Valentina Andrei seems to have arrived on the Swiss wine scene flying at full speed. You haven’t heard of her? You haven’t blinked yet, or read the 2018 Swiss GaultMillau guide, where she was a rookie winemaker of the year; for 2019 she is listed as one of the country’s 125 best wine producers.
But this isn’t an article just about Valentina, who is a remarkable – without exaggeration – Swiss vigneronne. It is about the world that she inhabits with her equally remarkable partner Nicolas Wüst, and the eyrie of vines she works between Martigny and Grimisuat, including Fully and Saillon. Together Andrei and Wüst are building a collection of wines called “Ivresse”, under the umbrella of their new (September 2018) business, De Ciel et Terre, whose online home is the winery website. The company gave birth to two wines last autumn and two more will join the family in 2019. Expect very good things here.
Ivresse. The name doesn’t mean sloppily drunk, but the other more elegant sense of the word in French, a state of euphoria. The white is a Petite Arvine and the red a Merlot. Both are gastronomy wines, designed as companions to fine cuisine
Feminine wines, wines to love
My first encounter with these wines left me enchanted. I love the labels, designed by Sierre artist Pierre Zufferey. The letters in the name dance in the light or flicker like white flames – all elegance and movement, which fits the wines perfectly. There is a feminine touch to these wines, a pleasing blend of steely clarity with softness.The Petite Arvine made an immediate convert of me, clean as an arrow, clear notes of grapefruit and a hint of citrus, with the kind of mineral touch that reminds you it is from granite-based slopes that are part of the Mont Blanc range. And that was before hitting the finish, a classic of the little saline kick at the end, which is what I love most about this grape. In this case the finish is very long and seems to soar. Very, very classy, this wine.
The Merlot is another story. Velvet was the word that immediately came to mind, not just with the wine in my mouth, but even earlier, with the nose. Both of these wines have the Andrei hallmark, which is freshness rather than fruitiness, although the fruit is well present. Some critics of Merlots talk about how they may be too “extracted”, winespeak for overly concentrated, but in this case the grapes are simply gorgeously rich.
The Merlot, she notes, is grown at 700 metres, which is relatively high in Valais – although vines are grown in some areas at over 1,000 metres, most are found at under 650m. Thus these grapes mature later, which gives them a mix of fruit and floral aromas that Andrei encourages to develop gently: she harvested the 2017 grapes at dawn and kept them cool to ensure a slow fermentation “inside each berry. The grapes were magnificent. One might have said caviar inside the tank,” she notes on her site. The wine was then matured for 10 months inside oak barrels (not new but 2nd and 3rd passage) to help the wine breathe – a solution that gives it complexity without being marked by the oaking.
Just 2,000 bottles of Petite Arvine were made and 1,500 of Merlot. The Merlot is sold out and the white is disappearing rapidly. Ivresse, the new millesime and the two new wines, a Gamay and a Chasselas, will be available to taste at the winery’s open house weekends in May – but for delivery later, as bottling will take place later. To give you an idea of her focus on terroir, this will be her fourth separate Chasselas.
The people behind Ivresse
I met Valentina a few years ago when we were both judges at a wine competition in Sierre. Nicolas and I were vaguely aware of each other but met only recently in Bern, at the kickoff for Gabriel Tinguely’s book, Vignerons, vins et cuisine. We agreed to get together for a tasting of wines from the Valentina Andrei winery in Saillon plus wines from their joint projects.
I had no idea what a daunting tasting session I would be in for, a week later!
Their working lives are so complicated that it is hard to know where to begin, so I’ll start by pointing out that they often each arrive home at 22:00 from their separate overcrowded work days only to say, “Oh, you haven’t eaten yet either?” I am pretty sure Valentina would laugh at my description of her as flying, for she is very much the quiet biodynamic wine producer who is happiest in her high, steep vineyards working alone at a steady pace with focused determination.
Nicolas, on the other hand, works fulltime as technical manager of PostMail, the letter service of the Swiss postal service. He spends much of his day running around Switzerland, sandwiching his private, wine-related work into short breaks, lunch hours and evenings. He is meticulous, a perfectionist and devoted to detail. He also has a finely honed sense of marketing and a creative approach that I think is to the benefit of Swiss wines overall: he sets a good example of what is possible, even if most wineries don’t plan to aim for the top end of the market.
Valentina Andrei famously worked for five years as the cellar master for Marie-Thérèse Chappaz in Fully before setting up her own small winery in Saillon in 2014. The unobtrusive garage/cellar bears her name and sits at one end of the lower part of the village, tucked against the ragged hillside of Saillon, under the magnificent Grand Chavalard peak.
Nicolas Wüst was busy with his two-year-old food and wine project, Magnificients, in 2012. His idea at the outset was to bring together a top winemaker, top chef and a fine artist to raise money for a sports event linked to his work at Swiss Post. It quickly evolved into a successful project to package a series of very special, unexpected and beautiful top end products, one a year, and to market these creatively. They sell today for CHF48-60. You won’t find them in supermarkets, but the web site directs you to restaurants who are partners with the wines are available, for example with the Räuschling Magnificients’16. A few can be ordered online, but several are now finished.
Jean-Claude Favre of the Cave Sélection Excelsius in Chamoson created the first two wines and he remains a member of the team, because Magnficientes is, in the end, a teamwork project. “The collective spirit is a priority,” says Wüst. Carlo Crisci, Michelin two-star chef at Le Cerf in Cossonay, Vaud, and his wife Christine became and remain deeply involved in the project. Vaud artist Etienne Krähenbühl created the first labels and limited edition artwork. François Gautier, sommelier at Le Cerf, has been part of the team from the start, as has Jérôme Aké Beda, sommelier and manger of Auberge de l’Onde in St Saphorin, near Vevey.
Wüst then asked wine producer Chappaz to work with him for the 2013 vintage. She suggested that he talk to Valentina Andrei instead, who was harvesting grapes for her own first wine at this point. She became the winemaker for the 2013 project, where she created a blend of two whites Roussanne (1/3) and a Petite Arvine (2/3). The critics who attended the unveiling of the wine in 2014 gave it rave reviews.
Andrei in five years has gone on to develop her winery nearly singlehandedly. Her first vintage, 2013, gave her 4 wines and 5,000 bottles in 2014. She worked 1 hectare of vineyard, but from several small parcels in different places. She was able to rent and buy vine parcels during the next two years to increase the area she works to 4 hectares. Now, in early 2019 she is creating 18 of her own wines, virtually all of them single grape terroir wines that spend at least some time in used barrels. In addition, she continues to oversee two Magnificients wines, which are limited edition wines. Add to that the first two Ivresse wines – soon to be four.
And then it gets complicated
Valentina Andrei’s cellar is deceptive from the outside: you don’t imagine someone making more than 20 different wines here. The day we met to taste her wines, all of them, the cellar was under scaffolding for repairs on the building.
We drove up to a little cabin between Fully and Saillon where I once tasted wines on a balmy summer day with Jacques Granges from Le Beudon, a cellar that is one of Switzerland’s earliest organic wineries. Andrei trained with Jacques and his wife Marion while she was a student, before joining the Chappaz winery. Le Beudon is perched high above this cabin, inaccessible except by foot, although a few years ago a private cablecar was used by the owners and employees, before insurers refused to cover its use.
Ice covered the ground; it was December and Andrei had thoughtfully gone ahead to turn on a space heater in the cabin. We all fretted over the temperature of the wines, those we would drink too cool at the start, others too warm as the place toasted.
In the end, there was little to worry about. We went through each of her wines, emphasis on terroir and freshness. I fell in love with another Petite Arvine from grapes grown on the Combe de Noutse in Fully. Like the famous Combe d’Enfer in the same village, it has such a deep curve that it is almost as if grapes are grown in three separate areas. “It’s like 3 wines when you harvest,” she says. “It’s cooler on the sides, and you notice the acidity more – I need more time when I work there.”
The old vines Gamay was my favourite of her 3 Gamays, for the depth of the fruit (red fruits, woodland) and its sleekness that comes from the granite soil of Martigny. Some of the vines are from Plan Cérisier above Martigny, a hamlet rich in history and well worth a visit when the weather warms up. I also very much liked the Syrah, notes of black fruits and a slightly spicy finish but lovely for its clean lines and balance.
I felt I was beginning to understand her wines, but another layer of complexity was added with the Magnificients wines. In the end, with winter dominating outside, wine and cheese and Valais bread and dried meats warming us inside, I had to concede that there was not a single wine I did not like, and I was in danger of mixing up some of them because there was too much information to absorb. I headed home. New Year’s Eve at our house we shared Magnificients ’16 and chef Crisci’s special (with ginger!) cheese fondue, a gift case from Manor – it was a memorable evening and reminder that very good wines are at their best with good company and good food.
Quiet Valentina’s native generosity overcame her as we headed outside to the icy path, and she insisted I take a handful of large sprigs of rosemary from a bush she said she planted years ago, when she joined the Granges to improve her French (she grew up in Roumania) and learn how to make biodynamic wine. It is now 3 metres tall and thriving even in winter. Why am I not surprised.