Savoie & Switzerland: Guild of Sommeliers Report 2014

In June 2014, Liz Dowty (New Orleans), Ryan Totman (Corkbuzz, NYC), Victoria James (Marea, NYC) and Master Sommeliers Laura Maniec and Geoff Kruth traveled to Switzerland and the Savoie. Following is a report on the region from Victoria James.

“I’m not leaving this country until I taste some Vin de Glacier,” Liz announced.

Ryan’s eyes widened as he described this “unicorn” wine of Switzerland that we had only ever read about. From the ancient, indigenous Rèze grape and made in silly-high-altitude soleras in the Swiss Alps, this maderized wine with miniscule outputs boasts a rarity few other wines share.

But never mind Vin de Glacier, for a minute… Many American sommeliers have never tried any wine from Switzerland.

Lack of availability and marketing means that Swiss wines remain mythical and undiscovered for many outside that fair country. Little wine is produced, and what little is made very rarely crosses the Swiss border—Switzerland is so wealthy, they really needn’t push their wines into the international market; in fact, 90% remains domestically sold. Further, there isn’t a large, international PR group educating the trade and marketing the wines. Beyond that, a visit to Switzerland reveals that the Swiss seem almost secretive about their wines… perhaps for good reason—they might be too good to share.

And so our merry band of sommeliers went to find out what, exactly, the Swiss were keeping hidden. Our cohort got the opportunity to try wines that not only will never leave Switzerland but probably will no longer exist by year’s end—almost all of the wines made there are sold within the vintage, and very little is kept to age or cellar and sell as a reserve. Even in their private cellars, winemakers put aside only a few bottles from past vintages. Considering that many of the wines possess great aging potential, this might be a tragedy.

Switzerland is made up of 26 cantons, which are neatly divided into four linguistic areas: German, French, Italian and the ever-forgotten Romansh (or Romansch/Romanche). Although we flew into Zurich, we spent our trip in the western, French-speaking regions of the Valais and the Vaud, where we were occasionally welcomed with hostility towards Americans… but more often with pools of fondue and potatoes.

The Valais

Our first day was spent in the Valais region of southwestern Switzerland. Ever had a Swiss wine? It probably came from here. The region is nestled into the heart of the Alps, and the vineyards here, flanking both sides of the Rhône river (the right bank is most important), benefit from steep slopes and terraces; they are responsible for a third of the country’s production. The mountains form a rain shadow that makes the Valais Switzerland’s driest canton with just 24 inches of precipitation a year… coupled with 2,100 hours a year of sunlight. For reference, Alsace sees 20-25 inches of precipitation and 1,800 hours of sunlight annually. Indeed, some similarities in the styles of wine from Alsace and the Valais are noticeable: vibrant acidity, gobs of honeyed notes, racing minerality, white flowers and sometimes earthy/mushroomy aromas.

Cave Caloz

Our first stop (and a favorite) was at Cave Caloz near the famous ski area of Crans-Montana. Many locals just think of Chasselas (known locally as Fendant) as “skiing wine,” an aperitif after a long day on the slopes. But Cave Caloz makes not only serious Fendant but a full array of seriously good wine.

Anne-Carole and Conrad Caloz (who took over for his father, Fernand) now manage the family domaine while their eldest daughter, Sandrine, is winemaker. 2013 is Sandrine’s white-winemaking debut after years of studying under her father and at enology school. 

An interesting tangent about Sandrine’s role: although Switzerland is quite liberal, very few females are in the wine industry. As the story goes, when Sandrine was born, her grandfather excitedly opened a bottle of Champagne to celebrate his successor who would one day take over the winery. Minutes later, upon learning that his grandchild was a girl, he was reported as fuming, “Do you know how hard it is to put a cork back in a Champagne bottle?” Luckily, Sandrine’s hard work and skill put his skepticism to rest, and today he—along with a legion of fans—seems impressed by her wines.

An intoxicatingly confident young woman, Sandrine won us over when she brought us to her vineyards, high above the Valais valley… and when she told us about the Brian Jonestone Massacre (a psychedelic rock group) concert she’d seen the night before. Like Burgundy, the plots of vines squeezed into neat little rows have been severely divided over time and through families. The appellation, Coteaux de Sierre, holds two distinct sites: La Mourzière and Les Bernunes. The former produces wines that are fresh with finesse and elegance, while the latter creates more age-worthy, structured wines. 

Sandrine’s just-bottled 2013 Petite Arvine from the La Mourzière parcel smelled of clean, wet, alpine rocks with yellow citrus and white flowers. It’s common in the Valais to find Petite Arvine with residual sugar (it’s favored by the Swiss consumer), but Sandrine isn’t about following trends. Preferring to show off terroir and grape, she’s unapologetically crafted a completely dry Petite Arvine here. She also prevents malolactic fermentation and uses only four-year-old (or older) barrels or steel tanks. 

Next up was the Johannisberg (local name for Sylvaner), which did hold some residual sugar and saw five to six hours of skin contact as well as some bâtonnage. It was silky but musty and slate-y in aroma. Cave Caloz’s Heida-Paien (Savagnin Blanc) held an incredible 11g/l of tartaric acid, which Sandrine tried to tame by stirring the lees twice a week. Then came our first Valais Fendant: slightly reductive (but in a good way) with a racy yet delicate texture and tons of honey and white flowers on the nose. 

Among the Alpine reds, we found many common threads: smells of wet soil, sticky pine trees, small red berries and dark flowers. Sandrine’s Humagne Rouge held a prolific candied cherry and strawberry center, the thin-skinned grape offering little color or tannin structure but bursting with pepper and sassafras. This is an ideal wine to chill down and enjoy all summer.

The wine of the visit here was the 2012 Cornalin. Only otherwise seen in the Valle d’Aoste, Cornalin is hard to grow and very susceptible to sickness, commonly ripening unevenly or suffering from millerandage. Cornalin must be made carefully, but a well-made one like Sandrine’s seems to play a Syrah-like charade on the palate while boasting the inky color of Dolcetto. The only thing missing was a plate of wild game. There’s a reason the wines of Cave Caloz grace top restaurant lists in the U.S.: They deftly show off Switzerland’s potential.

Serge Roh

Next up, we looked at a more modern approach to the wine industry. Serge Roh, also located in the Valais, took over his family’s domaine in 2009, slowly making over the wines to give them a sleeker profile. We contrasted the domaine’s older, brown glass bottles and rustic, watercolor-illustration labeling with the modern, minimalist labels Serge employs today, and we tasted his Petite Arvine, Humagne Blanc de Vétroz, Amigne de Vétroz, Dôle de Vétroz, Cornalin de Vétroz and Amigne Grains Noble.

Vétroz is a grand cru of the Valais that’s full of calcaire and schist; it’s also arguably the most important vineyard in the region. However, it’s important to note that the “grand cru” system of the Valais isn’t comparable to, say, Burgundy in its indication of quality. In fact, we found a lot of “grand cru” wines in brasseries, sporting screw caps and barely commanding two-digit price tags. Serge agreed that the grand cru system indicates place more than it does necessary quality: As in the AOC system, regulations are placed on winemaking and viticulture, and wines must pass a blind tasting panel to assure they are typical for the cru. 

Wines from Vétroz also carry sweetness indicators on the labels. The charming system uses small icons of honeybees to designate the amount of residual sugar in the wine: one bee means less than eight grams per liter; two means nine to 25; three bees indicates there’s more than 25 grams per liter of RS. Most wines are one-bee entities, although wines like Petite Arvine and Amigne de Vétroz are traditionally off-dry. Serge’s versions of the latter are packed with acidity, dry extract and concentration. If there’s a noble character to Amigne de Vétroz, it may be found in its texture, power and aging potential, which Serge believes to be around 15 years.

Serge’s Humagne Blanc de Vétroz was Sylvaner-like, carrying a steely, mineral-driven finish with notes of smoke and honey, and our first Dôle (a traditional blend of at least 85% Pinot Noir and Gamay with 15% other local varieites) was notably pleasant: a glass of wild blackberries and purple flowers, reminding me of a soft Schiava I’d enjoy slightly chilled on a summer night.

Finally, sweet wines are a specialty of Vétroz, and with the honeybees quickly multiplying on the label, we wrapped up with Serge’s 2012 Amigne de Grains Noble. Showing off 90 grams of residual sugar, sipping from this slightly botrytized bottle was like dipping into a saffron-infused honey pot.



Cave du Vieux-Moulin

Our last tasting in the Valais was with Cave du Vieux-Moulin and third-generation winemaker Romain Papilloud. Among the usual suspects of the Vétroz, we also sampled the Carminoir—a Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir Crossing made by just three producers in the Valais—that showed the fruit of Pinot Noir with the vegetal notes of Cabernet Sauvignon. There was also an “Ermitage” sec (Marsanne), a bit neutral with apple blossom notes and a round palate, and a 2010 “Volupté” Ermitage Grain Nobles that was definitely voluptuous and filled with aromas of white truffle, sour cream and a note that one of us may have described as a “honey-covered rubber glove.”

My own favorites were the traditional Amigne de Vétroz and a Fendant called “Amandoleyre” (after the almond trees that were once planted here), which was pristine and almost sake-like—perhaps the best version of Chasselas we tasted. As we departed, Romain (perhaps charmed by our broken French?) gave us some of his last remaining older bottles of Amigne de Vétroz—2007 and 2008, which were practically ancient by Swiss standards. We opened them later that night, and while the 2007 had sadly started to oxidize, the 2008 was opposite: heartbreaking and memorable because we knew at that moment we must have been the only people in the country drinking a Swiss wine that good… or that old.

The Vaud

Unlike the Valais, which, to its own detriment might have too many "specialties," the focus of the Vaud is solely Chasselas. In 2009 it was proven that this canton, resting on the shores of Lake Geneva, is the actual birthplace of the grape. Once historically referred to as "Dorin" here, it now goes by its more familiar synonym. This was brought to our attention on our first visit with "Le Roi de Chasselas."

Pierre-Luc Leyvraz

“The King,” as he was deemed not long ago by local Swiss press, is an accurate title.  Pierre-Luc Leyvraz makes wine alongside his lovely wife, a well-travelled dictation teacher who has a soft spot for New Orleans music and culture.

Pierre-Luc took over the family domaine took from his father, who started making wine in the 1950s after inheriting the family’s vineyards. His uncle had inherited the farm, and at first Pierre-Luc’s father was upset since the farm was, at the time, a much larger source of profit. Today, however, the Leyvraz wines from the grand cru of Saint-Saphorin are some of the most sought-after bottles of Chasselas.

Saint-Saphorin has one of the steepest slopes in the Vaud, with calcaire-dominant soils, and the vines are planted at a high density so there is constant competition for nutrients and survival. We tasted through a vertical of Pierre-Luc’s wines, starting with 2013 and going back to 2007, while he reminded us that he had only a couple bottles left of these older wines. We were grateful, as these were Chasselas at its best. Some describe the grape as neutral, lacking obvious fruit or earth characteristics, but the Leyvraz Chasselas demonstrates a feeling that the depth lies in what you cannot see; the wines are overwhelmingly pure.

While Chasselas is less aromatic and more of a phenolic grape, it develops differently with age. Its faint honey and floral aromas blossom into an almost heady bouquet with just a few years in bottle. Made in a reductive style, his 2013 was lean with some residual carbon dioxide. Gradually, as we tasted back in time, the wines became rounder, like a Grüner Veltliner; I felt that after two to three years they became optimum for drinking. At seven years old, the 2007 had become naturally calibrated, showing a mature vibrancy. 

Pierre-Luc also makes wine in another Vaud grand cru, that of Dézaley, where he rents a small plot of vineyards (no one wants to sell their coveted plots). Due to the cru’s denser, more clay-dominated soils, the Chasselas here tends toward more aromatics, concentration and a broad, rich texture. 

Luc Massy

No one knows more about Dézaley than Luc Massy, whom we visited next. In 1915 his family started making wine after a history in the watch business. While Leyvraz specialized in a more reductive style to highlight the purity of the Chasselas grape, Massy crafts a richer, rounder, more oxidative style that can age for decades. Not only did we taste the oldest Swiss wine of our trip here, but Luc also mentioned that he recently drank a 1934 Dézaley—and that it was “exceptionnel!” 

Luc owns the only “clos” in Lavaux, the 1.7-hectare “Clos du Boux,” which sits on the edge of his winery. We picked some of the best cherries we’d ever tasted from trees that grew alongside that property, peering over the piercingly blue Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). Deemed a UNESCO world heritage site in 2007, the region has almost painfully beautiful scenery, which the wines of the region somehow seem to capture.

Twenty years ago, in order to protect the quality of Dézaley, a group of 12 producers formed “La Baronnie du Dézaley.” This group created separate rules beyond those of the grand cru, enforcing lower yields, designated picking dates, a later bottle release, lower alcohol and the use of natural cork (to enhance aging). 

Luc’s 2002 Clos du Boux proved that Chasselas is not just a “skiing wine” meant to consume in its youth. The vintage, Luc explained, was similar to 2013 but with better yields. There was a wet spring and hot summer with large diurnal temperature swings, and the result was a wine rich with dry extract but also high acidity. The glass exuded honeyed apricots, brioche, sour cream, mushroomy earth notes and golden hues.


Louis Bovard

We dug a little deeper into Dézaley and the Lavaux on our next visit with Luc Massy’s cousin, Louis Bovard. He met us on the shores of Lac Léman and pointed to the steep slope of the far bank where the grand crus of Epesses, Dézaley and Saint-Saphorin stood before us (in order from west to east). The hill is mostly planted to Chasselas and is probably the world’s most ideal place for the grape as the clay soils retain rain water before it can run down the slopes, and the sun grills the vines to create a generous style of wine. The lake also moderates the climate, lending a long maturation period with no frosts and moderate summers. 

Louis is the 10th generation of Bovards and currently owns 16 hectares—70% of which are dedicated to Chasselas. As an aside, Louis also has one of the oddest wine labels in Switzerland: At first glance, one might think it boasts a strange man dressed in a wild, cheetah-print dress. But no, instead it is an image of Albert Bovard, who was cast as Bacchus at the 1905 winegrower’s festival in Vevey… today, the image remains an icon in the Vaud.

Louis pays homage to his family’s long history in the region by working with native varieties while also experimenting with other grapes such as Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc. The latter is fermented in small barrels and exudes a Didier Dagueneau style while hailing from the Grand Cru of Epesses, while the former is named “Salix” (for the native willow trees) and comes from St. Saphorin. 

Our last night in Switzerland, we ate at one of those fabulous, comes-with-a-view, Michelin-starred restaurants… 

"This is our chance," Liz and I said to one another, eyeing the sommelier. "Excuse me, do you have any Vin de Glacier?"

One of the best restaurants in the country seemed like a sure bet. And yet, to our dismay, the sommelier had never even heard of it. We finally had to face the wine’s existence only in fables and leave Switzerland without ever having tasted the rumored Vin de Glacier. Alas. Maybe it was all of the beautiful Chasselas, or the compelling tastes of Cornalin and Amigne de Vétroz, but we didn’t feel defeated. We left knowing that we had found our Switzerland “savoir-boire.”

The Savoie 

The Jura has enjoyed a trendy phase in the spotlight, but sommeliers seem to have (for the moment, at least) forgotten to look further south to the Savoie. Some of the varieties are slightly familiar, but the region also offers us some new friends: Altesse/Roussette, Roussanne (known locally as Bergeron) and Jacquère are used for whites, while Mondeuse, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Persan make up the reds.

Louis Magnin

Louis and Béatrice Magnin are a Savoie power couple. It was Béatrice’s domineering personality—booming voice, short blond hair and deeply tanned skin underneath a pink tank top and jeans—yet fierce sense of hospitality that welcomed us into their winery while her husband smiled and sat back. Béatrice gets all of her sun working in the vineyards because, as she says, “Better my husband stays in the winery, where he just watches and doesn’t touch anything.” She smiles at Louis and continues to pick fights while he relaxes, smiling as well, thoroughly enjoying the sport. 

Their “Midwestern living room” (as Ryan described the winery), was the perfect backdrop as we tasted through their wines, starting with the Roussettes: one from old and one from young vines. Both were persistent in their minerality, with aromas of beeswax, yellow apples and honey. Bâtonnage gave the wines a fitting oiliness across the palate along with immediate richness. We also tasted a late-harvest Roussette labeled “Opulence,” which was only too fitting considering the wine held 27 grams of residual sugar and a wealth of raisinated fruit characteristics. 

The next wines hailed from the cru of Chignin and the Bergeron grape. Something of a Cyrano de Bergerac of the wine world, Roussanne here is often forgotten alongside representations from the Rhône and further south, but this wine gives depth to Roussanne’s pretty face. No oak is used on their Chignin-Bergeron, and the angular body feels like someone is jabbing you with their elbow, reminding you to pay attention.

The Magnins believe in a non-interventionist approach to winemaking, so that in some years (such as 2010), if the wine decides to stop fermentation before all of the sugar is converted to alcohol, the final wine is left with definite RS; in others, such as 2011, the wine is steely and dry.

We also discovered, as Béatrice force-fed us local cheese and salumi alongside her 2000 Grand Orgue (named after a Grand Organ), that Chignin-Bergeron becomes an entirely different beast as it ages. The wine, although showing its age with some oxidation, had not tired; its texture held up well, with a sleek entrance but gripping finish.

The Magnin reds are not for the faint of heart, all of them sharing a common sauvage thread with gamey meats and occasional barnyard notes. For me, these wines were perfect examples of laissez-faire winemaking and Louis and Béatrice’s desire to allow the wines to do their own thing. When it comes to the Mondeuse grape, this can be a powerful thing. Thought to be either a grandparent or half-sibling of Syrah, Mondeuse holds an inky black color and vivid aromatics.

Their 2011 Mondeuse was dark, sweaty and animalistic, while the 2010 “La Rouge” Mondeuse (from a clay-dominated parcel) was a touch prettier, full of violets, black fruits and menthol. Another label, their “Tout un Monde” Mondeuse (Monde → Mondeuse… clever?), is more concentrated and tannic, coming from century-old vines and four years’ rest in larger barrels. If you want to cellar a Mondeuse, this would be the one.

At last, one of the final wines we tasted seemed to be an ode to Béatrice: Brauva Mondeuse is a rebel wine—from a barrel that seemed to “do its own thing” and become its own, different wine. Its name is a reference to a similarly fierce, strong female character from a French comic book series.


Jean-Francois Quénard

From the Magnins, we headed onto a softer family affair at the Jean-Francois Quénard winery. As we drove over, there were signs everywhere for many different Quénards, and when we finally found Jean-Francois, he explained that there are three generations of Quénard cousins in the Savoie, all eager to make their own wine (all in different styles). Today, Jean-Francois owns 18 hectares and has been making his own wine since 1987, when he returned from studying in Dijon and took over from his father; he makes very clean, precise wines in a slightly reductive manner that displays fresh fruit but also the purity of the area’s unique grapes.

We began with the Jacquère grape which, like Chasselas, can sometimes be mistaken as neutral, its lightly floral and wet rock aromas easily missed if you’re not paying attention. Jean-Francois’s 2013 Chignin “Verles Alpes” is a good introduction to Jacquère—like drinking water from a babbling brook—but a favorite was the 2013 Chignin “Anne de la Biguerne,” named after the original proprietor of the estate and made from 65-year-old vines grown on chalk and limestone soils. Two months of lees stirring gives the wine an immediate richness and a rounder, serious character. While it might be the most expensive Jacquère you’ll ever encounter, it’s also likely the most expressive. 

Jean-Francois also makes some Roussette, Chignin-Bergeron, Mondeuse, Persan and a rosé. Among these, the unique Persan stood out. An ancient grape of the region, Persan is now being replanted. It was once thought to be a mutation of Burgundian Pinot Noir due to its thin skins and juicy, red fruit character. Quénard’s pours out with a pale red hue and gives up candied fruit qualities that reminded us a bit of Beaujolais Nouveau. 

The wines of the Savoie are decidedly “French,” although the region is just a few hours from Switzerland, and the wines indeed share many traits with their neighbors. Multiple varieties see plantings in both regions, while others are related ancestrally. Over time, these areas have developed into skiing areas that entertain tourists and travellers in waves, and in order to accommodate guests and the local palate, crisp and refreshing wines are made for immediate consumption. On top of that, a cuisine rich with Gruyère fondues, morels and herbs calls on Chasselas and Chignin-Bergeron for acidity that cleans the palate. 

Most interestingly to me, Switzerland and the Savoie hold a commitment to tradition. These wine regions don’t seem to care much about what the rest of the world is doing. Ancient varieties are held onto with respect and reverence, made into the best wine possible that is most expressive of the grape. Wineries are passed down through the generations with a sense of respect for the practices established before them, and while innovation and experimentation is alive and well, these vibrant regions first pay homage to their own unique histories.