At a time when regular drinking sends eyebrows heavenwards, elicits dire warnings (“l’abus de l’alcohol est dangéreux pour la santé“) and provokes finger-wagging about how much/little we should be imbibing, it’s hard to believe that wine and hospitals were once inextricably – and symbiotically – linked.
Probably the best-known example is the Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy, founded in 1452 as a hospital for the poor and indigent with a focus on healing for both body and spirit. Similarly at the Hospices de Strasbourg, founded in 1393, patients were entitled to a daily ration of two litres of wine for medicinal purposes. Over the centuries, thanks to bequests from grateful patients and their families, both Beaune and Strasbourg managed to build up sizeable vineyard holdings.
The hospital function of both Hospices has been transferred to modern clinics and these grand medieval buildings have been transformed into superb museums. I like to think, however, that the body-spirit connection lives on – hopefully through healing doses of good Burgundy or Alsace wine to aid recovery.
The Cru de l’Hôpital winery in Vully, Switzerland, has a similar history, explained winemaker and vineyard manager Christian Vessaz on a recent visit. The 10 hectares of vineyards that rise steeply up from the shores of the lake of Morat/Murtensee (we’re on the border between French and German-speaking Switzerland here so the town and lake answer to both names) are still owned by the Bourgeoisie de Morat, a body of fine, upstanding burghers whose original role was as stewards of the town’s hospital. As in Burgundy and Alsace, the clinical connection is now lost (the only perk for members is a small discount on the wines produced) but the vineyards have been protected and cherished over the centuries. Today, thanks to Vessaz’s quiet but single-minded focus on quality, the domaine’s wines are drawing admiring glances from all sides and winning important awards.
Vessaz arrived here in 2002 fresh out of Switzerland’s viticulture school in Changins. “I did have plans to travel and study in New Zealand and Bordeaux, but an opportunity for something like this doesn’t come up too often. Besides”, he grins, “I was the only applicant!” Vully is a minnow in Switzerland’s small winemaking pool, practically unknown within the country (even today it accounts for just 1% of Swiss wines) and apparently offered limited appeal to aspiring/ambitious winemakers. Travel and internship plans were put on hold and Vessaz got on with the job in hand: turning the Cru de l’Hôpital into a modern, reputable winery working along ecological lines to produce quality wines that bear the stamp of Vully and its unique terroir (primarily molasse or sandstone underlaying the south and south-east facing vineyards). Under his aegis, yields were reduced, the domaine converted to organics (and in 2013 to biodynamics), careful attention was devoted to winemaking at every stage from vine to cellar…”and the results soon followed.”
In 2008 the winery was transformed along resolutely modern lines and a tasting room and shop were added (the lion’s share of their wines is sold within a small radius of the village, with people arriving by car to taste and fill up the boot with trophies; the rest is earmarked for Switzerland’s top restaurants). A big moment was the inclusion of their Traminer (aka Gewurztraminer) in the collection of the august Mémoire des Vins Suisses, an organisation founded in 2002 to showcase top-class Swiss wines, and to demonstrate through tastings and events both their ageing potential and their diversity. Its members are the elite of Switzerland’s pioneering winemakers.
Seated in the grateful cool of the cellar (outside it was a good 30 degrees) we tasted a range of wines, of which the whites were the standouts. Their entry-level 2015 Chasselas was a revelation (to this Chasselas sceptic), offering a good deal more than the usual thirst-quenching promises: delicately flowery with gentle fruit flavours and just sufficient acidity to give it character. Their Traminer (which is in fact a Gewurztraminer and not, as you might imagine, a Savagnin Rose), the wine selected by Mémoire des Vins Suisses, is a blooming delight: yellowish gold and bursting with fruit, flowers and a little spice (lychees too, but in moderation), discreetly oaked. Also fine is their Chardonnay from the domaine’s Champerbon vineyard (“I’ve worked a lot on my Chardonnay”, observes Christian, who also has a share in and helps to tend vineyards in the Mâconnais): a fleshy mouthful which started out life with a 3-month stint on the skins – unusual for whites – in upright barrels.
The next time I have a spell in hospital, I’m counting on therapeutic doses of good wine to speed recovery. Meanwhile, I’m relishing to the full the Cru de l’Hôpital’s wines. For medicinal purposes only, of course.