Ageing Gracefully

Whenever the Swiss wine association Mémoire des Vins Suisses stages one of its [eminently worthwhile] tastings (see here for a report on the March 2017 one), they tend to put on a handful of fringe events for visiting journos and wine peeps to keep them busy and to flesh out the programme. So it was at the end of summer, when a bunch of us found ourselves at Wädenswil, the Swiss viticultural research station on the shores of Lake Zurich.

Before we get into the subject of ageing gracefully, a quick aside on Wädenswil, which has a special place in Swiss viticultural history. Its first director was the Swiss botanist, oenologist and vine breeder Professor Hermann Müller from Thurgau. He created the grape variety that bears his name (Müller-Thurgau) while researching at the Prussian Institute for Horticulture and Viticulture in Geisenheim, Germany – some of the original Müller-Thurgau grapes are still here, still giving fruit.

A row of Müller-Thurgau grapes, a variety created by Hermann Müller and brought by him to Wädenswil in the 1890s.

For many years this was the viticultural school for the German-speaking part of Switzerland, while French-speakers studied at Changins near Geneva. Once it was decided to concentrate all viticultural studies at university level at the Changins campus, Wädenswil’s star languished. Today it is busy forging a new role for itself. “Wine is even more in our [Swiss] DNA than watches, cheese, chocolate or banking,” claims Martin Wiederkehr, head of Swiss Wine Promotion and on the board of the reconstituted Weinbauzentrum Wädenswil, “and for the past 128 years years Wädenswil has been at the heart of Swiss wine.”

The research role will continue, under the aegis of Agroscope (see PIWIs, coming soon to a vineyard near you?). From January 2018 the centre plans to offer a range of other services, still at embryonic stage – wine sales and marketing studies, wine consultancy, a centre of expertise for sparkling wine knowhow … these are just some of the possible functions and activities being discussed.

On the programme, after explanations of the centre’s potential new roles and a visit to the vineyards, there was a tasting. The only thing we knew was that they were all white and they had been made in the Wädenswil vineyards. The bottles were masked and numbered; we had no idea of the grape variety/ies, nor the vintage(s).

The first was water-white, smelling of peardrops with nice acidity, no CO2 and lipsmackingly fresh – probably not Chasselas, but I toyed with the possibility of Müller-Thurgau, since we were in the home of… The second was a pale greenish yellow, honeyed nose, very crisp and bone-dry (Pinot Gris?). In third place came a deep golden wine, quite viscous, with hints of smoky bacon, fully dry, a total surprise (hmm, Räuschling??), followed by an even deeper toffee-gold wine, smelt meaty like sugo (in a good way, I promise), also bone-dry. Number 5 was golden-verging-on-brown, obviously aged, smoky, chewy, with hints of walnuts, and fully dry. The last was pale again, with distinct traces of new oak.

Then the bottles were unveiled, da-da...and all turned out to be Pinot Gris. The first was from 2016, the second 2008, the third 1988, the fourth 1968 and Number Five…1948. With No. 6 we were back in the real world again with 2015.

I loved this chance to see how Pinot Gris was made at this great centre of Swiss winemaking excellence over a 60-year timespan, and how it had aged. Particularly interesting to me was how Pinot Gris is treated here, as opposed to Alsace or Baden, which I’m more familiar with. Alsace Pinot Gris often – but not invariably – have higher RS levels while today’s Baden Grauburgunders are fully dry, often with a marked terroir footprint – especially those from the (volcanic) Kaiserstuhl. I was also interested to see that PG in Switzerland in the ‘old’ days was named Tokayer, as it was for ages in Alsace – remember Tokay-Pinot Gris (now outlawed, as considered to be poaching on Hungarian territory)?

And of course, the tasting chimed neatly with the whole raison d’être of the Mémoire des Vins Suisses, whose purpose is not just to shine a spotlight on Switzerland’s finest wines, but also to demonstrate their ageing potential. I never thought to taste a Swiss Pinot Gris from my birth year. An exercise in ageing gracefully, which I shall try to learn from…

2 thoughts on “Ageing Gracefully

  1. And be sure to let me know how you get on sourcing any Swiss PGs in NY. Worth nothing that PG in Switzerland is a ‘speciality’ i.e. not mainstream (compared to either Alsace or Baden), so it’s quite hard to find examples. Some good ones from Zurich growers e.g. Schwarzenbach in Meilen) and in Vaud (Dom. La Colombe in Fechy) – when are you coming next?

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