“A vine adds leaves, then flowers, then grapes. But wine goes in the opposite direction, from the fruit back to the soil.”
Damien Carruzzo, oenologist, Valais Mundi
Provins made a daring gamble a decade ago and it is starting to pay off. Switzerland’s largest winery, the Valais cantonal cooperative, decided that as part of its drive to highlight its finest vine parcels and native grapes, it would create a top-end wine: beautiful, expensive because it is hand-crafted from start to finish. A wine that connaisseurs would appreciate.
The project began in 2005, but it took several years to identify the vine parcels and experimentation to find the blend that reflected the spirit of best of Valais terroir and native grape varieties. Damien Carruzzo, oenologist, took on leadership of the project under new Provins director Raphaël Garcia in 2014; Garcia said that his overall Provins priority was to push for better brand recognition. A second wine had joined the first, vintage 2010, which was put on the market in 2014.
And then the inevitable happened, as anyone who does creative work for a living will tell you with a deep sigh. The idea was good, the raw material good, the artisans behind the final product were knowledgeable and very talented, and management was firmly behind the project, but mistakes were made and the public expects perfection from the start. The initial price of CHF190 was too high for an unknown wine. The Swiss mentality may have been underestimated: this is a country where the finer things in life are appreciated but don’t expect a thumbs-up until quality has been proven. More time was needed to encourage the market – especially the restaurant business – to buy into a new terroir wine that reflects vintages, including weak ones. This doesn’t mean the wines weren’t a success (I’ve watched more than once as private buyers loaded their cars with crates of the wines), but the project and company created to house it, called Valais Mundi, came in for some criticism.
If you’re creative and you know your business, you take more time and you correct your mistakes while keeping the things you did right, which is what Valais Mundi has been doing. “Electus”, a red blend whose first vintage was 2010, and “Eclat”, a dry white blend that arrived on the market with a 2014 vintage, are now well on the road to success. Prices were lowered – the wines, at CHF150 and CHF75, cellar price to the public – remain expensive, but they can now compete more easily in top restaurants. Sommeliers are getting to know the wine after an intense educational marketing effort by Valais Mundi. Importantly, the number of grape varieties used for Electus has been reduced and the focus has shifted for Eclat to Petite Arvine, with Heida giving way to Rèze. Heida (Savagnin Blanc aka Païen) is a well-loved local grape with a strong character; Rèze was once the mostly widely planted grape in Valais before it virtually disappeared, now making a comeback as new techniques start to bring out its best.
A small group of wine professionals and journalists gathered this week for a vertical tasting (several vintages of the wines) to sample the newest ones and see how the older wines are evolving. Overall, I was happier with all of these than I have been at previous tastings, which indicates to me that these are wines that do indeed improve with age.
Terroir is now leaving a clear mark on older vintages of both. Look around you at the mountains, the small patches of terraced vines, consider the depth to which the vines must often go here, the weather extremes, take a sip and it all makes sense.
Here is my rundown of the wines we tasted; those available through the Provins online shop are marked with an *. A bit of history and other background follows my tasting notes.
Eclat, blend of Petite Arvine and Heida, 4 vintages
2017, bottled in July, not yet on the market, so a very young wine. Nose of apples and green plums, subtle and maybe a hint of grapefruit. After a minute it opens up and the minerality is striking, very pleasing. In mouth: dry, sharp, good mouthfeel, and a delightfully long finish with rhubarb. Petite Arvine dominates, Heida adds some roundness. Excellent young, with a promising future. 95% Petite Arvine, 10% Heida
2016*, nose decidedly more mineral than the 2017. Mouth: marked acidity but nevertheless a pleasing softness that will work well with food – followed by a sharper finish.
2015*, wow, we’ve moved to a different register: honey, pineapple in the nose, so Heida appears to have left a greater aromatic imprint, also in the mouthfeel, which is initially richer than the ’16 and ’17, followed by a slightly bitter finish that will work well if you’re having this for a first course. Some discussion around the table about oenologist Damien Carruzzo’s comment that the 2015 and 2017 are similar years; tasting it, I find the link difficult to make as they seem quite different to me.
2014, now a very good wine, with a nose clearly marked by minerality, which I loved. In mouth, less interesting but a better gastronomic wine than the younger vintages. For a four-year-old wine, it is still young, yet powerful – a wine with real character that is ready to drink. If I have a criticism, it is that the Heida almost overwhelms the Petite Arvine, but the risk of this might be why later vintages see a reduced Heida role.
Summary: I would happily drink the 2014 and 2017 now, setting aside some of the 2017s to allow them to develop into fine older wines. The 2015 and 2016 are en route to becoming fine wines, but this is not the best time to drink them or even to assess the vintage. They’re still traveling; let them be.
General notes: the Petite Arvine comes from vine parcels on the right bank (north side) of the Rhone near St Léonard, schistous clay soil. The Heida is grown on the other side of the Rhone, near Riddes, where the soil is a mixture of granite from the Mt Blanc range and clay. Vintages: 2014 was very cool, giving an aromatic minerality which is what the team is seeking for Eclat. In 2016, another cool year, the minerality surfaces clearly again, although more discreetly. Carruzzo on the vintages, “When we do a blend, we see right away what the vintage is giving us. The fluctuation can be fairly large.” Alcohol varies from 12.7 to 13.2%.
Electus, a blend of 4-5 Valais reds, 5 vintages
A terroir wine is, by definition, never a recipe wine with two parts this and three parts that. The blend is made based on what the vintage offers. And this is problematic for a new wine from Valais, where one year can vary dramatically from the next. “The vintages here are very marked,” Carruzzo says matter of factly; the locals are used to this. Electus has had to work hard through five vintages to establish a profile for people from further afield. On the one hand, connaisseurs want terroir wines and Electus gives them exactly that, with good and bad wine years (2012 was skipped entirely); on the other hand, as Bruno Eynard, former director of a Bordeaux chateau noted, he has struggled to draw a clear picture of what Electus is. Is it like a Bordelais wine? Or more like a single grape Valais wine of strong character? 2010 certainly reminds me of Bordeaux.
The question is important because wine is made to be sold, and to do that you have to be able to market it. For Carruzzo it’s a matter of moving beyond “always trying to situate ourselves”: this is a wine that reflects the soul of a region, a rugged Alpine area that is magnificent to see but that can be “very hard”. I think about this week’s weather: on Sunday I worked in the garden in shorts, on Tuesday I wore a winter coat and hat to the tasting session at Castel d’Uvrier in St Léonard. The temperature has been jumping up and down between 1C and 22C at my house, where we’ve had sunshine, astonishing amounts of rain (after a summer of drought), a bit of snow, all followed by very high winds that rattled the shutters and sent large flowerpots on the veranda filled with well-soaked flowers crashing to the ground.. And that’s just one week.
Eynard, who has worked with Electus on commercialisation and marketing for the past year, told us he can now say, comfortably, that this is a wine like no other: its profile is its own. I agree. As with any family, you start to see resemblances that you call family traits only when you have more than a couple of generations to study. We’ve reached that point.
2015: a nose of dark red fruit, cherry and plum, but complexity appears with the second nose. Very pleasing. The mouth is more problematic for me, keeping a very straight line and elegant, but I feel the tannins too much and the finish, while classy, is slow to make its presence felt. A wine that needs more time, although overall I like it. Would like to try it in 2020-2022. Provins has enough stock for this one, although right now they are selling 2011 and 2013.
2014, fruity nose with a second nose that is slightly gamey, more pronounced if I swirl my glass. We’re between a young and a mature wine here. The gaminess in mouth translates into a wine that is less powerful than the 2015, with a hint of sweetness although there’s no sugar to speak of. Complexity kicks in, but it is closed. A wine I’ll like better in a little while.
2013*, my first reaction is “gorgeous nose”, and then things begin to go wrong. The second nose is not particularly pleasing and the mouth doesn’t quite match – it feels thin and the tannins seem a bit green; can that be? In the end I decide that it simply lacks the velvet touch of other vintages. If I step back I can say it is well made but this was not a stellar year.
2011*, a favourite – a wine that is ready to be enjoyed. The nose, discreet at first offers a series of red fruits and plums once it opens up. The mouth is very enjoyable, rich and dense without heaviness, a luscious long finish. Provins has almost sold out this one.
2010, pure class! Everything is right here. Elegance, fruitiness, not overly complex but enough so to be interesting, medium-long mouth. Balance.
Summary: the 2010 and 2011 are now very good and we can see what this very Valais wine is all about. For Carruzzo, 2010 was an exceptional year, never too hot, never too cold. The grapes loved it. 2011 was very sunny, and the wine has managed to package that happy state. If you’re a wine geek who has to close your eyes and find the different grapes in here, good luck, because these wines are true blends and true terroir wines that shift on us, year to year. 2013 was problematic and Carruzzo gave us the explanation – it was touch and go, the Syrah didn’t flower well at all, the grapes had differing flowering periods (which affects harvest time), overall there was 5% less juice from the grapes. 2014 was the most complex vintage, from a cool year that was “tough” to manage. And then in 2015 we had a hot, dry summer that called for “a lot of work”, but with a good end result.
After we finished tasting the wines that are now on the market we sampled the 2016 and 2017, both of which I very much liked, although they are clearly too young. The 2016 is 100% native grapes, the 2017 is 90%, although we weren’t given the exact blends. The 2017 was very easy to drink, fruity, but in mouth it hasn’t yet come together, very much the teenager whose nose and feet don’t match the rest of the lad. The 2016 is starting to move towards maturity, with a mouth that is too rich and needs to calm down, which it now has several months to do.
Valais Mundi, the grapes, the vineyards, the process
The Valais Mundi vineyard: a collection of 40 scattered tiny vine parcels, 10 hectares in total, 6 red and 4 white. Grapes are grown in terraces with 7 types of soil. The first Electus, vintage 2010, had Cornalin, Humagne Rouge, Diolinoir, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. While the international grapes may remain in other vintages, the focus has turned to making the native Valais grapes – Cornalin, Diolinoir and Humagne Rouge – plus Syrah, dominate. Syrah may be international, as in grown everywhere, but its home territory in France is at the north end of the Rhone and it is sometimes called a native Swiss grape: the north of north Syrahs from Switzerland are gaining notoriety as wineries learn to “tame” it, to quote Provins. This grape, with Cornalin, is now the backbone of Electus.
The first Eclat was 55% Petite Arvine and 45% Heida; Petite Arvine is now the star and in particular its mineral rather than aromatic expression. Rèze is being groomed to replace Heida in the blend.
Vinification, Eclat: the grapes are pressed, then vinified in French oak barrels, 80% of which are new. The wine matures for 9 months, during which the lees are stirred daily for the first 3 months, then weekly. The final blending takes place one month before August bottling (2017 was earlier).
Vinification, Electus: the various grapes are vinified separately in very small volumes, in wooden or steel tanks, sometimes open. They are then matured in barrels, 80% new wood, each worked according to its own rhythm. After 14 to 18 months the wines are blended for the definitive version 30 to 40 days before bottling.
Corrections 10 novembre 2018
Incorrect date and information concerning the early history of Electus, name of Bruno Eynard and his role added, correction to the amount of Heida in the 2017 Eclat, change of emphasis concerning shifts in the number and dominance of grape varieties in Electus.