For wine geeks, this often comes in the form of knowledge, an eccentric wine or a coveted vintage from a famous producer. The former two seem to epitomize the recent surge of interest in America for Swiss wine. One wine writer even referred to Swiss wine as “the best wine you’ve never tasted”. Little is exported (less than 2%), therefore everyone loves to drop the fact that they tried one here or there. When a wine is fairly uncharted territory, it becomes the icon of possibility for mastery in the eyes of the wine geek.
Well. I have had a chance to try some of this forbidden fruit during my short stay in Valais—Switzerland’s primary wine country—and have come to an assessment for myself. Like many alpine wine regions, there is certainly charm one can approximate from its juice—a terroir that sounds of minerality, bright but still restrained fruit, white pepper, balanced alcohol and noticeable acidity. But none were as complex as some other similar regions boast, those like, say, the acclaimed German and Austrian appellations of the Mosel, Rheingau, Pfalz or Wachau. Nor did they share the pronounced personalities found in the French regions of Savoie and the Alsace. They were more than pleasant, intriguing even… but not as intellectual or complex as so many sippers in the States have zealously advertised.
What makes a fantastic wine—even a noteworthy wine—is purely subjective. What makes an exceptional wine, however, is a little less so. To be an extraordinary wine depends on many factors—acid, tannin, length, ageworthiness, oak, vinification, alcohol and the overall character (some might even strive for that oh so indescribable stamp of terroir). In this sense of the definition, I found possibly only one exceptional wine. However I am delighted to report that there are several fantastic, noteworthy finds from Valais.
Throughout dinner two nights ago, I was able to sample an array of grapes and producers from this small mountain village, which is scattered as far as the eye can see with near vertical vineyards on jagged, steep hillsides. Valais, in fact, holds some of the highest altitude vineyards than any other wine region in Europe. I had some simple, fruity whites made of Fendant (commonly known elsewhere as Chassalas) and Johannisberg (commonly known as Silvaner) as well two rather thin Pinot Noirs (one from Chavalier Bayard, the other unnamed)—decent fruit but wholly unsubstantial with regard to character. I also sampled a Syrah, which had a very animalistic tone to it—furry, bloody and even a bit chewy. The producer was Orsat—the same as the one I alluded to in my last posting. Though it was certainly spunky and appealing, it had a universal flavor. It spoke less of Valais and more of Syrah in general. In this way, I was actually drawn to the Pinots more, purely due to the fact that they fit in with the food and its environment. (The food, by the way, was a simple breaded perch from Lac lu Monde served with tartar sauce and pommes frites.)
Yesterday, I happened upon a ‘vinotheque’ in town called Espace Provins where a German-speaking woman named Cecile Pernet (who knew no English) and I (who knew, well…next to nothing), haphazardly bumbled through a hilarious wine tasting in some variation of French. For the whites, Cecile walked me through the 2008 Grand Metral Fendant (above all floral and fruity, not high in acid or structure), the 2008 Grand Metral Chardonnay (rich brioche, hazelnuts and ripened apple fruit, a touch of lime zeston the palate), and a blend of Pinot Blanc, Marsanne, Heiola and Amigne in the 2008 Matre de Chais Vielles Vignes, which proved to be the most interesting of the dry whites, giving off a briny character of olives, wet stone and oak spice. It demonstrated aging potential and was reminiscent of some of the Italian whites I have tried from Campania—savory, salty, and needing fleshy fish.
The reds were similarly drinkable. Rather light and fruity introductory reds to start—one of Pinot Noir and the other of the Humagne Rouge variety—perfect for aperitifs, fish and light cheeses. We then moved on to a more serious Pinot Noir. It had a little age on her, as it was from 2007. It smelled of the earth, wet soil and mushrooms. It reminded me of Burgundy, which is always a good thing. And though it lacked the overall structure and complexity to rival with that comparison, its acidity and tannin told me it would hang in for several more years. It was interesting how going back to the other reds after tasting this one made them appear so much more jammy and sweet on the nose!
I finished on a sweet note—an exceptional note, really. It was the 2005 Maitre de Chais Grains de Malice. This dessert wine was the product of Marsanne and Pinot Gris. It wore a lovely, dark golden robe in the glass. On the nose, one might be surprised at the savory, briny olive bite it presented. I was. For what followed was almost unbelievable. It was so honeyed and sweet, though the clean-up on the back palate declared it had a good balance of acid. Salty then sweet. Sounds obscure in a wine, but really it’s no less fantastic than kettle corn or salted cookies and cream ice cream (just had that at the Little Man in Denver—oh…my… god….good). So that’s what exceptional Swiss wine tasted like. Well, exception deserves a place in the suitcase (note: I write this from the plane, hoping it is not breaking below me in the baggage section all over my clothes).
Though I only tried a handful of wines, I learned that although I walked away with only a glimpse of Swiss viniculture, the glimpse was promising. And while I would gladly carry some Swiss wine in my store, should it eventually be imported and brought into Colorado, I will continue poring over the sensational global wines we do already have access to (an incredible amount I am so thankful for considering we are a state in the ‘middle’) and not continue to pine for that which I cannot have… right now, anyhow.