Withered Pinot Gris grapes make a luscious sweet wine
A beautiful reincarnation began on the mountainside above Aigle last Saturday: 60 0 kg of shriveled and mostly unattractive grapes were snipped off the vines and began a slow transformation into a rich gold liquid that is one of the treasures of Switzerland, at the Badoux winery. Forget the gold bars under the streets of Zurich – this is gold you can touch and taste, smell and feel, and the pleasure is doubled by knowing that you’re not hoarding it, but sensibly enjoying it.
The pleasure of drinking, where wine is concerned, is the best investment you can make.
Canton Valais is famous for its late harvest withered (flétri) grape wines, thanks to a combination of very cold but not freezing weather and warming foehn winds that keep the grapes dry and free of mould that simply rots the grape.
But we’re in Vaud! This is a drier than most corner of canton Vaud, which shares weather and climate with Valais, especially the foehn winds that whistle down Alpine valleys. Both areas benefit in lucky years from the development of botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, which provides some of the world’s most exceptional sweet wines, famous for the development of special aromas.
The forest and cooked-down fruit in a glass
Other famous noble rot wines include French Sauternes and some Hungarian Tokaji wines. These are sometimes confused with ice wine, which is traditionally made in climates colder than Switzerland’s from ripe-ripe grapes picked with the first frost, generally without noble rot’s remarkable perfume.
I joined the Badoux winery team in Aigle for a very late 2014 Pinot Gris harvest: 24 January (2105!) is the latest they’ve ever done this.
In 2009, they were picked 10 January, with most Swiss Alpine late harvest grapes flétri grapes picked in December or early January, long after the surmaturé sweet but still plump grapes picked in November, for example.
Further along the Rhone Valley, in Valais, this is a favourite grape variety for late harvests, but it often goes under a local name there, Malvoisie flétri.
Whichever name is used, these grapes give a wine that has notes of slowly cooked down fruits, mainly peaches and apricots, as well as honey, with a touch of woodland notes (think of mushrooms, undergrowth). The grape’s acidity adds tension and keeps the wine from being cloying. A too-sweet glass of wine will have you refusing a second, but this wine, says vineyard manager Jean-Pierre Luthi, has drinkers asking for a refill.
If you think you like only dry wines, think again, for this is an Every Drinker’s specialty wine, to go with foie gras as a starter, or with desserts that are both acidic and sweet, such as apple pie. Or with a bite of dark chocolate.
An international gold medal winner
The grapes are picked, pressed slowly and gently for two days, then, in nature’s good graces, the wine matures for at least two years in an oak barrel, under the careful eye of one of Switzerland’s best-known and most respected oenologists, Daniel Dufaux.
Once bottled this becomes the cellar’s award-winning Lettres de Noblesse Pinot Gris vendange tardive wine, Chablais AOC, a liquoreux or very sweet white wine (a gold medal at the 2014 Mondial des Pinots international competition for the 2011 vintage).
It was a gray and chilly 1C at 10:00 Saturday, and the 15 grape pickers were taking their mid-morning break as I arrived at the top of the vines. We all enjoyed a well-chilled glass of Chasselas wine that simply got colder if you didn’t drink it quickly. Gloves stayed on. The workers, who harvest the bulk of Badoux’s grapes in September and October, started at 08:00, when the sky was growing light at 600 metres altitude.
The Aigle castle and Rhone valley sat far below them, alongside the start to the twisting road that climbs to the Bernese Oberland and famous resorts like Gstaad and Chateau d’Oex.
By 11:00 they had harvested grapes from the 2,500 m2 at the top of the vineyards that cover these hillsides. They were working under the green mesh that protect these extraordinary sweet grapes from birds, a back-breaking job on slopes far too steep for machinery. The birds were nearby, and interested. The air carried a slightly dank yet pleasant smell of forest, trees, mushrooms and underbrush. Snip-snip into bright yellow crates that slide down the pebbly slope covered with damp leaves, then the younger workers were loaded with three crates of 15 kg each, which they carried over to a red tarpaulin.
Only in good years, when the climate is right
“We didn’t know until Wednesday that it would work out today,” Luthi told me, pleased to have perfect weather conditions. Snow was forecast and that would have meant the harvest was a no-go. The wine is made only in years when the climate permits it.
“We didn’t have any problems with [unhealthy] rot this year,” examining the grapes. “A week ago most of the grapes looked like this.” Slightly plump with a couple of wrinkles, dark orange. “By the middle of the week they were reaching this stage, withered.” Some were drying out too much, at which point “they aren’t of any interest.”
Withered grapes have lost much of their liquid, but the loss represents a gain in concentrated sweetness as long as they are picked quickly when they reach this stage. The grapes here will happily give a must of 140 degrees Oeschlé, a measure used mainly in Switzerland and Germany to check the sugar level.
Since not all grapes on a vine ripen or wither at the same time, each bunch has grapes in all three stages. The pickers snip off the whole bunch. Later, down at the winery, we see a small portable press take in the whole bunches and gently press the juice out of them.
The 48 plastic crates harvested Saturday morning make just one barrel of wine.
Flying down to the winery
There’s a sudden burst of activity as the final crate is brought to the tarpaulin and Luthi puts in a call to the helicopter pilot who will pick up the grapes. Helicopters are increasingly used for the vertigenous slopes of Vaud and Valais, where machines can’t be used, to treat the vines and to harvest: wineries continue to argue about the ecological footprint, with a growing number insisting that helicopters are better than tractors. They’re certainly quicker, which means getting picked grapes to the presses faster, before they have a chance to go off, and they can be cost-effective.
Our helicopter takes less than 20 minutes to pick up two loads of grapes and fly them down to the winery in Aigle, near the autoroute. Visitors and workers now down at the cellar toast the small but fine harvest with a glass of the 2011 vintage of this golden wine, watching as the first drops of what looks like prune juice to the uninitiated as it seeps out the bottom of the press.
One hour later, the juice from the pressed grapes is starting to move into the tube that carries it to a small stainless steel tank. It will sit there until Monday, when it will be moved into a barrel, says Dufaux, to begin its long, slow and magical transformation into a clear bright gold liquid that smells and tastes a bit like heaven.
Price: CHF26,90 online or in the Badoux shop in Aigle or for slightly more at Globus department stores
Interview, wine of the week, Pinot Gris late harvest from Badoux on WRS radio 28 January 2015