Regular readers will know that I’ve been writing about Swiss wines on and off for some 30 years now. The eagle-eyed will have noticed that recently this has been more ‘on’ than ‘off’, with various pieces for Decanter and a new project in gestation. Over the years I’ve travelled to pretty much every corner of the country’s six wine-growing regions – Valais, Vaud, Geneva, Les Trois Lacs, Ticino and the large, sprawling German-speaking region. And yet in all that time, I’d never visited Weingut Jauslin in Muttenz.
It seems odd that I had to travel all the way down to the Valais in southern Switzerland for a first taste of their wine – their top Pinot Noir cuvée, named Hohle Gasse. It featured in last year’s round-up of wines that had scored well in the Mondial des Pinots competition, organised annually by VINEA in Sierre. I looked at the crib-sheet and saw “Jauslin, Muttenz, Baselland”. Muttenz? Baselland? This pretty dormitory village outside Basel is just across the border from us, all of 25 minutes away. How come I’d never heard their name before, far less paid them a visit? Phrases involving prophets not being without honour (“nul n’est prophète…”) came to mind. Time to put this right.
The small (6.5ha) family winery first began bottling wine under their own name back in 1966. Today it’s run by Urs and Regula Jauslin together with their son Adrian. Urs explains that huge changes were already afoot when he took over the business from his father in the early 80s. Two key developments were soon to come in Switzerland, which would help push winemaking into another gear. Firstly, the state stopped buying up swimming pools (literally) of unsold Chasselas (neutral, mildly fizzy, inevitably designated un vin de soif) at guaranteed prices, or oceans of Dôle (then a dull blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay that did few favours to either grape). In parallel, restrictions on foreign wine imports were lifted. Producers were forced to conclude that in a high-cost country, the only game in town was quality.
This quality imperative chimed with Urs’s own philosophy. Above all, he wanted to raise the bar for his Pinot Noir, which until then had been at the thin, under-ripe, undistinguished end of the red wine spectrum, typical of Switzerland’s more northerly regions (and, admittedly, of Alsace and even Baden back then).
He had inherited the magnificent, south- and southwest-facing, limestone-rich, steeply sloped and well drained vineyards on the Muttenzer Wartenberg above the village. Now he set about planting better clones, including Burgundy ones (sourced from vine nurseryman Andreas Meier over in neighbouring Aargau – who produces a mean Pinot Noir himself). He also started working with small oak barrels. And along the way there was a formative meeting with iconic winemaker Daniel Gantenbein in Graubünden, whose Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the stuff of today’s legends.
On the white wine front, too, he changed tack, making both Gutedel (aka Chasselas) and Riesling-Sylvaner without malolactic/secondary fermentation, with the aim of preserving precious acidity in these soft, somewhat neutral grapes. (The second or malolactic fermentation converts the sharper, apple-y malic acid into softer, yogurt-y lactic acid; preventing this second fermentation can be desirable in grapes that lack a good acidic backbone.) He planted Sauvignon Blanc, from which he makes 2 cuvées, one oaked and one not. Son Adrian, as is common with many of the younger generation of today’s Swiss winemakers, recently did a short internship in New Zealand, where he learned much about the possibilities (and the pitfalls) of this distinctive and demanding grape. Urs also makes a delicious, 100% oaked Pinot Gris, closer in style to a Kaiserstuhl Grauburgunder (which he greatly admires) rather than the oft-flabby Pinot Gris from Alsace.
I enjoyed his new-style Gutedel and Riesling-Sylvaner, both of them crisp and bright, perfect as an apero (CHF12 apiece). The Sauvignon Blanc is a step up (at CHF20), with lovely elderflower/gooseberry aromas and none of the green pepper notes that plague too many Swiss Sauvignons. I liked the oaked version less – the fruit somehow got buried by the wood.
Their entry-level Pinot Noir (very fairly priced at CHF14) is raised in stainless steel, full of juicy, lipsmacking fruit with none of the harsh green notes often found in unripe, more northerly Pinots. The PN La Tour (named after the tower above the Muttenz vineyards) comes from older, lower-yielding vines and spends 12 months in used barrels (“I’m pulling back on new wood all the time” observes Urs) – also juicy and eminently drinkable (CHF19). Hohle Gasse PN (CHF32) is a step up again, made with a proportion of whole bunches (“I’m playing about with this a bit”) and long, slow, cool fermentation – lovely, cool, minty aromas, and well integrated wood.
At the top of the ladder is PN Hohle Gasse Grand Cru with a chic black label. It’s a selection of the best grapes from the regular Hohle Gasse cuvée which gets 18 months in barriques (some new) and a year in bottle before release. It was quite tannic (a wine to lay down) with powerful oak aromas and tobacco/cigar notes and I loved it a little less than the non-Grand Cru Hohle Gasse. (Just as well as it costs CHF48 – and anyway it’s sold out.)
“Basel is barely known as a wine region, so we have to try even harder,” smiles Urs. The Jauslins are certainly giving it their all, with some pretty fine results. I’m only sorry it took me so long to get around to experiencing the wines firsthand. Find them in Basel at the Bel Etage restaurant at the Teufelhof (which has one of the most fun wine lists in our ‘hood), the Three Kings Hotel, the Goldenen Sternen on the Rhine and at Bad Bubendorf. Or pay them a visit in Muttenz – their light, bright tasting room on Baselstrasse is open Thursdays from 4.30 till 7 p.m. and on Saturday mornings. Just don’t wait 30 years to do it.
PS on Sunday 3rd September from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. it’s the Tag den Offenen Räbhüsli, where you have the chance to taste wines from Jauslin and other Muttenz winegrowers right in the vineyards above the village.