Les Titans: Wine in the Extreme

Little did I know the term “Heroic Viticulture” is a proprietary trademark of The Center for Research, Environmental Sustainability, and Advancement of Mountain Viticulture (CERVIM). As such, this august designation is reserved for vineyards which meet any of the criteria listed below:

Vineyard sites at altitudes over 500 meters (1600 feet);

Vines planted on slopes greater than 30%;

Vines planted on terraces or embankments;

Vines planted on small islands in difficult growing conditions.

To be certified “heroic” means one is successfully working under the most extreme conditions, at great cost, often for little reward, in service to the cultural landscape.

If that isn’t enough to stress a winemaker, a cellar corollary to heroic viticulture has emerged. It’s known as “extreme élevage”—a term used to indicate various bottle- and/or barrel-aging regimens that go beyond the norm.

Château Petrus in space, anyone?

Élevage is a French noun used mostly in the context of animal husbandry. It translates to “raising,” “breeding,” or “rearing”. When applied to wine, it refers to the formative period after fermentation and before bottling. It includes all the things a winemaker does—or doesn’t do—to affect the character of the wine: choosing what type of wood to use for aging, is one example. More generally, it’s whether or not a winemaker chooses to engage in any of the numerous interventions available to him—malolactic conversion, bâtonnage, fining, filtration, are among them.

We think of élevage as completed once a wine is in bottle, but some regulatory laws, such as for Barolo Riserva or Rioja Gran Reserva, extend the concept to include a minimum period of aging in bottle.

Extreme élevage takes things even further, although without regulation or agreed upon definition.

Élevage in the Extreme

Practitioners of extreme élevage are varied and the techniques used are myriad, but Champagne producers rank among the most ambitious. Leclerc Briant, Drappier, and Huecq are among a number of Champagne houses to offer bottom-of-the-ocean-aged bottles as part of their product mix. Each such program promises to deliver extra richness, freshness, and ocean-infused minerality—not to mention attractive barnacle-encrusted bottles. One even claims its marine-sourced cuvée “embodies minerality to its climax.” Another offers “. . . a permanently dynamized . . . fusion of marine and telluric energies.”

Even respected critics are diving in: Essi Avellan MW describes Leclerc Briant’s « Abyss » as “invigorated by nature’s energy” with “iodine-like mineral tones hinting at the months spend (sic) submerged in the sea.”

The trend has even spawned the clumsy portmanteaus “aquaoir” and “merroir” to suggest an aqueous connection to terroir.

Different, but equally over-the-top, is Julie Benau’s Picpoul de Pinet regimen. She sinks entire barrels—not bottles—into a Mediterranean oyster bed near her vineyards. She theorizes the constant motion of the sea coaxes a mixing of the lees, which imbues ordinarily pallid Picpoul with an uncommon energy. The complexity of the sea-aged wine compared to the land-based one is startling, according to those who know them.

But extreme élevage is not confined to the sea.

Karoline Walch of Cantina Elena Walch in Alto Adige touts the benefit of aging some of her family’s bottles in an abandoned Alpine silver mine:

“What’s amazing is the silver mine wines seem to absorb their surroundings. You can taste the coldness, the stone. They taste younger, but somehow more complex. They’re just alive, with a vibrant soul.”

She might agree with Hervé Jestin of Leclerc Briant, who likewise eschews science by summing up the mystery of extreme élevage in this way:

“What is important for me is not the reason why. It is the results. I can know the reality without the necessity to understand why.”

The Swiss Approach to Extreme

As you might expect, much of the Swiss vineyard landscape would qualify as heroic, but only a few wineries can boast extreme élevage programs. That said, one of the oldest continuous programs in the world is the Les Titans project of Provins, Switzerland’s largest winery. Since 2004 Provins has been aging barrels of wine at high elevation—first in an Alpine cave above Sierre, then within the awe-inspiring Grand Dixence Dam above Sion.

Luc Sermier, Provin’s longtime mâitre caviste and oenologist, is the originator of the project. His extreme credentials are indeed impressive and go far beyond wine. In 2010 his three-man team finished second in the biennial Patrouille des Glaciers, an extreme winter sports competition that routinely attracts hundreds of the best military and civilian skiers from the fraternity of Alpine nations. It’s a grueling race that demands skill, endurance, and courage.

It also helps to have imagination, because it was during one of his competitive forays that Sermier entertained the idea that wine might benefit from a protracted aging regimen in the chilly, moist darkness of a remote Alpine cave.

A successful first experiment in the Val d’Anniviers began with a few barrels.

In 2005, the project was expanded to 50 barrels. That was when Sermier engaged Nicolas Vivas, a Bordeaux-based wine scientist with an expertise in wood-aged wines. It was important to Sermier that the project be science-based from the beginning.

Success came quickly. Even before the project had a name, an unlabelled white blend from the 2005 experiment won its category in the 2008 Grand Prix de Vins Suisses competition. Professional and public interest followed. The wine sold out quickly, with most going to Sermier’s Patrouille brethren.

In 2009 a larger site was needed for expansion, which led Sermier to the Grande Dixence Dam complex with its extensive network of caves and galleries. The name Les Titans was chosen to honor the men and women who risked their lives to build the Swiss hydroelectric industry.

Vintages 2009-2014 were analyzed and tweaked by Sermier and Vivas to ensure the conditions at Grande Dixence provided what they were looking for. It turned out better than they expected.

Luc Sermier in his cave. (photo courtesy: Provins)

The Grande Dixence Dam—An Unlikely Wine Cellar

The sheer scale of the Grande Dixence Dam is conveyed by a few numbers:

285 meters (935 feet) high
(slightly shorter than the Eiffel Tower);
700 meters (2,297 feet) across;200 meters (656 feet) wide at the bottom;15 meters (49 feet) wide at the top.

Even more mind-boggling is the 10 years, 6 million cubic meters of concrete, and 3000 workers it took to build. It remains the tallest gravity dam in the world, located at the highest elevation (2,355 meters). The energy it generates provides Switzerland with 20% of its electrical needs.

A fascinating short documentary of the dam’s construction was made in 1955 by one of its then anonymous laborers—Jean-Luc Godard. It was the first film ever made by the French New Wave director, which he shot between work shifts with a borrowed 35 mm camera.

The conditions within the dam are indeed extreme:

Year-round 4.5°C (40°F);
104% humidity (a condition known as supersaturation);750 hPA (low atmospheric pressure);Year-round darkness.

The same conditions would be too costly to replicate in the valley below, so each spring the new wine is transported 26 kilometers up the mountain, just as farmers do with their cows, in a kind of vinous transhumance. When the access road is cut-off in winter, Sermier will make the trip by helicopter, hitching a ride with the regular rotation of the dam’s engineers.

There’s not much to do, however, as the wines evolve so slowly that little intervention is needed.

The grapes for the project come from several sites throughout the valley, the most important of which is Le Séminaire, a vineyard located in Sierre and managed by Provins for the Diocese of Sion. Because of the focus on quality, the Titans series gets the best fruit from the best sites. Sermier boasts the grapes for Les Titans are not harvested until a number of pigment, ripeness, and flavor landmarks are achieved.

Grande Dixence Dam and Lac des Dix. (Photo courtesy of: Jérémy Toma)

What the Science Shows

The Les Titans lineup includes two whites: Petite Arvine and Défi Blanc (a blend of Petite Arvine, Pinot Gris and Muscat); a rosé made from Diolinoir; and five reds: Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, Cornalin and Défi Rouge (a blend of Syrah, Cornalin and Diolinoir).

As the table below shows, the cave-aged wines show less yellow color (an indicator of development) and more red and blue colors than the same wine stored in Sion. The differences between them become even more pronounced over time. It appears that low temperature (in combination with high humidity and low pressure?) during élevage encourages an extended bonding of anthocyanins, co-pigments, and other co-factors, in a process known as copigmentation, or hyperchromicity. The temporary bonding of these molecules not only preserves the vivid color of the wine, but protects it from oxidation and lengthens the time for other biological and chemical processes to occur.

2011 Défi Noir (Syrah, Cornalin,
Diolinoir — bottled in 2013)
% yellow% red % blue intensity
red %
2018 Data




2020 Data





One study unrelated to the project makes the point:

“. . . the susceptibility of wine to oxidation was related to the degree of association of its pigments . . . it is now apparent that copigmentation can account for between 30 and 50% of the color in young wines and that it is primarily influenced by the levels of several specific, noncolored phenolic components or cofactors. Copigmentation is of critical importance in understanding the relationship between grape composition and wine color, the variation in color and pigment concentration between wines, and in all reactions involving the anthocyanins during wine aging (emphasis mine).”

Among the most important of these reactions is the polymerization of anthocyanins and tannins. Extended copigmentation preserves the ability of anthocyanins to later bond with tannins to create short chain polymers. Short chain polymers result in a softer texture with less of the astringency found when long chain polymers dominate or when the ratio of anthocyanins to tannins is reversed.

A Virginia Tech study puts it this way:

“Smaller polymers . . . have fewer protein binding sites. As such, they produce . . . a greater degree of soft tannins and more palate depth. The more anthocyanins, the shorter the resulting polymers and the finer the tannins. Smaller polymers lead to smaller colloids which have a softer mouthfeel.”

The polymerization process not only leads to intense color and improved texture, but may also extend the life of the wine.

“Grapes producing the most intense, balanced wines with the greatest longevity usually have a high anthocyanin to tannin ratio. Indeed, wine quality may be dependent, in part, on this ratio.”

Sermier’s oft-repeated statement “that we have learned to master time” says as much about the dam’s environment and the beneficial effects on anthocyanin-tannin polymerization, as it does about his winemaking practices. Both Sermier and Vivas believe the character of the Les Titans line is the direct result of a leisurely evolution in the dam.

What the Consumer Sees

The Virginia Tech study also makes a point that many consumers know to be true:

“. . . there is some anecdotal evidence that wines richer in color, especially purpleness, receive higher sensory rating.”

If, as is often said, you taste with your eyes, then these reds are a feast.

Each one displays shockingly bright, pure colors, as if still in the fermentative stage. The nose and palate tells you they are not. Across the board, the oak is well integrated, the aromas are fruity but complex, the flavors are fresh but deep and mellow, and the texture is satiny smooth and only gently gripping. Parodoxically, they feel somewhat developed, but at the same time are youthful looking and still seemingly primary.

They are quite simply, gorgeous.

If the reds make the case for youthful suppleness, then the whites tell a different story.

The same conditions yield whites that are very pale, steely, minerally, and slightly reductive. They appear as hard as the chiseled stone of the cave’s walls. Karoline Walch’s earlier statement, “You can taste the coldness, the stone,” makes perfect sense here. One could quibble that malolactic conversion would benefit the whites—unlikely, given the conditions—but these are meant to be slow-to-mature, long-lived wines.

In the end, after nearly twenty years of production, the Les Titans project has proven itself to be both innovative and solidly grounded. From its modest beginnings in 2004 with a few barrels of Merlot, to over 200 barrels of several varieties today, Les Titans is quite literally at the summit of Swiss winemaking.

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