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Tim York

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WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Tim York » Thu Mar 22, 2007 12:19 pm

I do strongly urge wine-lovers, who also enjoy superb mountain scenery and perhaps skiing, rambling and mountaineering too, to visit Valais and investigate its original and varied high quality wines.

Valais’ Rhône valley between Martigny and Visp has a lot of advantages for the production of fine wine. In past millennia, the Rhône glacier carved out a quite narrow trench depositing rich mineral diversity in the process and creating a number of southerly exposed sites between 450 and 800 metres with steep valley slopes assuring good drainage for vines. Added to this for the creation of fine terroirs are exceptional sunshine, favourable winds, cool nights and low precipitation (too low in some seasons when careful irrigation is authorised). Forty-nine grape varieties are cultivated including high quality indigenous varieties, such as Cornalin and Humagne (red) and Petite Arvine and Amigne (white), and international varieties, such as Pinot Noir, Gamay and Syrah (red) and Chasselas (Fendant), Sylvaner (Johannisberg) and Chardonnay (white). There are also a number of conscientious quality orientated producers and a receptive high income home market.

There are two drawbacks; first, quantities produced by the best producers are so small that even local wine-bars and restaurants have difficulty in getting good allocations and, second, prices tend to be quite high due to high production costs on the steep slopes of the Rhône valley and to strong local demand; little worthwhile can be had locally for less than CHF 15 (about EUR 10). I suspect that hardly any of these wines find their way to the USA and even here in Belgium only a few are available and usually sourced from the larger and more boring négociants.

My enthusiastic report on a visit to Valais two years ago can be found in the archive and I can now confirm my high regard for the Petite Arvine as a top class white grape and add Amigne (white) and Cornalin (red) into that class. Additionally I tasted more fine Syrah, elegant and enjoyable Pinot Noir, a succulent Dôle (a Valaisan speciality Pinot/Gamay blend), robust fruity red Humagne (another local grape) and spicy honeyed white Païen (none other than the Jura’s Savagnin but tasting quite different here).

This year I was more successful in locating good wine retailers. The Château de Villa at Sierre offers for both on the spot consumption and take-away a very comprehensive range of wines from Valais’ villages and best producers. I would recommend stocking up on the range of wines from here at the beginning of a visit so as to home in later on what seems best; I tried to do this but was defeated by its opening hours in the afternoon of my first day (not before 4.30 pm when I needed to be up at Crans-Montana to take possession of our flat). I also found an excellent wine-bar/take-away in Crans-Montana, le Tirebouchon in Avenue de la Gare with a friendly and knowledgeable owner.

And now for the wines in the order in which I tried them –

PINOT NOIR 2002 – Clos Château Ravire – Michel Savioz, Veyras, Valais. Very nice with salmon-trout in a light elegant style. Sour and sweet cherry aromas, some structure and good length.

“HEIDA” PAÏEN du lieu-dit Les Bernunes 2004 (white) – Fernand et Conrad Caloz, Miège, Valais. Quite original flavours; round meaty, slightly honeyed aromas with a crisp spiciness and good mouth-fill in front and mid palate. A somewhat abrupt and bitter finish on the first day but two days later this was scarcely perceptible and the wine had become more expansive and had filled out. (Terroir talks; this is quite unlike the somewhat sour and sherry-like assertiveness of Jura Savagnin, reportedly the same grape.)

HUMAGNE Caprice des Temps 2005 (red) – Hugues Clavien et fils, Miège, Valais. Robust, tasty and somewhat rustic. Quite thick textured with a sweetish note. Soft on entry developing spice and liquorice hints with a softly bitter tannic finish.

SYRAH DE LORMEY 2004 – Cave de la Pierre – Jacques et Lucie Clavien, Venthôme, Valais. Full and robust with Syrah charm, good structure and suavity but I preferred the Humagne for its stronger personality.

AMIGNE de Vétroz 2004 (white) – Gilbert Devayes, Leytron, Valais. A real charmer ! Lovely, softly spicy, honeyed and white fruit aromas with round full mouth-fill, good depth and length and flesh seemingly trying to be sweet but perfectly balanced by gentle acidity.

HUMAGNE 2004 (red) – Domaine et Cave du Crêtacombe Chamoson . Light in colour and weight on the palate. Pleasant to drink but lacking the personality of the previous Humagne.

AMIGNE de Vétroz “Héritage” 2005 – Varone, Sion. This is an off-dry example. Fuller, more honeyed and more fleshy than the dry Amigne from Devayes but less lively and, for my taste, less perfectly balanced.


At this vinous juncture, we visited the grower, DENIS MERCIER, where we had already been two years ago. I loved and have already finished the crisply mineral yet quite generously meridional PETITE ARVINE 2002 which I had brought back two years ago; the PETITE ARVINE 2003 was fatter and flabbier but nevertheless very enjoyable and the CORNALIN 2002 is impressive and full of character but its tannins were still somewhat dry the last time I opened a bottle. This time, Denis Mercier warned me that his stocks were very low pending the bottling of the 2006 harvest and many lines are sold out. However, I was able to taste the following –

PETITE ARVINE 2005. Quite similar, I think, to the 2002 when I first tasted it. Delicious with crisp minerality and backbone with meridional generosity and hints of honey and spice. Denis Mercier limited me to 6 bottles.

CORNALIN 2004. Deep plum velvety aroma. Vigorous, savoury mouth-fill with ivy and complex dark fruit notes, good structure, marked but ripe tannins and good length. It was much more approachable and less austere than 2002 at the same stage and it should become a very fine bottle. Strong personality. I got 4 bottles. (I completed a case of 12 with 2 bottles of Dôle, which I did not taste then, but see below.)

SYRAH 2004. Very attractive. Sweeter, warmer and spicier than the Cornalin and classier than the Syrah de Lormey noted above but the Cornalin has a personality which makes it stand out. Sold out but Denis Mercier generously gave me a half-bottle as a bonus along with half-bottles of Païen and Pinot Noir (see below).


So back up the valley side to the flat and further bottles with food.

PAÏEN 2005 – Denis Mercier. Nice round spicy fruit but less character than Caloz above.

PINOT NOIR 2005 – Denis Mercier. Very good indeed with more depth of fruit and structure than the Savioz above but similar elegance and charm.

CORNALIN de Vétroz “Les Ruinettes” 2004 – Serge Roh. A lovely bottle. Right now more velvety than the Denis Mercier with lovely spicy fruit with good structure and length. I think that there has been new oak maturation here but it has been very deftly managed so as to keep any hints of vanilla in the background. A touch more “international” but the Cornalin character shines through strongly.

DÔLE 2005 – Denis Mercier. An exemplary bottle of exuberant young red wine. Fine Pinot fruit charmingly roughened yet complexified by Gamay and traces of one or two other undisclosed varieties. Good tangy structure. I wish that I could have taken more bottles. By far the best Dôle which I have ever drunk.

ARVINE de Fully “Les Perches” 2005 – Benoît Dorsaz, Fully, Valais. Another lovely Petite Arvine. Maybe a little softer and less mineral and meridional than that of Denis Mercier but perhaps with white fruit more prominent. I believe than Dorsaz makes a more ambitious cuvee of Arvine called “Quintessence” as well as excellent Syrah and Cornalin and he is definitely on my visiting list for a future stay in the area.
Last edited by Tim York on Sat Mar 02, 2013 8:33 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Dave Erickson » Thu Mar 22, 2007 7:45 pm

I am showing a green tint of envy. To the best of my knowledge, you really do have to go to Switzerland to try these wines. The only Swiss wine I've ever seen outside Switzerland was a Dole (pinot blanc?) that once miraculously showed up in FinnAir business class. Thanks for the notes, Tim. I hope I get to try these one day.
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Dan Donahue » Thu Mar 22, 2007 8:40 pm

I was under the impression that Dole was a Gamay-Pinot Noir blend only. The one that I tried was underwhelming, but I suspected a low-level visit from our TCA friend.

Tim, it is too bad that these varieties are so hard to find in the US, especially given your tempting notes.
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Sue Courtney » Thu Mar 22, 2007 10:36 pm

Thanks for the notes. Brings back some pleasing memories. Especially the Dole.
I fell in love with Dole when I spent a winter in Davos many moons ago. Then in 2003 my sisters bought me back a couple of bottles when they passed through Switzerland. One, in fact, was very very good. It was Chanteauvieux Dôle du Valais AOC 1999 and had a long skirted Stelvin screwcap. Reminded me somewhat of a lighter styled Central Otago (NZ) Pinot Noir.
I'd love to get back to Switzerland again one day.
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Dave Erickson » Thu Mar 22, 2007 11:45 pm

Dan Donahue wrote:I was under the impression that Dole was a Gamay-Pinot Noir blend only.


Entirely possible. It was long ago and far away.
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Bill Hooper » Fri Mar 23, 2007 12:34 am

Tim, Thank you very much for the notes. I too love the wines of Switzerland and only regret that they aren't available in the US. Keep drinking and posting.
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Dan Donahue » Fri Mar 23, 2007 12:56 am

Dave--my bottle of Dole was post-CellarTracker which certainly helps with my increasingly problematical short term memory, at least I recall that it was a red wine.
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Sue Courtney » Fri Mar 23, 2007 1:50 am

Dole can be either 100% Pinot noir or a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay, but Pinot Noir content must be at least 80% according to this Swiss Wine Guide. This is what I've always believed, even though most of what I've seen written seems to imply it is always a blend - and one particular article that says this has been replicated many times on the w-w-w.

Perhaps David from Switzerland can clarify.

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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Sue Courtney » Fri Mar 23, 2007 2:03 am

Tim,
How many of the wines you tasted had screwcaps? I've heard they are quite popular in Switzerland.
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Sue Courtney » Fri Mar 23, 2007 2:18 am

Here's something else I found about Dole - which maybe explains why I have this thing about Dole being allowed to be 100% Pinot Noir. It could also explain what the "undisclosed varieties" in the Denis Mercier Dole 2005 that Tim tasted, are.

"According to Valaisan law, the Dôle is a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay in which the Pinot predominates. It is also possible to add up to 15% of other reds such as the Cornalin, the Humagne Rouge or the Diolinoir. The Pinot Noir was previously called the Dôle - hence its indissoluble link with the first and most famous Valais’ blend. "
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Bill Hooper » Fri Mar 23, 2007 2:38 am

Dole can also be made as a Rose, called Dole Blanche (again using Pinot Noir and Gamay).
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Tim York » Fri Mar 23, 2007 5:16 am

Sue,

Re screwcaps -

None of the wines tasted were under screwcap but two, including the Arvine from Dorsaz, were under synthetic stoppers. As Arvine is supposed to have ageing potential, i think that this was a wrong choice.

The owner at the Tirebouchon wine-bar told be that the Swiss market was turning against screwcaps because it likes the "plop" as the cork comes out of the bottle. I find this reason hard to credit in a pragmatic albeit somewhat conservative nation.
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Andy » Fri Mar 23, 2007 6:38 am

Tim York wrote:...the Swiss market was turning against screwcaps because it likes the "plop" as the cork comes out of the bottle. I find this reason hard to credit in a pragmatic albeit somewhat conservative nation.

Sad but true. Even so stranger since quality wines from famous sites such as Dézalay or St. Saphorin have been bottled with screwcaps for a long time.
Still, in the view of the majority of the consumers here screwcaps are only used for cheap rubbish (cheap being relative :roll: ).

Quite a few Chasselas and Valais - Pinot Noir from the 80-ies have aged terrific under screwcaps and I doubt strongly that the same number of bottles would have shown as well with the corks regularly used (eg cheap to average quality).

RE Ageing potential of Petite Arvine: I have no doubt in this regard that the sweet examples age terrific. I am left a bit puzzled with the dry versions. Eventhough the well crafted ones from good sites can achieve impressive aromatic depth and densitiy with a nice acidic spine they seem to fall into a certain dullness with some years on their shoulders, similar to German Riesling in its closed phase. It would be interesting to see in which direction older examples develop, if they reemerge or just continue to fall apart.

Nice write up, btw.
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Victor de la Serna » Fri Mar 23, 2007 8:00 am

As Andy says, excellent report. Switzerland has the highest percentage of great wines that are perfectly unknown internationally of any country in the world. The Valais is of course its greatest wine region, but I'd encourage travelers who go there (indeed the Swiss drink most of all this themselves) to also try other top wines, including: chasselas whites from the greatest sites (with the most m ineral character and the best rfipening conditions) in Vaud, on lake Geneva (Dézaley, Calamin), particularly older vintages if they can find them; the unexpectedly fine 'spécialité' wines from Geneva; the outstanding pinots noirs produced in various areas like Graubünden/Grisons and Zürich.
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Tim York » Fri Mar 23, 2007 8:01 am

Re: Ageing potential of Petite Arvine

Interesting observation! My last bottles of dry 2002 Petite Arvine from Denis Mercier were not at all dull but they were hardly old. Indeed with no Petite Arvine have I felt that I am committing infanticide so I have not felt the need to age them as I do with serious white Burgundy (but beware of oxidisation), many riesling and chenin blanc (all of which are prone to go through dull periods after a year or two in bottle).

I would like to quizz Denis Mercier about Arvine's ageing profile as I am sure that I would get deeply informed and objective answer.
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Jenise » Fri Mar 23, 2007 1:27 pm

Great post, great thread. Thanks all.
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Tim York » Thu Mar 29, 2007 6:20 am

A postscript.

FENDANT 2005 Denis Mercier, Sierre, Valais

I have not drunk a Fendant (Chasselas) for years because of memories of it as an uninspiring cliché from high altitude ski-slope restaurants. So when my wife served cod with tomatoes and aubergine last night, I got out this Fendant from Denis Mercier in the hope that it would repeat the revelation which occurred with his superb Dôle (another wine often served in those high altitude restaurants).

Alas, it was not be.

Quite generous and mouthfilling but with a dark, burnished character and "tannic" slightly burning finish (seemingly excess alcohol but cannot be if the claimed 12,5% is correct). Short on minerality, acidity and bright fruit.

Probably the cod was not right for it and a Swiss fondue or raclette would have been much better.

Still, my prejudice about Fendant remains unchanged. I brought back another Fendant labelled "grand cru" and hope for something more to my taste.

(Another postscrit. Consulting the exemplary booklet "Valais du Vin" given to me at the Tirebouchon, I read that "le Fendant.....s'orne à Sierre d'une exquise amertume" - "at Sierre Fendant displays an exquisite bitterness", so it seems that the "tannic" and burning finish is true to the terroir.)
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Victor de la Serna » Thu Mar 29, 2007 3:34 pm

If it's a 'grand cru', it's got to be from the Dézaley or Calamin vineyards. You shouldn't fail to find the minerality in it...
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Re: WTN: More wines of character from Valais Switzerland

by Tim York » Thu Mar 29, 2007 4:03 pm

The label says-

"Fendant BALAVAUD
Appellation Vétroz Grand Cru Contrôlée
Jean-René Germanier"

and the back label promises -

"Bouquet subtil, floral et pierre à fusil, ce Fendant ample, friand et structuré ......."

I am looking forward to trying it!
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