonomy permitted it to own property and to control enough serfs to do the vineyard work required. There is persistent speculation the Pfäfers monks were the first to introduce Completer to the region and may have been the first to plant it in its ancestral home, the Completerhalde vineyard in Malans.

Completer grapes. Photo: Martin Donatsch

More evidence of a possible Italian origin came later with the discovery of an ancient pergola-trained vine in upper Valais. For decades, it was presumed to be the rare Swiss native, Lafnetscha, but in 2002 DNA analysis confirmed it to be Completer. This was the first evidence of Completer in Valais. 

The test further established that Lafnetscha is actually the progeny of Completer and Humagne, another Swiss rarity first mentioned in 1313. The confusion is understandable. Swiss vine geneticist, Dr. José Vouillamoz, proposes that Completer may have been present in Valais for hundreds of years — but was misidentified from the beginning — and may have arrived through another route, contemporaneous with or soon after its arrival in Graubünden. It’s worth noting, two other Valais “natives,” Rouge du Pays (Cornalin) and Humagne Rouge, also had origins in northern Italy.

Complete Confusion

Completer also goes by the name Zürirebe and shares this synonym with Räuschling in the canton of Zürich. In his book, Der Weinstock und der Wein (a compendium of Swiss wine published in 1869), J.M. Kohler hints at the overlapping arc of both varieties:

Text from Der Weinstock und der Wein

In 1862, the Completer crop in Malans was devastated by frost but left untouched in the more temperate lakeside vineyards of Meilen near Zürich. Completer is still planted in Meilen, where it is bottled as a monovarietal by the Schwarzenbach Weinbau. Kohler makes an interesting qualitative judgment that the Completer grown in Maienfeld, 3 kilometers downstream from Malans, pales in comparison to that of the Completerhalde. Perhaps Kohler was an early wine critic, as well.

There is some solid speculation that Räuschling may have briefly crossed paths with Completer in Graubünden. But both ended up retreating to their putative homes by the beginning of the 20th century, only to be slowly displaced by Pinot Noir in the Bündner Rheintal and Müller-Thurgau in Zürich.

Other synonyms for Completer include Malanserrebe in its home of Malans and Lindauer in the cantons of Schaffhausen and Thurgau. 

The Shrine of Completerhalde 

When my friend, the priest, uttered the word Completer in 1972, little did he know the variety (if he even knew it was a variety) was nearly extinct. The fact that it survives today is mostly thanks to the so-called “Pope of Completer,” Giani Boner, and Graubünden’s agricultural school, Plantahof. Beginning in the late 1980s, when things were most dire, they worked to preserve and improve the variety and emphasize its cultural value, with Boner’s ungrafted centenarian vines in the Completerhalde as source material for new plantings. 

Each of the Bündner-Herrschaft villages (Fläsch, Maienfeld, Jenins, and Malans) has a slightly different soil profile owing to the profile of the rock formations above them. In Malans, and more specifically the Completerhalde, the soils are made up of degraded Prättigau flysch — a geological sandwich of calcareous schist, clay, and sandstone. The Completerhalde is well drained, as opposed to simply dry as in Valais, and quite sandy, which may be one reason why ungrafted vines survive there today. Today the Completerhalde is roughly 3.75 hectares planted on a moderate slope that tilts south to southwest. Unfortunately, these days, not all of it is dedicated to Completer. There are still more marketable holdovers from Completer’s near demise, mostly Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, taking up precious space.

Completer is a difficult variety. It buds early and is vulnerable to late spring frosts. Frequent episodes of millerandage can affect yields and quality. Despite its precociousness, it has an extended growing season with harvest dates that can slide well into November. Its thick skin is an asset when rot is a threat and its ability to accumulate sugar without losing acidity makes it a potential climate emergency superstar.

According to a 2019 vine census, the canton of Graubünden registered 5.59 hectares of Completer (up from 4.67 the year before) in four villages of the Bündner Rheintal: 0.11 in Chur, 0.57 in Fläsch, 1.5 in Jenins, and 3.41 in Malans. In addition, it can be found in a small but growing number of parcels in Valais and a scant but stable number in Ticino and Zürich.

We can expect these numbers to grow as more people, including a growing cohort in Valais, become enamored of the variety.

The State of Affairs

The current worldwide love affair with native varieties extends to Completer and with it comes unfettered creativity and a fresh respect for tradition. The great vigneronne, Marie-Thérèse Chappaz from Valais, summarized the possibilities for Vinum magazine:

“Ideally, I would like to make three different wines with my Completer: a classic barrel-aged white, a curiosity using maceration on the skins, and an oxidized solera-style wine. Of course, this is a project that will take ten years, as the 150 liters obtained in 2018 mark my first vintage.” 

And that’s where we are today. The three styles she mentions are already available from select producers, while a fourth, a méthode champenoise sparkler, is new to the market.

Ripeness is key with Completer and may be the critical factor in dictating style. Long gone are the days of Oechsle measurements in the low to mid 80°s, as was the case in the 19th century. In 2019, the average reading in Graubünden was around 95° Oe.

The genius of a successful Completer, regardless of style, is the balance possible even with high alcohol (routinely 14-15%), a big frame, significant yet imperceptible sweetness (5-8 g/l), and bracing but finely tuned acidity.

The higher average levels of sugar in Chur (107.6° Oe) and Malans (100.5° Oe) are partly explained by style. Weingut von Tscharner’s Churer and Giani Boner’s Malanser Completers require higher sugars to pull off the oxidative style they prefer. For Boner, anything less than 105° Oe is rejected for Completer and blended with Pinot Gris.

Von Tscharner’s Completer is similarly styled and as rigorously made. But he is willing to experiment a bit more — his multi-vintage blend (’10, ’11, ’13, ’14, ’15 and ’16) Autour du Completer was unveiled at a dinner for friends and the press at Schloss Schauenstein to critical acclaim. (My invitation must have been lost in the mail.)

Needless to say, Boner’s Completer is made only in exceptional years and the quality and complexity he achieves are mind-blowing. Both men are scrupulous about housekeeping and bristle at the suggestion their wines are in any way oxidized. Their barrels are regularly topped-up and their cellars are cold and damp, with a medieval clamminess. 

The  skin-contact brigade is represented by Weingut Obrecht in Jenins, a biodynamic leader in the region. In my view, however, their Completer is still a work in progress. As impressive as the neon orange color is to look at, the only one I have tried has too many of the warts of suspect, low-intervention winemaking: bitterness, volatility, and an overwhelmingly cidery component, among other things.

Modernists like Martin Donatsch, Peter Wegelin, and Thomas Studach tend to pick when Oechsle levels reach the mid-90°s. This allows them to keep alcohol in check while emphasizing freshness and the attractive aromas of dairy and tropical fruit. New oak — French, Swiss, or Hungarian — or Swiss acacia adds complexity, spice, and some raw green elements that help to flesh out the variety. 

We are clearly in the early stages of identifying the limits of Completer and as more of it comes online I expect to see even more boundary-pushing to emerge. In the end, it’s a matter of taste, of course, but were I to play cards again I might choose an oxidative Completer for the table. Preferably one from the 1990s. After all, if you’re going to pray for a card to hit, you may as well be drinking the wine the medieval monks of Chur drank..

Completer Tasting Notes — A Note to Readers

There is some debate these days regarding the value of tasting notes in wine writing. I generally fall on the side of less-is-more and tend to exclude them in most of my writing. However, because Completer is such a mysterious and seldom seen variety, even in Switzerland, I believe more sensory clues can be an aid to understanding. My notes tend to be short and direct and are intended to communicate style, sensory characteristics and overall impression. They also include a vignette of the main producers. If they help to formulate a clearer picture of the variety, then they will have proven useful.

Weingut Roman Hermann, “Grand Maître” Completer (Fläsch, Graubünden): Hermann makes two Completers from Fläsch, the northernmost village of the Bündner-Herrschaft. The “Grand Maître” is an old-vines cuvée from a terraced part of the Fläscherhalde. It is modern in style but because of its place higher up the hill the Oechsle readings tend to be lower than in Jenins and Malans. This is a lean style with plenty of new oak and capacity to age. The winemaking is now in the capable hands of the next generation, Roman, son of Rosi and Peter Hermann.

2017: Straw colored with green highlights. Aromatic herbs, grass and a few muscat-y notes to start. Rich with lots of musky herbs and fresh greenery. Very fresh and structured but seemingly with lower acids than is typical. A bit young to judge yet.

2015: Pale straw in color. Very clean, toasted oak aroma with some lemon zest. Bright, medium-bodied lemon and cream. Structural acids dominate now (as is typical in young Completer) but it’s showy enough to suggest a lovely, leisurely evolution.

2014: Platinum in color. Very expressive, racy, citrus, floral, and fresh snap pea nose. Vibrant palate is full-bodied, rich, and permeated with charged acidity. Unique. There is roasted grain and honey as well. Finishes dry, floral and perfumed. Very promising future. This is really excellent.

2012: Straw colored. Mixed grapefruit, guava and passion fruit nose with some fresh, vegetative green notes. Tropical fruit carry-over with abundant mineral notes. Sleek, refined and balanced, but still a baby. Nice progression from 2015 to here. Very good to outstanding.

2011: Pale straw color. Fabulous egg cream/vanilla custard nose. Fresh but complex notes of grain, caramel and oak. Medium-bodied but rich and textured. Roasted grain, honey, caramel and vanilla. Lavishly sweet but always with electric acids. Firm. A real conundrum because it’s at once developed and primary. One of a kind. Excellent.

2009: Medium straw colored. Mature notes of roasted grain and butterscotch. Palate is lush and sweet with vanilla, butterscotch and an overlay of minerals. Despite its somewhat evolved state it manages to retain a very fresh, wholesome presence. Its vitality is confirmed by tingling acidity.

2008: Straw colored. Nose of crème pâtissière and freshly-baked génoise. Sauternes-like aroma. Palate is fat and oily but cunningly delicate and balanced. It has a liqueur-like intensity but remains fresh. A little of this, a little of that. A firm streak of acidity keeps each element in line but also free to riff. Hard to describe how impressive this really is.

Weingut Donatsch, “Malanserrebe” Completer (Malans, Graubünden): This family winery has been instrumental in the reemergence of this obscure variety. If anything, Donatsch’s rendition is even more dramatic than Hermann’s. Martin Donatsch, the next generation winemaker, has committed significant resources into expanding Completer’s footprint, but progress has been slow given that the variety is so terroir specific. The original vines were uprooted in 1947 by Martin’s grandfather and replanted in the early 1990s by his father. There are small parcels in three important Malans lieux-dits: Selvenen, Frassa and Completerhalde. 

Martin told me the family’s new cellar and chai, located across the street from the weinstube and residence, is from the 14th century and may have been the actual site where the monks made Completer.

2017: Straw colored with green highlights. Lovely Indian tonic nose. Delicate palate that is lacy and lemony. Discernible oak needs integration but is fine grained. Gains richness with aeration but also searingly acidic. A giant wine in the making.

2015: Straw colored. Fresh nose evokes the Friulano variety at its best green almond, quince and white flowers. A green almond flavor persists with 5 grams residual sugar and balancing acids. Perfect balance. Should evolve for decades. Every cellar should have a few of these.

2014: Straw colored. Quite a bit of evolution in the nose with some butterscotch and dried fruit. Glossy lemon pâte de fruits, dried mango and minerals. Rounded edges but the searing acids to finish belie any apparent evolution. This one is in an in-between stage right now. Should evolve slowly.

2011: Gold with some telltale green highlights. Fragrant white flowers, lemon cream and pollen dominate this fascinating nose. Flavors of cream, dusty grain and lemon are fantastic with a palate-coating, lardo-like fattiness. This is both tantalizingly sweet and dry. Truly outstanding and just beginning to show its stuff.

2009: Medium straw colored. Gorgeous grapefruit and pineapple aromas. Very youthful. Seemingly lower in acid than others from this stable, but it still pops. Loads of tropical fruit flavors that are rich and sweet. Liquid satin. Excellent.

2008: Straw gold. My coup de coeur. A nose that is pure, mature Sauternes; and a good one at that. Lots of caramel and roasted cereal. Fantastic palate of rice pudding and crème pâtissière. Somehow, as sweet as this is, it finishes dry because of its acid spine. So good.

1999: (100-year anniversary bottling) Mature Sauternes-gold in color. Fabulous nose of dried fruit, tobacco and tomato leaf with an amontillado-like nuttiness. Martin calls it a chameleon. Enters sweet but finishes dry. A real marvel. From an oxidative first impression to a growing chorus of aromas and flavors. Finishes with honey and barley sugar flavors. An incredible amalgam that I refused to spit.

Thomas Studach, Completer (Malans, Graubünden): Even by Swiss standards Studach’s wines are rare and very difficult to find. What does that say about his micro lots of Completer. When I visited I was afraid he wouldn’t have enough to open. Thank goodness, he did. He’s very generous and happy to share his work when he realizes you’re a real enthusiast. Fermentation is in stainless steel then élèvage in half-barrels of Swiss oak from Schuler.

2017: Pale straw in color. Zesty lemon curd nose with some quince perfume. There are suggestions of butter and fresh cream but both are strapped onto a bracing acid spine. Paradoxically lean and richly textured. The more one chews this wine the more it relaxes. Finishes sweet and creamy with a vague tropical fruit character. Slightly raw-green Swiss oak perfume lingers. I love this.

2016: Medium-straw colored. Compound notes of buttercream frosting, lemon, lime, and quince. Razor sharp. Somewhat advanced flavors within an imposing structural sheath. Loosens up with some vigorous chewing. Butterscotch, caramel and quince flavors are blanketed by sweet oak and cream. Mineral finish with green top notes. Long and perfumed.

Wegelin Scadenagut, Completer (Malans, Graubünden): The gorgeous new state of the art winery and visitor center with a terrace overlooking the Scadena vineyard in Malans is a must visit. Peter Wegelin and his winemaker, Rafael Hug, are new to the Completer game but they are off to a strong start. From the 2019 harvest Completer will come from the renovated Spiger vineyard, one of Malans’ so-called Grand Crus.

2016: Pale silver in color. Like most young Completers that use Burgundy as a model the new oak element can dominate. But it also informs you how seriously they take the variety. This one is fresh and oaky with a minty green character, fresh mushroom and cream. It’s super-rich with a pronounced egg custard flavor and profound acidity. This is supremely elegant and very promising.

Giani Boner Weinkellerei, Completer (Malans, Graubünden): Boner farms 1/3 of a hectare on the Completerhalde. His Completer is aged for years in wood before transfer to stainless steel where it rests for some time more. When tasting this beauty, amontillado or oloroso sherry may come to mind for some — or maybe even Vin Jaune — but to my taste it’s more like a dryish Vin Santo. The current vintage is 2013.

2013: Old gold with some green-orange highlights. Magnificent dried fruit nose with some singed citrus oil and mildly rancid nuts. Notes of polished mahogany and old furniture give depth. Expansive on the palate with warm, slightly spirit-y weight. Dried fruit flavors with a burnished sweetness. Finishes dry, long and warm. This warms my soul.

Weingut Obrecht, Completer, (Jenins, Graubünden): There’s a lot to like about the work of Christian and Francisca Obrecht, particularly their commitment to biodynamic farming. Their Completer from Jenins is harvested in late October and fermented on the skins in a wooden vat that dates from 1862 (the year of the great frost!). It’s then aged in oak and acacia barrels for one year before resting another year in 220-liter clay eggs. It will be interesting to see if this exacting regime remains the same over time.

2015: Amber colored and a bit cloudy. Aggressive nose of dried fruit, bruised apples and wood. Quite sour and volatile. Very little integration on the palate with fuzzy tannins, dried fruit and considerable bitterness. I’m going to chalk this up to experimentation and expect improvement from this formidable husband and wife team.

Clos de Tsampéhro, “C” Completer (Flanthey, Valais): This is an ambitious project conceived by a number of partners from diverse business backgrounds. They quite simply aim to be among the best wineries in Switzerland. They are focused mostly on Valaisan varieties but have embraced Completer for its historic significance and high quality as expressed on Valais schist and sand.

2016: Medium straw in color with some green flashes. Familiar Completer nose of crème brûlée, butterscotch and cream. Delicate. Wows the palate with some thick, weighty sweetness which seems to overwhelm the acidity. Flavors are somewhat liqueur-like and a bit hot, 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.

Domaine Dussex, Completer (Saillon, Valais): Another family estate in Valais that is new to Completer. Winemaker Gabriel Dussex discovered the variety while working in Graubünden and now makes it in a Burgundian style. Early results have been very successful. From fruit grown in the schist-to-granite transition zone of Saillon at 800 meters.

2018: Pale straw in color. Tell-tale aromatics of quince and lemon with dairy and egg cream from malolactic. Rich, even fat, with tropical fruit cream and grilled nuts flavor. Acids seem on the low side and aging may be questionable. Quite impressive for a young Completer, though.

2017: Pale straw in color with some green highlights. Light, fresh nose with distinct mango, passion fruit and white chocolate scents. On the palate there are bursting tropical fruit flavors with some fresh acidity. This is a really nice current drinking Completer that does not need age.

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