A glass of wine is of course much more than its contents. It’s a place, its geography and geology, its history, its people. When you visit a small winery, you have a chance to hear about this.
Last weekend I went to Colline de Daval in Sierre to learn a bit about distilling, of which I am woefully ignorant. I decided to do something about it because my preferred strong alcohol drink is Armagnac, preferably well aged. I’ve been to the French region, done the tours, and I’d still be hard pressed to explain how it’s made. I thought a small winery that was marking Swiss Distillers Day by putting its alambic to work and showing it to guests might do the trick.
This is a great example of a thriving small family winery (about 5 hectares), Colline de Daval is a member of the Charte de qualité St Théodule, one of the vignerons-encaveurs that just celebrated 50 years of their charter.
Monique and Bertrand Caloz run a complex operation, with vineyards in two villages, Sierre and Chamoson, orchards, and a 5-bedroom guest house in the small castle on the hill. They make wine, distill various eaux de vie, are well known in the region for their fruits and vegetables. I rushed to buy my apricots for making jam as soon as I heard they were in the shop last July. I bought some raspberry eaux-de-vie that I’ve been using mainly to drizzle over desserts; while there Saturday someone mentioned that it’s good in kirs (a French drink whose classic version calls for black currant/crème de cassis liqueur and Aligoté white wine). I went home and made one with Petite Arvine from a neighbouring winery, Cave de la Pierre in Venthône. A gem.
And when the Daval white asparagus arrives in the shop you have to be there early or you’ll find it is sold out.
Where better to learn about distilling? It’s not very complicated, at a basic level. Fermented fruit juice is put in the alambic, which has three levels, and as it heats up the alcohol vapours rise through the three floors, a process you can watch through the windows of the alambic. Check out what looks like sparks flying – that’s actually the vapours. The underlying principle is to separate the alcohol and water, using their different boiling points. Alcohol boils at 78.4C and water at 100C, so “alcoholic vapours are first to get out of the heated solution. Cooling those vapours creates a solution more concentrated in alcohol than the first one.”
The cooled, separated product is our eaux de vie, with adjustments for more or less fruit flavour.
Wines and the history of a hill
My distilling lesson was followed by a mini-wine tasting because I wanted to try their Great Gold medal winner from the Mondial des Pinots, a lightly oaked 2016 Pinot Noir from old vines, CHF24. I was not keen on the traditional version of the Pinot Noir, which I tried first, but the medal winner is a very fine wine, with a nose of small woodland fruits; in mouth it is fresh with good depth and a silky elegance provided by the (not new) oak. I also very much like Davalrone, their top-end wine, CHF32, similar to an Amarone. It’s a big wine that will go with roasts and game, a blend of red grapes from the Sierre Colline. The Syrah is from vines in Chamoson, an easy to drink wine that at CHF20 is good value for money.
Bertrand Caloz joined me for a walk through the vines so he could show me the old vines – 45 years old – for the winning Pinot Noir. I was puzzled by small and sometimes not so small bunches of grapes still on the vines. It was a surprise to learn these are second generation grapes, the ones that flower late, in July, and that rarely ripen. When harvesting, wineries leave them on the vine because they are not ripe enough for wine. The long dry warm summer and autumn has unusually allowed these to become sweet, sweet grapes. The birds will be happy.
I sampled some Merlot and Chasselas, and even the seeds, when crunched, were sweet. The Caloz family had just harvested the last of their grapes, the ones that give a slightly raisined aspect to Davalrone.
He pointed to the hillside where Sierre’s famous geological event took place, a landslide that took place some 10,000 years ago when the Rhone glacier receded. The enormous chunks of mountain that rolled down created the hills we see today, scattered along the river. The Daval hill is one of these, two more are nearby in Granges, where Robert Taramarcaz’s Domaine des Muses has vines, and another in Sierre is home to the Rouvinez winery. Colline de Daval’s soil is, as a result, completely different from that on the facing slopes of the Rhone. The base here is rock rather than moraine or alluvial runoff – the reason these hills have not eroded despite the fast-moving river. And unlike the mountain slopes here, with underground streams fed by glaciers, this hillside has no water source.
The Rhone? I ask naively, not knowing much about the kind of water that vines need. No, Bertrand explains, river water is too dirty – underground sources are clean because they are filtered by rocks and stones and sand. The winery today accesses water from a source close by, on the valley floor. The winery’s castle is now a guest house but it was built after the second world war to store water for irrigation.
Today the vines are equipped with irrigation pipes that double to spray the vines in case of untimely frosts.
The sun sets over the vines whose last golden leaves of autumn shimmer for a moment before a November chill moves in and we all head home. When I open the Pinot Noir to have with a roast Saturday night, I’ll remember these vines, now going to sleep for the winter.