Swiss Wine Tasting: From Humble Beginnings

After twenty years in the spotlight, two of Switzerland’s most dynamic wine personalities, Andreas Keller and Susanne Scholl — now in their eighties — show no signs of slowing down. This is amazing to me, because the work they do appears more complicated than ever. Andreas and Susi — as she is affectionately known — along with Martin Kilchmann and Stefan Keller, are founders of the groundbreaking Mémoire des Vins Suisses (MDVS), a membership organization with a simple mission: to prove that Swiss wine belongs among the world’s best.

In order to realize this mission, the four founders methodically set out to identify the best wines in Switzerland and to amass enough of them to track their progress with periodic tastings.

They began by anonymously submitting the names of the wineries they liked best. Whenever one received two or more votes, it immediately made the cut. When the list of nominees reached 25, the voting ended and the real work began. Each selected winery was asked to contribute 60 bottles of the chosen wine for safekeeping in a common cellar. Somewhat surprisingly, most agreed. This bounty became known as the trésors de la Mémoire, to be used for periodic tastings and as source material for the Swiss Wine Vintage Award (SWVA), a proposed 10-year retrospective tasting of each vintage.

The original 25 names selected in 2002, grew to 56 in 2005, before a 57th was added in 2020. Meanwhile, a companion event, Mémoire and Friends, was launched to showcase up-and-comers and previously overlooked legacy wineries. As its prestige grew, everyone wanted to be a part of the group.

Today, the constellation of events are under the direction of Swiss Wine Connection, a wine events management company owned by Andreas and Susi, in partnership with MDVS. The annual flagship event, Swiss Wine Tasting, showcases new releases from the 57 MDVS members and 60 “Friends” — 120 wineries in all, more or less.

The Swiss Wine Vintage Award

Sunday afternoon’s Swiss Wine Vintage Award was a look at the somewhat maligned 2012 vintage on its 10th anniversary. 2012 was a year of climate extremes, including late frost, cool temperatures, and unseasonable rains. Mold and mildew were significant problems in many areas. However, a sunny and warm October saved the vintage, albeit with lower yields. Most experts at the time considered the vintage to be marginally successful, but not great.

The SWVA lineup included 29 whites and 41 reds selected by a jury before the event. The wines were chosen from the trésor collection and from some non-member wineries.

Among the whites, five stood out.

From a stellar class of Chasselas, my favorite was the amazing Vieilles Vignes from Domaine Cornulus, sourced from their incomparable monopole, Clos de Mangold. This privileged site sits in the middle of Valais, near Sion, upon a bed of pure gypsum. The aroma of bacon fat and caramel was just a tease for the rich, unctuous fruit that followed. It is a great Chasselas by any measure and proof that the best from Valais can hold their own against those from the hallowed terroirs of Vaud.

Next up was another Chasselas giant in the making — the Dézaley-Marsens de la Tour “Vase Nº4” from the Frères Dubois. At ten years of age, it was still ridiculously fresh with an unblemished aroma of white flowers and tropical fruits. The palate was pleasantly tart with a mouthwatering flavor of lemon pastilles and honey. The “Vase Nº4” turns up regularly in tastings of old Chasselas and it usually stands out as one of the best whenever it appears.

To those convinced Chasselas can not make outstanding wine, these two, and the Médinette to follow, might change some minds.

Three other diverse whites also caught my attention.

First, was the Humagne Blanche “Tradition” from Domaine des Muses in Sierre. Unfortunately, I don’t get to taste this wine often enough, and almost never at this age. What’s makes an Alpine white special, you ask. Freshness and weightlessness, first and foremost. At ten years old this one was as fresh as a field of mountain flowers with the barest hint of pineapple and an unmistakable mineral spine.

The Traminer from Christian Véssaz of Cru de l’Hôpital in Vully would be a great choice to prove that Gewürztraminer can be subtle, elegant, and eminently drinkable; and, that it can age beautifully without excess alcohol, cloying flavors, or bitterness. In other words, without any of the extremes that limit this variety’s usefulness at the table or its popularity in general. This is consistently gorgeous, ethereal, and understated Gewürztraminer that only gets better with age. Traminer is a Vully speciality with its own cahier des charges.

And lest you think Switzerland is only capable of producing delicate wines, I offer this powerhouse from upper Valais. The Heida “Veritas” from St. Jodern Kellerei is from a small plot of ungrafted Savagnin vines located in the extreme, near vertical vineyards of Visperterminen. This was a slow burn at first, with a reductive, flinty edge. With air, savory bass notes emerged, among them freshly picked mushrooms and malted grain. Equally appealing was the cashew-like texture and authoritative phenolic grip.

Most of the red wines selected by the jury focused on Pinot Noir, but two of my favorites went farther afield.

I’m always happy to try the Cornalin from Denis Mercier, both because it’s rare and because it’s delicious. Cornalin, or, more properly, Rouge du Pays, is a native grape that behaves a bit like Zinfandel on the vine. It’s prone to hens-and-chicks (millerandage) and raisining. That means in the bottle there are often hints of dusty raisins and high alcohol. The similarities end there. Mulberry or sweet black cherry are the fruit analogs and, like most Alpine reds, it balances a persistent acidity with fine-grained tannins. Needless to say, they can age beautifully, as this and the masterclass flight demonstrated.

The Tenuta Vitivinicola Trapletti in Colderio is less than 120 kilometers from the vineyards of Valtellina, but the profile of its Nebbiolo is more like Langhe. Nebbiolo is a rarity in Switzerland but this one makes the case there should be more. At 10 years old it’s not particularly developed but it has every bit of Nebbiolo’s gorgeous perfume and tannic bite. In the glass, dusty roses came to mind, as did the scent of liberally spiced panforte. This one has many years ahead of it.

Finally, the Pinot Noir “Hommage” from Cave du Rhodan in Salgesch had me flustered. After a quick glance at the bottle, my eye told me I was drinking a Humagne Rouge (Hommage looks like Humagne), so the mind did what it does by adjusting expectations. The warm, jammy aroma did not recall Humagne, nor did the silky texture and fine tannins. It was a friend who told me I was drinking Pinot Noir. It was a damn good one, too.

Swiss Wine Masterclass: Four Wines — Four Vintages

The Sunday afternoon Masterclass was a study of four iconic wines, from four cantons, spanning four vintages: 2011, 2008, 2005, and 2002. It included the Dézaley “Médinette” from Louis Bovard (Vaud), Cornalin from Denis Mercier (Valais), Pinot Noir “Gian Battista” from Weinbau von Tscharner (Graubünden), and Sassi Grossi (100% Merlot) from Gialdi Vini (Ticino). The class was led by Hans Bättig (the Mémoire’s sensory expert), Andreas Keller, and the principals from each winery.

Dézaley “Médinette” Flight

The highlight, from my point of view, was the Médinette flight, which provided more evidence that Chasselas is an extraordinary variety when made from a great terroir and given the opportunity to age.

The 2008 was the star. It smelled of flowers and grain, and fruit and nuts, all while texturally rich and luxurious. There was even enough acid to keep the acid hounds happy. The 2011 was not far behind, lacking that bit of texture only time can bring. The 2002, while still very good, was a touch past its prime.

The Cornalin flight was also very good, but suffered only in comparison to the outstanding 2012 tasted earlier. All wines in this flight were still youthful and had not yet developed the roasted mulberry character that is the hallmark of this variety.

Gian Battista’s von Tscharner’s namesake cuvée is one of Switzerland’s most highly regarded Pinot Noirs. It always highlights the wild aspects of the variety and its inherent intensity. Come to think of it, not unlike the man himself. To some, it may recall the meaty ruggedness of Gevrey-Chambertin, but to me it’s the scent of Graubünden’s ample forests that come to mind.

Most unfamiliar to me was the Merlot from Ticino, Sassi Grossi. This was a brooding flight of Merlots, each one swathed in a cloak of unintegrated oak. There was well disguised black cherry fruit and bitter chocolate as well. These will need years to soften and develop.

The Grand Tasting

On Monday the pace of things changed dramatically. 120 wineries were crammed into the new, light-filled Chipperfield extension of the Kunsthaus Zürich, Switzerland’s largest art museum. Surprisingly, the organizers decided 120 wasn’t enough, so two tables dedicated to the Junge Schweiz Neue Winzer collective and medalists from the Mondial du Chasselas were added to the program. In the end, this year’s event attracted over 2000 happy visitors.

There was literally something for every one, but in order to take full advantage of the layout, a little planning was necessary. Since I will taste most of the new Pinot Noir releases in other settings, I decided to focus on white wines from mostly unfamiliar wineries.

That strategy led to some exciting discoveries — two excellent Savagnins from outside Valais, among them. The 2018 Savagnin from Domaine des Bonnettes in Geneva and the 2019 Amédée from Domaine la Colombe in Vaud proved exceptional. The Amédée was richer and more textural with a nut-like toastiness, while the Bonnettes leaned towards Jura with more pronounced structural elements and juicy lemon fruit.

Chardonnay has no particular home in Switzerland, it’s grown in small quantities everywhere, but its hard to find really good ones. There are few better than the 2020 Chardonnay “Churer” from Weinbau von Tscharner in Graubünden or the 2020 Chardonnay from Domaine de la Maison Carrée in Neuchâtel. It’s no accident the use of oak is understated in each, and well on the way to full integration. With the cost of Burgundy these days, these represent great value.

Unlike wide-ranging Chardonnay, Räuschling is almost exclusive to the canton of Zürich, where it’s prominently featured in a number of wineries. The 2020 Räuschling “vom Rheinfall” from Weingut Besson-Strasser and the 2020 Räuschling from Bechtel-Weine represent stylistic opposites. The Besson-Strasser follows classical lines with lime-inflected fruit and bright acidity. The Bechtel incorporates oak in its fermentation to great textural effect.

I was most impressed with the small delegation from Vully, a group of tightly knit, collaborative winegrowers who are mostly young and experimental. They are not afraid to work with hybrids, little known vinifiera varieties, or alternative methods of production. I think of them as leaders of a growing Swiss wine incubator in the smallest, most obscure AOC in the nation.

Christian Véssaz (Cru de l’Hôpital), Fabrice Simonet (Domaine du Petit Château), and the whimsical Etienne Javet (Javet & Javet) are leaders of the youth contingent in Vully and beyond. Christian and Etienne, in particular, were instrumental in the establishment of Switzerland’s natural wine regulations and were early adopters of biodynamics.

Their lineup of wines is always a treat to taste, beginning with the 2021 Freiburger (Freisamer) from Le Petit Château, another Vully speciality with its own cahier des charges. This one was spicy and vaguely aromatic, a reminder of its Sylvaner heritage. The 2021 Chardonnay “Les Cutres” was not part of the portfolio tasting, but Fabrice pulled a bottle from beneath the table anyway, to pour me a splash. My past experience with this cuvée is limited, but it has always shown a rich mineral streak that recalls Corton-Charlemagne. The controversial 2019 Initial (Merlot) is deep and dark with bitter chocolate at its core. It’s controversial because of its price, nearly 100 CHF, for a newly launched wine from a little-known AOC.

Did I mention there is a bit of youthful insouciance in Vully?

All three houses offer an excellent Traminer and when tasted together they make for an interesting evening of contemplation. (See: Traminer Front and Center).

Etienne Javet is perhaps the boldest member of the crew with singular alternative offerings that include natural wines made in accordance with Swiss regulations and Demeter certification. Most unusual is a natural 2021 Orange Traminer! (punctuation included), and a consistently outstanding natural 2021 Pinot Noir “Aime Terre”. Etienne has such a good touch with Pinot Noir, capturing both the wild and the elegant side of the variety, without overplaying either one.

The Cru de l’Hôpital offerings began with a slightly shy 2021 Sauvignon Blanc, but came on strong with a natural 2021 Pinot Gris “Beurot” in homage to its Burgundian style. New to the portfolio and a welcome addition is the 2019 Malbec de Fichillien, a ripe mouthful of soft fruit from a perfectly situated parcel. The 2018 Pinot Noir de Mur is a collaboration with Etienne Javet. What a lovely wine. It’s supremely elegant yet powerfully scented with notes of raspberry, summer thicket, and candied violet. You can bet it raised a lot of eyebrows, too. At 94 CHF it breaks new ground for Pinot Noir pricing in the canton.

Such is the privilege of youth and a fitting way to end this year’s Swiss Wine Tasting.

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