The Valais, Switzerland’s largest wine-growing region, has always enjoyed a reputation for its super-ripe, late-harvested, naturally sweet wines known as les vins liquoreux. In 1996 a number of leading winemakers banded together to form an association named Grain Noble ConfidenCiel. Today there are about twenty winemakers producing such wines in the Valais, including Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, a founding member of the association and widely regarded as the finest exponent of the art of making naturally sweet wines, and Robert Taramarcaz of Domaine des Muses, its current president.
The name falls into two parts. The Grain Noble bit is the equivalent of the German Trockenbeerenauslese and the Alsatian Sélection de Grains Nobles. Both of these terms describe a rare and wondrous wine whose grapes are naturally ripened on the vine and (positively) affected by botrytis, the airborne fungus known familiarly as noble rot, which gives extraordinary concentration to the grapes and complexity to the resulting wine. The ConfidenCiel part of the name relates to the confidence the group wished to inspire in the excellence of the product, as well as the inevitably confidential quantities produced; Ciel (sky) expresses the celestial aspirations of the wines.
To ensure the excellence of these wines, the group laid down a number of ground rules (une charte) for their members. Grapes should come only from vines that are at least 15 years old and planted in the best sites. Five varieties are permitted for making these naturally sweet wines: Arvine, Ermitage (Marsanne), Johannisberg (Sylvaner), Malvoisie (Pinot Gris) and Amigne, which may be made as mono-varietals or in a blend. Only grapes that have ripened fully on the vine are eligible for this distinguished label. No added sugar is permitted and the must (fermenting grape juice) should reach a minimum of 130° Oechslé, the scale which measures grape sugars and hence ripeness.
The resulting wines should be aged in small oak barrels or large oak vats for a minimum of 12 months. In years when the required sugar and quality levels are reached, ConfidenCiel wines should if possible be made by members of the association; conversely, in poor years when the required conditions are not met, such wines should not be made. Finally, all wines aspiring to the label are tasted internally by a panel of experts and any wines not considered up to scratch are disqualified.
It’s worth looking out for the label on your travels around the region. Often these precious drops come in 50-centilitre bottles, which is the perfect quantity to be enjoyed with a few carefully chosen friends and fellow wine-lovers. The wine – from whichever grape or grapes it is made – is a delight with foie gras or a sweetly mushroomy, blue-veined cheese. It’s also heaven served simply on its own, lightly chilled and sipped either at the start of a meal or to provide a finishing flourish.