My Visit to Ticino – Italian speaking Switzerland

Not too long ago I told you all about my wine experiences in the French speaking parts of Switzerland. I loved touring around Lake Geneva and Valais and thought the wines were terrific and well worth seeking out if you get the chance.

However, my Swiss experiences were not restricted to the French speaking parts of that beautiful country. The little group of wine writers and educators that I was with then went on to Ticino, the small Italian speaking park of Switzerland – remember to click on all the links.

Wine map of Switzerland, click for a larger view.

Wine map of Switzerland, click for a larger view.

What a trip it was, four changes of train had taken our little group – with very different levels of comfort and mixed availability of seats and luggage space – from Sierre in French speaking Valais, over to Ticino.

We eventually arrived in Lugano with enough time for lunch and a chance to pull ourselves together before heading off for our first visit in this very different part of the country.

Being culturally Italian, wine has of course been made in Ticino since before Roman times, but it was the planting of Merlot from 1906 onwards that transformed the quality of the region’s wines and the grape now accounts for well over 80% of the vineyards. To a large degree the whole concept of quality wine here is synonymous with Merlot. The grape was considered perfect for the region because, although Ticino is sunny with some aspects of a Mediterranean climate – palm trees thrive here – it can also be very rainy, and Merlot copes pretty well with those conditions. Before 1906 the region used a wide spread of grapes similar to those found in Piemonte as well as the local speciality Bondola which is enjoying something of a modest renaissance.

In addition to vitis vinifera, American grape varieties and hybrids are grown here – principally Isabella / Albany Surprise – for the production of grappa.

Ticino Map QS watermarked

Wine map of Ticino, click for a larger view.

There are two sub-regions of Ticino, Sopraceneri in the north – it means above Monte Ceneri and is where Bondola can be found – and Sottoceneri, below or south of Monte Ceneri. This southern part straddles Lake Lugano and spreads down to the Italian border.

Most growers and producers in this region are very small indeed, but Gialdi Brivio, is one of the few large winemakers. However, they own no vineyards and so act as a negociant. Some 400 growers bring their grapes to them and their viticultural team are also active in managing these vineyards. The vineyards are often steep and hard to work and so somewhat amazingly the average cost of a kilo of grapes here is CHF4.50 (roughly £3.20 / €4.20) – pretty much the same as in Champagne.

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Gialdi Brivio’s warehouse and winery at the foot of Monte Generoso.

Gialdi Vini was founded in 1953 and makes wines from grapes grown in Sopraceneri, while Brivio Vini was created by Guido Brivio in the late 1980s and specialises in wines from the Sottoceneri. His family has a background in the wine and spirits industry, but his dream was always to make high quality wine. The two companies merged in 2001 and now share winery, cellaring, bottling and distribution premises in Mendrisio, which is 3 km south of Lake Lugano and 3 km north of the Italian border. They also act as an importer and distributer for many Italian wines in Switzerland. Guido was our host for the afternoon as well as later at dinner and he was charming, welcoming, knowledgeable and justly proud of what they do and the region in which they operate.

Something that I had never encountered before, was that because they make almost all their wines from Merlot, whether they are red, white or rosé, they have spare grape skins which they can add to the fermenting must to increase the colour of their reds. Conversely, in order to accentuate the freshness of their white wines, which are almost all made from 100% Merlot, they mostly stop them from going through malolactic fermentation and filter them through charcoal to ensure there is no residual colour.

For two of their top red wines – Gialdi’s Trentasei Merlot and Brivio’s Platinum Merlot – they concentrate the sugars in the grapes by drying them using large fans for about 3 weeks in their cool, dry cellar conditions. This reduces the water content of the grapes by around 50% and a proportion of these dried grapes are added to normally ripe grapes, so making the whole wine more rich and concentrated.

One of the vents in the cellars.

One of the vents in the cellars.

One amazing aspect of the place is the cellars and how they are cooled. Most of their red wines are aged in a series of ten little stone cellars, called grotti, which are built into the base of Monte Generoso which is behind the winery. When it rains the water drains through the mountain into Lake Como. This draining water forces fresh, cool air through fissures in the rock causing a sort of natural air conditioning which keeps the cellars at a constant 11˚C. They have installed vents to channel the air into the cellars and the amount of cool air pouring through is astonishing – it truly is astounding what nature can do. According to Guido this cool temperature ensures that any sediment falls to the bottom of the casks quite quickly and this fast stabilisation means they lose less of the wine to absorption by the barrels, which is usually 2 litres per month.

Guido Brivio.

Guido Brivio.

This enthralling tour of the winery and cellars was followed by a comprehensive tasting of their wines. It was an impressive lineup of mostly Merlots, including 2 whites and 1 rosé. The quality was high and I particularly rated the 2013 Contrada Bianco di Merlot which is unoaked and because there is no Malolactic Fermentation has just enough acidity to be fresh and lively. Of the reds my favourites were the supple 2011 Sassi Grossi Merlot from Gialdi and the silky 2011 Riflessi d’Epoca Merlot from Brivio with its cedary oak and fine grain tannins.

Guido Brivio are also involved in the Swiss Premium Wine project in which four producers – counting Gialdi and Brivio separately – blend a cuvée called Quatromano, another 100% Merlot, which consists of 25% from each of the different winemakers. The other two contributors are Tamborini and Delea, both of whom I visited the following day.

All in all it was fascinating introduction to Ticino that was then made all the better by Guido taking our group to a local restaurant for dinner. The place is called Grotto Bundi and, like the cellars, is built into the mountainside. However over 80 years the place has evolved into a complex series of rooms on several floors and an attractive outside area, on what is now a pedestrianised road, with wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. Guido had planned a traditional feast of polenta accompanied by lots of different casserole dishes, beef, pork, lamb, sausage – which was most people’s favourite – mushrooms, the list goes on. It was all delicious and washed down with copious amounts of Gialdi Brivio wine it was an evocative and joyful taste of Ticino culture.

Ueli Kopp and Barbara von der Crone.

Ueli Kopp and Barbara von der Crone.

Other visits were to the boutique estate of Cantina Kopp Von der Crone Visini. It’s run by the delightful Ueli Kopp and Barbara von der Crone whose passion and commitment shows in everything they do. Their red wines are superb, especially the Balin blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Arinarnoa (a crossing between Merlot and Petit Verdot).

Some of the vineyards at Azienda Mondò.

Some of the vineyards at Azienda Mondò.

Antonio Girardi and Giorgio Rossi of Azienda Mondò.

Antonio Girardi and Giorgio Rossi of Azienda Mondò.

Azienda Mondò is another boutique winery that farms 6 hectares speed over 30 parcels of hillside to produce some superb wines. I was particularly taken with their Bondola, which is a local grape which is only just clinging on to life as it is thin skinned and can rot quite easily. There are only 11 hectares – all in northern Ticino – and almost exclusively grown by the small producers, so almost none is seen on the market. Mondò have about 10% of it and their Rosato di Bondola del Nonu Mario is superb with the local salami.

By contrast, Cantina Tamborini is the local giant producer that owns 23 hectares, but they also buy a large amount of grapes from contract growers. In effect they operate as an estate and a negotiant and craft some very good wines. Their single vineyard San Zeno Costamagna Merlot Riserva is particularly impressive and I have shown it in tastings since – it tastes a bit spicy, rather like a good Carmenère.

Ticino vineyards, these south facing vines are the most southerly in Switzerland, Italy is a short walk away. These vineyards belong to Tenuta Montalbano, a co-op that is the biggest wine producer in Ticino. It has 380 associated members and also owns this 22 hectare estate which is the largest single block of vines in Switzerland.

Ticino vineyards, these south facing vines are the most southerly in Switzerland, Italy is a short walk away. These vineyards belong to Tenuta Montalbano, a co-op that is the biggest wine producer in Ticino. It has 380 associated members and also owns this 22 hectare estate which is the largest single block of vines in Switzerland.

Another view of Tenuta Montalbano.

Another view of Tenuta Montalbano.

All in all I found Ticino fascinating. It is a very beautiful place full of wonderful scenery and great Italian food – as long as you like polenta. The people are charming and the wines are very good and well worth trying, especially as they make so many different styles from, in the main, a single grape variety.

They are quite hard to get outside of Switzerland, but grab some of you can. Alpine Wines sell some wines from Ticino in the UK and as usual the US is well served by wine shippers bringing in more unusual wines including Swiss ones.

Happy Christmas and a great 2016 to all plus a review of my year

Wow another Christmas is upon us and I have barely achieved a fraction of the things that I wanted to this year.

However, it was a great year for me for learning about amazing wines and visiting beautiful wine regions, so I can’t really complain. Here a few of my highlights of the year, I hope you enjoy them.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the background.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the background.

Back in March I visited Campania for the first time, seeing Naples and Pompeii as well as the wine regions of Taurasi, Greco di Tufo, Sannio and many more. It was a great experience full of wonderful wines and interesting stories. You can read all about it by clicking here.

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

One of my favourite photographs of Slovenian vineyards.

Italy was very much the theme of the year for me as I visited four times in all. The first one was actually an amazing trip to study the wines produced in the north east edge of Italy and over the frontier in neighbouring Slovenia – the tour was called Wine Without Borders. That whole part of the world is very beautiful and produces some stunning wines too and you can read all about it by clicking here.

Typical transport in the countryside.

Typical transport in the Romanian countryside.

One of my most exciting trips of 2015 was to Romania. I had never been to the country at all before and had no idea what to expect from the wines. It turned out to be a beautiful country full of lovely people and some astonishing wines. I did not taste a single terrible wines and was very excited about the quality of most of them. You can read all about it by clicking here.

I toured the vineyards of Chablis by 2CV!

I toured the vineyards of Chablis by 2CV!

In June I was thrilled to go on my first dedicated trip to Chablis and I learned ever such a lot about what makes these wines quite so important. Ever since I have enjoyed talking about Chablis to all my students, but have yet to write about the visit – watch this space.

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux.

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux on Lake Geneva’s north shore.

In the same month I was honoured to be invited to be a judge at the Mondial du Chasselas wine competition in Switzerland. Chasselas is a real speciality grape in Switzerland, but comes close to being unloved almost anywhere else. Well I think the breadth of wines that I tasted and the sheer quality of most them proves the Swiss are right to love the grape and I loved the trip, as well as the big trip I made to Switzerland’s wine regions in late 2014. You can read all about my Swiss adventures by clicking here.

The beautiful Neckar Valley is like a mini-Mosel.

The beautiful Neckar Valley is like a mini-Mosel.

New discoveries and experiences continued with a terrific trip to Germany in September. Excitingly I visited Württemberg and the Neckar Valley as well as the amazing Stuttgart Wine Festival. This part of Germany is slightly off the beaten track wine-wise, certainly when compared to the Mosel or Rheingau, but it is well worth seeing as the landscape is very beautiful and some of the wines are stunning. Weingut Wöhrwag‘s 2013 Pinot Noir Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg Großes Gewächs was certainly the best Pinot I tasted in 2015 and one of the very best red wines that I drank all year. I aim to write all about it soon.

Piazza Duomo, Trento

Piazza Duomo in Trento, the beautiful capital of Trentino.

My Italian adventures continued in October with an enjoyable trip to Trentino in the north of the country. It is a fascinating and beautiful region that has only been part of Italy since 199, so is steeped in history. The wines were pretty good too, but then so was the beer – you can real all about it by clicking here.

Verona's amazing Roman Arena.

Verona’s amazing Roman Arena.

One added bonus of this trip was that I managed to stay an extra night in Verona and so saw that wonderful little city and was able to experience the delights of Lugana, a white wine from the southern shore of Lake Garda – it might well be my favourite Italian white right now and this delicious example is my Christmas white wine.

As well as overseas visits I have tasted some amazing wines over here too. I was particularly thrilled to meet the charming David Mazza who farms a tiny estate in Western Australia, but makes an amazing range of wines from Spanish and Portuguese grape varieties – you can read about him by clicking here.

The new discoveries kept coming too, new grapes like Tibouren from Provence and Cserszegi Fűszeres from Hungary, exciting old vine blends from Chile, a light red or a deep rosé from Tuscany, made from Tempranillo at that! Try as I might I simply could not leave Spain alone, I kept finding amazing Spanish wines that moved and excited me and that offered great value for money too – have a look here, here, here and here.

Along the way too I tasted a superb Albariño from California and another from New Zealand – Albariño is on the march it seems and you can read about them by clicking here.

Just the other day I presented my favourite sparkling wine of the year and I would urge you to try it if you can. It’s rather modestly called Apogee Deluxe Brut and is handmade by the great Andrew Pirie from fruit grown on a  2 hectare vineyard in northern Tasmania. I have long admired what Andrew does and if there is a better Australian fizz than this – indeed any non-Champagne fizz, although it had stiff opposition from Gramona’s amazing 2006 111 Lustros Gran Reserva Brut Nature Cava – then I have yet to try it. It is certainly a rich style of sparkling wine, but it never gets too serious, the fruit, freshness and frivolity dominate the palate and made me just want to drink more.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

I nearly forgot, all right I did forget and had to come back and add this, the most exciting wine that I drank all year. There was lots of competition from the delicious 2011 Chêne Bleu Aliot, the sublime 1978 Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon from California and the downright amazing 2001 Château La Tour Blanche Sauternes, but my stand out wine was from my own collection and it was a beautifully mature Merlot-Cabernet blend from Stellenbosch.

Stellenbosch 19891989 Rozendal
Rozendal Farm
Stellenbosch
South Africa
I was very nervous about opening this. For South Africa it is very old, Nelson Mandela was still in prison when this was made and I know nothing about it. The estate seems to have disappeared. Frankly the wine seemed older and looked older than it was – even the label seems ancient. the nose was classic mature wine, smoky, cedar, earthy and overwhelmingly savoury with some balsamic notes and a touch of dried fruit too. The palate was extraordinary, still all there with that hallmark savoury fragility of very mature wine. Good acidity kept it fresh and provided the secret of its longevity. the tannins were almost totally faded, but for me the big revelation was a solid core of ripe sweet fruit that made it a joy to drink despite its venerable age.

Tasting this was a great moment and one worth recording as mature wine from anywhere other than the classic regions – I include California here – is pretty rare, especially of this quality. If anyone knows anything about Rozendal please let me know, I tried to contact them, but to no avail.

All in all 2015 went too fast, but it was good fun – despite me turning 50 in January – so let’s hope for even more excitement in 2016.

Have a great Christmas and a wonderful New Year and thank you so much for reading my wine page.

 

The Chasselas Affair – wine travels in Switzerland

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux.

The gorgeous vineyards of Lavaux.

Switzerland is famous for many things; banks, mountains, neutrality, lakes, cheese, chocolate and, erroneously courtesy of Orson Wells, cuckoo clocks. Not many people, in Britain anyway, seem to associate the Alpine country with wine. Not unless they, like me, are fans of Tintin and have read The Calculus Affair very carefully indeed. I have loved this book since I was 9 – for me it is the best in the series and I could probably act it out and quote it to you from memory –  and I always enjoy the scene where Captain Haddock rescues his bottle of ‘excellent Swiss wine’ from a collapsing house.

The beginning of one of the best sequences in The Calculus Affair - the best Tintin book.

The beginning of one of the best sequences in The Calculus Affair – the best Tintin book.

Perhaps that was why I have always wanted to visit Switzerland’s wine regions? Many years ago I ran quite a few Swiss wine tastings, which just made me all the more determined to get to visit the amazing looking vineyards that I saw in the photographs. Well my chance finally came last year when a group of wine writers and wine educators were invited to tour some of Switzerland’s wine regions for ourselves and then I was invited again a few weeks ago to be a judge at the Mondial du Chasselas wine competition.

Swiss wines are a bit of a mystery to most UK wine consumers, because almost none of it is exported. The Swiss are a thirsty lot and they drink 98% of their own wine and import much more. In fact they import two thirds of what they consume, so it is hardly surprising that so little Swiss wine leaves the country – Switzerland has a mere 0.2% of the world’s wine growing area and with just 15,000 hectares in the whole country. It’s half the size of France’s Burgundy region – itself far from a large producer.

So you can begin to see why, when the Swiss thirst is taken into consideration too, Swiss wines are often very expensive. The extreme landscapes that many of the vineyards inhabit add extra costs to the already high prices.

Switzerland has incredible variety in its wine making that makes it impossible to pin it down to any one style, white wines dominate, as you might expect from the climate, but there are many excellent reds too. What’s more they grow an amazing range of grape varieties, many of which are indigenous and hardly grown anywhere else.

My visit last year stuck to the southern parts, the French and Italian speaking areas of the country, with visits in the Vaud and Valais regions (French speaking) and then a trip to Italian speaking Ticino (pronounced Ti-chino). I will tell you about that another time.

Wine map of Switzerland, click for a larger view.

Wine map of Switzerland, click for a larger view.

Vaud: Lavaux
On both trips my first stop was in the Canton of Vaud and I am really glad of that because the scenery is quite magical. The sheer beauty took my breath away both times.

1907 paddle steamer on Lac Leman.

La Suisse, one of the paddle steamers on Lac Léman / Lake Geneva – she was built in 1907 and the moment I saw her I was determined to sail on her.

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La Suisse coming in to dock at Lausanne. I got my wish and travelled on her on my way to Aigle this year – it was a wonderful experience.

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The beautiful vine covered landscape.

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I took hundreds of photographs from the deck of La Suisse.

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Leaving La Suisse at Montreux.

My first ever winery visit in Switzerland was quite special. Domaine Bovy has belonged to the family since at least 1779, but it seems that the search for quality really only started in 1937 when Maurice Bovy started bottling the wines instead of selling them in bulk. Today the fifth generation, Bertrand and Eric, farm 11 hectares of the Lavaux sub-region. They also have a beautiful looking holiday apartment to let, which has got me thinking…

Eric Bovy in his family cellar, it's very cramped.

Eric Bovy in his family cellar, it’s very cramped – his grandfather painted the vats.

Lavaux is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and makes a claim to produce Switzerland’s finest wines. The vineyards here cover an amazing slope and terraces that go from 600 metres above sea level to 380, where the lake is. Just as in Burgundy the vineyard areas are divided up by the name of the village they surround, so the wines here are labelled as Lutry, Villette, Epesses, Saint-Saphorin, (the confusingly named) Chardonne and Montreux-Vevey. In addition Dézaley and Calamin are both Grand Cru, which means the wines must come from those sites and have higher sugar content than normal in the grapes at harvest. This aims to ensure the wines will be richer and rounder.

You can see what sets Dézaley apart, the steep slopes face due south, the sun reflects off the water into the vineyards and those stone walls absorb the heat - all of which helps achieve full ripeness.

You can see what sets Dézaley apart, the steep slopes face due south, the sun reflects off the water into the vineyards and those stone walls absorb the heat – all of which helps achieve full ripeness.

The soils are chalky limestone, which should suit Chardonnay perfectly, but around here the speciality is Chasselas. It possible that these vineyards produce the definitive style of this grape variety that is unloved pretty much anywhere except Switzerland.

In fact Chasselas accounts for 80% of production and if no other grape is mentioned on the label of a white wine from Lavaux, then it is made from Chasselas.

As I have mentioned, the grape is hardly famous from anywhere else, it makes Pouilly-sur-Loire, the poor relation to Pouilly-Fumé, and is used a little in Alsace and in Germany, where it is called Gutedel, but it is not very often taken seriously anywhere except Switzerland. From my experiences it seems to be common practice to put the wines through Malolactic Fermentation, which makes the Swiss examples less thin and acidic than you might expect. In fact a great many have a very pleasing creamy quality and mouthfeel that makes them a perfect partner to cheese – lucky that, we had a lot of cheese on this trip.

Domaine Bovy have vines in Epesses, Saint-Saphorin and Dézaley and I was fortunate enough to try their Pinot Noir and Merlot, which were both excellent, as was their Chorus Saint-Saphorin dessert wine made from 90% Gewürztraminer with 10% Pinot Gris.

I was also able to taste my very first Diolinoir, which is a cross between Robin Noir (aka Rouge de Diolly) and Pinot Noir. The grape was developed in 1970 as a blending grape to improve the colours of Swiss red wines, but I tasted quite a few varietal examples and liked them all. My notes say that the Bovy Optimus was ‘complex and fascinating’ – actually it is only 80% Diolinoir with 10% each of Gamaret and Garanoir – both of which are crosses of Gamay and Reichensteiner.

Good as the other wines were though, the real joy here though was the Dézaley Grand Cru Chasselas. I tasted both the fresh, yet concentrated and gently creamy 2013 as well as the mature, mineral and honeyed 2000 vintage (sealed with screw cap by the way) which was equally, if differently, delicious and went perfectly with gruyere cheese – and the view.

In a tasting a few days later we also tasted another Dézaley Grand Cru from Domaine Louis Bovard. It was his 2013 Médinette Dézaley Grand Cru Baronnie du Dézaley and it was quite wonderful, with very delicate characters, but a solid core of concentrated fruit and a long, stony mineral finish – as I say, I do like what they do with Chasselas here and have in fact shown this wine at some tastings once I got back to the UK.

Vaud: Chablais
This year I returned to Vaud, but this time to the sub-region of Chablais, which is slightly confusing from a wine point of view. Certainly my spell checker keeps wanting to make it Chablis. What’s more I have noticed that quite a few people of a certain age pronounce Chablis as Chablais (my spell checker made those 2 the same 8 times!), including my father, so I wonder if the wines were available in the UK in the 1950s and ’60s to cause the confusion?

Anyway, this year I was based in the lovely little town of Aigle and enjoyed three mornings of wine judging in the wonderful castle, followed by wine visits in the afternoon.

The stunning Chateau d'Aigle, where I went to work judging Chasselas wines.

The stunning Chateau d’Aigle, where I went to work judging Chasselas wines.

The view from the ramparts of Aigle castle.

The view from the ramparts of Aigle castle.

My favourite visit was to Clos du Rocher in the nearby village of Yvorne, which is another Grand Cru site. Again the vineyards were a delight, this time on more gentle slopes on the south eastern shore of the lake, so not as dramatic, but still very beautiful.

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The lovely Clos du Rocher.

A better view of Clos du Rocher's vineyards.

A better view of Clos du Rocher’s vineyards.

Again Chasselas was the star grape and me and my colleagues were treated to a fascinating tasting of their Clos du Rocher Grand Cru Yvonne, Chablais AC from the 2014 vintage – so delicious that I bought some – back to the 1982. All were still fresh and lively, although the older examples had developed a more golden colour and dried fruit and mushroom character. What’s more every vintage since 1990 was sealed with screwcap.

The beautiful, but very different vineyards of Chablais.

The beautiful, but very different vineyards of Chablais, looking towards Ollon (south east of Aigle) from the excellent Bernard Cavé Vins.

On the last day of judging, just before I took the train back to Geneva Airport, I visited Bernard Cavé Vins. The wines here were very modern, with beautiful packaging and attention to detail, but sadly I could not carry any more bottles back – quite a good thing really as Easyjet managed to break all the bottles in my case, and you were thinking this trip sounded glamorous up to that point weren’t you!

The concrete egg shaped tanks at Bernard Cavé Vins.

The concrete egg shaped tanks at Bernard Cavé Vins, he calls them amphoras.

All Bernard Cavé’s Chasselas wines were superb, notably the exquisite Clos du Crosex Grillé Cuvée des Immortels Reserve Aigle Grand Cru. Fermented in concrete eggs, this was textured, round and silky too. In the unlikely event that you tire of his Chasselas, his Marsanne – called Ermitage locally –  was stunningly rich, concentrated and fine – as well as downright delicious.

On my two trips to Vaud I was very impressed by a good many of the wines, but it was the Chasselas that really pleased me. The individual wines varied of course, but they had a drinkability that was impressive. They were never thin and overtly acidic, instead the acidity was balanced by some weight and they had a delicate creamy quality, good concentration and minerality. As I put it in one of my notes they were capable of being both ‘rich and breezy’, which makes them a lovely style of wine that I enjoy very much.

Valais
After our sojourn in Lavaux – we are back on last year’s press trip, we headed off to the Canton of Valais which is south and east of Lac Léman. The river Rhône empties into the lake, very near Aigle, but before that it bisects the Canton of Valais, turns through a 90 degree angle to the north west and for a while forms the boundary between the Vaud and Valais Cantons. Surprisingly it rises not that far from the source of the Rhine – amazing the difference one letter makes, I wonder if there is a linguistic relationship?

We stayed just outside the town of Sierre in a wonderful early twentieth century mansion called Château Mercier, it is surrounded by vineyards and quite beautiful. I loved my early morning walks through the vines.

Château Mercier, Sierre.

Château Mercier, Sierre, my room was in the turret on the far left.

The view from my early morning walk.

The view from my early morning walk.

The views as it got lighter.

The views as it got lighter.

While here we participated in the VINEA Swiss Wines Fair, when producers set up stalls in the centre of Sierre that enables people to go from on to the other tasting, drinking and buying wine – it is a lot of fun and a great experience.

Our first day was rounded off with another great experience, an evening of Raclette, my first one ever. It is a simple dish of melted cheese served with whole, firm boiled potatoes, pickles and ham and like most simple traditional fare it’s delicious. Our Raclette was quite special and consisted of five different cheeses from different different villages. Each one was progressively more mature and so stronger in taste. The cheeses were Orsières, Les Haudères, Vissoie, Simplon and Gomser 55.

The different cheeses waiting to be melted for Raclette.

The different cheeses waiting to be melted for Raclette.

While in Sierre we had various tastings that enabled us to taste all sorts of wines, even from other regions of Switzerland. Two of these were a bit odd and contrived. In one our hosts matched Pinot Noirs with perfumes that they thought went with each wine. The second took place in the Fondation Pierre Arnaud, which is an amazing gallery specialising in ethnic and surreal art. The curators had paired wines with objects from the collection, which was all very strange and subjective, but the wines were good and very interesting – as were some of the exhibits.

My highlights from these tastings were, for the whites:

2013 Petite Arvine Maître de Chais from Provins in Sion, Valais – Provins are Switzerland’s biggest producer, but this was a classy wine with lots of citrus fruit and a fleshy, creamy texture and a feeling of purity about it, like a mountain stream.

2013 Petite Arvine from Philippe & Véronyc Mettaz in Fully on the banks of the Rhône. These were my first two Petite Arvignes, I had never even heard of it in fact, but wow what a lovely grape it is. It has something of the freshness and vivaciousness of Grüner Veltliner and Albariño about it, but often with more salinity, so giving tension, and fruit (especially grapefruit), moderate acidity and a silky quality to the texture. I totally fell in love with this grape.

Petite Arvigne is an old indigenous vine from the Valais region, records show it has been farmed here since around 1600. While it is not really grown any where else, I have tasted one excellent French example from the Languedoc region made by Domaine la Grange de Quatre Sous (available hereand know that it is widely grown in the tiny Italian region of Valle d’Aoste, which is just over the border in Italy and also claims the grape as their own.

And the reds:

2012 Lampert’s Sélection Maienfelder Pinot Noir from Weingut Heidelberg in Maienfeld, Graubünden which is in the German speaking zone near Davos in Switzerland’s dramatic Rhine Valley. This is a very successful Pinot with good weight of fruit, a nice dusting of spice and appetising tannins. All in all it was very elegant and seductive with a refined and silky mouthfeel.

2011 Hohle Gasse Grand Cru Pinot Noir from Jauslin Weine in Muttenz near Basel. This was beautifully concentrated, rich and rounded with lots of sweet ripe fruit and fragrant spice – really delicious, elegant and fine.

2011 Pinot Noir Barrique Cuvée Pur Sang from Domaine de Chambleau near Neuchâtel on the north shore of Lac de Neuchâtel – which is a French speaking area. Again this was a sumptuous style of Pinot with rich fruit, tobacco and smoke as well as silky tannins and good weight – all three of these were world class.

Two Great Winery Visits
Whilst in Valais I experienced two extraordinary visits that were truly memorable.

Robert Gilliard's Clos de la Cochetta - photo courttesy of the winery.

Robert Gilliard’s Clos de la Cochetta – photo courttesy of the winery.

The first one was to Robert Gilliard in Sion and I have never seen anything like it. Their vineyards line the bank of the Rhône river on incredibly steep slopes that are kept workable by dry stone walls, some of which are 65 feet high, the highest in the world I was told. To get to these we were driven up and up into the mountains before debussing at the entrance to a short, narrow tunnel. At the other end of the tunnel we found ourselves on one of the terraces formed by the stone walls we had seen earlier. The views were breathtaking and I could not get enough of them. In the distant past all the grapes had to be taken to the winery through the tunnel, then in the twentieth century a cable car system was adopted, while nowadays a lot of the work is done by helicopter, which gets the grapes to the winery while they are still fresh and in perfect condition.

The entrance to the tunnel.

The entrance to the tunnel.

The view that awaited us.

The view that awaited us.

The view the other way.

The view the other way.

We enjoyed a tasting and lunch here!

We enjoyed a tasting and lunch here!

The descent begins.

The descent begins.

Some of the stairways were scarier than others, none had railings!

Some of the stairways were scarier than others, none had railings!

Luckily I didn't have to use this one!

Luckily I didn’t have to use this one!

It was truly breathtaking - in every sense.

It was truly breathtaking – in every sense.

I could not get enough of these vineyards.

I could not get enough of these vineyards.

The vineyards were utterly gorgeous, which boded well for the wines – or so I hoped. Good vineyards produce good wines and this was no exception. Robert Gilliard obviously have great attention to detail, the vines are immaculate, the packaging of their wines is superb and the wines themselves were really delicious and well made.

We focussed on Robert Gilliard’s premium wines from these steep vineyards, they call the range Les Grands Murs:

Whites:
2013 Clos de Cochetta Fendant AC Valais – Chasselas is called Fendant in Valais – is a gently creamy, softly acidic, grapefruit and stone fruit flavoured wine with some salinity and minerality. It is vibrant, lightly textured, elegant and classy – I loved it.

2012 Clos de Cochetta Petite Arvine AC Valais was a little bit more acidic, more taut and less soft. It was beautifully aromatic, floral and citrus with some peachy fruit too. The finish was mineral, saline again and very focussed and pure – a great wine.

Red:
2012 Clos de Mont Diolinoir AC Valais – if we had carried on walking long the terraces from the Clos de Cochetta we would have come to the Clos de Mont, which is a hotter site which favours reds. This Diolinoir has no oak, which clearly suits the grape very well, as this gives lots of pleasure. It is brimming over with juicy blackberry fruit, a touch of spice and fresh, balancing acidity.

The second really memorable visit was to Cave la Romaine and Clos de Tsampéhro.

Arriving at Cave La Romaine, I love the way it is built into the vineyard with vines on its roof.

Arriving at Cave la Romaine, I love the way it is built into the vineyard with vines on its roof.

Joël Briguet owns Cave la Romaine, his family’s winery and in partnership with Christian Gellerstad, his old army buddy, Vincent Tenud and Emmanuel Charpin he also runs Clos de Tsampéhro, which aims to only produce the very best wines from blends of grapes. It shares facilities with Cave la Romaine, but has its own specifically planted vineyard on a three hectare site at about 600 metres above sea level.

The view from Cave la Romaine.

The view from Cave la Romaine.

More views from Cave la Romaine.

More views from Cave la Romaine.

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Clos de Tsampéhro – a south facing sun trap on a slope between the mountains and the Rhône – and more mountains.

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Clos de Tsampéhro – that’s the Rhone at the bottom of the vineyard.

The state of the art barrel room at Clos de Tsampéhro.

The state of the art barrel room at Clos de Tsampéhro.

So, it looked stunning, what about the wines? Would’t you know it, they are good too. They only make three wines, a sparkling, a white and a red and they are all blends, which is relatively unusual in Switzerland, where single varietals are much more normal:

Tsampéhro Brut – 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 25% Petite Arvine, fermented in oak barrels and aged for 36 months on the lees. This is finely textured with a persistent and fine mousse, rich flavours and refreshing acidity that all makes it very elegant and very fine.

2011 Tsampéhro Blanche – 70% Heida and 30% Rèze, fermented in oak casks and aged on the lees for 18 months. A great wine, full of personality and charm, with wonderfully integrated oak giving nuances of vanilla and pine nuts, rich intense fruit with fig, plum and pineapple and a bracing cut of acidity.

Heida is the Swiss name for the Savagnin, of Jura fame – where it often makes the Sherry-like Vin Jaune. Rèze is an even lesser known grape that originates in Valais and strangely enough is traditionally used to make a Sherry-like wine, the traditional Valais speciality Vin des Glaciers.

2011 Tsampéhro Rouge – 45% Cornalin, 30% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Cabernet Franc, aged 24 months in French oak barrels. This is certainly a fine red, but right now the oak really dominates, although you can sense the concentrated fruit lurking beneath and it does slowly open up in the glass. I would love to taste it again in 5 years.

Cornalin is not to be confused with the Cornalin D’Aoste (Humagne Rouge), but is a grape known rather vaguely as Rouge du Pays – rather like Spain’s Tinta del Pais – until 1972, when it was awarded the Cornelian name as that grape had pretty much died out, so an Italian bottle labelled Cornalin D’Aoste and a Swiss wine labelled Cornelin are not made from the same grape, despite being only 30 miles or so apart – phew!

Impressed as I was by the Tsampéhro wines, I also greatly enjoyed the wines of Cave la Romaine:

Whites:

2013 Petite Arvine Castel d’Uvrier Cuvée des Empereurs Cave la Romaine, A.C. Valais, was one of my favourite examples of this delicious grape, Castel d’Uvrier is the vineyard in case you were wondering. I actually wrote that ‘this sings’ with grapefruit aromas and a slightly herbal, mineral and saline finish, ‘a joy’ – I think I liked it, I certainly drank a lot of it with lunch.

2013 Humagne Blanche Réserve Castel d’Uvrier Cuvée des Empereurs Cave la Romaine, A.C. Valais, Humagne Blanche is another grape that originates in Valais, records show it has been here since 1313 and today there are only 29 hectares of it left in the world. It is a richer grape than Chasselas and Petire Arvigne, with more neutral fruit, so suits oak very well and this was barrel fermented and aged for 6 months in 3 and 4 year old barrels. It did not undergo malolactic fermentation, which keeps the acidity fresh. The nose offers heather, honey, beeswax and herbs, while the palate is both fresh and rich with a Marsanne-like quality. That fresh acidity cuts through the herbal and oily richness making it beautifully balanced and delicious.

Red:

2011 Diolinoir Réserve Cuvée des Empereurs Cave la Romaine, A.C. Valais, again this was one of my favourite examples of this grape, it was very drinkable and I kept returning to it over lunch. In fact I liked it so much I bought the last magnum in existence and I am looking at it now!

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A last view from cave La Romaine.

I really enjoyed these two trips to Switzerland, my only previous visit to Switzerland had been a hurried affair while I was Interrailing in the early 1980s and so these chances to see much more of the country were really exciting. The sheer variety that I discovered in Switzerland was surprising. Lots of Chasselas for sure, but also lots of other unexpected white grape varieties, some of which I had never heard of before. There reds were a real discovery too, there were lots of delicious red wines, not just the ones that I have mentioned, I tasted good Gamays and marvellous Merlots as well as the more unusual indigenous grape varieties. I learned a lot about the regions and their grape varieties, but the best thing was seeing those magical vineyards, to take in the views, meeting the producers and tasting a wide range of the wines that Switzerland produces. I came away with a very positive view of Swiss wine, the quality seemed to be very high and the styles fascinating.

Next time someone offers you Swiss wine, grab the chance, there are so many good things to try.