Today has been a day for celebrating in Fully, canton Valais, the day when Spring and Petite Arvine are declared to be partners, and people turn their attention to this wonderful grape, one of Europe’s finest. Wineries invite special guests – last year saw several winemakers from Burgundy – the wine flows to keep up with the talk.
Petite Arvine, a native to Valais that is grown in few other places, caught my attention about 15 years ago, although I don’t remember my first glass. I know I had another and then another not long after and I fell in love with it. I thought I knew it: dry, acidic, with a grapefruit or rhubarb nose and its special twist, a slightly salty finished. There, done, defined: that was Petite Arvine for me.
I was surprised when I discovered it in another form, as a show-stopper late harvest sweet wine. But this was from Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, whose late harvest wines are legendary, so I assumed it was an exception.
A few years later I decided to compare dry Arvine wines from different producers in Fully, so I bought one from each that Fol’Terre, a wine bar and shop at the edge of town, had on offer. I discovered that a couple wineries made a semi-dry version, which I didn’t care for. My ideas about what the wine should be were set in stone.
Something happened about 6 years ago: suddenly, Petite Arvine seemed more complicated and sophisticated than I initially realized. I feel like I’m writing the love story of a guy who married a pretty girl and then stopped thinking about her – only to find a few years later that she was brilliant and funny and beautiful, and sooo much more. Smart guy: he woke up and realized he was lucky.
Here’s the trail of my awakening, and I’d like you to pick up where I leave off, perhaps a bit the wiser for it:
Chateau Lichten, 2012 vertical tasting
The Rouvinez winery in Sierre in 2012 organized a vertical (several vintages) tasting for journalists of Chateau Lichten, in connection with the Vinea Wine Fair. We tasted 9 wines from this single terroir to the east of Sierre (Leuk Stadt), the youngest 2 years old and the oldest 16 years old. The wines were made in tanks, so not oaked, and they were dry, not harvested late.
They were good to excellent, each marked by its vintage (warm year, jammy fruit, cooler year, tertiary aromas) with the exception of the no longer good first one, made from very young vines in 1996. There was pretty much a consensus: we all thought you had to drink Petite Arvine young, and we were wrong. PE Buss, writing for Le Temps, was surprised at the balance between acidity and good, dense raw material of these wines.
Chateau Lichten white (there is a red), drunk young because that’s what you could buy, became one of my personal top Swiss wines. Philippe Rouvinez reminded me of a sad truth, over a glass of the 2013 in the Swiss wine bar Le Lötschberg in Bern: it was a superb year, but the 2014, he said, wouldn’t be up to that standard. He was right. All great wines have lousy years now and again.
Arvine at home, with family meals
Meanwhile, at home we were regularly voting on favourites, from up and down the Rhone Valley, with Leuk-Stadt at one end and Fully and Martigny at the other. I realized as I was learning about them that Arvine was planted in more places than I had realized – and more of it was being planted each year. Valais had 185.6 hectares planted in 2015, up from just 35.6 in 1991. By 2003, just eight years later, that figure had tripled.
Home favourites included Arvines from Gérard and Patricia Besse in Martigny, Benoît Dorsaz in Fully, Simon Maye et Fils in St-Pierre de Clages, Cave de la Madeleine in Vétroz, Maurice Zufferey in Muraz-sur-Sierre, and Oliver and Sandra Mounier in Salgesch at Cave du Rhodan. I now see, in retrospect, that some of the lesser wines were probably from relatively young vines.
The word terroir linked to this grape began to make more sense to me, but largely because when you’re drinking the same grape, from one region, with meals at home, you have a better chance of comparing them. Wine tasting sessions for professionals oblige you to focus on the technical aspects of the wine. Drinking them at home lets you appreciate, with time to think about it, how they open during the course of a meal, how differently they work if you have them with different dishes.
Mémoire des Vins Suisses: the Arvine wines
I began tasting older vintage Arvines, two in particular, Provins’s Maître de Chais and Maurice Zufferey’s Les Grand’Rayes, thanks to the Mémoire des Vins Suisses, which has some 60 wine producer members. It maintains a bank of wines and regularly tastes them to assess how well they are aging. Each producer has one wine; only a handful of the grape varieties are represented by more than one producer. Every March, when the group holds its annual meeting, the public can taste three vintages of each wine.
Maurice’s oldest Petite Arvine vines were planted in 1982, well ahead of the crowd, and his 3,500 vines give us a good idea of how wine from more mature plants develops. The vines are in clay/limestone soil at an altitude of 600 metres, part of the extraordinary soil left by a massive landslide in the area some 10- to 15,000 years ago.
The Provins vines were also planted early between 1980 and 1995, and at about the same altitude, 600 metres, but further down the Rhone valley between Granges and Fully. The soil is a mix, of granite and “mosaic” or patchwork soils.
Both are beautiful wines, complex and with great character, but quite different. The Provins wine is typically fuller and richer, the Zufferey one has perhaps a sharper accent on structure and acidity. Both are fine examples of terroir Petite Arvines.
Geneva Vinea tasting – Fechy owns it
In 2016 I realized something else about Arvine – the town of Féchy had decided it owns grape, just as Chamoson has decided it is the village of Johannisberg and Leytron of Humagne Rouge. It puzzled me, given that some very good Arvines come from closer to Sierre. These are essentially marketing ploys, to link the name of a town to a grape variety or type, but I had to admit grudgingly that Féchy has a point. The Arvine Association has 22 member wineries and the town grows more than 30 hectares of the grape, its second most important after Chasselas, covering 10% of its vineyards.
The Arvine town profile was promoted at the first Fully Arvine Salon in Geneva in June 2015, and since then Fully has made a determined pitch to sell the idea. They aren’t wrong to do so: the granite which is such a key factor in the terroirs here gives Fully Arvines a special and beautiful character. The salon, in a Geneva hotel, also made it apparent that not all Arvines are equal – they ranged from good to very good to a handful of excellent, as is true for any town’s wines.
2017 spring festival
I’m sorry I’m not in Fully for the Printemps de la Petite Arvine today, as I took part in 2017 and it gave me a chance to learn more about the lay of the land here, where geography plays a very important role. I spent the day talking to these wine producers, as a guest of Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, who had also invited the mayor of Zermatt and wine producers from Burgundy: questions and opinions about the wines flowed, and more and more wines flowed and if I went home with a clearer idea about Petite Arvine it was thanks to these informal discussions. I’ll just say this: the French left very, very impressed by the wine and the convivial approach to it in Fully.
Dorsaz convinces the wine writers
Terroir comes into its own for me at Les Perches, in “the heart of our vineyard” says Benoît Dorsaz of these beautiful vines that rise above the western end of Fully. The soil is a mix of loess deposited by wind over the centuries and glacial moraine with the gneiss (granite) base which marks Fully. Further up the Rhone Valley, between Fully and Saillon, granite ends abruptly and limestone begins. The shift creates a significant difference for Petite Arvine.
It was here, clambering around in the vineyard in May 2017 that Benoît introduced a small group of my friends, who are all non-Swiss wine writers, to his Petite Arvines (he makes four of them): Les Perches is dry, mineral, acidic, with a crystal sharpness and purity, a lingering finish and that hint of saltiness. We were so taken by the beauty of the spot and the perfectness of a glass of this wine sipped here that it was difficult to think about it in technical terms. “Cristalline” is the word used by the Fully producers to describe their wines, and it fits.
California guests, Gros Arvine comeback
Benoît taught me another thing about Arvine, which is that Grosse Arvine, nearly extinct, is making a small comeback. He and a couple other producers are inching it back to life (my report on that) and the first harvest was bottled a couple of years ago. So we may really need to include “Petite” in the name Petite Arvine when we talk about it in future. I tasted it in January when he presented it to a group from California, the Los Angeles chapter of the Confrérie du Tastevin, in Fully, and again in March, when he presented it to other winemakers from the Mémoire group.
It’s pleasant, if less exciting than the wines made from the Petite Arvine grape (Grosse is an offshoot of Petite), but these are early days for a grape catching up with the 21st century. It once had a good reputation and was grown widely.
Provins and 30 older vintages
Thirty wines, from 1958 to 2016: Swiss wine writer and consultant Chandra Kurt from Zurich and a group of writers from Germany and Austria, as well as a couple of us from Switzerland, last November tasted older vintage Petite Arvine from Provins ,some from a 1958 to 1994 line called Capsule d’Or and the others from 2007-2016, the Maître de Chais line. The winery is Switzerland’s largest and a cooperative. Provins has several high-end specialty lines and this is one.
Robert Parker’s Stephen Reinhardt was there and he later published very high notes for many of the wines we tasted. Personally, I found them pleasing and very interesting – enjoyable to drink – with a couple wow wines.
These are probably not wines in which to invest my fortune hoping they will double or triple in price on the international market, but then I prefer to drink wine. For that, these are winners. Youthful notes of rhubarb and grapefruit have given way to hazelnuts and kumquats and mandarin, while that thread of saltiness remains at the end, such a good contrast.
Vinea on Tour in Geneva
Back to the younger generation, and in search of a better sense of how much these vary today, I made a point of tasting all of the Petite Arvine wines that were included in Vinea on Tour in Geneva in late February. I was startled by how good virtually all of these were, and concluded that 2016, which I was tasting, was a good year.
What makes the perfect Arvine? What should we look for?
Young and dry: good typicity in the nose, often with notes of rhubarb or grapefruit, but also citrus, while some wines give notes of white flowers or exotic fruits. Powerful, with acidity in mouth, but also balance and the fruit remains present. Look for elegance, for the best wines have it.
Sweet wines: some of the world’s most beautiful sweet wines, bar none, are the Grain Noble ConfidenCiel charter group wines from Valais.
They don’t come better than the one made by MT Chappaz, from Petite Arvine. Start here and keep the bar high.