This is the wine you must not miss in 2020. You might have to line up to taste it, but it’s worth the trouble. This is Servagnin’s 600th birthday year. Its story is charming and it is a wine worth celebrating.
This may be as close as we get to what Burgundies once tasted like, when they were treasured for their quality but they were not yet the drink-as-assets, for consumption by the rich only, that some have become today.
Servagnin de Morges is a Pinot Noir, Vaud Grand Cru, with aromas and in particular a texture that are on the rustic side. Its quality was highly prized by the Burgundians of long ago, especially its distinctive mouth texture. Raoul Cruchon, one of the earliest producers of today’s version of the wine, says 16th century written evidence has turned up in Geneva that at the time when St Prex was part of Savoie and the Duke of Savoie loved this Pinot, Burgundians were trained to identify various Pinots by their texture. This grape, called the most delicate and elegant of the Pinots, was a wine that fetched top prices.
Twenty wineries in the Morges wine region of canton Vaud now make Servagnin, producing a total of 28,000 bottles from 37 hectares – not a lot on a world wine scale, not much more than a drop in the bucket even of Swiss wine. The country produced just under 87 million litres in 2017, the latest official count. To think that this is the revival of the old recipe from 600 years ago is a great leap of the imagination though, for as Servagnin’s producers point out, we don’t know how it was grown, only that it was grown.
Servagnin is a trademarked name for wine made from a very old French variety of the Pinot Noir grape, one of about 50 varieties of Pinot Noir growing in Swiss vineyards. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s because despite six centuries of Swiss history, the wine nearly disappeared before a revival – resuscitation? – began about 20 years ago. Another reason might be confusion about the name. It’s close in sound to Savagnin and Salvagnin, different grapes with some kinship. And yet it was probably known as Salvagnin or that plus Servagnin when the grapes arrived in Vaud, an era when people bothered less about clearcut names for grape varieties.
Today it seems a bit crazy, as Raoul Cruchon puts it, that when the trademark Servagnin was registered in the 1970s, canton Vaud asked permission from the village of St Prex to use “Salvagnin” for other grapes.
A Grand Cru, a quality charter
A charter strictly controls quality in the vineyards and cellars of the wineries that produce it. The charter was drawn up to give a framework to efforts to save this grape, which came dangerously near to extinction: just three vines remained and were about to be pulled up at a St Prex construction site when a wise worker saved them; two of those died when transplanted for safekeeping. St Prex grower Tardy and Cruchon worked together to understand the old grape, what it could give.
The charter calls for limited yields, barrel oaking, putting it on the market after at least a year of maturing; the commission makes several vineyard and cellar visits to each winery, each year, to ensure the wine qualifies. Three annual blind tastings are held to establish clearly what it and what isn’t Servagnin.
“All producers use the same labelling – the wine is more important than the producer here,” says Cruchon. And part of the sales is returned to the commission to market the wine.
The story, the history
A birthday party for the wine in Saint-Prex 28 January kicked off year-long festivities and events to celebrate this grape’s old and new history. The medieval village is one of the most charming on Lake Geneva and in the 15th century it was a summer getaway for the citizens of the town of Morges, 6 km away. Duchess Marie de Bourgogne in 1420 offered vines of her favourite French Pinot Noir grapes to the village in thanks for the warm welcome she received while she awaited the birth of a child. Wine was considered a symbol of life. She had already lost three children and there were outbreaks of the plague.
St-Prex is a grape-growing village in the wine district of Morges, but it is also known in the wine world as one of Switzerland’s bottle recycling centres. Vetropak, the glass recycling company, originally made glass here because of the sandy banks of the village, at the edge of Lake Geneva. Here, as elsewhere in Vaud, Servagnin gradually faded as Chasselas and Gamay grew in popularity, grapes that were easier to grow, easy to drink.
What Servagnin wine is like
Servagnin doesn’t always do well in competitions, in part because of its slightly rustic aromas (I’ve heard it compared to Humagne Rouge in this sense, with the nose described as “wild” in part), yet these are truly lovely and interesting Pinot wines, with classic red berry notes, strawberries and raspberries, often tinged with sweet spices – cardamom, exotic black peppers. It is worth tasting several of them to compare, if you have a chance, for it is a grape – like Pinot Noir in general – that is very sensitive to its terroir, and even more so to climate.
Expect vintages to vary, even considerably, and learn more about grapes from these non-industrial recipe wines. Its growers like to say it needs clay to spread out wide and limestone for vertical growth. In this respect, they point out, its variable texture, affected by terroir, is similar to fine Pinots in Burgundy.
Pioneering role in reviving old grapes
Robert Cramer, Geneva politician elected president of Swiss Wine in June 2019, noted at the Servagnin birthday kickoff that
“this is a lovely old story, but it’s also very modern. This wine has had a pioneering role, with growing interest today in reviving old grapes. Switzerland has something special here, an understanding of taste that comes from having producers who grow, for example, 10 or more grapes, on just 10 hectares! In Burgundy, you’ll have just 1 grape for 10 hectares. Here, consumers have a variety of choice – if you’re tired of Coca-cola, try these, wines that change with the vintage. The price is good for the quality: these are precious wines.”
600 years of Servagnin: events in 2020
Servagnin events planned for 2020 include: a master class for professionals and gala dinner in Lausanne, end March; guest of honour at Divinum in early April; 16 April floral inauguration at the famous Morges Tulip Festival; 20 June Odyssey of Servagnin, a Savoie trip on an antique lake craft; several regular events such as Servagnin on the MBC Saveurs trains from Morges to Apples. Also taking part in many of the events are Servagnin sausage and a special mustard as well as local specially packaged chocolates.