Way back in the 90s when I contributed the ‘chapter’ on Swiss wines in Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Guide (all of two pocket-sized pages), I noted that “most Swiss wines are drunk young”, and that “almost all good growers sell out their entire production within about 6 months of bottling”. I also observed that “the better ones would benefit from more bottle age than they customarily get”.
The perception that much of the country’s wine falls into the DYA (Drink Youngest Available) category was – and still is – widespread. As to whether Swiss wines could stand the test of time if laid down, this is a relatively new proposition – for Swiss winegrowers as for consumers. But it’s an idea that’s fast gaining credibility. For this, both growers and consumers have to thank the farsightedness of four Swiss wine journalists, Andreas Keller, Stefan Keller, Martin Kilchmann and Susanne Scholl, who in 2002 founded the organisation Mémoire des Vins Suisses. The idea behind this inspired initiative was not just to shine a spotlight on Switzerland’s finest wines but also to demonstrate their ageing potential.
Over the years since its inception the Mémoire has built up a membership of some 56 leading winegrowers from all around the country. The criteria for inclusion are fourfold: their wines should have a track record for excellence over many years; they should express the typical character of their region; they should have a clearly identifiable style; and they should have the potential to develop and mature for at least 10 years.
Each of the 56 members has one wine in the Mémoire to represent their domaine, of which they must submit 60 bottles every vintage. These are stored in the association’s oenothèque (wine library) and brought out over the course of the year, when several vintages of the same wine will be tasted simultaneously to see how they have fared and to put the ageability thesis to the test.
A subsidiary (but important) objective is to encourage solidarity amongst the Swiss winegrowing fraternity and to familiarise members with wines from colleagues in other parts of the country. This may sound surprising – you might imagine the Swiss to be familiar with wines from their fellow winegrowing regions – but campanilismo or the inability to see beyond your own bell-tower is not unknown in this small country, where cantonal and linguistic loyalties are fierce. I’ve met Swiss Germans who have never tasted a single wine from the Geneva Region, and French-speaking Swiss for whom the wines of Graubünden or Aargau are a closed book – yet both are familiar with the most interesting bottlings from Italy, France and (increasingly), Spain.
So, is the Mémoire just an exclusive little club where a handful of cognoscenti can sniff, slurp and mull over ageing examples of Chasselas from Lavaux, or Pinot Noir from Neuchâtel? Not a bit of it – and this is the strength of the Mémoire, for whom “une forte présence de la Suisse viti-vinicole dans notre pays et à l’étranger est … quasiment un devoir patriotique” (“a strong showing by the Swiss wine-growing fraternity both at home and abroad is almost a patriotic duty” – note their logo, above, and how the arrangement of the corks forms a cross, as on the country’s flag). Proof of this is that some events are open to the public, and the most important is the annual opening of the Schatzkammer or treasure chest of wines.
If you’re at all interested in Switzerland’s top wines – a reasonable assumption if you’ve read thus far – you shouldn’t miss it. The event – remarkably – is free providing you sign up in advance; otherwise it’s CHF20 at the door. Check the website www.mdvs.ch for the date and venue in 2018. This year’s event was held in March in Bern’s Kursaal, high above the River Aare.
The fifty-six winegrower-members were present with their wines, with examples of two, sometimes three different vintages. It’s a pretty daunting affair when you first wander into the huge room set with tables, wines and spittoons – so many possible wines to taste, so little time – and selective strategies are called for. I decided to focus on at least one grower from each of Switzerland’s six wine regions, homing in on wines I’d not yet tasted and had heard much about. Here are the wines that stood out for me and which I would recommend keeping an eye out for:
Les Hutins, Dardagny (Geneva)
The Geneva Region was (in)famous in the past for oceans of boring/overcropped Chasselas. How things have changed! Jean Hutin, now succeeded by his dynamic daughter Emilienne, was among the first to introduce Sauvignon Blanc to the region in the 1980s and many more followed suit – it’s great to see what top growers are doing with this grape variety. If you love Sancerre, you’ll relish this one with its classic but not overwrought SB nose (gooseberries but not cat’s pee), lipsmacking dryness and elegant finish.
Weingut Donatsch, Malans (Graubünden)
This historic variety is cultivated in minute quantities by a handful of growers in the German-speaking region, and the Donatsch family is one of its greatest exponents. (“We’re the biggest growers of Completer in the world”, jokes Martin Donatsch, the 5th generation of the family to make wine here – a reasonable claim, since barely anyone else makes it.) In olden days the wine was made oxidatively (cf. Jura wines); nowadays Donatsch gives their Completer plenty of time in used oak barrels to tame the variety’s natural acidity and to give a deep golden, fragrant wine with huge character.
Blaise Duboux, Epesses (Vaud)
Calamin Grand Cru, Cuvée Vincent
Blaise is a genial artist of the wine world (his website is subtitled “Art du Vin”), whose 5 hectares of vineyards are piled high above Lake Geneva around Epesses in the heart of Lavaux. He’s also a great believer in Chasselas’ ability to pick up the imprint of the terroir (he has several cuvées) and its ageability (“when you age Chasselas, it gets dressed up, becomes a jacket-and-tie wine”). While I liked his delicate, elegant Calamin (a single-vineyard Chasselas), I was even more convinced by his deep golden, honeyed, quince blossom-y Dézaley Hauts de Pierre, tasted subsequently at the domaine.
Domaine des Muses, Sierre (Valais)
Humagne Blanche Tradition
Robert Taramarcaz is one of the new generation of young wine makers who recently returned to the family fold after spells in Burgundy and New Zealand. His range of thrillingly original wines (whites from the north-facing left bank of the Rhone for maximum freshness, reds from the right bank for maximum ripeness) are prized alike by Swiss wine cognoscenti and by David Schildknecht for the Wine Advocate. Humagne Blanche is one of the Valais’ indigenous specialities that has had a bit of a revival recently. Tararamarcaz’s is lightly oaked giving a rich, beautifully structured wine with hints of lime blossom and grapefruit – a lovely apero, or with an aged, hard cheese like L’Etivaz.
Denis Mercier, Sierre (Valais)
Cornalin (also known as Rouge du Pays)
I warmed to Denis Mercier’s modest description of this indigenous Valaisan variety as “un cépage rustique mais avec un certain charme” – though he somewhat undersells this rough diamond of a wine, made nowadays with increasing input from his daughter Madeleine, who returned to the family domaine in 2012 after several months in Napa, and who is gradually taking over the reins. It’s a tough grape to work with, she explains (low, irregular yields, greedy for sun), but they persevere with it because they believe in its potential. I love its cherry notes and firm structure. If you value originality and love little-known indigenous grapes, it’s worth seeking out this unique wine.
Benoit Dorsaz, Fully (Valais)
Syrah de Fully Quintessence
Fully, close to Martigny at the lower end of the Valais is Petite Arvine country, and although that fine, fragrant white – a personal fave of mine – is Dorsaz’s biggest wine, it is his Syrah Quintessence (top of his range) that represents him in the Mémoire. Over the years since the domaine was founded in 1987 he has gradually selected the best vines (sourced originally from the northern Rhone) from his vineyard, to give the quality he’s looking for. The wine spends 12 months in small oak barrels and, after blending, another 6 months in larger vats. It’s a spicy, cherry-laden, chewy, tannic wine that promises a ripe old age.
Pinot Noir ‘B’ Rosenau
I visited this small (7ha) domaine on the shores of Lake Luzern eons ago, long before I got seriously into Swiss wine, and have promised myself a return visit ever since. In 2013 they were admitted into the Mémoire with their Pinot Noir and this year was my chance to ‘revisit’ them, albeit in Bern. In a former life, Toni Ottiger made money as a banker; now he makes wine, not just Pinot Noir but also Merlot, Riesling-Silvaner, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. His Pinot spends 14 months in barriques (one-third new oak), just enough to add structure while preserving the lovely Pinot fragrance, with enough acidity to augur a long life. Wines (and a winery) to watch.
Les Frères Dutruy, Founex (Vaud)
Gamay Les Romaines, Grande Réserve
This was one of my most exciting and unexpected finds – unexpected because the brothers Dutruy are in La Côte, a sub-region of Vaud that’s somewhat in the shadow of its more illustrious neighbour Lavaux and of which my expectations are generally low. Huge changes are afoot here, too (cf. Geneva), with plenty of young winemakers going great guns – the Dutruys are an example, with their spanking new winery and modern-style, terroir-driven wines. Unusually for La Côte, they make more red than white. This is their top-of-the-range Gamay from 45 year-old vines, which gets 16 months in barriques – a gorgeous, gulpable mouthful of juicy fruit, which would give any top cru from Beaujolais pause for thought.