Devotees of European hot springs will immediately swoon when they hear the name Bad Ragaz. Since 1840 this small Swiss village has attracted health and wellness seekers from around the world, including many artists and writers. Ranier Maria Rilke, Victor Hugo, Hans Christian Andersen, James Fenimore Cooper, Freidrich Nietzche, Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse have all enjoyed its healing waters — and, for the ultimate in Swiss-ness, Johanna Spyri’s children’s story, Heidi, is set nearby.
One of the earliest visitors to the original Pfäfers springs — a precursor spa (now closed) and current source for Bad Ragaz — was the controversial Swiss physician and philosopher, Paracelsus. Much of his research into the health benefits of thermal spas took place there, which led to his influential treatise of 1535, Von den natürlichen Bädern (Of Natural Spas). In fact, his work and subsequent endorsement of the Pfäfers springs resulted in a wave of wellness tourism that still benefits the region today. And because the Pfäfers monks were heavily involved in wine and viticulture, it’s not inconceivable his famous pronouncement — “Whether wine is a nourishment, medicine, or poison is a matter of dosage” — was put to the test after a long day of bathing.
Meanwhile, as Bad Ragaz was catering to the wealthy, the not so famous Fläscher Bad, located less than five kilometers away, languished in ignominy, abandonment and decay. At one time, it enjoyed as much local favor as the Pfäfers springs, but after a series of wine-related calamities — including public disturbances, debaucheries, and a scandalous murder — it was forced to close in the middle of the 18th century and remained so for the next 200 years.
Alas, a tale of two spas, so to speak — albeit, with different relationships to wine.
Spa goers will be happy to know Bad Ragaz is doing just fine as an international resort, and wine lovers will be delighted by the vinous destination Fläscher Bad has become. Sadly its days as a spa are over.
Fläscher Bad: The Modern Era
As warm and inviting as the local waters are, I didn’t come here to bathe. Nor did I come to test the thesis that a homeopathic dose of wine might be good for my health. Instead, I came to talk about family and wine with Roman Hermann at his eponymous winery, and to taste, first hand, the exalted 2020 vintage.
The rebirth of Fläscher Bad began in 1971 when the federal “melioration” of agricultural lands made its way to Graubünden. These remediation projects were designed to increase the productivity of Swiss agriculture, focusing mainly on the wholesale drainage of wetlands and the establishment of roads and paths to facilitate work in the fields. An under-reported aspect of this legacy was the reorganization of vineyard lands — in this case, the terracing of the Fläscher Bad slope and the relocation of its many smallholders to more productive plots below the village.
The task of building the terraces was undertaken by none other than Roman’s grandfather, Hanspeter Hermann, who, in the course of his work, met with an unexpected opportunity — the reconstruction of the long-forgotten bath houses and grotto for possible use as a public dining facility and hospitality center.
Hanspeter’s vision was exactly the type of architectural renewal one would expect a municipality to support, but because Hanspeter did things his way, he ran afoul of local authorities. They were not pleased when he failed to secure building permits for the reconstruction and were downright vindictive when he skirted zoning laws to operate an unlicensed food service business within an agricultural zone. It took more than 20 years of intermittent litigation, a fair bit of community support, and the installation of a septic drain field (as a sort of penance) to finally clear things up.
No one should be surprised that Hanspeter made a habit of doing things differently — as in the marketing of his wines. He was one of the first in the area to align the business of wine with hospitality and conviviality. Today, the Fläscher Bad remains in family hands and is known not only as a productive, highly regarded vineyard, but also as a community hub and tourist center, offering both locals and foreign visitors a pleasant afternoon among the vines — while drinking Hermann wines, of course.
The Fläscher Bad vineyard is somewhat isolated from the rest of the Fläscher Halde at the northern end of the Bündner-Herrschaft. It lies within a partial cul-de-sac just beneath the sheer-faced Fläscher Berg and just kilometers away from Liechtenstein. Since the retreat of the glaciers, this configuration has favored the accumulation of wind-blown loess, over which a talus cone of diatomaceous scree from the Fläscher Berg has settled. The vineyard here is rocky, the bedrock is highly permeable, and the gradient of the slope is relatively steep compared to those of its Herrschaft neighbors in Maienfeld, Jenins, and Malans.
Fläsch is different in other ways, as well. Its kieselguhr substrate is unique to the village — the Fläscher Berg is from a different geological formation than the rest of the mountains in the area — meaning its broken-down soils are lighter and warmer. The rest of the Bündner-Herrschaft is based on flysch, a sedimentary layering of limestone, clay and sandstone — known locally as Bündner schist — which is heavier, cooler and composed mostly of clay and sand.
Because of the soil composition, the gradient of the slope, and its orientation to the sun, the Fläsch vineyards begin to cycle earlier than those of its neighbors. Unfortunately, the head start they get comes with climate risk — late frost events and wind related issues at flowering are increasingly common. The variety Completer, for instance, is susceptible to coulure and will suffer from wind and rain at flowering, but, when left undisturbed, will ripen two weeks earlier than in Malans and with softer acidity.
Water is generally not an issue. Graubünden’s average rainfall is in the upper range for Switzerland, but loess drains well and in wet years the risk of mold and mildew is mitigated by foehn winds, known descriptively as “hairdryer” winds.
The New Generation
At 34, Roman is the fourth generation to lead the family enterprise. His great-grandfather, Leonhard, tended a mixed farm and sold grapes to others, while the aforementioned Hanspeter, expanded the farm and began to make his own wine. It was Roman’s father and mother, Peter and Rosi, who brought the vineyards and winery into the modern age and created what Roman calls a “professional operation.” They were the first to produce wine at the current family residence and winery on Hinterdorf and the first to bring Sauvignon Blanc to the region.
Succession plans began early. When Roman turned twelve his parents decided to expand and improve the facilities so they would be ready to pass on when he came of age. The problem was, as Roman says, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to take over the family business.”
As with many doubtful winemaking scions, it was his interaction with wine school classmates, many of whom had no family winery or vineyards to fall back on, that convinced him wine was a calling he shouldn’t ignore.
After an early apprenticeship, he set off to see the world. He did visiting stages at Weingut Pircher in Eglisau, Fromm Winery in New Zealand, and WillaKenzie Estate in Oregon. To learn more about viticulture and the technical aspects of winemaking, he studied at Weinsberg in Germany for two and a half years. It was there that he developed an appreciation for Riesling. He concluded with a final stage at Friedrich Becker in Pfalz before returning home in 2013. He’s been in charge of the family business since 2017.
Roman works under the principles of Integrierte Produktion (integrated production or IP) which for practical purposes means he uses no chemical herbicides or insecticides, but, in years like 2021 with severe disease pressure, he will spray for mildew. Otherwise, he is quite happy to eschew treatments that he believes are harmful to his soil and the environment.
In addition to Fläscher Bad, which comprises half of the family’s six hectares, Roman sources from four other sites on the Fläscher Halde and one from Maienfeld — the prestigious Pilger vineyard. The Classic line of Pinot Noir is supplemented with grapes from two private growers who are well known to the family.
I was lucky enough on this trip to taste the various component wines before blending. One of the benefits of tasting this way is to distinguish between clones and to discover how they might work in a blend. This is particularly useful at Weingut Hermann where there is a United Nations-worthy roster of Swiss, German and French “Dijon” clones of Pinot Noir.
The exercise is also helpful with Chardonnay, which undergoes various fermentation and élévage techniques, and, with Completer, which is subjected to different farming practices that vary by age of vine and location.
As we made our way around the chai, there was not much to see other than oak barrels. Most of them are from the usual French sources, but a few are from Swiss coopers and even one or two from Hungary.
The one other thing of note: the entire facility is spotless.
There were three cuvées of Chardonnay to work through.
(1) The wine destined for village designation was stainless steel-fermented and raised. It is predictably crisp with notes of lemon oil and apple with a fine matchstick reduction. As a basic cuvée, I liked it very much.
(2) The middle cuvée, taken mostly from the halde above the village, is from 25-year-old vines and barrel-fermented in 100% new oak. Some of it will be used to plump up the village wine and some of it will be used to add freshness and juicy layers to the Grand Maître. This was actually my favorite at the time, mostly because I adored its rich, cashew-like texture and relative accessibility.
(3) The cuvée from the terraces (Fläscher Bad) is from 45-year-old vines and was fermented in 100% new oak. It, too, is rich and textured, but strongly marked by lees contact from batonnage. The underlying fruit is apple-like and toasty, but noticeably closed up. This cuvée is destined for the Grand Maître line, which was first introduced in 2016.
Completer, of course, is not new to Fläsch — there are 15th century documents to prove it — but Roman’s is the only one produced there today, and his vines are among the oldest in the entire Bündner-Herrschaft. That’s because our old friend, Hanspeter, was busy planting Completer in his newly terraced vineyard while everyone else was ripping it out or grafting over to something else. Like I said, he was different.
(1) Hermann’s village Completer is from the halde, which is recently planted. It’s rather simple and somewhat Chablis-like with minerally fruit, mostly quince, a vegetative green freshness, and punishing acids. Hungarian oak is noticeable but not intrusive.
(2) The Grand Maître cuvée benefits from a leaf-thinning regime in the vineyard, where Completer has pride-of-place on the Fläscher Bad slope. This is so much richer and rounder than the village wine, but it has yet to develop the signature pastry cream and brioche aromas that mature examples routinely feature. The Grand Maître Completer was introduced in 2014. (For a history of Completer, see an earlier post.)
As in the rest of the Bündner-Herrschaft, Pinot Noir dominates in the Fläsch vineyards. At Hermann, its a mix of Dijon clones (20%), Geisenheim clones from Germany, and Swiss clones, mostly Mariafeld and two Wädenswil clones, 10-5 and 2-45.
It’s become increasingly clear the Dijon clones are ripening too quickly on the upper slope and may be wearing out their welcome. The German clones are valued for their resistance to rot, but the inability to ripen the stems limits the techniques available at fermentation. The Swiss clones offer structure, acidity, and spiciness, but their excess vigor must be tempered by proper rootstock selection.
So, as elsewhere, the future will be about finding the right mix of clones to suit the terroir and to make the desired style of wine.
(1) The first cuvée of Pinot Noir I tasted was destined for the Classic line. It was made from Swiss clones grown by the Fritsche family from vineyards located in the lower portion of Fläsch.The grapes were fermented in stainless steel, which highlights their pure dark fruit character and fresh herbaceousness.
(2) The Pilger block cuvée comes from one of the highest elevation vineyards in Maienfeld at 550 meters. It, too, comes from Swiss clones which were fermented in a wooden cuve with 50% whole clusters. This was fresh and pleasingly herbaceous with vibrant red cherry fruit and a firm, grippy finish.
(3) The terrace block (Fläscher Bad) cuvée, features a mix of younger Dijon clones and 50-year-old Swiss clones with an overall red fruit character that is rich, ripe, and fresh with a slightly broader flavor profile. This will make for a powerful Pinot Noir, which is somewhat atypical for Fläsch. Pinots of subtlety and finesse are what differentiate Fläsch from the more earthy examples from the rest of the region. The Grand Maître Pinot was introduced in 2013.
(4) A final cuvée from purchased German clones comes from a no-till vineyard in lower Fläsch. It seemed a bit disjointed at the time and maybe even a little volatile. It was definitely red-fruited and quite tangy.
Riesling has been around in Fläscher Bad since 2012. It’s a variety Roman wants to get right. His 2020 is from stainless steel and is a juicy, mouthwatering, lemon- and lime-leaf scented beauty. On the palate it is peachy and crisp. There is a program underway to replace Pinot Gris vines (too heavy) with Riesling.
In addition to the above wines, Roman is also enthusiastic about Sauvignon Blanc, Zweigelt and Merlot. I can confirm, all are top-class, especially the lovely grapefruit-scented Sauvignon which manages to avoid the aromatic excesses sometimes found in Antipodean examples. As Swiss Sauvignon goes, this is one of the best.
Last but not least is a restaurant friendly Müller-Thurgau that also works seamlessly into an afternoon at the spa. I’m thinking Paracelsus would approve.