LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND – I have nothing but praise for Vaud’s 11 new Premiers Grands Crus collection, the first in what promises to be a growing list of some of Switzreland’s finest wines. They were presented to the world Tuesday evening in Lausanne, first to the press, then in the more formal setting of the canton’s parliamentary chambers, with the opportunity for guests to sample them afterwards. To a one, these are beautiful wines.
First, a word of explanation: Switzerland’s appellation system underwent a significant revision that led to a new list of classifications in July 2011. The country’s 80 AOC wines indicate the region, with just two cantons, Neuchatel and Geneva, having more than 20 each Other cantons reduced the number of AOC regions so Vaud, for example, now has 7.
The AOC designation is useful for shoppers because it includes some quality criteria. But a region’s great wines, and Switzerland has many, traditionally gain their reputation by word of mouth. This worked in an older, more inward-looking Switzerland of the past, but today consumers expect standards that help them compare products. Groups of producers in a number of smaller regions have banded together to agree on Grand Cru standards and these, today, give us superb wines from Salgesch and Vétroz in Valais and Dézaley in Vaud, for example.
Now canton Vaud’s producers have taken this a step further and created standards and a system for awarding Premier Grand Cru status to top wines that qualify. The project has been 15 years in the making, working its way through a typically Swiss political labyrinth of multiple consultations at every level.
Five essential selection criteria are used:
Time and history are important
A domain’s history and know-how are key. These wines develop, with age, a harmonious texture, intense and persistent aromas that make them excellent wines for aging.
Demanding cultivation requirements
The first Premiers Grands Crus will be limited to wines from Chasselas, Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes. Integrated production or organic standards must be followed, with no more than 6,000 vines per hectare to encourage their roots to grow deep, giving the wines complexity as a result. Vines must be at least 7 years old and the yield is limited to 0.8 litres per square metre for Chasselas, 0.64l/m2 for the reds.
Harvesting by hand
This allows grapes to be picked at optimal maturity, through careful selection. Chasselas grapes must have a sugar level at least 75 œchslé, with 80 required for Gamay and 85 for Pinot Noir (Ed. note: I’ll be writing about this shortly for those who aren’t familiar with the œchslé system).
Very special terroir
The Premier Grand Cru label is a guarantee that the wine comes entirely from one terroir, and Vaud’s unusual new system of continually checking and verifying, every year (this isn’t done everywhere in Bordeaux and Burgundy, for example), ensures that cozy relations without regular checks don’t allow wines whose quality may slip to remain in the group. Vaud has a wonderful range of soils and the wines reflect these terroirs, particularly remarkable for the minerality they provide.
Consistently excellent wine over time
One fine bottle of wine does not a Premier Grand Cru make. Once a proposed wine is accepted by the Commission des Premiers Grands Crus for consideration, it must be tasted and vines visited for each vintage.
A note on the first wines selected
The first wines selected are all Chasselas whites, but the commission notes that several more wines are in the pipeline. My two personal favourites Tuesday evening were Clos de la George from Yvorne and its neighbour, L-Ovaille 1584, but the standard was so high that it is difficult to really cite favourites. What I liked best about the first is its beautiful nose of gunflint; if you have trouble recognizing this smell, here is a wine to learn by. I also found notes of cedar and apricot, making this a wine with a sharp nose that is very exciting. In mouth, almonds and dried fruits. This is a truly elegant wine.
L’Ovaille 1584 offers a rich mix for the nose, floral but with fruits and hazelnut. But it’s real joy is in mouth: rich yet mineral but with a finish that is extraordinarily long and complex, thanks to the time it spends in amphores.
These vines sit opposite the Dents du Midi peaks and soak up the sun from morning to night, clearly taking the best from nature.
A wine I didn’t have a chance to taste properly but which I enjoyed a sip of is the newcomer (not yet on the new web site), Domaine de Capitaine’s Agénor Parmelin, worth exploring further.
The list of Premiers Grands Crus in the first selection, 8 May 2012
– Château de Chardonn, Chardonne
– Château Châtagneréaz, Mont-sur-Rolle
– Domaine de Autecou, Mont-sur-Rolle
– Domaine des Cordelière, Mont-sur-Rolle
– Château de Mon, Mont-sur-Rolle
– Domaine de Fische, Bougy-Villars
– Clos du Châtelar, Villeneuve
– Clos de la George, Yvorne
– L’Ovaille 158, Yvorne
– L’Ovaill, Yvorne