As a child of California who grew up during the New Age Movement, I’m familiar with talk of energy vortexes, power centers, and other metaphysical notions. I’m also familiar with the movement’s many intersections: Werner Erhard’s human potentiality seminars, for instance, or the eclectic offerings of the Esalen Institute. Back then, it was normal for young adults to connect en route to spiritual places like Mount Shasta in Northern California and Sedona in Arizona, or, on retreats to the Zen Center at Tassajara, near Big Sur. It was through this community that I developed a respect for the spirit world and a curiosity for unexplained phenomena. Subsequent trips to Stonehenge, Es Vedrà, and Tulum indulged my fascination even further, and put me in closer touch with the rhythms of the universe.
Or so I thought.
Like some others, as I grew older, I grew apart from the movement — or rather, the business of the movement. The pursuit of enlightenment became more about money and fame and less about dedication and practice. I was disturbed by the appropriation of ancient and indigenous practices for monetary gain and saddened by the shameless exploitation of sacred sites. Esotericism eventually succumbed to tourism and the path to spiritual growth was off-loaded to a growing number of self-help gurus.
Despite my disillusionment, however, my journey did reward me with two important gifts: the gifts of observation and patience. These two may be why my appreciation for biodynamic viticulture (yet another New Age intersection) is what it is. Not that I hold Steiner sacred, I don’t, but I do admire the determined observation required for biodynamics to work, and I value the sense of purpose derived from what some see as meaningless ritual.
A New Place of Magic
Several years ago I visited an area of Switzerland that most people miss as they rush up the A1 motorway on their way to business deals in Zürich. The area, which sits at the southern tip of canton Vaud’s Côte de l’Orbe AOC, is known as the Venoge Valley. In each of my several visits there, I’ve noticed a familiar, calming energy that took me back to my days of spiritual search.
I wanted to know more about it.
The valley lies at the bottom of a broad, gently-pitched bowl located between the Jura mountains to the west and the rim of the Swiss plateau to the east. It is, in fact, a transition zone between the two, and a watershed for the Rhône basin to the south and the Rhine basin to the north.
Locals refer to it, semiseriously, as the “Middle-of-the-World.”
I think of it as a real life Jurassic Park.
Vaud residents cherish the Venoge as a place to relax and recharge. It’s perfect for swimming, biking, hiking, and the quiet contemplation of nature. It’s included in the Swiss government’s Federal Inventory of Landscapes (BLN) and is considered exceptional because it’s entirely free from invasive species. Of the more than 900 different flora and fauna present, its ancient stands of oak and unique mix of rare orchids are particularly noteworthy. Rare insects and pollinators abound, too, as do birds, reptiles, and numerous large mammals, including the iconic chamois — every hunter’s favorite autumn meal. Nearby are the gorgeous natural surroundings of the Orbe River Gorge, the icy pools of the Venoge headwaters, the spectacular falls of La Tine de Conflens, and the medieval village of Romainmôtier.
Each of these sites exudes a spiritual energy of its own, and, together, they form a picture of the Swiss landscape you don’t find on postcards.
One of the valley’s most distinctive, if overdeveloped, landmarks is Le Mormont, a moderately-sized outcrop of the Jura chain located between the villages of Eclépens and La Sarraz.
In New Age terms, Le Mormont might qualify as an energy vortex: it’s a huge piece of limestone, which some believe is a massive store of energy to be found in several other vortexes around the world. It’s also a Celtic burial site and source for one of the richest archaeological discoveries from the La Tène (Iron Age) period in Switzerland. Several locations on the hill’s plateau are studded with sacrificial offering pits containing coins, metalwork, tools, and evidence of human sacrifice. This in itself imbues the surroundings with a profound spiritual energy. Finally, the entire area is a knot of seismic faults which, when disturbed, have the capacity to change the flow of energy — either positively, towards well-being, or negatively, towards chaos.
It seems Le Mormont is having a moment of chaos.
The Power of Business Interests
For more than 60 years Le Mormont has been exploited and disfigured by one of the world’s largest cement manufacturers, the Swiss-based conglomerate, LafargeHolcim (see: header photo). A vast swath of its bulk has been dynamited, stripped bare of its yellow limestone, and left exposed — beyond repair. Despite this, Holcim has received clearance from the Swiss courts to redouble its mining operations by expanding onto the higher plateau and into some of its most critically sensitive areas.
Public reaction has been swift and bitter, with serious infighting between residents.
Eclépens and La Sarraz are company towns, beholden to the factory for two generations of employment and relative prosperity. No need to rock the boat, many feel. But an influx of commuter-residents from Lausanne and Yverdon, two of Vaud’s most populous cities, has altered the cultural and political landscape of the region and spawned a new breed of activism.
Even though civil disobedience is rare in Switzerland, the October 2020 occupation of Le Mormont by environmentalists was actively supported by a surprising number of residents. For longtime residents, however, the environmental activist group, ZAD (Zone à Défendre), set a new standard for outside meddling.
While the debate has rightly centered on environmental and quality of life issues, there is another aspect that is never discussed — the fate of one of Switzerland’s oldest vineyards.
The Vines of Le Mormont
The vineyards of Le Mormont are, indeed, very old. A late eighth century deed found among the papers of the Bishop of Lausanne refers to a vineyard located in “Maurmont près Eclepedengis.” It lists none other than the Emperor Charlemagne, who died in 814 AD, as the owner.
But viticulture may go back even farther than that. The area was favored by the Romans not only for its limestone, but for its strategic location between the Rhône and the Rhine, and for its proximity to several Jura passes. It’s not inconceivable they saw Le Mormont as a perfect spot for vines, as well.
The recent history of viticulture at Le Mormont begins in 1807, when the Château d’Eclépens and its surrounding vineyards were purchased by the de Coulon family, religious exiles from France. Maps from 1900 show an extensive network of vines that extended well beyond the five hectares of today, including some that were devoured by the La Sarraz sprawl. Like everywhere else in Europe at the end of the 19th century, Le Mormont succumbed to phylloxera, but the vineyard quickly rebounded and was replanted twice, in 1922 and 1956.
While the de Coulon family retains ownership of most of Le Mormont, the commune of La Sarraz owns a postage stamp-sized parcel called the Clos du Mormont, which is a walled-in ¼ hectare of Pinot Noir vines. This parcel was abandoned after phylloxera and not replanted until 1980 by Dr. Emile Bonard, an elder of La Sarraz. It’s located above the main vineyard, across from the village gare.
Today, the Clos du Mormont is leased to the peripatetic Steve Bettschen.
Steve fits perfectly here. He is a believer in spiritual forces and prefers to work in harmony with the energy of his sites.
The Wizard of Clos du Mormont
I consider Steve Bettschen one of the most thoughtful and intelligent wine personalities in Switzerland. His knowledge of wine extends to every corner of the world — he worked in a legendary retail shop for years and his monthly tasting program for consumers frequently includes extensive verticals from top producers. He works biodynamically (clip) on his own sites, and, when sourcing fruit from others, it’s always from those who do the same. He studied forestry at university, so he knows a thing or two about complex ecosystems. Above all, he is the perfect spokesperson, through his wine, for this mystical piece of earth.
As I expected to hear, he is concerned about the expansion of the quarry:
“If you believe in the energy of special places, then the expansion of the quarry will alter the energy here — probably towards something even more chaotic.”
For viticultural purposes, the main feature of Le Mormont is the pure limestone substrate that pokes through to the surface in some places. To complicate matters, the limestone here is not fissured or decomposed, as it is in Burgundy, nor does it contain much clay, which means it doesn’t retain water as well as might be expected. This, combined with a relatively dry climate, makes water availability a serious issue.
“The region is already very dry and the particular soil of Le Mormont does not retain water. An escalation of the mining is unlikely to improve things.”
Steve is being diplomatic, of course, because any escalation of mining is very likely to cause severe damage, even beyond the issue of water. There is concern that expanded mining will alter the rich biodiversity of the hillside — from insect and wildlife populations to shrubs and ground cover. Actual macro- and microclimate alterations are possible, as well. At the moment, the typical bise winds from the north are blocked and shunted away from the vines, which affords them protection at crucial times — at flowering, for example, or at harvest when warm winds can cause sugar spikes and shriveling. Indeed, the very temperature of the surroundings could change with more exposed rock and less vegetation.
But even without the possible changes to come, life can be difficult for a vigneron in the Clos — especially in a year like 2016.
It started out well enough with warm weather in March, followed by a cool month of April. May saw considerable rain, followed by frost, which caused a bit of damage to some early budding vines. From mid-May, rain was an almost daily occurrence, and by mid-June downy mildew had set in, necessitating frequent treatments, which were repeatedly washed away by continuing rains.
Fortunately, July began hot and dry, which, in retrospect, may have saved the vintage. Nevertheless, 2016 proved to be one of the most difficult in Steve’s experience, requiring two harvest passes, one week apart, and some sorting due to rot.
However, as befits a student of nature, Steve’s 2016 Pinot Noir from the Clos du Mormont is a rousing success. It’s both a reflection of the year and a testament to the power of close observation and patience.
A total of 330 bottles were produced from vines that yielded less than 130 grams/m². It was the smallest harvest of his tenure, and, at 90º Oechsle, ripeness was less than ideal. Tiny, low-juice-to-skin berries called for de-stemming to avoid excessive tannins and green elements — the need for gentle handling with limited punch-downs was foreordained. After two weeks cuvaison there was a gentle pressing before transfer to oak. Malolactic conversion occurred naturally in the late spring of the following year (patience), before decanting into stainless steel for another winter. Bottling occurred at the end of May in 2018.
At just 12% alcohol by volume, the 2016 Clos du Mormont is a study in freshness and vigor. It has budged very little in the three years I’ve followed it, so the prospects for further aging are good. At the moment, it bursts with cherry fruit, framed by church scents and forest floor earthiness. It’s a bit too structured to be hedonistic, it may never be soft and fuzzy, but it’s a miraculous success given the circumstances.
I know some will say that Steve is a great technician — he is — but he’s also tuned into his vineyard, its place in the world, and he’s keenly aware of his responsibility to keeps its energy going. His knowledge and skill as a farmer and winemaker are well known, but it’s his intuition, power of observation, and patience that make the difference in a place like Le Mormont. The fact that it’s threatened makes heightened sensitivity all the more imperative.
Long live Le Mormont.