A lingering autumn day of sunshine and the option to dine outside will put anyone in a good mood, but I don’t think this is the reason that the newly released Tsampéhro wines I tasted Monday were good – it was the best of the tastings I’ve done of these wines, which came onto the Swiss market in 2013. You will find my comments on them at the end of this article.
Why we care about pricey young wines
Eighty of us took part in the tasting session. Wine buyers and sommeliers, journalists. Johanna Dayer, who presented the wines, contacted me beforehand to ask for links to previous articles I’d written on Tsampéhro, to include on their media coverage web page. To my great dismay I discovered that all my blog articles on wine from 2009 to 2013 disappeared as part of a major move from an older web site this summer, when I was fixing broken links. So while I would love to compare yesterday’s notes to what I published in 2013 when the first wines were presented, I’m forced to rely on my memory.
This is the second time in a week that I’m writing about expensive, niche Swiss wines from relatively young ventures, and I found as I trekked up a steep footpath through the vines to the winery (it was a nice day for visiting vines) I was asking myself why most people, who don’t spend this much for wine, would care what they are like. Tsampéhro sells six-pack cartons for CHF228-474, depending on the wine.
On reflection, I decided it’s important to the notoriety of Swiss wines to have top-end products that are developed this scrupulously, with such a tight focus on quality, and money to back the effort. Both Tsampéhro and Provins’ Electus and Eclat wines are luxuries from a producer’s point of view, enough to spark some envy among other cellars. But their work is having trickle-down effects as we all watch the development and aging of these products and how well they sell. I’ll soon be tasting another expensive wine from a project started by two young brothers two years ago, aimed at high-end restaurants.
People who like wine should understand what lies behind the price of an expensive wine rather than mistakenly assume it’s just a marketing ploy. The producers at both events in the past week were keen to hear our feedback: what are they doing right, where can they improve.
Swiss wines may not be well known throughout the world – I think we can now stop saying they are Switzerland’s best-kept secret, a tired phrase – but where they are known, their reputation is good: they are able to sustain the larger Swiss reputation for reliably good quality. It doesn’t necessarily come easily or cheaply, however. Tsampéhro, for example, decided in 2017 to leave its sparkling wines to mature longer. You can now buy the 2014, but not the younger vintages because they are being left to mature an additional 12 months, for a total of 44 months.
Tsampéhro was started in 2008 by four investors, one a financier in Geneva and three involved in the wine business in Valais. Their goal was to produce unrelentingly fine wines with a three-pillared approach: excellence without economizing on work in the vines or the cellar; artisanal winemaking where craft and technology must remain finely balanced; an identity deeply rooted in the region and the ancient “clos” that gave its name to the project.
This patch of vines sits in the commune of Lens on the Crêtes de Vaas, 3 hectares which are together, with an average altitude of 660 m and steep slopes that shift from 35 to 55%. The view is simply beautiful, which may or may not have anything to do with the wine; surely the vineyard workers go about their tasks in a fine state of mind.
The south/southeast-facing vines benefit from a dry climate and drying warm foehn winds. The soil, mainly complex stony clay, doesn’t hold water well; the good drainage and microclimate help develop the grapes’ deep aromas. The clos is home to the oldest Cornalin vines (over 100 years old) in Valais, Christian Gellerstad, one of the partners, told us Monday.
When the project began the clos still had some Rèze vines, a rarity in Valais at the time, although this was once the most widely planted white grape here. Several producers are now saying it has a good future, and they are working to refine its use as a contributor to contemporary blends.
The winery’s approach is organic, with some efforts now in the direction of biodynamic.
Photos from the barrel room in 2013, a walk through the vineyard, 2015, and a comparative tasting of the first three vintages of the white blend in 2015:
10 grapes, 3 blends
From 2011 to 2013 the winery invested heavily in replanting part of its 3 hectares, to have 10 grapes for the three blends it was seeking to develop, a red, a white, a sparkling wine. They were planted with a relatively high density of 10,000 vines per hectare with the goal of small yields (400-600 g/m2 for the reds and 700-800 g/m2 for the whites.
The grapes: Petite Arvine, Savagnin Blanc, Chardonnay, Rèze, Completer for the whites. Pinot Noir, Cornalin, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc for the reds. Details on the plantings of these in Valais and in the Clos also provide aromatic descriptions for the grapes in this location.
Four years of asking about the future
The first vintage, 2011, was presented in 2013 to a much smaller group than this week’s. Wine professionals were interested, encouraging and skeptical all at once. This was a project, not a new line of wines by a large winery that could afford such a major investment. Given the nature of the wines, they were never going to be cheap. Could they really pull this off? The partners: Joel Briguet, owner, and Vincent Tenud, oenologist at Cave la Romaine in Flanthey, along with Emmanuel Charpin, commercial director and financial/strategy partner Christian Gellerstad, a Geneva banker. The winery was and remains housed in the Cave la Romaine winery at the bottom of the Flanthey road on the way to Granges. A magnificent barrel room was, from the start, a sign of the founders’ serious intentions.
The team is still together, minus Charpin, who a year ago became the associate director of Chateau de Villa in Sierre, and who sold his interest in the project to his partners. He remains an active supporter, however, and was at the tasting session Monday. Dayer is now responsible for the commercial side of Tsampéhro.
For more on the 2013 opening, here’s an article by Jacques Perrin of Cave SA on the opening of Tsampéhro in 2013 (in French). But of course the problem with a very new project and wines is that you can’t talk about the past very much. This year, five years on, the vintages are part of local history and the wines themselves have a past. These are wines designed to age, and we are now seeing what they can give us.
Corinne Clavien, the cantonal oenologist, gave us a rundown of recent vintages overall – weather, grapes and flowering and harvest times. She pointed to concerns about the latest disease to hit Swiss vineyards, which has just been found in Valais after sites were found in Vaud, flavescence dorée. It’s incurable, highly contagious and “extremely dangerous”, Clavien noted. It’s sometimes too easy as a consumer to simply taste the wines, forgetting about the risks and worries of the winemaker. In the case of a special project like Tsampéhro, where the investment is high and experimentation is part of creating the wines, the risk is even higher, and it’s good to be reminded of that.
Clos de Tsamphéhro Brut IV, 2014 harvest – I love the nose, very delicate and an extremely pleasing wine in mouth: this is a success. And I remember clearly that I was not keen on the Brut I tried in 2013. What has changed? More autolysis, a key element in sparkling wine complexity. Secondary aromas dominate – more brioche, less peach, and finer (very fine) bubbles. This is a Brut Nature, no dosage (so no sugar added) and I think it is now a great success. Very classy.
Blanc VI, 2016 harvest. Heida 62%, Rèze 38%. The nose seems too marked by its 24 months in oak, with too much vanilla – it reminds me of a California Chardonnay, which for me is a negative. The mouth surprises by what feels like a dominant Rèze presence with resin and dried fruits. The wine doesn’t feel balanced to me, or perhaps just not yet well integrated, and I will need to see what it is like in another couple of years. For now, I think it is too young. I also wonder, not for the first time, why everyone in this business seems to think Rèze has so much to offer, because I haven’t yet had one that really impressed me, in a single grape wine or a blend.
Completer, 2015 harvest (a fantastic year for many wines), the first time Tsampéhro has produced this and the tiny quantity that could be produced (750 m2 planted, 200 bottles) was quickly sold out. Please carry on with this one! It is not a wine for the faint-hearted. Rich, complex, big for a white wine. Bergamot and lemon aromas, pleasing but powerful acidity.
Now we have six reds ahead of us, the first six vintages of the red, from 2011 to 2016, labelled Editions I to VI. Technical sheets provide good detail and include the percentages of various grapes for each year.
2011 is a disappointment to me, a tired wine that I feel is dying. My neighbours also feel something is amiss, although in the end one of them likes it. I ask someone from further down my table and she agrees, it is dying. But then we ask a man from another table, very knowledgeable and whose judgement I trust and he says it was very good. So I think we simply had a bad bottle, which happens.
2012 makes me sit up: while some of the Electus wines from Provins reminded me of Bordeaux, this Clos de Tsampéhro brings to mind very good Burgundies – smooth, complex, rich fruit. Six years old and it is ready to drink, will continue to show more depth for some years, I feel sure.
2013 also pleases, a lighter wine with a nose that is a real charmer. In mouth it is smooth and balanced.
2014 lovely fruity nose with a mouth that is still young but powerful – I feel I could enjoy eating it. This was the year that the dreaded Drosophila suzukii suddenly arrived in Swiss vineyards but the Clos was protected by the very dry microclimate.
2015, the “miracle year” as Corinne Clavien calls it: this is a very fine wine, and Burgundy comes to mind again, but the fruit is all Valais and while I would be quite happy to drink this now, it needs time to reach its potential. Very dry and it almost overwhelms, but I think it is a wine of great promise.
2016, a big, big wine that is too young, not yet well integrated. 38% Merlot, 33% Cornalin, and this is another one I am keen to try in a couple of years. Give it time.
In summary, Tsampéhro is giving us some beautiful wines, now in various stages, but it’s clear that the project which was once promising is now giving us wines that fulfil that promise.