There’s nothing in the vicinity of Soyhières, a modest little village tucked away in a fold of the Jura barely half an hour from Basel to indicate that you are close to the property of Valentin Blattner, one of the more significant and interesting people in the Swiss wine world. No signposts point the way, there’s no website and no Facebook page, just a telephone number which is answered only fitfully.
Blattner came onto my radar when I started getting seriously into Swiss wines and I’ve wanted to meet him for a while. No-one was answering the phone so I couldn’t make an appointment, but our idea was to suss him out, see if there was anyone home and make a date to come back. It was a stunning late summer day, so we packed a picnic, located where we thought we might find him on the map and set off through the magnificent Jura countryside.
As we drew up outside the (anonymous) property, a shambling collection of timbered buildings with photovoltaic panels on the roof, greenhouses to one side and vines all around, a bearded person in shorts appeared. Seeing our French number plate, he asked in French how he might help. “Monsieur Blattner?” I asked, slightly nervously. The very one. I apologised for descending on him unannounced and un-introduced and explained my interest in meeting him. Did he have a minute or two to explain his work? Since they were in the middle of harvesting, it was clearly not the moment, but seeing my notebook, he sat us down in the courtyard and agreed to a few minutes.
You’re probably wondering what makes Blattner interesting and significant enough for me to want to track him down in his tiny corner of northwest Switzerland. It’s for his ground-breaking work as a private vine breeder (unattached to any research institution), which he started with his wife Silvia back in 1991, that he is celebrated. Since 1991 he has been tirelessly creating hybrid wine grape varieties that carry inbuilt resistance to oidium and mildew, two of the biggest threats to vines in these latitudes, as well as to extreme cold. They’re known as PIWIs, a portmanteau word that plunders the German name, Pilzwiderstandsfähige Rebsorten. In English they’re referred to as interspecific hybrids, to distinguish them from the hybrids of old, which gave unpalatable, foxy-flavoured wines.
The second reason to visit the Blattners is that they make and sell wine from their own created varieties. This is no mere research station and vine nursery with greenhouses full of propagating trays, it’s a working winery with four hectares of vines, where harvesting was – as we discovered – in full spate. “We’ve worked for 30 years to produce grape varieties that make wine that’s good to drink”, says Valentin, so the decision to make their own was a logical one. Historically, he readily agrees, there were two kinds of hybrids: the awful ones and the less awful ones. They were designed for maximum yield and maximum alcohol, not for flavour. “We think wine should be for pleasure and our aim is to produce wine that’s a pleasure to drink.”
Silvia appeared, just back from the organic market in Saignlégier where she had been selling her wines over the weekend. These come from her vineyard in the nearby village of Courfaivre and the collection is named Les Mergats, with an appealing label of a sleek black cat. (Un mergat, she explains, is a tomcat, the nickname of the village.) There’s a white, a rosé, a couple of reds, a sparkling wine and a sweet wine. Would we like to taste some? You bet we would.
First came the wine that they have named Ravel Blanc. With Ravel’s Bolero ringing in our ears (“a favourite of mine”, smiles Silvia) we tasted first the young wine (2017), then 2016 (a bit more fruit-forward), and finally the 2013, richer still with more complexity. All had a delicious crisp fruitiness reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc, alert enough to make a good aperitif but also (I reckon) suitable as a good food wine. Another white, VB-CAL 6-04 (it’s too new to have been christened yet) was similarly Sauvignon Blanc-inflected, gorgeous with a lovely crisp minerally bite.
There were also two sparklers, one a Brut Sauvage (no added sugar) and the other a slightly plumper Brut, mainly Ravel Blanc blended with a couple more of their white varieties. They make the base wine and send it to a specialist who adds the dosage (in the case of Brut) or none (for Brut Sauvage) and gives it its sparkle with the second fermentation in the bottle. Crisp, fine-bubbled, delicious and original.
Valentin reappeared wearing an apron over his shorts, ready to make lunch for the harvesters. Would we like to join them? You bet we would (the picnic could definitely wait…). Over lunch (venison steaks in a red wine sauce with Spätzle) we had the Blattner Cabernet Jura, another new variety that has Cabernet Sauvignon as one parent, the other unspecified. One cuvee is unoaked, the other gets a spell in barriques, of which two are new and one is used. Both are a deep ruby-red, with brambly fruit aromas and flavours and a good tannic backbone.
We finished with a wander in the vineyards, where we joined the harvesters and did a stint (a short one – it was very hot) with the secateurs, snipping bunches of unique, home-grown, home-created grapes off the vines – our tiny contribution to the 2018 vintage and a thank you for the Blattners’ wonderful welcome and hospitality.
The value of these interspecific hybrids (meaning they’re created by crossing two different vine species) lies in the fact that they don’t need to be treated with any kind of anti-fungal product, whether natural (as in copper sulphate or sulphur) or synthetic. They are already being planted and vinified by organic and biodynamic growers who want to take their sustainable approach one step further. What came as a revelation to me was how delicious the wines can be. I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that as they gain acceptance, first with the growers and then with us wine drinkers, they will join – perhaps even one day replace – traditional varieties.