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If you think of Tuscany and its wines, it is the famous names that immediately come to mind: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Bolgheri. But Tuscany is so much more than those. There are all manner of lesser-known wines off the beaten track.
I recently spent a couple of days in the Orcia valley, an area sandwiched between the vineyards of Montalcino and Montepulciano, with a river that rises at Monte Cetona and flows into the Ombrone. The Orcia DOC was recognized in 2000, and in 2004 the whole valley was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As for most of the red wines of Tuscany, Sangiovese is the dominant variety, often blended with the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. There are now about 40 wine estates in the 13 villages of the Orcia valley, with an impressive level of quality and just waiting to be discovered. Here are five that are well worth the detour.
Fattoria del Colle
This is the property of Donatella Cinelli and Carlo Gardini. Donatella’s family has long been part of the wine scene of Montalcino, with her brother now running Fattoria dei Barbi, but Fattoria del Colle is where Donatella makes her mark outside Montalcino. She has about 81 acres of vines near the village of Trequanda and makes three red wines, not to mention Vin Santo, which is an essential part of every classic Tuscan estate.
Leone Rosso is Sangiovese with 40 percent Merlot, making for riper, fleshier flavors. Cenerentola, or Cinderella, is Sangiovese with 35 percent Foglia Tonda, an old Tuscan grape variety that almost disappeared. Donatella has played a large part in its successful revival. And then there is Il Drago e le Otto Colombe, a blend of Sangiovese with some Merlot, as well as 20 percent of an Umbrian grape variety, Sagrantino. The name of the wine refers to the fact that the estate is run by women, the doves, with just one man, or dragon, Donatella’s husband, Carlo. It makes an amusing aside. But Donatella has a serious focus; a fellow winegrower described her as the anima, or driving force, of the Val d’Orcia.
This is a relatively new estate, in Tuscan terms, for it was created in 1997 by Pasquale Forte, a businessman from Calabria. From one small purchase in 1997, he has developed a 416-acre estate, including 25 acres of vines (in addition, there are olive trees, extensive woodlands and land for rearing animals).
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Sangiovese is the core variety, with some Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. They aim for self-sufficiency and even have a restaurant, the very stylish Osteria Perillà, in the nearby village of Castiglione d’Orcia, where you can enjoy the produce of the estate. They are moving toward biodynamic principles and paying enormous attention to the condition of the soil, with advice from the leading expert in the field, Claude Bourguignon.
A drive around the vineyards offered breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia, with the autumn sunshine reflecting on golden vines. The cellar can only be described as state-of-the-art, with several sorting tables, vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels.
They make three wines. Petruccino, a blend of 70 percent Sangiovese and 30 percent Merlot with 14 months’ oak aging, has a ripe fleshiness from the Merlot, balanced with freshness from the Sangiovese. More serious is Petrucci, a pure Sangiovese, described as their flagship wine, with aging in new oak. The third wine of the range is single-vineyard Guardiavigna, from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The 2010 was drinking particularly well, with elegance and balance.
This estate was developed by Giuseppe Olivi, who produces an eclectic range of wines from an equally eclectic selection of grape varieties, namely Sangiovese, the key Bordeaux varieties, Syrah, and Pugnitello, another Tuscan variety that has been revived in recent years. His flagship wine is I Puri, a varietal wine that changes from year to year, depending on which grape variety is the absolute best in that particular vintage. In 2009 it was Merlot and in 2010 Sangiovese, with a fine expression of the variety. Unusually for the Orcia valley, they also have some white varieties, Verdicchio, Viognier and Sauvignon, making a fragrant white wine with some stony minerality.
This is an enchanting spot, with views of Monte Amiata and the small town of Pienza. The almost abandoned property was bought in 1999 by Ada Becheri and Alberto Turri, and they began planting vines in 2002. Until 2008, they merely sold their grapes and did some experimental microvinifications. The following year, they built a neat compact cellar and now they make a convincing range of wines that amply illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley, with Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in varying proportions. Oak aging is essential to them all.
Citto, from all four varieties, is elegant and cedary; Ciriè is Sangiovese and Merlot, with some fleshy fruit; Tribòlo is a pure Sangiovese, and a riserva, which requires 24 months of aging. In fact, it has spent 30 months in small barrels, with some lovely elegant sour cherry fruit and just the right amount of oak. And finally there is Albiano, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with just a touch of Petit Verdot. This is riper and immediately more international in flavor, while still retaining the benchmark elegance of Podere Abiello.
Marco’s first vintage was 2001. He has developed the vineyards of an old family estate to make two wines: Capitoni, which is a blend of 80 percent Sangiovese with some Merlot, and Frasi, which comes from a 3.2-acre vineyard planted in1973 that is mainly Sangiovese, with Canaiolo and Colorino. The three varieties are all mixed up in the vineyard and consequently fermented together, then aged in large wood for two years. A vertical tasting of Le Frasi from 2010 to 2005 illustrated the vintage variations. But the first things you see in Marco’s cellar are two large amphorae, for he is experimenting with Sangiovese in amphora.
The flavors are fresh and perfumed, with elegant red fruit and potential, rather like Val d’Orcia, which is a sleeping giant waiting to be discovered.
Main photo: Podere Forte’s vineyards offer breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia
The extraordinary diversity of France never ceases to amaze me. Each region, even the most established, offers a note of originality, but the farther you go off the beaten path, the greater the surprises.
Roussillon, in the deep south, nestling at the foot of the Pyrenees, is quite distinct from the rest of France, for it is part of Catalonia and has more in common with Barcelona, with the Pyrenees unifying Spanish and French Catalonia. This is the region that developed the fabulous vins doux naturels, the fortified wines made from Grenache and aged for years in old barrels. Think port, fine ruby and old tawny, but with a French touch. However, these days table wines, which they call vins secs, are more important. The red wines from appellations such as Côtes du Roussillon Villages, Collioure and Maury are based on Grenache Noir, with Carignan, Syrah and Mourvèdre, and offer rich spicy flavors.
And the real surprise of my last visit to Roussillon was the stunning quality of the white wines, from Grenache Blanc and even better Grenache Gris, as well as Roussanne, Marsanne Vermentino and other local varieties. And Roussillon is well worth a visit, not only for the quality of its wines, but also for the breathtaking scenery, with wild hillsides inland and steep terraced vineyards close to the coast.
What follows are five of my favorite wine growers, but I could easily have chosen yet another five.
The Cazes family has been making wine in Rivesaltes for several generations. While now part of the large group Advini, Cazes is still independently run. They have extensive vineyards in Collioure, an estate called les Clos de Paulilles, as well in Rivesaltes and a smaller plot in Maury.
In the 1980s, they were pioneers of table wine in Roussillon, planting Cabernet Sauvignon as well as the more conventional grape varieties of the south. Their vineyards are organic and they concentrate on southern grape varieties, producing a range of table wines and a delicious selection of vin doux. The star of these is undoubtedly their Cuvée Aimé Cazes (Aimé Cazes did much to develop the family estate and he died in 2000, a few days short of his 100th birthday). The wine is a blend of 80 percent Grenache Blanc and 20 percent Grenache Noir, which has been aged in old foudres for 22 years. Grenache Blanc turns amber in color after 22 years in wood, and the evaporation is such that 26 gallons reduce to about 8 gallons. This is fabulous, with an elegantly dry walnut nose, and long-lingering nutty flavors on the palate. As Bernard Cazes, Aimé’s son, observed: “It’s the wine to drink by the fireside, with your favorite music and a purring cat.”
I first visited this estate in the mid-1980s when Fernand Vaquer was the winemaker. He is now 85 and these days it is his daughter-in-law, Frédérique, who runs the estate. She comes from Burgundy, where she met her husband, Bernard, at wine school, and then went on to make her first wines in Roussillon in 1991. Very sadly, Bernard died soon afterward, but the reputation of Domaine Vaquer is brilliantly maintained by Frédérique.
She makes an elegant range of wines, with a delicate feminine touch. Esquisse Blanc is a blend of Roussanne and Macabeo with some Grenache Blanc, with some lovely texture and white blossom on the palate, and a defining freshness. The classic Côtes du Roussillon is a blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah. Best of all is Expression, a pure Carignan, and a vin de pays, Côtes Catalanes. Frédérique is lucky enough to have eight and a half acres of Carignan, planted in 1936. The palate is beautifully nuanced with red fruit, elegant tannins and wonderful freshness on the finish, making an excellent example of this often decried grape variety.
This is another estate that I first visited in the 1980s, when it was owned by Charles Dupuy. At the time, he was almost the only independent wine grower of the village of Maury. Now, there is a village cooperative and 30 other wine estates.
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These days, Mas Amiel is the property of Oliver Ducelle, who has invested hugely in his estate; you will see one of the best-equipped cellars of the entire region, run by a talented winemaker, Nicolas Raffy. They still have the enormous old foudres for aging the fortified vin doux, but there are also amphora, concrete eggs and barrels of different shapes and sizes. Maury Sec is a new appellation; the village was dominated by vin doux, but Mas Amiel’s Vers le Nord is a lovely example of the new appellation. The blend is mainly Grenache Noir with a splash of Syrah and the wine is redolent of ripe red fruit with elegance and spice on the finish.
Even more memorable is their 40-year-old Maury, a pure Grenache that spent one year outside in large glass jars, subject to all the climatic vagaries of the changing seasons, and then another 39 years in large oak casks. It has the most extraordinary length with long nutty fruit.
Domaine la Rectorie
The Parcé family have long been wine growers in Collioure and Banyuls. There are two strands to the family, with Domaine du Mas Blanc and Domaine de la Rectorie. They both make wonderful vins doux, but for me Domaine de la Rectorie has the edge with its white wine, Cuvée Argile. But first, you have to admire the vineyards — they are on steep hillsides lined with little walls, or murets, making small terraces, with fabulous views over the Mediterranean. There are apparently more than 3,700 miles of murets in the area. Cuvée Argile comes from a plot where the soil is mainly clay (argile in French), planted with Grenache Gris and just a little Grenache Blanc.
For the Parcé family, the character and quality of white Collioure depends upon Grenache Gris; they call it the pillar of the appellation. Some of the vines are centenarian; others are a mere 50 to 80 years old. Both grape varieties are fermented together in old oak barrels; the oak is very discreet but gives the wine some structure with some firm minerality and saline notes from the proximity of the vineyard to the sea. The white appellation of Collioure is relatively recent and Cuvée Argile show just why it should be an appellation.
Roc des Anges
This is one of the newer estates of Roussillon, created by Marjorie and Stéphane Gallet, who met while studying oenology at Montpellier. Stéphane then went to work for Mas Amiel, so it was logical to look for vineyards close by. Marjorie comes from the northern Rhone, but land in Côte Rôtie would have been much more expensive.
Besides, everything is possible here in Roussillon, without the constraints of a more established appellation. Altogether, they have about 100 different plots in just 86 acres and since 2011 a smart streamed-lined cellar with an underground barrel hall. They make a range of different table wines, classic Côtes du Roussillon Villages, a pure Carignan Côtes Catalanes and a delicious white wine, Llum, from old vines of Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc and Macabeo. And then there is Maury, both dry and sweet.
The hallmark of their wines is indisputably elegance, and I find difficult to chose a favorite, but if pressed I will opt for Carignan 1903, so called for that was the year the vines were planted. It is a lovely combination of richness and power, but not at all heavy, with a fresh finish and a firm streak of minerality; in short, it illustrates the classic flavors of Roussillon at their finest.
Main photo: Roussillon is well worth a visit, not only for the quality of its wines, but also for the breathtaking scenery. Credit: Courtesy of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon
It is extraordinary to consider that about 20 years ago Priorat was an unknown name in the roll call of Spanish wine regions. Today, much has changed. Priorat is now one of just two regions with a designated DOCa classification, a step up from plain DO, the other being Rioja.
A band of friends
It began in the late 1970s, when René Barbier bought land outside the village of Gratallops, the estate that was to become world famous as Clos Mogador. The first wine was made in 1989 and Barbier was joined by what he calls a band of copains, friends who had worked or studied together and went on to develop their own estates, such as Alvaro Palacios from Rioja. However, Priorat has always been a wine area, with vineyards run by the priory of Scala Dei, the ruins of which nestle at the foot of the dramatic cliffs of Montsant. In 1835, the Spanish government confiscated all church property, and then the region suffered badly from the phylloxera (the aphid that was imported into Europe on American vines and ultimately destroyed most of the vineyards of Europe, until the remedy of grafting European vines onto American rootstock was discovered). The aphid blight resulted in a drop in the vineyard land from 10,000 hectares (nearly 25,000 acres) of vines to barely 2,000 hectares (almost 5,000 acres) today.
The landscape is dramatic and viticulture is tough. You look at steep slopes and narrow terraces and realize how the lure of urban life in nearby Barcelona or Tarragona was irresistible for many of the farmers who had been scraping a living from their vines. But today there is a new appreciation of the quality of Priorat, based on wonderful old vines, Grenache Noir and Carignan, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. For white wine, there is Grenache Blanc, Macabeo and Pedro Ximenez, and more recent introductions, such as Chenin Blanc and Viognier.
A special soil among the slopes
So what accounts for the typicity of Priorat? There is no doubt the wines convey a strong sense of place. The intensity of the flavors conjures up the steep hillsides, with alarming gradients — a vineyard tour is an exhilarating experience, and certainly not for the faint-hearted without a head for heights. The vineyards follow the contours of the land, so the aspect changes and the altitude varies considerably. Then there is the soil, the characteristic llicorella, which is a type of schist, some 300 million years old. It is this schist that separates Priorat from adjoining DOs such as Montsant and Terra Alta and gives freshness to the wines, balancing the sometime heady alcohol levels that result from the warm summers.
Barbier set the pace at Clos Mogador and others have followed. At the end of the 1980s there were six wineries; today, there are 104, such has been the breathtaking rate of growth. However, the vineyard area has not grown significantly. Vineyards have changed hands and where once grapes were delivered to the village cooperative they are now vinified by new owners, or by people taking a new look at their land.
From experiment to winery
David Marco from Marco Abella in the village of Porrera is one such example. His family have had vineyards in the area for centuries. He had worked as an engineer in telecommunications and his wife was a lawyer, and they had increased the family vineyard holdings with the idea of simply selling the grapes. However, in 2004 they decided to make some wine as an experiment, and they were so pleased with it that they took the dramatic decision to give up their jobs and build a winery. I was lucky enough to taste that first wine and delicious it was too, fully justifying the career change.
Marco now makes three at least reds, Loidana from younger vines, from equal parts of Grenache and Carignan with 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, with elegant red fruit, well-integrated oak and a fresh finish. He explained that the influence of the Mediterranean is important, giving a good difference between day and nighttime temperatures. Mas Mallola comes from old Grenache Noir and Carignan, as well as a little Cabernet Sauvignon, from a particularly dramatic vineyard with a 200-meter difference in altitude between the top and the bottom. In the best years, he also makes separate cuvées of Grenache Noir and Carignan from the same vineyard. And then there is Clos Abella, which is predominantly Carignan, with sturdy fresh fruit. Carignan has often been decried, but tasting Priorat certainly prompts a drastic reconsideration of the quality and potential of this grape variety. White Olbia is a blend of Viognier and Grenache Blanc, with a little Pedro Ximenez and Macabeo, with some rounded textured fruit on the palate and well integrated oak.
A $4 taste led to a vineyard
Christopher Cannan is an Englishman who discovered Priorat in the early 1980s in San Francisco, where he happened to drink a bottle from Scala Dei that cost just $4, and it was delicious. He has long been a friend of René Barbier, and when Barbier told him in 1997 that there was a vineyard going for a song, 10 hectares (about 25 acres) for £30,000 (about $46,500), Cannan succumbed to the temptation. He made his first wine at Clos Figueras in 2000. He now owns 18 hectares of land, 12 of vines, with olive trees as well, and rents an additional four or five hectares, to make a range of finely crafted wines.
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The white wine, Font de la Figuera was an accident. They had ordered Cabernet Sauvignon vines and did not realize that they had been sent Viognier until the vines were well established. It seemed a pity to pull them up. Blended with some Chenin and Grenache Blanc, the wine has delicate peachy fruit. Serras del Priorat, from 60% Grenache, 20% Carignan, with some Syrah and a little Cabernet Sauvignon, has ripe fresh fruit, with a little oak. Font de la Figuera also comes from the same four grape varieties. The Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for less than 5% of the blend, but it gives backbone and structure, and the wine is dense and rich, but always with a fresh finish, even if the alcohol level is nudging 14.5%, even 15%.
The flagship wine Clos Figueras comes from 60-year-old Grenache Noir and even older Carignan — records were lost in the Civil War — with a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon, fermented and aged in barriques. It was ripe but elegant. And our tasting finished with Cannan’s first wine, 2000 Font de le Figuera, enjoyed over lunch in the welcoming winery restaurant on the edge of the village of Gratallops. It was deliciously mature, and as Cannan put it, “still at cruising altitude,” with some leathery maturity, a touch of minerality and a fresh finish, illustrating convincingly that Priorat amply deserves its newfound reputation.
Main photo: Once unknown among Spanish wines, Priorat is enjoying a newfound appreciation today. Credit: Courtesy of Clos Figueras SA
Faugères is one of the smaller appellations of the Languedoc, and yet it punches above its weight for the diversity of the origins of its wine growers and the quality of their wines. Among the 50 or so growers you will find people from Australia, Ireland, England, Catalonia, Canada, Belgium and Switzerland, not to mention other parts of France, such as Normandy, Champagne, Bordeaux and Alsace.
For the 2014 vintages, there were four new wine estates. Only one of the newcomers is from outside the region, but all four have taken quite different paths to reach Faugères and all bring individuality to their wine making. So far they have only made one vintage in Faugères, but the first tastings bode well for the future. It may be too early to know much about their wines, but their passion and energy — and some early tastings — hint at good things ahead.
Nicolas Maury: Branching off from the cooperative
Let’s take Nicolas Maury. His father, Philippe, is president of the cooperative of Faugères, as was his grandfather, but Nicolas felt that it would be more rewarding to make his own wine. His father agreed to rent him 4.5 hectares that could easily be released from the cooperative contract. I jokingly suggested that they might be the family’s best vineyards, but Nicolas shrewdly observed that as all their grapes went into the cooperative vats and were blended with other growers’ grapes, they actually had no accurate idea of the taste of the wine from their own vineyards.
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Jérôme Vialla: An adopted heir
Jérôme Vialla is a winegrower’s son, but without any family vineyards. His grandparents had vines on the coastal plain, but they were sold to divide the proceeds among their heirs, and his father now runs Domaine Valensac in nearly Florensac. Jérôme has worked for another coastal estate, Domaine de Pommière, which he described as a factory. He wanted to find more interesting vineyards up in the hills away from the plain. Chance took him to the Faugères village of Fos, where he met his neighbor, an elderly wine grower, who was retiring with no children to follow, so Vialla stepped in and now has 20 hectares planted with the usual five grape varieties of Faugères, namely Carignan, Cinsaut, Grenache Noir, Syrah and Mourvèdre.
When I met Vialla in May 2014, his cellar consisted of several holes in the ground, but as yet no bricks and mortar. He achieved a miracle in completing the cellar just in time for the harvest. In 2014 he made five wines: a fresh, herbal white from Carignan Blanc, a crisp rosé and three qualities of red wine. Two are kept in vat, one with lightly spicy fruit, and the second more substantial; the third wine, a blend of Syrah and Grenache Noir, is aged in barrel, making for some red fruit and a tannic streak. The name of Vialla’s estate, Domaine Epidaure, relates to his wife’s career as a pharmacist, as the city of Epidaurus was an important center of ancient Greek medicine.
Sébastien Louge: A Languedoc outsider
Sébastien Louge does not come from the Languedoc, but from Tarbes in the Hautes-Pyrénées. He studied in Toulouse and Bordeaux and has had a varied career as a winemaker, including a year at Cross Keys in Virginia, as well as working in Madiran and Châteauneuf-du-Pape before coming to the Languedoc, to Domaine de la Grange in Gabian, a village that adjoins the appellation of Faugères. But he wanted to do his own thing, and like Jérôme Vialla, met an elderly winegrower who was looking for somebody to take over his vines. Louge now has 10 hectares and in 2014 made four wines under the label of Domaine de l’Arbussèle.
There is a rosé, but no white, and three reds. Envol Rouge is the entry level, with easy fruit; Authentique comes mainly from old Carignan, and the name is a reference to the fact that Carignan was the original variety of Faugères. The wine is quite firm and structured, balanced with some spicy fruit. The oak-aged cuvée, Revelation, is based on old Grenache Noir, with a streak of tannin balanced by ripe liqueur cherry fruit.
Olivier Gil: Love and wine making
Olivier Gil has local roots — not in Faugères, but in the nearby village of Tourbes. His father is a member of the cooperative there, producing mainly white grapes for vin de pays. Oliver, however, wanted to make red wine and an appellation, so he looked for vines in Faugères and bought a tiny cellar in the center of the village. He learned his wine making at Montpellier, where he met and fell in love with his partner, Adèle Arnaud, who was also studying wine making. (She comes from the Gers in southwest France and has no other history with wine.) They traveled in South America and worked in Collioure before settling in Faugères. I met them the day before they bottled their first wines, under the label Mas Lou.
The names of their various cuvées all recall their South American experience, with Selva, the rosé, for the Amazonian forest. Angaco, the first red, is where they stayed and worked; Aksou refers to special Bolivian weaving; and Tio, for the oak-aged wine, is the god of the potassium mines. Olivier said that he looked for elegance and concentration in his wines, and for supple tannins, and that is certainly what he has achieved with his first vintage.
Main photo: The wines of Domaine Epidaure. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George
On my recent visit to Chablis, France, I asked to see new producers and was slightly taken aback to find the name Michel Laroche at the top of the list. Laroche has been making wine, and then running a thriving business, ever since his very first harvest back in the terrible vintage of 1963. Over the years he has been at the forefront of innovation in Chablis, with horizons stretching far beyond the narrow valley of the river Serein. And now he has reinvented himself as a true vigneron, cultivating the grapes for the wine that he makes.
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In the 1970s and 1980s, when expansion of the Chablis vineyards was at its height, Laroche was responsible for the development of a large négociant business, buying the grapes or juice for wine, and the growth of the family estate to some 100 hectares (about 247 acres). Not content with Chablis, he developed a wine estate in the Languedoc, Mas la Chevalière, outside Béziers for vins de pays (country wine), because he wanted to try his hand at red wine. In 2005, he bought a wine estate in South Africa, l’Avenir; there was also a venture in Chile. He was a fervent promoter of screw caps at a time when the French market deemed them an anathema. And making use of his wife Gwénaël’s talent for interior design, he opened an elegant hotel and wine bar in Chablis itself. Then in 2010, he sold out to Advini, a company run by the Languedoc family, Jeanjean, which incorporates several wine estates in the key vineyard areas of France.
Laroche can always be relied upon for a perceptive overview of the Chablis market. A former manager of the town’s main bank described him as un grand homme du marketing (a great marketeer) — and she should know, as she doubtless saw the business plans of most of the vignerons of the appellation. After the fusion with Advini, Laroche stayed on for a two-year transition period, consulting on marketing, but now has returned to his roots and become a vigneron, based on his father’s original vines. Appropriately, Laroche’s new venture is called Le Domaine d’Henri after his father, and the label features a charming photograph of his parents enjoying a harvest meal in their vineyard. Laroche has four children, and his two daughters, Céline and Margaux, work with him. Although his sons have taken different career paths, Laroche insists that it is a family business for them all.
The core of the estate is 14 hectares (34.6 acres) of vineyards that belonged to his father and he has bought 8 more hectares (19.8 acres). They are mostly on the right bank of the Serein and include several plots of Fourchaume. There is a new cellar on the outskirts of the town. The vineyards are run organically, but the label does not say so because Laroche wishes to reserve the right to use a conventional spray if the climate demands it, as it did in 2013. His winemaker is Thibaud Baudin, who has worked in the Côte d’Or and in New Zealand, and then most recently for Advini at Domaine Laroche.
However, these days Laroche is very much involved with wine making and vineyard work in a way that the scale of Domaine Laroche had not allowed him for several years – and he is in his element. You can sense his enjoyment at serving wines in which he has played a vital role. As he put it, “le jeu, the game, is to produce quality. It is like a new profession, with a new perspective.” And these days he can spend as much time as he likes in his vineyards, so that he feels so much closer to the product. “I’ve returned to its source.”
As well as simple Chablis from vineyards in the hills above the village of Maligny, Laroche has created a range of three premier crus from the prestigious Fourchaume region. Here you sense his marketing expertise. The first small vintage of Domaine d’Henri was in 2012, and I was lucky enough to be able to taste the wines.
The basic Fourchaume, if a premier cru can be basic, is a blend of several plots. Just 11% of it is fermented and aged in wood, and then blended with the vat-aged wine in the June following the harvest. The year 2012 was a fine vintage in Chablis, so no chaptalization was necessary, and the wine is firm and has great minerality. The Cuvée Vieilles Vignes comes from older wines that were planted in 1970. Here the percentage of oak aging is 21% and the taste is firmer and steelier, with a taut finish. And the third Fourchaume, Cuvée Heritage, comes from vines that were planted in 1937, from a vineyard that Henri bought rather than planted himself. There is just one new barrel out of five, with 37% of the cuvée fermented and aged in oak. The higher percentage of oak makes for a more oxidative style, with more structure and richer flavors. In 2012 they made just 4,000 bottles of Cuvée Heritage, including some magnums and jeroboams.
When I asked Laroche what he considered to be the biggest change in Chablis over the years, he replied without hesitation, “The very positive development of the awareness that we are an appellation with a great potential.”
Back in 1963, most people considered themselves farmers, merely scraping a living from their vines with the aim of quantity, not quality. These days it is the quality of Chablis that provides the excitement, and that is Laroche’s aim as a new vigneron.
Main photo: Wines from Le Domaine d’Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d’Henri
There is one big problem with Swiss wines: There is not enough to go around. There are just 15,000 hectares (about 37,000 acres) of vineyards spread over the whole country, and the Swiss drink most of their wines themselves, so that barely 1 percent of the country’s entire production reaches the export market. This means that the only way to really enjoy Swiss wine is to go there — but that is no hardship, as it is a breathtakingly beautiful country.
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The train ride from Geneva airport to Montreux sets the scene. The track follows the edge of Lake Geneva, and on the other side there are steep terraced vineyards, tiny plots with stone walls that form the myriad appellations of the Vaud (one of the Swiss cantons, or states). The whole area is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From Montreux, I ventured into the German-speaking part of Switzerland, with vineyards scattered all over the northeastern part of the country. They account for just 17 percent of the entire production of Switzerland. Visiting a small handful of wine growers, various themes become apparent. Not only is production tiny — the average wine grower can easily earn a living from 4 or 5 hectares (10 to 12 acres) — but it is also fragmented. Martin Donatsch, in the area of the Graubünden Herrschaft, is not unusual in making 14 different wines from 6 hectares (15 acres). While it is true that some of the wines are variations of the same grape variety, nonetheless the attention to detail is breathtaking.
Donatsch’s neighbor, Georg Fromm, in the village of Malans, follows the Burgundian pattern, making a village Pinot Noir that is a blend of grapes from different vineyards as well as four Pinot Noirs that draw from four distinct vineyards. And he has only 4.5 hectares. The differences were subtle but apparent, as there are slight variations in the soil as well as the vinification. (Fromm is also known for superlative Pinot Noir in New Zealand.)
Donatsch, whose father was the first to plant Chardonnay in the area and the first to age his Pinot Noir in barrels — he was given two Burgundian barrels by André Noblet of Domaine de la Romanée Conti — also follows the Burgundian pattern with the equivalent of a village, premier cru and grand cru wine. These indicate, in rising order, the quality of the terroir and thus the potential of the wine. In Donatsch’s case, the wines are called Tradition, Passion and Unique. Their style was understated, delicious and age-worthy.
With such tiny amounts, production costs are high — we were given a figure of 30,000 Swiss francs (about U.S. $31,000) per hectare, which could rise to as much as 50,000 francs (about $52,000) in particularly challenging hillside conditions, and so inevitably prices are high, but no higher than for a grand cru Burgundy. Donatsch’s wines range from about U.S. $21 for a bottle of Tradition to $57 for the Unique.
Although all the wine growers that we met grew a diverse range of local and international grapes, most agreed that Pinot Noir is the most successful grape variety of the region. For my taste buds, it really came into its own in the Graubünden Herrschaft, the four villages of which Malans in the center, where the warm prevailing wind, the föhn, helps ripen the grapes. The soil is mainly limestone, like Burgundy, and the grapes enjoy the large difference between day and nighttime temperatures, which makes for slower ripening and fresher flavors.
Local varietals at risk
In addition to the more international varieties, Switzerland is also home to a number of endangered varieties, which could be at risk of disappearing. Erich Meier at Uetikon, near Lake Zurich, is a keen exponent of Rauschling. There are 9 hectares (22 acres) of Rauschling in the area, 23 hectares (57 acres) altogether in the whole of Switzerland; Erich has just 40 ares (1 acre). He ferments half the grapes in oak and half in tank to make a rounded, fruity white wine with well-integrated oak and a lightly salty finish with good acidity.
Completer was another grape variety that I had never heard of, let alone tasted. This might be explained by the fact that 10 producers have just 3 hectares of it. Happily, the Donatsch family is planning to extend its vineyards of Completer so that its future can be more assured. Martin Donatsch explained how it has a very high acidity and that in the past it used to be aged for several years in wood to soften the acidity, thus making for a very oxidative style. He has opted for a fresher style, a late harvest wine, in which he leaves a little residual sugar. Again the föhn helps the ripening process, by shriveling the grapes, and for Donatsch it has everything that you want in a white wine, minerality, fruitiness, elegance and alcohol. I found it very intriguing, with dry honey and good acidity and again, well-integrated oak.
At lunchtime in the Donatsch family’s wine bar, Winzerstube zum Ochsen, we enjoyed the 2009 vintage of Completer from a magnum. It was simply delicious, and yet another example of the extraordinary diversity and originality of Switzerland.
Main photo: Martin Donatsch stirs the grapes at his family’s winery. Credit: Domaine Donatsch