A glass wine jar for a drum, women on stilts to welcome us, and a man with a long unwieldy Alpine horn that he suddenly picks up and starts to hurl jazzy notes into a bright blue Alpine sky – what a way to start a celebration!
Above us a glass dome by contemporary Swiss architect Mario Botta juts out of the 15th century Leuk Castle and below us the ragged Rhone river heads towards tidier channels downstream. Two men who make fine wine pour it, white for you, red for me, to help us through the speeches, which turn out to be enjoyable. That’s good because it’s a distraction to think about the knight Anton Stockalper, who was tortured, beheaded and quartered where we now stand, not to mention Katharina Balin, executed for witchcraft on this spot. The grass is still green this November day; the paving stones white.
Pioneers in setting quality standards
We’re brought back to these brighter days by our hosts. The occasion is the 50th anniversary of the Charte de qualité St Théodule, celebrated Monday in Leuk-stadt by its roughly 100 member vignerons-encaveurs. Definition: vignerons-encaveurs in Switzerland cultivate their own grapes, vinify and bottle the wine, sell under their own label. These small Valais wineries invited some 300 people to taste 100 of their best wines. We also shared a meal catered by three members of a similar group in a different line of work, the Swiss Guild of Restaurateurs-Cuisiniers (note: they publish a multilingual guide to their restaurants). The two associations have this in common: top quality products made by independent small businesses.
The survival of the smallest
The history of wine in Europe was dominated for centuries by small farmers who grew grapes and vinified them for their own families or to make commercial wine on a relatively small scale. Switzerland was no exception. The 20th century saw the rise of cooperatives and big private wineries, some of which grew into multinationals, thanks in part to changes in agricultural methods and transport. Tractors, pesticides and herbicides, subsidies. Rail lines, airplanes, seafaring container ships.
The 21st century has followed this expansion of the wine producer’s world, with yet more mechanization and the continued use of chemical treatments in many places. Happily, the influence of organic wine producers has increased in the past decade, beyond their own wineries. A new feature is the rapid growth of a layer of professionals in the wine business – oenologists in the cellar, sommeliers in the restaurant, wholesalers and retailers – buyers and sellers – who pepper the commercial side with a shared technical language learned through courses, often sourced from abroad.
Virtually all small, mainly family wineries struggle to stay afloat in a world where wine notation systems and frenetic social media postings couple to draw attention to the “stars”. Becoming a star means not just making great wine but mastering the art of public relations, of media contact, of selling at a growing number of wine fairs and other events. All of this requires labour, and family wineries are often stretched to their limits to do this work.
Meanwhile, back at the cellar, the pressure has increased to produce web sites, revamp labels, add wine tourism activities including visiting hours for the public.
Added to this: banks are as reluctant as ever to loan money for long-term expansion or development projects, retirement solutions that fit today’s social security systems have to be found for the generation that is leaving so the younger members of the family – now, often well-trained oenologists – can take over and make a living at it.
One-third of Swiss wineries
The Charte St Théodule offers a good reminder of two things: it’s really not easy to be small and be very good, especially if your philosophy flies in the face of current trends; yet these excellent small wineries remain the backbone of the Swiss wine industry.
It says much for the overall quality of Swiss wines. The national association of vignerons-encaveurs, formed 48 years ago, reports that its 600 members account for one-third of all wineries and 30% of Swiss wine produced. The average size of their holdings is just 4.2 hectares.
The charter was created in 1966 by the handful of Valais grape growers who made their own wine, in order to work together in a constant search for improved quality wines. They were precursors of a national association, and 10 years in advance of the French, where today there are 7,000 “vignerons indépendants“, as they are called (earlier known as vignerons particulières), fighting the power and influence of much larger wineries and cooperatives.
Proven right on low yields for quality
The Charte St Théodule in Valais was initially remarkable for the philosophy of its adherents that quality could be achieved only through small yields, and this at a time when the main goal of the wine business in Switzerland seemed to be larger harvests. A parallel group of vignerons-encaveurs grew during this period and in 2000 the two groups fused, keeping the original quality charter, which drives their wine production today. A key feature is supporting each other and learning together.
Monday we had a chance to see this in action, and to sample their wines. The education part of the day included an extraordinary wine tasting for some of the guests, with wines from the cellar of Charte president Marie-Thérèse Chappaz’s father. She is arguably one of the best-known if not the most famous Swiss wine producer, and the Valais wines from her father’s cellar had not been moved since the day he put them there. Many of us remarked afterwards that it was not only a special wine moment, but it was very moving. None of the people behind these remarkable wines were famous at the time, their wines were not well known and they would never have dreamed we would be sitting in Leuk Castle tasting these in 2018.
Today’s wines have a rosy future
Here is a sampler of the younger wines, 2016-17, from the ones I particularly enjoyed tasting during the afternoon. They’re very good now and based on the older vintages I tasted Monday morning, we can expect to enjoy many of them much further down the road.
Muscat, a very dry and delicious wine from Cave de la Brunière in St Léonard – try it with Asian foods, a nice surprise I think. Rèze from Serge Heymoz’s Cave les Sentes in Sierre (I’m trying to learn to love this very old grape, and this one helped; he is one of the great specialists), Cornalin – smooth with a great future – from Maurice Zufferey in Muraz, another Cornalin, fresh and fruity, from Mabillard-Fuchs in Venthône. The last two are admirable organic wine producers whose vines are not far apart, so a great opportunity to compare styles and shifts in soil, exposure.