06 September 2011

n.d.p. en suisse: chateau de villa, sierre

On the way to Monforte d'Alba, where the Native Companion and I had booked a flat for a week with our friends J and C, we all spent a night in Sierre, in Switzerland, where C's brother N lives in a narrow multistoried wooden house with something like six decks that clings to a steep hillside crammed with vines. 

Sierre, I only realised upon arrival,* is smack in the Valais, Switzerland's biggest and most dizzyingly diverse wine-producing region. "Biggest" here should be taken relative to Switzerland's overall wine output, which in 2009 was a tiny 1.1 million hectolitres**, almost none of it exported. (For comparison, French wine production in the same year was over 48 million hectolitres.***) The Valais is, however, ampelographically diverse by any standard, home to a panoply of regional oddities, ranging from refreshing white Fendants to the rich oak-aged red Cornalins. Many, for all practical purposes, cannot be tasted elsewhere, because both the incorrigible strength of the Swiss economy and the generally feather-light character of the wines make the product uniquely unsuited to the global marketplace.

I was accordingly over-the-moon when N suggested we all take an apero at a local wine destination, a bar / restaurant / cave / museum called Chateau de Villa

The place is apparently known for its big raclette banquets, among other things. There was a spacious, pleasant-seeming terrace area, populated mostly with groups of older folks. N and his wife had planned what was to be a magnificient raclette dinner chez eux later that evening, so we headed straight for Chateau de Villa's expensively-kitted wine tasting / cave area.

The interior, with its custom bar, its deep racks bottles organised by region, and its lavishly illustrated educational posters, reminded me quite a bit of Santa Barbara, or any other overfunded area of wine tourism.

From there the experience at Chateau de Villa differed sharply, in two key areas. The wines we tasted - everything dry from the bar's rotating glass list, four whites and four reds - may have shared a sort of impenetrable technical polish with their new world counterparts, but nothing else: Swiss wines are, in general, the antithesis of rich. Owing to altitude, grape varietals, and local tastes, they weigh less than air, usually, and can be used to remove fabric stains caused by heavier wines. I'm kidding, here - but they are indeed lean, one-inch-punch sort of wines, a style I tend to really enjoy.

Another key indicator that we were not in America was, alas, the service. There were numerous bartenders, only one of whom seemed to be doing anything at a given time. She offered what N semi-seriously explained was very Swiss service: a style rooted in strict ideas of fairness and patience, wherein the bartender makes a methodical counterclockwise circle of the bar, checking in on guests one by one, and does not deviate from this pattern regardless of whether 2/3 of the bar is fuming over dry glasses and the one guest is getting out baby pictures for her examination. Probably the most infuriating aspect of this style of service is that the bartender, upon finally turning her unhurried attentions towards you, offers nothing approaching an apology for the 20 minutes you've just spent sipping air, because in her mind she has only been doing what is right and fair.

The experience dispelled many of my preconceived notions about Swiss efficiency. But it allowed me a great deal of time to focus on the wines surrounding us, very few of which were even remotely familiar to me. For a wine geek from anywhere else in the world, entering a well-stocked Swiss wine bar is like stepping into Bizarro World, where the subjects you thought you knew so well become cryptic and unfamiliar to you.

Our consensus favorite among the whites that evening was a 2010 Fendant by Cave du Crêtacombe, which wine scanned like a more sophisticated, aromatically engaging Vinho Verde.

It was focused and expressive, hitting a nice cucumber / saline / white floral accord. I was surprised to later learn that Fendant is simply the local name for Chasselas, a famously bland, overproductive grape that has never before held any real interest for me. Cave du Crêtacombe, for their part, are a 2.8ha estate located in Chamoson. (Where? Who?) I may be reading into things, but I detect a cultural difference in how the domaine's website, in contrast to the many French and American domaines that claim to use only the bare minimum of products in the vineyard, explains very plainly that they use however much fertilizer and pesticides the plants need according to the season. I won't ask more questions as long as the wines are as luminously bright and clean as this Fendant. (And as long as I'm leaving the next day, not to have any significant dealings whatsoever with the Swiss wine scene in the near future.)

Of the reds, I was most impressed with Cave la Madeleine's 2009 Humagne Rouge, a middleweight red, delicately ferrous and very refreshing. It had lovely pepper and light cigarettiness, and could conceivably have been mistaken for a brighter Saint-Joseph.

Humagne Rouge has a white counterpart in Humagne Blanc, but I read that there's no genetic relation between the two varietals.

Instead Humagne Rouge is thought to be the wilder descendant of another obscure Valais varietal called Cornalin. (Of which latter I've tasted slightly more, since Grosjean Frères produce a fine one over the border in Italy.) Cave la Madeleine are are 16ha estate based west of Sion in Vétroz. Winemaker André Fontannaz makes no mention of vineyard practices on their website, but I read elsewhere that he at least uses organic fertilizer and compost, and intends at some point to cease use of herbicides.

Towards the end of our visit, thinking to purchase a few bottles to go, we asked our geologically slow bartender whether they had any biodynamic wines in stock. "One or two, I think," was her answer, which, given the vastness of Chateau de Villa's selection, leads me to suspect that natural winemaking hasn't taken hold in Switzerland like it has in France... Tant pis. With such an abundance of light high-altitude pipsqueak varietals in the region, my curiosity for these wines remains undampened.

* My knowledge of Swiss geography is roughly nil. Honestly, I tend to forget the country exists. I presume they like it that way, the Swiss. 

** Source: Wikipedia

*** Source: Decanter

4, rue de Sainte-Catherine
Tel: +41 27 455 18 96

Related Link: 

A wonderfully informative page on Swiss Valais wines @ NickDobsonWines
A visit to the Cave la Madeleine estate @ VinsConfederes
Jamie Goode reviews an Humagne Rouge @ WineAnorak
A short piece on Humagne Rouge @ GenevaLunch

Sharing a bottle of biodynamic Chasselas with friends at Terroirs in London

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