The Swiss are a co-operative lot. The country’s two main retailers, Migros and Coop, are both co-ops, jointly owned by over half the Swiss population; co-housing projects (Baugenossenschaften in German) abound. The car-sharing Mobility co-op with its fleet of poppy-red vehicles has huge appeal in a country where car ownership (even for those living halfway up a mountain) is almost unnecessary, thanks to the excellent public transport system. Even the Swiss government is a model of co-operation, where there is always a balance of the four main political parties and the four official languages among the seven members of the governing Federal Council, and the president, drawn from its number, takes his/her turn in an annual rotation.
The spirit of the co-op spills over into Switzerland’s wine world too. Perhaps the most miraculous example is Provins, founded in 1930. Its headquarters is in Sion (pictured in the header) in the Valais, a part of Switzerland where people are better known for their fierce independence of spirit than for any innate ability to work harmoniously together. (In the early 1990s, when I was researching A Taste of Switzerland, the [then] head of the co-operative told me in an interview: “Down here, even the cows fight!”, with reference to the region’s famously feisty Hérens breed of black cattle.)
In most parts of the world, wine co-ops get a bad rap. The perception is they’re too big, too impersonal, without a clear focus on quality. Their members are sometimes accused of lacking pride in their work and their organisation, the wines considered second (or fifth) best. Provins, as the new (to me) Directeur Général Raphael Garcia was keen to explain when we met recently, is different. “We have a good image, both in Switzerland and abroad,” he affirms, “and our wines are well known for offering good value for money.” In 2008 and 2013 they won the award for Best Winemaker of the Year at the annual national Swiss wine competition, the Grand Prix du Vin Suisse, and they regularly carry off armfuls of prizes in both national (GPVS, Expovina) and international (Decanter World Wine Awards) competitions.
A bit of background
Around 20 percent of the Valais’ entire wine output (and 10 percent of all Swiss wine produced) comes from Provins. They have a whopping 3,200 members (sociétaires) who between them own 820 hectares (2026 acres) of vines planted in around 20,000 different plots – do the math(s) and you can see how tiny the average holding is. This is typical for the Valais, where many people – known as les vignerons du samedi (Saturday winegrowers) – own a few rows of vines almost as a hobby. They make a huge range, with something for every taste and every pocket and offering value for money at every price point. I counted 118 different wines in their recent catalogue (“down from 195”, claims Garcia with a slightly rueful smile), made from 22 different grape varieties.
Production varies quite widely from year to year. In 2015-2016 they sold 6.5 million litres; the quantity in 2017 will certainly be lower, [no] thanks to the savage late frosts in April. You can find their wines in practically every Swiss department store and supermarket (except for Migros, which doesn’t do alcohol – a condition laid down by its founder, Gottlieb Duttweiler, which endures to this day) [Jose Vouillamoz on FB reminds me that the Denner stores, part of the Migros group and always conveniently placed next door – comme par hasard – are major wine sellers. Poor old Gottlieb must be turning in his grave.]
Finding your way around the Provins list
To find your way through this jungle of wines, it’s best to think of the offer in terms of a pyramid. At the top are the Crus des Domaines, made under the personal supervision of chief oenologist Damien Carruzzo, one of which (the Domaine Tourbillon sweet Marsanne/Petite Arvine blend) won a Platinum (i.e. Best in Category) award in the 2017 Decanter World Wine Awards. Sharing the honours with Crus des Domaines are Les Titans (two blends, plus a Petite Arvine, a Pinot Noir and a Merlot), a line which was created as a tribute to the makers of the Grande Dixence dam high above Sion. The wines are made in Provins’ cellars, then transported in oak barrels up the Val d’Hérémence, where they are aged in galleries beneath the dam at an altitude of 1500 metres.
Next comes the Maitre de Chais (“cellar master”) collection of 15 different wines, featuring all the Valais specialities. This premium line, introduced in the 1970s and built up by oenologist Madeleine Gay (who retired in 2015 after a distinguished 35-year career with Provins) sought to reinstate the Valais’ distinctive speciality grapes (huge swathes of over-producing, under-performing Chasselas were simultaneously uprooted), and to incentivise members to produce greater quality by means of new, more demanding contracts. Oak-ageing was also introduced for some of the wines.
Of similar importance is the Chandra Kurt collection, where the Zurich-based wine writer and journalist gives her imprimatur to a series of cuvées made from Valais specialities, ranging from the classic Fendant (i.e. Chasselas) to the rarer sorts such as Amigne, Humagne (both Blanche and Rouge) and Cornalin.
Below these there’s a broader slice of the pyramid that includes a number of new, modern-style wines, from the Grand Métral, Apologia and Terra Veritas lines, aimed at a younger market, both pricewise and in terms of complexity and ageability (DYA) – with the added attraction, in the case of some of the Terra Veritas wines, that you don’t need a corkscrew to crack them open (perfect for a picnic or a hike in the mountains, says winemaker Damien Carruzzo). [There are more still, but let’s keep it simple and stick to the more interesting ones.]
Some thoughts on wines tasted
From the top of the pyramid, I loved the Domaine du Chapitre blend of Amigne, Humagne Blanche and Petite Arvine (hard to go wrong with those three delightful white grapes, finely balanced in this aromatic white) from the Clos des Domaines range, as well as the Clos Corbassière, a veritable fruit salad of six different field-planted red varieties. Also fine was the deep ruby, mouthfilling Pinot Noir Les Titans. Amongst the Maitre de Chais, my loyalties were divided between the full-bodied Johannisberg aka Sylvaner (from Chamoson) and the deliciously citrus Petite Arvine (from Fully), with extra body from six months spent in the company of the spent yeasts. The Rouge d’Enfer (“the red from hell”) is a real Valaisan at heart, an opinionated blend of Syrah, Humagne Rouge, Cornalin and Diolinoir.
From the broad second band of the pyramid, I fell hard for Heida Grand Métral – but then I fall in love with almost every Heida I taste (it’s the rich, spicy Savagnin grape of Jura Vin Jaune fame, though in Switzerland there’s no yeasty layer of flor on top of the wines). Also interesting were two of their more modern wines, Belle Etoile white (Humagne Blanche, Marsanne and Amigne) and Apologia Bianco (Sauvignon Blanc, Humagne Blanche and Pinots Blanc and Gris), both of them created for a market that wants something floral, aromatic, bright and uncomplicated – wines to quaff, not to quibble over.
If your perception of co-op wines is generally poor, and/or if Provins’ slight over-exposure (at least if you live in Switzerland) have together put you off exploring these wines further, it could be time for a re-think.
[Photos of views, cows and St Leonard and Heida wines are mine; pics of all the other bottles come from the Provins website, www.provins.ch]