What do rare wines from old and new grapes taste like, and should we love them? See also: The strange world of rare grapes
Serge Heymoz of Cave les Sentes sums up my feeling for many of the old varieties I’ve tasted, when he speaks of Rèze, a wine that has been around for at least 500 years. “Today it’s an original wine, ethnic, one I offer with respect. It’s not easy to appreciate, this floral yet resinous wine with pine cone bud notes, and should be served as a discovery wine.” I’ve had it a few times with groups, who generally agreed it is well made and interesting, but not their favourite, almost sour in mouth. I liked it best at home, with a young and fruity raclette.
In the past 15 months I’ve tasted several rare wines, at home and with different groups. Some I have loved, several were intellectually interesting but with limited appeal and a handful I actively disliked, although others with me liked them.
A small group of wine writers met a year ago with Chosy and Marlis Chanton and their son Mario in Visp, canton Valais to do a vertical tasting, several vintages, of Heida (Païen) wines. We also tasted the Chanton’s rare wines, including older vintages. Of their lineup, Lafnetscha, a white, is my favourite, very acidic and a wine of real character, with notes of bergamot and linden (lime tree). Recommended to accompany sauerkraut and onion tart, which gives you an idea of its specialness. Some of the others are less approachable; what was interesting was to see how well they have held up over time.
Gwäss (grape: Gouais), I like less than Lafnetscha, but I have enjoyed it, partly to give its its due as the “Casanova” of grapes (parent to many others). The wine has a distinctive nose of citrus fruit and green apple, is light and fun.
Grapes brought back from the brink
Grosse Arvine: it has a ways to go before displacing Petite Arvine, probably my favourite Swiss wine. It is less complex and doesn’t have the wonderfully salty kick at the end that I love in PA, but it is an interesting wine. The first time I had it was in January, in the Grange, Marie-Thérèse Chappaz’s rustic former barn in Fully where she hosts groups. She and Benoît Dorsaz were presenting a group of rare wines to members of La Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin from the US, mainly from Los Angeles, as part of a short Swiss wines discovery trip that I helped them organize. We tasted Grosse Arvine Benoit Dorsaz 2016, Lafnetscha Chanton 2016, Rèze Serge Heymoz 2016, Durize H. Valloton 2016 and Marie-Thérèse’s famous late harvest wines. Some members of the group were familiar with Marie-Thérèse’s sweet wines, which shortly afterwards received notes of 99 from Robert Parker.
The group had just been introduced to Vaud wines, and seen quite a lot of Chasselas, so these were rare wines among wines that were already unfamiliar – and yet the group went home enthusiastic about what they tasted. I’m not sure they appreciated the historical significance of these, as three days of wine tasting in an unfamiliar wine country can be daunting, but they will remember this step into another world.
The second time I had Benoît’s Grosse Arvine was two months later, when it was served to the Mémoire des Vins Suisses group, again at the Grange in Fully, as part of their annual meeting. Most of the members of the group are wine producers from throughout Switzerland, so the wine’s revival sparked a good deal of interest and questions.
I felt the wine had improved in just the two months since I first tasted it, gaining in depth and complexity. A wine to watch and taste again.
Newly created grapes: heading into the future
Wines from new grapes are another matter, as these varieties are created with today’s drinker in mind and they don’t feel as unfamiliar. Divico, in particular, has real promise to become a crowd pleaser, although some early versions I tasted seemed to lack something. The Divico, Vin de Pays 2016 made by Agroscope (a red wine) was awarded a gold medal – 94 out of 100 points – at an international competition in Germany for disease-resistant grape varieties.
One of the best I’ve had is Audacieux, made by the Chambleau winery in Colombier, Neuchatel, a wine that is not only made without sulfites but that is a beauty to taste. A nose of spices, a mouth that is rich with distinctive tannins. This Mémoire des Vins Suisses member, Louis-Philippe Burgat, makes an even rarer wine, virtually the only single-grape Galotta (1981, Ancellotta and Gamay Noir cross) I’ve come across, Ephémère. The grape was developed to add colour and tannins to red blends and, like a similar new wine Diolinoir, it requires a good winemaker to allow it to stand alone. A nose of prunes and chocolates, smooth mouth, is pleasing; the winemaker notes that its evolution once open is hard to predict, and the one bottle I had at home seems to lose its punch a bit too quickly. These are very much natural wines and maybe we are still learning what to expect of them.
Galotta is one of five grapes behind La Petite Grange, a richly red well-structured blend with notes of elderberry and plum, made by Marie-Thérèse Chappaz.
Wines from other corners of Switzerland are having a comeback and may be moving out of the rare category: Completer from Graubünden and Räuschling from Zurich are now made by several wineries.
Will we like them?
Are they good? Will we like them? Yes and no, but what matters is that we try them, explore them.
It’s a bit like learning to colour with six basic colours, then getting a box of Crayolas with 24 and the world lights up. And then you’re suddenly given a mega-box with 48 and you realize how many shades of blue there are and that while navy seems boring cornflower makes you want to sing. Anyone in graphic design will remember holding their first Pantone colour swatches.
The emotion is similar: the potential of these wines is so rich and the sensory learning curve so promising. Try them, just try them.