If you’re seeking classic, traditional, correctly made wines, pass by this cellar, even though some of the wines may enchant you. Seeking innovative, creative winemaking? You’re in the right place. Anne-Claire Schott, whose cellar is on the shores of Lake Biel/Bienne, doesn’t use the word rebel to describe herself. Nor does she look or sound the part at first with her finely chiselled profile and quiet matter.
My sense is that we’ll need a few years to decide if she is a successful pioneer or a rebel with a natural cause for whom consumers play second fiddle. Let the wines speak and the people listen.
Some background is necessary to make sense of this winery, which does indeed produce some fine wine, and of this winemaker, who has a vision of what wine should be, can be and mostly isn’t. The Schott family has 3.5 hectares and produces fewer than 20,000 bottles a year. The 2017 Pinot Gris won a gold medal at the Grand Prix de Vin Suisse and several other wines have won distinctions at regional and national wine competitions.
The cellar itself is the stuff of wine writer lore: dark, chilly on this snowy day but cozy, barrels dimly lit, candles flickering by the label original artwork and a bottle of orange wine on a shelf, the whole a small workspace tucked inside one of the high old houses on an ancient narrow street in the quaint village of Twann. Art on the walls, copper utensils around the corner and forget about a 21st century tasting room. The winemaker pulls her shawl around her. You could set a crime story in here; people who are not fans of natural wines might argue that this is apt.
Schott is one of the most intriguing and perplexing wine producers in Switzerland at the moment. In her 30s, she benefits from the kind of media attention many young winemakers would love, for this is a key to selling wine. Several of her wines sell out quickly. My first meeting with her came when she presented her wines as part of a group of young wine producers. She stood out from the crowd, for the quality of her wines and the high quality presentation of the bottles and her brochure.
In early 2018 she adopted biodynamic winemaking for the family vines, grown on the steep slopes behind the village. She is a fan of natural wines. “I’m heading that way,” she says. “Life is lovely precisely because it is not always the same.” Ditto for natural wines. Chemicals in the vineyard or the cellar are anathema to her. She can be missionary-aggressive about her beliefs, but behind this lies an apparent need to convince skeptics of the rightness and the do-ability of this approach to making wine. It is in line with what is clearly a deep love of art and creativity. All of this demands that we look at things differently, that we let slip the mantle of conformity. A wine, she says, is like a painting, and no two are alike. The web site is certainly witness to her perfectionist approach to both art and wine, as are the labels and marketing materials.
What does her father think of all this? “He doesn’t have that much say.” She admits he has needed some time to accept what she is doing. But the changing of the guard is over. Like most retired Swiss vignerons whose children have taken over, he still takes part in the winery’s work.
Anne-Claire is the daughter of Peter and Marie-Thérèse, who spent years building their reputation for decent classic Swiss wines. She studied art history, uninterested in taking over the family winery. School finished, she trained at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, a high temple of Swiss art. It wasn’t to her taste, which had already begun to centre on small, handcrafted, artisanal in all things. She reconsidered winemaking but, writes Pierre Buss in Le Temps, on one condition, to work with a woman.
Her apprenticeship with Sarah Meylan in Geneva, an activist in the renovation of Geneva wines’ reputation, was a turning point. Changins, Switzerland’s school and university for wine producers, was a next, practical step, followed by work at a large US winery, which confirmed her belief that the way forward is not industrial winemaking, although she still retains positive memories of the charm of Midwesterners, whom she met earlier, when she went to the US to learn English.
She joined the family winery in 2014 and made her first mark with her own line, Aroma der Landschaft, starting with a white, just 900 bottles, then a Pinot Noir for red, a mere 300 bottles.
Schott likes to talk about wines that are allowed to “express themselves”. The Aroma line was created because “I want them to transmit something about the esprit here. Aroma lets me do things local.” The labels are by a local artist, for a start.
The white is a blend of six grapes, complanted and trellised along a stone wall that borders the winery’s property. It is, quite simply, a beautiful wine. It is a bit slow to open, but the finish is “smart and strong”, as Schott describes it. The wine is made in a concrete egg, which maybe contributes to the very long and noticeably mineral finish. “I did this, created this wine to open the discussion.”
The 2016 red offers a reminder of what Pinot Noir can be, beyond elegant: the fruit puts you in mind of summer gardens and time to watch the clouds, listen to gentle breezes. The Aroma der Landschaft vines section of the family domain is biodynamic; the rest is in conversion.
She has little time for recipe wines and even less patience for the way we are taught to appreciate the smell and taste of a wine. “We don’t really know the aromas of wine, what they are like” without chemical intervention. Given a chance, she believes, more natural aromas that today might put us off, will become compelling and we will “slowly fall in love.” Natural wines are the natural way forward, for “If we’re ‘natural’ in the vineyard, then why not in the cellar?”
Her 2016 Pinot Noir. I describe the nose as super, with a fresh and fruity nose, the mouth a bit caramel at first and then becoming more complex. I like it. She agrees but argues that “I haven’t yet found what I want, with Pinot Noir,” and she struggles to put into words just what that is. The 2016 Aroma line Pinot Noir sadly never saw the day, failing to spontaneously ferment. The 2017 classic Pinot Noir I find more difficult, a wine that is closed, reductive, with a slow and somewhat bitter attack. It’s young, perhaps too early to judge.
“They always say Pinot Noir is fragile, but here we have no sulphur. So does the sulphur hide something? Or free up the wine? I think maybe it hides…”
For the unconvinced or uninitiated, her wines, not yet all natural, give a mixed result. The entry level Chasselas is very good value for money at CHF13, and a very pleasing wine. Round yet racy and mineral. The orange wine, at CHF45, cellar price, reflects its handmade character. If you’re not a fan of these trendy wines – whites made as if they were red – you might find it difficult. I did, especially the pine and resin notes in the finish. And yet, I like the way it is made: Pinot Gris harvested very ripe, destemmed (leaving only the berries), fermented with the skins, very slow three weeks of pressing. No sulfites, no filtering.
Where winemakers are going to be pioneers for natural wines we wine-lovers will have to join them by trying to re-educate our brains to accept aromas and flavours we’ve learned to dismiss. I’m not convinced this will work, but I’m willing to give it a try. I bought a bottle of the orange wine to take home and try another day, when my mind is not still remembering the pleasure of the Aroma der Landschaft white blend.