A remarkable tasting session Monday 12 November, of older wines from Valais, made by a group of small independent vignerons-encaveurs, members of the Charte de qualité St Théodule. The oldest wine was 1964, just two years before a handful of pioneers, intent on making quality wine, created the charter. They were firm in the belief that for quality, you needed to restrict the yield, an unpopular notion at the time. This week we saw the proof they were right. The youngest “old” wine was a 2009.
The wines were all from the cellar of Marie-Thérèse Chappaz’s father. They hadn’t been moved since he placed the first one there in 1968; most were added as new wines. Chappaz is president of the Charte; she is also one of Switzerland’s most respected wine producers, so the guests were keen to see what treasures her father’s past had to offer. We were not disappointed, and there were many wonderful surprises.
Corinne Clavien, the cantonal oenologist, presented the wines and commented on them. Denis Saverot, editor-in-chief of La Revue de vin de France added remarks.
I’ve given a couple of *** to my favourites and others that stood out have **, but all were honestly exceptional.
Pinot Noir 2002, Weinschmiede Salgesch
Less colour change than I would expect. Surprisingly fruity, since I look for tertiary aromas at this age, but I found elegant red berry to deeper plum aromas, with a second nose of forest notes. The mouth was long, long, long. Ahhhh. Clavien: underbrush, delicate, fresh and elegant. “A good example of how Pinot Noir was made then and how we still like to make Pinot Noir. A touch of griotte cherries. Has aged super well!”
Humagne Rouge 2009, Cave des Amandiers – Alexandre Delétraz
Darker robe and the nose is more like a blend, with the oak fairly strong. Very smooth. Medium-long in mouth. Second nose, cherries, quite rich, complexity suddenly appears. Clavien: Humagne Rouge is a late grape, so it’s difficult to manage. It’s her opinion that this is the only red that has floral notes – violets – there is not a lot of acidity or tannins. Very delicate at the end.
Cornalin 2008, Denis Mercier ***
Yes, I am a Cornalin fan and yes, I very much like Mercier wines, but even without this I think the wine would have been a winner – one of my favourites in this tasting series. Beautiful deep red robe. Superb nose – tickles, almost but not quite smoky. The mouth surprises, not as smooth as the previous wine and the fruit is more apparent here than in the nose. Clavien: “Cornalin has a lot of character – it’s rebellious, difficult to master.” A bit like the Valais people, she pointed out. “Black cherry, spices, a touch of cloves, but the tannins still need taming. Very fresh. The finish is all freshness, it has a bit – you sip it and you want more. She also noted that 2008 was a cooler vintage than 2009.
Syrah 1999, Marie-Bernard Gillioz
Very dark, heading into brown here. Nose slightly animal at first, leather and hints of woodlands. Mouth feels a bit thin to me and I’m not overly in love with it, until the finish, which is very long and pleasing, almost its best feature. Clavien on Syrah in Valais: it arrived in 1910, then was replanted in the 1920s after phylloxera struck. We’re still learning what it can give in Valais, north of the northern Rhone Syrahs, where the Rhone has its start.
Pinot Noir 1975, Simon Maye & Fils **
Very light brown robe, quite surprising colour at this age, 43 years old! and lovely. The nose is prunes for me, the mouth smoky with elegant tannins. Clavien: The nose is clearly tertiary aromas, with walnuts. The tannins are beautifully integrated – the wine embraces you; it is round. This is a wine that makes you want to dream. And it’s important that wine should do that.
Pinot Noir 1967, Louis Imhof ***
This one stopped all of us in our tracks, I think. Louis Imhof died some time ago and the vineyard that provided this wine is still planted with Pinot Noir, managed by the Cornulus winery (which makes top wines). A darker robe than many and it needs air, but then begins to step out of the bottle in style. Rich and complex nose, underbrush, truffles, leather after a minute or two. In mouth it is truly gorgeous. Clavien: the mouth is so smooth, and then the finish is long and seems to get longer. The tannins are completely integrated and yet the acidity is there. Chapeau, I note.
Rouge d’Enfer (Cornalin) 1964, Louis Imhof ***
The colour is a startlingly bright red, for a wine this age, but it hasn’t been moved in 60 years. Nose of deep and sharp stewed grapes. Mouth: wow, simply wow. Young, fresh, fruity, still plenty of energy here, no sense that it has really aged. Clavien: “A monument. The mouth is Big! Plums, prunes. Saverot, shaking his head: “It’s powerful, forceful – such energy.” Clavien calls it Valais’s “emblematic wine, a grape that makes no concessions, on the vine and in the cellar.” Harvested very late but we don’t know exactly how it was vinified, how they did it at the time, no notes to tell us. Imhof was very much a man of his era, she adds. Very hard to believe this wine is really 1964; this is a memorable moment.
Pinot Blanc 2004, Cave Boléro – Daniel Etter
Our first white, really a mise-en-bouche that helps us shift from the reds to these whites, and we wonder how any wine can follow the last act, but it does well. I am not in general a big fan of Pinot Blanc, but I find it pleasing if not exciting. Clavien: a mouth of yellow fruits confit and hints of wax, good acidity and dry herbs.
Johannisberg 2005, Cave de la Pierre – Jacques Clavien
Platinum-gold robe and a nose that at first made me think of candy! Exotic fruits dominate and the mouth is very smooth, then the acidity is suddenly present, making this a really interesting wine. Clavien: Johannisberg grapes give wines that age very well. This one is still young and exuberant. A nose of almonds, hazelnuts. Very suave in mouth, harmonious, balanced.
Ermitage 1996, Cave le Bosset – Romaine Blaser-Michellod ***
A deeply rich gold colour, remarkable to look at. The nose is all mushrooms and truffles, puts the senses on edge, pleasantly so! In mouth, it has good acidity, very balanced. Another big wow! wine. Clavien: “Sumptuous”. Behind the mushrooms we have a hint of raspberry alcohol, very typical for Hermitage. “I often think these are not that great young” but then as it ages, like this one, we have fresh truffles in the mouth and a very long and beautiful finish.
Païen 1987, Cave Caloz – Fernand Caloz
Very bright gold, and Clavien explains that it is the higher acidity that makes it so golden. The nose is young, some brioche, but also smoky, interesting. The mouth is startlingly fresh and lively, and it’s hard to remember that this wine is more than 30 years old.
Saverot: “Big, magnificent. A complex mouth. A touch of pansies.”
Petite Arvine 1986, Simon Maye & Fils **
Very bright gold. Nose: I simply love it, all oranges, orange peel, kumquats. Mouth: very slight fizz, a light feel that is pleasant. Clavien: notes of cooked orange skins; an exuberant nose and yes, a touch of CO2 in the mouth.
Humagne Blanc 1967, Eloi et André Roduit **
First of two wines, same vintage, same winery.
Deep gold, with a nose that calls to mind the forest; the second nose gives clear notes of petrol that I find almost disconcerting. The mouth has a curious energy. Clavien: this grape, when young, can give notes of tilleul (lime tree); it ages very well and we need to pause and remember the people who planted these vines, who would never have imagined the wine would be drunk in 2018. There is a quality here that defies time.
Ermitage 1967, Eloi et André Roduit ***
These are very special vines, at the foot of the renowned Combe d’Enfer in Fully, and Marie-Thérèse Chappaz now works these; some of them date back to 1924.
Mi-flétrie, or partially withered grapes. Very deep gold, beautiful to look at. Nose: oranges, apricots. The mouth is very rich but not overwhelming. Clavien: she’s enchanted by the robe. The nose has an oriental touch and the mouth is all balance. A complex wine that we keep retesting – the nose continues to evolve beautifully, graciously.
Grain de Folie (Petite Arvine) 1998, Benoît Dorsaz ***
Robe is a lighter amber than the last wine. The nose has notes of orange peel with an elegant clean line; in mouth, here is another wow! Such tension and energy, with noticeable but perfect acidity and the slightly salty finish that can be a Petite Arvine hallmark is still there. Clavien: here is the proof that we have this – we have native grapes and wines that are our wealth and our originality. Stop saying these wines are “not bad”!
Be proud of these.
What a day to treasure (I enjoyed myself, in case that isn’t yet clear).