A day for comparing
Matter of Taste, 23-24 February in Zurich This was a walkabout tasting of fine wines that let me compare different Swiss wineries’ Pinot Noirs. It was also an opportunity to make other types of comparisons among wines that have been given at least 90 points by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.
What, really, are “fine wines”
Most of the heavy hitter Pinot Noirs for Robert Parker are from Graubünden, in particular from the four villages that make up the Bündner Herrschaft just north of Landquart: Fläsch, Maienfeld, Malans and Jenins. These are indeed beautiful wines and they meet a Parker definition of fine red wines: “greatness and concentration as well as …finesse and elegance” (review Stephan Reinhardt article, 2017).
A word before we start the walkabout here, on the Parker approach to wine, which I suspect is not always well understood. I hear regularly from wineries that a score of less than 90 is virtually useless, since the public understands these to be ordinary wines, and only wines given 93 or higher are great wines. That’s not quite right. Here is an explanation for how the Parker scoring and reviewing system is supposed to work. I think the company does a reasonably good job of adhering to these guidelines. In fairness to the reviewers, this manifesto that worked fine when Robert Parker was one man and not a team covering the world looks more difficult today. If you’re a wine buyer who likes to check Parker numbers, you should at least read the explanation in the link.
The French term “parkerisé” turns the man’s name into an adverb and adjective, but it also distorts the sense of the notes. Around me in French-speaking Switzerland, but also in France, I hear the word used to mean a wine is very good in international terms if it has Parker 90+ points, with the implication that wines without Parker points or lower points will not be considered good outside the home market. I think that’s not only false but sadly, the notion of fine wines fades – which is at the heart of the Parker system.
Fine wines is a term that was used for decades in France, well before Robert Parker created his system to note them.
Fine wine is what Matter of Taste is about, so it’s worth reflecting on what we mean by the term. I have a slim book, French Fine Wines, published by Stephen Spurrier in Paris in 1984, eight years after his famous Paris Wine Tasting and six years after Parker’s first small (600 wines) Wine Advocate saw the day. The status of some wines he mentions has changed as part of sweeping changes in the international wine market, but the concept remains clear and true. One large question mark is grape varieties, for Spurrier mentions that fine wines can result only from “cépages nobles”, a 20th century French notion that is hard to defend today and that in any event needs rethinking, given climate change.
Spurrier devotes two pages to defining “fine wine”; here is a condensed version:
Fine wine has been defined as a wine of quality. What goes into making this quality is a mixture of six main elements, each of which gives the wine its particular style; the failure of any one of these will severely compromise the result. These elements are the soil, climate, grape varieties, care of the vineyards, vilification and ageing, and the human factor …
… A final characteristic of fine wine (apart from being good to drink) is its rarity and investment potential. There are certain excellent wines, Condrieu for example, that should be drunk young, but most quality wines improve with age. This is often fuelled by fashionability, certain wines being more prestigious than others. Yet fine wine, even if it is in relatively short supply, is not rare; mature fine wine is. As for fashionability, this has a great impact on what are perceived as fine wines … As some wines face from the public eye, others are discovered, and as long as the commitment to quality by the producer is compensated by present or future recognition, the concept of fine wines will remain.Stephan Spurrier, French Fine Wines, 1984
Fine wine in context: the Swiss wine landscape
Here’s where I have trouble with the Parker system. Since it does wield power, its search for great and rare wines – where the emphasis continues to lie as the company expands – should include a better understanding of the economic and cultural framework in which such wines are produced.
Switzerland is a special case in that very, very few producers can (or even want?) to limit themselves to a handful of top-end wines. Less than 2% of the wines are exported and while many wineries would like to ship more abroad, survival depends on delivering the mix of wines that local and regional consumers want. A winery that can produce world-class fine wines that will age well while also understanding the need for a local, affordable table wine is, for me, a truly great winery. We’re lucky: Switzerland has several of these.
The Mémoire des Vins Suisses was created to see how well Swiss wines age: not surprisingly, many of the producers who are members – by definition cellars wines that age well – have received good reviews from Parker and several were in Zurich.
The Graubünden factor
Matthias and Sina Gubler (Möhr-Niggli winery) are appreciated by Parker. I visited their Möhr-Niggli winery in Maienfeld just three days before the Zurich event on the recommendation of another young wine producer in the area. Matthias and I spoke at length about where the grapes come from for their various wines. The Gublers are unusual in that while they make top Pinots from Maienfeld they also make wine from Maisprach, Basel Landschaft, nearly 200 km away, which is where Matthias is from.
We had a good talk about the impact of soil. Geologically speaking, Basel is part of the northern Jura and the soil on the steep slopes where Clos Marta (2013, 2015 and 2016 all have 92 Parker points) grapes are grown is famously red. Matthias Gubler describes it as “old ocean soil”. It is rich in iron, poor in limestone and while there is some debate over the impact of the colour on the wines here, Clos Marta gives a wonderful combination of minerality, freshness, clear fruit and floral notes; the nose is superb. The best reference around for more information on this is a new book, in French and German, Stein und Wein/Roche et Vin.
The Graubünden Pinot Noirs are pretty consistently good and, with soil that changes only minimally throughout the Bündner Herrschaft, they have a similar style. I was pleased to see that what I consider high Parker marks for the overpriced and overrated reputation of Gantenbein wines (don’t get me wrong: they are very good) is being balanced out by high marks for equally good wines from other producers. These wines are not cheap, nor should they be, given the work behind them and the small terroirs, but most prices are more reasonable than what you see Gantenbein wines going for – there are different business philosophies at work here, rather than different quality levels.
There are dozen of other very good Pinot Noirs out there, from other parts of Switzerland, and Parker’s Stephan Reinhardt is starting to include more of them. For me, the three important Pinot regions are Graubünden, which gives us wines of great depth, Salgesch/Salquenen in Valais where the very dry and warmer climate leads to fuller, richer wines (that sometimes tip over into too much sugar); the elegantly fruity and sleeker Pinot Noirs of the cooler Neuchatel area. In addition, Switzerland has numerous smaller pockets of good Pinot production.
Wittnau is not a place whose Pinot Noirs I knew before last week. I was visiting there, but not to see the Litwan winery (too many wineries, too little time). Their wines in Zurich were a revelation. Chalofe, Thalheim 2016 from Litwan in Wittnau – halfway between Basel and Zurich – is rated at 94 points. It was startling, especially the nose, after tasting the eastern Swiss Pinots: my first reaction was that this must be a natural wine. Not exactly, I was told, and then there was a pause, because it is certainly close to natural wines in its production process, with native yeasts used, and the little-intervention philosophy of the winery. “It’s a little stinky”, we agreed – reductive and needing a lot of time and oxygen. I must carafe it if I want to drink it now, I’m told; Reinhardt in his review counsels leaving it for at least a couple of years.
I left it in the glass to breathe while talking to wine producers around me; 10 minutes later it was just starting to open up. And yet it is clear that this complex wine will be a beauty, given time. If you want to learn more about this interesting winery, Dennis Lapuyade wrote a lengthy profile in April 2018 on his blog Artisan Swiss. But a word of caution: this is not a 94 points wine that you want to use to impress dinner guests tomorrow night: it might work, or they might balk at the nose. Keep in mind what Robert Parker reviewers look for; today’s easy to drink dinner wine is not it.
Donatsch, from Malans in Graubünden is arguably the region’s, and one of the country’s most well-known wineries. Martin, the son of Pinot Noir pioneer Thomas, presented a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir from his top-end Unique line, plus a Pinot from the middle line, Passion. Unique red is 100% barrels, Passion is 30%. I have been drinking vintage Donatsch Pinot Noir for a few years and they are a pleasure each time, so I’m not surprised that Parker is keen on them. The Chardonnay 2017 was just given one of the best Swiss scores, 94, but it has not yet been bottled. I tasted the 2016 in Zurich and found it to be very clean, sharp, beautiful – an example of the elegance that can be achieved when Chardonnay is made with new oak, nothing like the buttery vanilla old California style wines of my youth that I wish I could forget. This might help me.
I tried another Pinot Noir, from Neuchatel’s Bouvet-Jabloir winery. I don’t know their wines, which is silly because this is a relatively big winery for Switzerland. But I know enough other Neuchatel Pinot Noirs to believe they are as elegant if lighter and less concentrated than the ones from Graubünden. This one, Signature 2015, does not disappoint. Reinhardt included another Neuchatel Pinot Noir in his “Best of 2017” article, saying that Domaine de la Maison Carrée Pinot Noir Auvernier 2015, at $22, was one of the European bargains of the year.
Four vintages of Petite Arvine
Provins from Sion in Valais, the country’s largest winery, has a huge (for Switzerland) range of wines, from top-end to table wines. Petite Arvine Maître de Chais is one of eight wines they make from this grape, and in earlier years Parker awarded it 92 points. The most recent review by Reinhardt gives vintage 2017 a still healthy 90 points.
Provins’s Heida Domaine du Chapitre de la Cathédrale 2017 received 92 points. It is a powerful example of a good Savagnin Blanc, Swiss version. I’ve walked through these vineyards in summer and you feel the place in the wine: the steep, long slopes that look down and over to Sion, the dry heat that makes the eyes seek out trees on this lovely but hard landscape, the thin schistous soil. These wines can be heady, with too much alcohol, but here it is treated with great care and the aromas that spring from this soil carry the day.
Nevertheless, it’s the Petite Arvines that woo me. The winery brought four vintages of Petite Arvine Maître de Chais (11, 12, 13 and 16), which did a great job of showing off the impact of a year’s weather on one wine that is consistently beautiful in its youth and very classy as an older vintage wine. The 2011, getting on for eight years, is now developing the aromas and flavours that make vintage Petite Arvine so appealing. The grapefruit, wysteria, and hints of rhubarb remain, as does the pleasing salty finish. These are the joy of Arvines when young, but as they age they become woven through with notes of beeswax, sometimes honey, sometimes yeasty bread. For more on Petite Arvine young and old, see my tribute to the grape, April 2018.
Classic approach, one winery, several wines
A more traditional approach to tasting was possible with some wineries at Matter of Taste. Louis Bovard from Cully, Vaud, is a pioneer in Swiss winemaking in many ways, one of which was his early diversification into some surprising grape varieties, another his early (for the region) extensive use of oak. His Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon are powerful reminders that Lavaux has far more than Chasselas to offer, although I wouldn’t have missed his two Chasselas (Medinette from Dézaley and another from Calamin) wines for anything. A highlight of the day was tasting his Medinette, one of the most famous Swiss Chasselas wines with its own Grand Cru classé, in its 2017 version, but also the spectacular 2006 whose freshness might leave you thinking it was one of the younger wines on the tables.
The Kopp von der Crone Visini winery from Ticino had three very successful wines available to taste in Zurich, including one of my favourite Swiss wines, Balin, a Merlot blend that is a “creation” rather than terroir wine from two geographic regions in Ticino. This is a winery that I love. It is also known as Cantina Barbengo for the name of their newish cellar. I love it for its beauty, the care with which the owners work their land and create in the cellars, and of course for its very interesting wines. Not surprisingly, the people behind the wines are quite special. Do ask owners Anna Barbara and Paolo about the Arinarnoa grape, which you won’t find often in Swiss wines. Irto (93 Parker points for the 2015) is a wine that ages beautifully.
Seeing these Barbengo wines reminded me of the stir that was caused in 2013 when then-Parker reviewer David Schildknecht included four Swiss wineries in his “Best of 2012” wine roundup – the first serious mention of Switzerland by Parker’s Wine Advocate. One of these wineries was Kopp von der Crone Visini, which just three years before had become a member of the Mémoire des Vins Suisses group. The Mémoire producers are asked to bring one wine into this bank of wines to see how well it ages; Balin is now part of this collection. An aside, I was tickled to see that I was included in this Swiss Info article about Schildknecht’s impact on the world of Swiss wines in 2013; I had forgotten it mentioned my wine writing!
Since Schildknecht’s article was published, Robert Parker, the company, has set off in new directions; in 2017 Michelin bought a 40% stake. Hamburg-based German writer Stephan Reinhardt began reviewing and noting Swiss wines in 2014 and Wine Advocate now houses nearly 200 reviews (out of a total of 300,000). Some of us would like to see him reviewing more Swiss wines, from a larger swath of the country, but his mandate is already broad, covering Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Alsace and Loire Valley wines.
Two discoveries, two sweet notes
Two Zurich walkabout discoveries for me were Chamaray, a Cornalin from Jean-René Germanier, who promised to take me to visit the new vine parcels he purchased last month and which should give a very fine Cornalin as well as Syrah. I had my first taste of a Merlot from the Three Lakes region, Bouvet Jabloir, an eye opener and reminder of how many wineries outside Ticino are now making good Merlot.
Two sweet wines were as good as the points awarded them would have you think: Mitis Amigne 2014 from Germanier (Valais), 94; late harvest oaked Signature (Gewürztraminer-Pinot Gris) from Bouvet-Jabloir, Neuchatel, 95 points. I’ve had Mitis several times over the years, and it never disappoints. The sweet Signature makes you want to close your eyes and drift while you sip. Both will work with foie gras, Sauturne-style, or with dessert. Both will be at their best as the final note, on its own, to end a fine meal. Let them sing.