Note: At the end here you’ll find an interview done with me by Tony Johnston at WRS radio in Geneva, about Petite Arvine, one of Switzerland’s most interesting “native” specialty grapes. Tony and I have agreed to talk about a Swiss wine pick of mine every three weeks. This is not a commercial agreement and I am not paid, just to be clear: I am happy to provide listeners with information and shopping ideas for Swiss wines, based on my substantial experience with Swiss wines.
Tomorrow I’ll post an interview we did today, about “Esprit de Genève”, the wine that serves as a fine ambassador for that canton’s wines. You can still catch it this afternoon on the Drive Time show.
And now let’s look at one of the loves of my life, Arvine!
Just right for the slopes, an alternative to Fendant
If you think summer is the only time to drink Petite Arvine, you have something to learn – it’s perfect for the slopes. And since we have another three to four weeks of ski season and mountain winter walks left, I can only say santé! and raise a glass of what is probably my favourite Swiss wine. The little salty kick at the end, its signature, feels just right after brisk Alpine air and some exercise.
One winery, two Petite Arvines to compare terroirs
I was in for a surprise in February when I went to a vertical tasting session of several older vintages of Tourmentin, a red blend made by the Rouvinez family in Sierre. We were handed a glass of Petite Arvine, a lovely crisp white wine, to start the late morning session – unusually, we were given a choice of two Petite Arvines. In addition to the one I know and love, from Château Lichten in Leuk, the family now makes one from Fully, near the bend in the Rhone river.
This was a great opportunity to compare the impact of terroir, for the winemaking methods are similar and the winemaker the same. Lichten remains my favourite, with a nose rich with lime, pink grapefruit and wisteria flowers.
The new wine, from Domaine Les Seilles in Fully, may be the better all-around aperitif. It has more generic citrus notes and rhubarb, still with wisteria flowers, more delicate this time. If you aren’t sure about the scent, be sure to put your nose in a wisteria vine this spring, breath deeply and memorize the smell. It is grown at the spot where the Rhone takes a sharp bend, formed when glaciers hit the hard granite of Mt Blanc. Grapes grown on those granite hillsides are quite different from ones grown upriver, where the soil is mainly limestone.
About the grape and the wine
Petite Arvine is one of the finest grapes from canton Valais, which has considered it a native grape for more than 400 years. It is now grown in a handful of other places outside Switzerland in very small quantities, but it excels in parts of Valais with good sun exposure because it is a late-ripening grape. It doesn’t like too much wind and prefers locations that are dry but not too dry.
It’s made as a dry and nervous wine, as in the two from Rouvinez, but also as a fuller oaked wine, and here I suggest that for comparison you get a bottle of Benoît Dorsaz’s Quintessence Petite Arvine. This wine is a blend, not of grape varieties, but of two groups of grapes, with two-thirds spending a year in oak and one-third in stainless steel tanks; the two are then blended and matured for another six months.
In between the two is an award-winning Arvine from André Fontannaz at Cave La Madeleine in Vétroz, slightly sweet, good with meals.
A third type of Petite Arvine can be spectacular, the late harvest sweet wines, because this grape gives wines that have very good aging potential.
But that’s for long after the slopes, when you’re sitting in front of an open fire, cracking walnuts.
An excerpt from my book Vineglorious! Switzerland’s Wondrous World of Wines
“Arvine aka Petite Arvine
Lovers of grapefruit juice for breakfast, this is your wine! Citrus notes of grapefruit and sometimes rhubarb mark this wine, described by biologist and DNA researcher José Vouillamoz as Valais’s finest, an indigenous grape first mentioned in 1602. Small forays abroad have seen efforts to grow this beautifully nervy wine elsewhere, in Italy and France. Distinguishing characteristic: a mineral salty finish that gives it added zing.”