Chasselas, Switzerland’s iconic white wine, is now on the Robert Parker radar. This is clearly good news for Swiss wineries that produce it – and since it is the second-most widely planted grape in the country, this counts.
Chasselas has also inched onto Jancis Robinson’s radar, and Hugh Johnson was talking happily about it back in 2011, as wine writer Alexandre Truffer just reminded us, so word is getting out.
Whether or not Parker’s new reviews, or recent brief words by Britain’s Jancis Robinson contribute much to your appreciation of Swiss wine in general or Chasselas in particular if you live in Switzerland or visit regularly is highly debatable.
For me, the one valid “guide” to Swiss Chasselas wines is the annual Terravin quality label Lauriers de Platine awards for the best in Vaud – if you drink the winning wines you’ll have a wonderful base for appreciating the best from Valais, Geneva and other regions, as well. You can appreciate the impact of different terroirs, production methods, vintages and, if you set aside a few bottles each year, you can start to understand what makes a good aged Chasselas.
Hint: drink them young, 1-3 years, or leave them to reach about age 7 or 8. The teenage years of 4-7 don’t do much for most Chasselas: think of boys with feet that are suddenly too big.
Terravin wines are pre-selected by a team of professionals that taste and re-taste wines during a year, whittling down the canton’s Chasselas to a group of the top 5% for each vintage.
These are then presented to a group of more than 30 sommeliers, oenologists and wine writers who, in a series of knockout rounds, pick their favourites during a morning.
I’ve taken part for the past three years. We start with 16 wines that are already clearly quality wines and then preferences for mineral, slightly bitter finishes, floral vs fruity, etc. appear. By the end we all have strong feelings about our favourites – and every wine has someone who loves it.
What the outsiders say
The excitement over the reviews, in the Swiss wine business, is all about getting noticed – a bit like going to the high school prom and having the football captain notice you and ask you to dance. It means everyone else suddenly takes notice, too. In Switzerland’s case, it’s important to get some outside voices, since wine writing can be a bit incestuous, but given that less than 2% is exported, it’s hard to find outside voices who’ve actually drunk Swiss wine.
Stephan Reinhardt is the new (2014) contributor to Parker’s Wine Advocate, arguably one of the English-speaking world’s most influential wine consumer publications. Reinhardt specializes in German wines, but he spent time in Zurich as editor of Weinwisser, and later Vinum, a European wine revue, he knows something about Swiss wines – and he knows Swiss wine writers.
He also has a history of liking many Swiss wines, which is a good starting point if you’re asking him to taste a large group of them.
Reinhardt was in canton Vaud in November and tasted 95 Chasselas wines from French-speaking Switzerland, according to the Vins Vaudois office; his reviews in the Wine Advocate appeared 27 February. Using the Parker scoring system, he rated 25 wines, most of them Chasselas, with 85 points or higher.
One, the 2013 Domaine Bovard “Dézaley Grand Cru Medinette” was given 90 points. His lengthy description of the wine shows that Reinhardt was impressed by Louis Bovard, age 80, who is indeed considered by many to be a “grand seigneur” in the world of Swiss wines. “Bovard initiated significant movements to discover the historic identity and to improve the quality of Chasselas and the wine from the Vaud in general. For example he initiated the scientific studies of the Vaud terroirs and, in 2010, Bovard also founded the Conservatoire Mondial du Chasselas where 19 different types of Chasselas are cultivated and vinified separately. I tasted five of the most prominent types and it is really stunning how different in character Chasselas can be also without changing its terroir.”
But while Bovard remains an important figure ihere, and he makes very, very good wine, he is no longer the rare pioneer or expert, and other, newer voices are attracting attention in Switzerland.
Reinhardt’s tasting session came shortly after a flying visit by Jancis Robinson, the British doyenne of wine writing, who cobbled together a short report on Chasselas after putting in a brief appearance in Montreux and a corner of Valais, where she tasted a handful of wines.
Robinson was the invited guest speaker at a wine blogger’s conference and, as expected of her, she wrote a few polite lines about the wines but the overall impression is that she was baffled by them. In fairness, she was coming down with what turned out to be a nasty case of pneumonia.
Both writers have done the classic journalism thing when traveling: you turn to people on the ground, people you know and trust, and you get an overview plus a list of what are known to be the best. There is nothing wrong with this as a starting point, and all wine writers do it. But it tends to lead to articles that repeat what we already know, in this case that Dézaley has long had a reputation for the best Chasselas wines, that there are some good ones in Chablais, heading along the Rhone towards Valais.
Reinhardt provides a nice summary, though, of the differences between Vaud and Valais Chasselas wines, and he mentions that Geneva has some good ones. He points out that 2013, the vintage he tasted, was unusual because of the hail storms that wiped out so many vines. Among other problems, it has meant supplies are quite small and some wines are sold out.
He also points out that some of these wines age well. My own experience is that they are unexpected and take some getting used to, and that you need to take part in a number of vertical (several vintages) tastings before you develop a sense of what older vintage Chasselas means, the range these wines give.
Parker’s Wine Advocate on Chasselas
Here is his take on Chasselas (subscription). For me, the most interesting thing he says about these wines is this:
“Chasselas is not a spectacular wine, but its subtleness, elegance and aromatic neutrality makes it a first class gastronomic wine. Matching cheese and wine is sometimes a tricky issue, but with the wide range of young and matured Chasselas from different appellations there are serious favorites, you just have to experiment! (Do you really think the Swiss don’t know how to put their world-class cheese into the right light? Vacherin de Fribourg, Raclette or cheese fondue is only half the discovery without a good Chasselas.) Also, a matured Chasselas Grand Cru from the Dézaley can match all kinds of food, even meat …
…In Switzerland, most of the Chasselas undergo malolactic fermentation, which makes it a rather boring example for people from abroad who prefer crisp and aromatic wines such as Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. However, like Silvaner in Germany Chasselas is also an excellent food wine that can be light and fresh (often thanks to CO2 which is sometimes too much), but also full-bodied, deep and complex.”
Robinson on Chasselas
Robinson (subscription) tasted six older Chasselas and was only mildly impressed; a slightly bitter finish is seen as a negative, whereas for Chasselas connoisseurs this is part of the elegance, the refreshing note that clears the palate and makes it work well as a wine with meals. She also tasted a flight of 2011-12 Chasselas, all of them from the lineup designed by Zurich’s Chandra Kurt for the Bolle winery. These are good wines, popular, but they are hardly representative of the wines made by hundreds of very good Chasselas producers, so I’m not sure why Robinson published these under the title of “Chasselas in all its glory”, unless she felt some obligation to her hosts.
Drinking for pleasure
The best outside comment by a major writer, for me, remains that of Hugh Johnson, during a 2011 visit to the Ecole Hotelière in Lausanne, when he suggested that tasting sessions are just a small part of how we measure a wine, which shows its true colours at the table.
Wines are made to be drunk, he said, and if those drinking feel like ordering a second bottle, “it deserves to be called very good!”