Goron was one of the first wines I encountered in Switzerland, in a little village café in Vaud 30 years ago: a little “3 deci” glass pitcher of a very basic wine from “abroad”, meaning from Valais, the neighbouring canton. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the wine, but the quaintness of the place and this approach to drinking and understanding Switzerland made up for the ordinariness of the drink itself.
Fast-forward 30 years and Sunday 22 May I spent the day discovering a very different Goron, one with a rich past and a promising future. I took part in a morning vineyard walk and presentation of Goron de Bovernier, a new wine made from the ancient Goron grape, close to extinction and being weaned carefully back into commercial existence in the village of Bovernier near Martigny, canton Valais.
When Goron is a blend
Here’s the difference. “Goron” as we mostly know it today is a name selected among 45 put forward in 1959 as the fantasy name for a blend of inexpensive Valais Pinot Noir and Gamay wines. The 1958 harvest had left the market awash in grapes and wine – the harvest of 5 million litres of Gamay and Pinot Noir was twice the size of previous years’ harvests. The new Goron offered a way to help sell the surplus. Goron, a “vin du pays” wine, is made with declassified grapes, a lesser version of La Dôle AOC. It is usually fruity and light. Provins sells a half-litre bottle for CHF4.50, to give you an idea.
Goron wine is better today than 30 years ago, I should add – winemaking in Switzerland has improved greatly, especially for lower-end wines. Goron in 2011 accounted for 7% of red wine sold in Valais. The average price that year was just over CHF8 a bottle, with Dôle at CHF11, roughly, and Pinot Noir at more than CHF13, according to a research paper from the University of Lausanne.
Goron the wine had and still has nothing to do with the grape of the same name.
When Goron is a grape worth knowing
The grape named Goron appears may have come over the mountains from the Aosta Valley in Italy in the early 19th century, a cousin of two other Aosta or neighbouring Swiss grapes that have made successful comebacks in Switzerland, Cornalin (aka, Rouge du Pays) and Humagne Rouge. The grape was a staple in Bovernier vineyards, on the right bank of the Drance river – but the wine’s reputation outside the village was not good and by the mid-1950s producers stopped making it.
The grape gives a wine that is very dark with high acidity. During the 20th century, with colder temperatures in the region, the grape may well have been picked before it had time to fully ripen, possibly giving a sharp and unpleasant wine. This is one case where global warming could well prove to be an advantage, locals suggested on our walk through the vines Sunday.
The village decided to revive the grape, with a few of the vines still scattered through the 1,600 of Bovernier vineyard. An inventory was taken in 2009, samples were sent off for DNA analysis, and a nursery was selected to graft from the best. The village planted 700 m2 of new Goron vines in 2010; it takes three years for a vine to give grapes that can be vinified, so the first vintage was 2013 – just 400 bottles of it.
Goron de Bovernier wine, 2nd vintage
Yesterday we tasted the 2014, a slightly larger harvest. The wine is very pleasant, if not a great wine, as you might expect from any vines this young. The robe is a very dark purple with red highlights – pleasing to the eye – and the nose offers dark fruits, notably blackberries and blueberries for me, although others mentioned raspberries and gooseberries; there is also a hint of cranberries and lingonberries. The mouth is round, balanced, with the strong acidity well under control and giving it good freshness (the wine is aged in casks for several months), with smooth tannins. It is not particularly complex, but you feel the promise; I want to see what kind of wines these vines will give in another 5-10 years.
The wine is being made mainly for local consumption, with the 1,500 bottles that are planned longer-term to be sold in local cafés as part of a village wine tourism project. A walking trail up through the vineyards is under development. The initial plantings, which are down on the riverbank, have just been supplemented by another 1,400 m2 higher up. The magnificent view from there overlooks the village, the Dranse and the white peaks near Verbier to one side and above Martigny to the other.
If Bovernier can turn its deep purple grapes into commercial gold by using today’s winemaking techniques to bring out the best in them, the village stands to benefit from its location on the road to the St Bernard pass and the resort of Verbier. It is part of the Tour de Mont Blanc route, a 7- to 9-day popular hike.
Bovernier, worth the vineyard hike detour
Geologist Pascal Tissières gave the Sunday walkers an overview of the area, explaining that, high in the vines, we were standing on the edge of what was once a large lake that filled much of today’s narrow valley, during the age of the glaciers. We had trekked up one sandy stretch of trail, surprising in this granite-rich area: it was once the lake’s shoreline. And under our feet was loess, wind-blown gritty glacial deposits. Straight across from us on the other side of the river was a beautiful farm with fruit orchards, on soil that was also once bordering the lake.
We studied the dry stone walls that are slowly but surely being restored using traditional methods and we heard about how important it is to use the right kind of stone, either local or from nearby if it fits the landscape.
The new vines will give their first vintage in 2019 and by then we’ll be able to compare the improving wines from the first vineyard against a young wine from grapes grown in different soil, at another altitude. No one is quite sure what to expect, except that it is now clear good wine can be made from Goron. If cousin Cornalin is any example, this is an experiment worth trying.
“We’re just learning now,” says oenologist Christophe Lugon-Moulin with a smile.
A New World Goron de Bovernier in the making
A surprising side note: when local residents Constance and Christophe Lugon-Moulin visited California wineries in 2015 they also stopped at University of California-Davis, the state’s wine research centre, and discovered that the school is preparing a Goron to be released for commercial winemaking.
When the Swiss emigrated in large numbers in the 19th century, many of them to the New World, including California, they took some of their most precious possessions, such as vines. So there might be yet another Goron de Bovernier comparison to make one of these years!
Photos and more on the Facebook page for Goron de Bovernier