I fell for it again, that headline about Marie-Thérèse Chappaz’s 99-Parker-point wine. Then I reminded myself that I hate, HATE wine-scoring. I hate doing it (though sometimes I have to) and I find it a pointless and – by its very nature – subjective exercise. Besides, to most punters the points are meaningless: for example, if you thought 85 out of a 100 was a good score – remember how thrilled you were when your essay got 85%? – think again. An 85-pointer has barely made the cut; it’s not actually faulty but it falls far short of glory. But of course points mean prizes (as Humphrey Lyttelton used to encourage his audience to chorus) – and they grab headlines. And let’s face it, Marie-Thérèse Chappaz’s wines are headline-grabbing stuff, particularly her sweet wines (of which more later).
So who is this Marie-Thérèse Chappaz and what’s the big deal? Her multiple awards include nomination as Winemaker of the Year in 1996 by the Swiss GaultMillau Guide. In 2015 at the legendary Villa D’Este Wine Symposium, she was awarded the Prix d’Excellence Lalique-Villa d’Este “Lady of Wine”, followed in 2016 by a new honour from GaultMillau when she was named one of Switzerland’s handful of iconic wine growers, a testimony to her extraordinary dedication to the cause of quality Swiss wines.
I first visited the domaine five years ago when writing a piece for Decanter on the wines of the Valais, and like anyone interested in Swiss wine, I’ve been following her ever since. When I learned she was to be the guest winemaker and keynote speaker at an event put on by L’Université des Grands Vins in Alsace, I couldn’t miss the chance to meet her (and her wines) once more.
A little background: Marie-Thérèse trained originally to be a midwife, then discovered she had embarked on quite the wrong (for her) career and decided instead to devote her life to nursing vines, grapes and wines into being. 2017 was her thirtieth vintage. She works organically and biodynamically on a mere eleven hectares high (and I mean high…) above Fully in the Valais. The vines are planted on truly heroic slopes at altitudes between 550 and 660 metres, mainly south-facing, principally granite, with occasional patches of loess, that powder-fine soil that blew in a few million years ago. The host at the UGV event, Jean-Michel Deiss, commented by way of introduction that her vineyard operation smacks more of mountaineering than winegrowing:
From these 11 hectares she makes 25 different wines – which, as she explained, caused her a lot of agonising about what to bring for the evening’s tasting. For example, she makes at least four different Fendants (aka Chasselas), Switzerland’s signature white wine and very commonly grown (although in retreat nowadays) in the Valais. Usually regarded as an easy-drinking, après-ski wine fit for a fondue, Fendant can – when grown in a great terroir – age up to 20 years when it will gain in richness and complexity. She chose to show us a Fendant President Troillet 2016, made from venerable bush vines, fragrant and intense with a persistent finish. For a Fendant, and one of her entry-level wines, it’s an impressive starting point.
We moved on to Grain Cinq 2016, a delightful blend of 5 distinctive grapes (Savagnin, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, Petite Arvine and Marsanne). The vines are not co-planted (i.e. they’re not side by side in the same vineyard), she explained, but all the grapes are vinified together, with half of the quantity going into concrete egg fermenters, the other half into barrels, then coming together into a harmoniously blended whole. It’s a wine, she explains, where she’s allowing the terroir to express itself, rather than the grape varieties. I loved its featherlight, peachy, herbal nature and the way all five of these distinctive varieties show admirable team spirit, not one of them elbowing its way to the front.
One of the most enriching aspects of the evening was the way Marie-Thérèse sprinkled remarks liberally throughout the tasting that shed light on herself, her character and her way of working. On concrete egg fermenters [the latest must-have piece of kit amongst winemakers], for example, she observed – with refreshing honesty: “I’m less and less convinced about them – I like simplicity, and eggs are complicated! They’re hard to move and difficult to clean.” On malolactic fermentation, the secondary fermentation that occurs naturally in wine and which converts the harsher malic acid (as in apples) into the softer lactic kind (as in yogurt), she admits “I don’t know what to think about this any more – we mustn’t be too rigid, on this or on any aspect of winemaking” – and then she opened up the floor to ask the winemakers present for their views.
She described our third wine, a bright, sappy Petite Arvine de Fully 2016, as “a joyful wine, like a young girl in a flowery dress”. I was reminded forcefully of the picture of Marie-Thérése that appears on her website, wandering amongst her vines in a pink gingham-check dress. Beautifully aromatic (grapefruit) with a slightly saline finish and fully dry (less than 2g RS).
I love the way she comes to the defence of Dole, the uber-trad but somewhat devalued red blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay from the Valais, and our fourth wine of the evening (Dole La Liaudisaz 2016). In the old days, she explained, white wine was the go-to choice in the region, not red. When people wanted to impress – maybe with guests over for Sunday lunch – they used to offer Dole. Nowadays this would be unthinkable, so far has Dole fallen from its pedestal – everyone’s into Syrah, Cornalin and Humagne Rouge, or maybe Pinot Noir on its own . I loved her Dole La Liaudisaz, a lightly spicy wine with personality, which is grown on limestone (unusual in these lower reaches of the Valais), made from majority Pinot with some Gamay.
Pinot Noir, explains M-T, is often a poor choice for Valais vineyards, where the climate is too hot. Her Pinot Noir Champ Dury 2014 demonstrates her winemaking skills and her ability to work with this fickle grape in less than ideal conditions. It smells deliciously appetising, still a little harsh to taste but not overworked or overblown, and with a lingering finish. I’d like to have some and to hold it for a few years.
Syrah is a grape that M-T considers to have a great future in the Valais – remember, this is the Upper Rhone Valley (though some French winemakers downstream in “their” Rhone Valley are busy trying to contest this undeniable geographical fact), so it’s hardly any wonder that it should find its place here. M-T’s Syrah 2016 is grown in the same granite terroirs as her Fendant and Grain Cinq, a serious, structured wine with sinews and spice. “I like my Syrahs to be a little austere, not blowsy and over-the-top”, she says.
The last three wines gave M-T the chance to show the wines that she loves probably most of all, and which have in large part forged her reputation: the naturally sweet ones. “It’s funny because I never eat dessert, but I love my sweet wines,” she admits with a rueful smile – and goes on to stress the extraordinary, untapped potential in the Valais for first-class, naturally sweet wines, which has all the necessary ingredients – warmth, low rainfall, botrytis.
First came Grain Noble Petite Arvine 2015, a mouthful of orange marmalade and toffee which wrapped itself lasciviously around the tongue. Slight criticism was aimed at its lack of acidity (not normally a characteristic of Petite Arvine, which has lots), which meant it lacked a bit of backbone and bite to work against the residual sugar. The eighth wine was Petite Arvine Grain par Grain 2014. It was, M-T reminded the audience, a horrible year for reds but perfect for sweeties. She and her team went through the vines seven times selecting only botrytized grapes grain par grain, grape by grape (hence the name). “It was like picking wild bilberries!” Fabulous, figgy wine, vivacious, concentrated and long long looooooooooooong. (It’s the one awarded those infamous 99 points – and the fact that M-T made absolutely no reference to it that evening speaks volumes about the lady.)
The final wine was another late-harvest, Grain Nature 2013, made from Marsanne Blanche (sometimes called Ermitage in the Valais) – granite-grown, deep golden, smelling of old-fashioned roses (the kind that used to be really fragrant), broad, expansive and with a lovely balance of sweet/acid/bitter.
As a biodynamic grower, Marie-Thérèse might be classed by some people as making ‘natural wines’ – though I’ve never heard her describe herself as such. What she does articulate is a feeling that “We’ve got too technical with our winemaking, we should believe more in our grapes,” adding: “I used to intervene a lot with my wines, now I just follow them, I don’t boss them about. It’s like raising a child: you need to be after them, make sure they go to school and so on – but you shouldn’t be trying to mould them to your wishes.”
It’s a great philosophy and it shines through in the wines. What struck most people present, many of them winemakers themselves and few of them familiar with Swiss wines – certainly not of this calibre – was her extraordinary humility and the way she speaks of her wines with such simplicity and sincerity.
If you don’t already know Domaine Chappaz, you may want to correct this oversight. Visits are by appointment. The domaine will also participate in the annual Portes Ouvertes operation over the Ascension weekend (10-12 May) when you can taste and buy.
Chemin de Liaudise 39,
Tel. +41 (0)27 746 3537