Jamie McCulloch picks up a few rays of the wintry sun outside the post office of Chamoson, waiting for his visitor. His face has the look of Scotland for me and I immediately recall men outside pubs in the west of Scotland, facing the setting sun and reflecting on the world. McCulloch is, however, a Scottish export (like my grandfather), who has smartly picked up Swiss efficiency habits. He’s a hard worker, growing, making and bottling 11 wines on his own, and he’s aiming to reach 20,000 bottles, so I suspect this is a rare pause in his day.
McCulloch didn’t appear destined to spend his life in the Swiss Alps perfecting the art of making Fendant and Pinot Noir wines. He grew up near Stirling, Scotland, studied geography at university, then traveled the world. Wanderlust landed him in Spiez, near Bern, hardly the centre of the Swiss winemaking world. And yet it was there he suddenly found his calling. He also picked up rudimentary Swiss German, working in the vineyards with other immigrants for whom German was not their first language, but the shared one.
“I knew right away it was what I wanted to do,” he says, and when someone suggested he apply to Changins in Nyon to get a university degree in viti- and viniculture, he decided he could do that. It was 2002. When he wrote to ask if he could do the course in English they said yes. “But when I arrived it was all in French!” and he laughs, “and I didn’t have a word of French.”
Never mind: he settled down to make sense of the language and the wine business. After three months he realized he was sinking, with no idea what was going on. An American classmate who spoke French spent the rest of the year next to him, whispering everything in English, “and eventually it began to make sense to me.” His nonchalance is deceptive, for he passed the course, which most students find daunting enough when they start with passable or good French, and by 2003, wine engineering diploma in hand, he began to work for large wineries in Valais. By 2007 he was making his own wine and eight years later, in 2015, he opened his own cellar. Meanwhile he had perfected both his French and Swiss-German.
Modern wines in a fine old cellar
The cellar is a cozy space, an old arched stone vault under the village post office, where you first see a line of barrels. Carry on and you walk past the now defunct but oddly beautiful old concrete tanks with ceramic tile fronts from an earlier, pre-McCulloch era. Newer and still hard at work, concrete tanks line another wall while stainless steel tanks lead another back to the shipping room. It’s a busy place for one man.
He’s probably best known today for his White Magic, a blend of Pinot Gris and Petite Arvine, and Black Magic, a Pinot Noir made with regular plus late harvest raisined grapes for a slightly sweet touch. Pink Magic, is on the way: two barrels of Gamaret rosé are waiting for spring to arrive. The wines sell well in Edinburgh and in German-speaking Switzerland, he says. “It’s a little tougher here,” he admits. His Cave les Deux Cimes winery is named after the dramatic peaks that rise above Chamoson, a village that is sprinkled with wineries. He grows grapes up and down the Rhone Valley, from east of Sierre to Fully, and the competition is fierce in this region where wine is king.
He stands in front a boxes labeled Swiss Alpine wine. I tell him I think it’s a great marketing move. Does it work, given that Swiss wines are exported in such small quantities that many wine drinkers are unaware they exist?
It’s a challenge, he says, trying to get people to change their existing notions about what wine is. “I want to give them wines that are easier to drink, more international – people travel more – and 5 to 10 years down the road I want people to have this kind of romantic idea of Switzerland. When they drink these wines I want to have them fall in love with it a bit.”
He personally likes crisp and fresh wines, although not wines high in acidity and this is perhaps part of his Swiss experience, for wines like this are abundant in Valais. He doesn’t sell a lot of them, though, he says. He’s not afraid to experiment – he makes a Diolinoir varietal (single grape) wine, oaked, and he’s happy with a port-style wine that spends 24 months in oak. “I follow the whole Port protocol,” he smiles.
A winemaker without borders.