It’s hard to stay focused at a good wine fair. I went to Bern recently to visit Vinumrarum, an annual weekend wine fair for independent family wineries. I decided to focus on Petite Arvine wines. The more people who make this increasingly popular wine (Valais produced 1.9 million kg Arvine grapes in 2016, about 100,000 more than the previous year), the more I realize that I want to get the bigger picture, see how varied it is, find the perfect one among the many.
My mistake was immediately apparent in Bern. Arvine is grown in Valais alone, with rare exceptions, and Vinumrarum offers a very good mix of wineries from all parts of the country. Many Swiss wine events are local or they are dominated by wineries from French-speaking Switzerland because the largest production regions are Valais, Vaud, Geneva and the 3 Lakes.
So this is a nice aspect of Vinumrarum – but clearly, tasting Arvine alone would mean skipping too many good wineries. What’s a body to do?
Swiss white wines, from gentle to sharp
Think white. I started with a Chasselas from Vaud, as one always should, to whet my whistle. An award-winning pair from the Cochard-Gaillard family in St Triphon has very pleasing mineral highlights. I was then convinced to try their dry oaked Pinot Gris, also very good.
Having already fallen off my Petite Arvine wagon, I quickly moved to the Colline de Daval winery, which sits just a few metres from the Rhone river in Sierre. Their Arvine comes from Chamoson, however. Lively, young, with rhubarb, this is a good example of Arvine. It’s from a winery I very much like – actually two wineries, with Monique Caloz Evéquoz’s vines in Chamoson and husband Bernard’s in Sierre. Both are oenologists, but their separate cellars’ wines are vinified in Sierre. They also have a contemporary but cozy bed and breakfast cottage at the winery and offer packages for skiers and hikers; Arvine is a great après-ski wine.
Another detour: I spotted Le Crieur Public from Founex, a vinothèque I have planned to visit for a long time, without managing it. Pierre Mandry, an oenologist, took over the family business some years ago and developed an unusual business model, working with several other cellars to create a line that features unusual and good wines. I tried his non-filtered Chasselas, a wine more often found in Neuchatel, and I liked its edginess.
Graubünden to Zurich
Time to insist on Petite Arvine, however – ah, but I spot young Roman Hermann’s stand, with Graubünden’s Completer, and his is one of the best wines from this rare grape. His father Peter was already known as a pioneer, helping bring back this very old grape that was dying out; Roman is now experimenting with new methods as well. “I don’t think I have learned everything this grape has to teach me yet,” he says in excellent English, the result of months in Oregon and time in South Africa, working for cellars there. The 2016 Completer from old vines has notes of apple and quince, hints of pineapple, good acidity. It would be perfect with hard cheeses as well as fish – or tapas, suggests the winery. It’s easy to understand why the monks named this grape after their Completorium prayers, a religious high point in the day.
Zurich’s 2016 Räuschling wines were next – sharp and crisp and the only thing you should allow yourself to drink when eating fish along Lake Zurich. I tried two from the same winery, the more basic one from Weingut Ruetihof and the premium version called R3 that they make with two other producers. Monica Hasler Bürgi tells me they each select their best grapes to make the blend. It’s made with the renowned W1895 yeast. R3, with lively notes of lemon zest, is a beautiful example of what can be done with this grape, now the pride and joy of top Zurich vineyards.
Another Valais Arvine
And then, a great surprise. I discover, next to the Hermanns, a neighbour I haven’t met, Lucie Clavien from Cave de la pierre in Venthôme, two villages below mine on the mountainside near Sierre. The winery, it turns out, has one of the best Petite Arvine wines I have tasted in a long time, vintage 2016.
Description of one of my top candidates for best-of Petite Arvines: a nose of sharp, titillating citrus fruits, notably grapefruit, with overtones of damp stone, the smell you get after rain in a rocky mountain area. The mouth is all mineral and fruit, a perfect tension between the two, well-balanced with good acidity. The finish has that Arvine zing, a thread of salinity that keeps pulsing.
I’m suddenly back to my first moment of falling in love with Petite Arvine, for this one is mineral and acidic and the fruit makes me sit up straight, and then there is that perfect moment of a slightly salty finish. Amen.
The bonus is that the Claviens, oenologist Jacques and now son Samuel, with Lucie, believe in the simple life: they make brilliant wines, do minimalist marketing (no competitions, for example) and are willing to live with narrow profit margins. This Petite Arvine is CHF17 a bottle – value for money is an understatement. Note: I tasted the Petite Arvine at home with dinner a few nights later and still loved it, but with some minor reservations.
I suddenly realize, in a serendipity moment, that some of his vines are most likely on the cover of my book Vineglorious! Switzlerland’s Wondrous Wines.
I shake myself free of the “falling in love again” moment to sample the winery’s Pinot Noir, which turns out to be equally special. I order more wine than my budget allows; these are learning curve wines for me.
This is also the rare winery that makes all of its wines in half-bottles sizes, from the same batches as the 75l bottles and magnums. Very useful gifts for those of us who travel and want to share samples of Swiss wines.
Only two Petite Arvines so far at Vinumrarum and time is running out. But two is ample for one day when they are good, so I move on.
Pinot Noir and Swiss terroirs
I have had a Valais Pinot Noir. I head to Louis Fonjallaz for a Vaud Pinot Noir, thinking to compare cantons, terroirs for this delicate grape that when made well reflects its home – but you cannot ask a man from Epesses for a Pinot Noir without first tasting his Chasselas. He has two main lines of wine, terroir and grand cuvée, clearly distinguished by fun labelling (check out those coloured buttons on top of the corks).
The Chasselas is, of course, excellent (you cannot ask an Epesses Chasselas to be anything less).
I prefer the terroir Pinot Noir but enjoy comparing the two versions of it.
Schaffhausen, north of Zurich on the Rhine river, is home to Weingut Pircher, whose Pinot Noirs reap prizes regularly. The winery is perched on an idyllic steep bank of the river, and given the purity of these wines, I always imagine the grapes must appreciate the scenery.
The 2016 Blauburgunder (a popular name for Pinot Noir in German language regions) is fresh and lovely. But the 2015 Pinot Noir – pure, clean, a basket of just-ripe cherries and plums – is everything your final one at a wine fair should be: it leaves you dreaming of pleasant wine-sipping days ahead.