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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
Wine production in Puglia has undergone an extraordinary transformation in the last decade or so. The original focus of the region was to provide wines for blending, to mask the deficiencies of more famous names from further north (Chianti and Valpolicella come to mind). Once the DOC laws were tightened up, however, that market was lost and farsighted winegrowers saw that something had to be done if the region was to have a future.
They began to appreciate that they had grape varieties with an original and distinctive character of their own. The first time I went to Puglia, about 20 years ago, it was almost impossible to find a bottle of Primitivo, one of the most important grape varieties of the heel of Italy. People were only just beginning to realize that Primitivo was the same thing as Zinfandel; Carole Meredith had not yet completed her research linking it with Croatia, across the Adriatic sea. Now, it is firmly established that Tribidrag is the parent of Primitivo and Zinfandel.
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But Puglia is not just Primitivo, which is its most expressive in the hills of Manduria and Colle di Gioia. There is also Negroamaro, a rich red variety with intense black fruit, and ripe flavors, grown extensively in vineyards around Salento in the central part of the heel of Italy. Further north, adjoining the Abruzzi, where I recently spent a couple of days, you find Nero di Troia, also called Uva di Troia (named for the village of Troia, not the Troy of Greek legend).
The key DOC for Nero di Troia is Castel del Monte, which takes its name from the 13th century castle built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, not to defend anything, but to assert his authority. It is dramatic and awe-inspiring, even on a rather grey autumnal day, with the white stone fading into the grey sky. It was often used as a hunting lodge and for that reason, falcons feature in the local iconography.
Il Falcone is the name of a groundbreaking blend of Nero di Troia with Montepulciano, which has been made by Rivera since 1971. They were one of the first to bottle their wine in the region when the prime focus was bulk wine. The estate of Conte Spagnoletti Zeuli was another pioneer, again first bottling their wine in the early 1970s. Today they produce Il Rinzacco, a finely crafted Nero di Troia that is fermented and aged in oak. A vertical tasting of five vintages showed wines with elegance and fine tannins, and none of the heady alcohol levels that you can find further south.
Puglia wines are relative newcomers
The other two estates that I visited are relative newcomers to the market and classic examples of just how much Puglia has developed over the last few decades. They may be old families with a history of farming olives and vines for several generations, but only as the demand for bulk wine has disappeared have they put their wine in bottle. Torrevento started bottling in 1989, and Cefalicchio decided to build a cellar in 2001.
Nero di Troia is quite unlike any of the other red grape varieties of Puglia, in that it is refreshingly low in alcohol. Primitivo, on the other hand, is characterized by a high level of alcohol. Geography explains the difference. Puglia is 400 kilometers long but only 50 kilometers wide (about 240 by 30 miles), so that most of the vineyards are relatively close to the sea. The relatively shallow Adriatic has little effect on temperatures, but it does bring wind that cools in summer and brings snow in winter. Winters are much cooler in northern Puglia than at the bottom of the heel. And Nero di Troia ripens much later than Primitivo and Negroamaro, withstanding well the searing heat of August. It has big berries and is a tannic variety with a lot of juice, but may lack acidity. The best wines have some appealing fruit, violets and red berries.
Since 2011, Castel del Monte boasts a DOCG for wines made from Nero di Troia alone, that are riserva and therefore can only be bottled after two harvests. These include Torrevento’s Vignale Pedale, which comes from one large plot of vines, and Ottagono, which is another smaller individual vineyard. Both have the benchmark characteristics of fine Nero di Troia, with a firm tannic structure balanced by elegant fruit.
Inevitably, Puglia has not avoided the temptation to plant the so-called international varieties, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, even though their suitability to the warm southern climate is highly questionable. You only have to compare Cefalicchio’s Totila, made from Nero di Troia blended with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, with its pure Nero di Troia Romanica, which is so much more satisfying and Italian in flavor. Of course, there are parallels to be drawn with the success of the so-called super-Tuscans, but happily Puglia is coming to value its own indigenous varieties, as Tuscany has done. As Puglia comes of age, it will realize that Nero di Troia, Primitivo and Negroamaro can stand alone. Do go and try and them. You will be richly rewarded.
Main photo: Castel del Monte in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Rosemary George
The speed of change in New Zealand never fails to amaze me. These days Craggy Range is generally considered to be one of the leading producers of Hawke’s Bay and the sub-region of Gimblett Gravels, yet its first vintage was only in 1997.
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Smith was in London recently to substantiate his claim, which he did quite effectively. He explained that 2013 had enjoyed low cropping levels, as a repercussion of the cool 2012 vintage. A naturally low crop produces much better results than a similar crop level achieved with a green harvest. And the weather was just right, with warm but not excessively hot weather in the critical weeks after flowering, followed by a cooler period that helped retain the aromatics in the grapes. “The stars aligned!” he said.
Age of vines influence vintage quality
Another factor in the quality of the vintage is the age of the vines. Older vines give a much better expression of place. Craggy Range has Riesling vines that are 28 years old and Sauvignon vines that are 20 years old, which give quite different results than younger vines. Older vines also need less management, and they produce lower alcohol levels. This is something that is not yet fully understood but Craggy Range has observed that the grapes are ripe at a lower alcohol level, which translates into more elegant wine in the glass.
To illustrate his point, Smith started the tasting with Riesling from the Te Muna Road vineyard in Martinborough. This comes from a 2-hectare vineyard on old rocky soil, with a volcanic influence. In the past, New Zealand has planted German clones, but it now has access to Riesling clones from Alsace, which are giving even better results.
The Sauvignon, too, comes from Martinborough, and for a New Zealand Sauvignon was nicely understated, with mineral characters, firm fruit and a restrained finish.
The final white wine was a Chardonnay from Kidnapper’s Bay in Hawke’s Bay. Smith observed that if you put Chardonnay in a dramatic vineyard, it takes on the character of the place. He didn’t want this Chardonnay to be overtly fruity, but was looking for a sense of the ocean, a Chablis style. To this end he uses large oak barrels and indigenous yeast, and the wine certainly exhibited some of the oyster-shell character that you can find in good Chablis.
Next up were barrel samples, components of Craggy Range’s flagship Bordeaux blend from Gimblett Gravels. Gimblett Gravels is an 800-hectare plot of stony, gravelly soil from a riverbed that changed its course about 150 years ago. At a time when the value of agricultural land was measured by the number of sheep you could graze on it, Gimblett Gravels was deemed pretty worthless. But pioneers Alan Limner from Stonecroft and Chris Pask from C. J. Pask saw its potential for exceptional vineyard land, and planted the first crop in 1999. The drainage is excellent, which is an asset after heavy rainfall, but as Smith observed, getting enough water is the greatest challenge. The area enjoys a certain amount of humidity, thanks to the oceanic influence, and it is rare to get seriously warm days.
The various grape varieties showed their characteristics. The Merlot was rich and fleshy, with plummy fruit. The Cabernet Sauvignon was more restrained. Cabernet Franc was fresher, and Smith observed that there was a lot of clonal variation on Cabernet Franc. His Cabernet Sauvignon came from cuttings from Kim Goldwater’s estate on Waiheke Island. Petit Verdot, which accounts for 2% of the final blend, is “tricky to manage”: “It’s the oddest grape variety I have ever grown and it can look like a wild scientist!” This vat sample was rich and powerful, with acidity and tannin.
We finished with a sample of Sophia, a projected blend of the different components. Each variety would be matured separately until October, before blending and finally taken out of wood just before Christmas and bottled in February 2015. The proposed blend was rich and intense with blackcurrant fruit and some spicy oak and, despite its youth, was beautifully balanced, harmonious and complete. There was no doubt that it was more than the sum of the preceding parts, adding up to what might indeed be the vintage of a generation.
Main photo: Craggy Range’s Gimblett Gravels vineyard. Courtesy of Craggy Range
It is quite a special experience to taste every single vintage of a wine, but that is what I did the other day, when I was invited to a vertical tasting in London of AD The Aviator from Alpha Domus, one of the leading estates of Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand.
Alpha Domus was founded by the Ham family, which originally came from the Netherlands. Alpha includes the initials of the five members of the family — the parents and three sons — who established the estate, and domus means home in Latin. They bought land in Hawke’s Bay, in an area that is now recognized as a sub-region, the Bridge Pa triangle, and planted the grape varieties that do best in Hawke’s Bay: the Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. The soil is red metal, alluvial soil, on an old riverbed, over gravel, a variation on the much better known Gimblett Gravels of Hawke’s Bay. It is warm and free draining but with sufficient water holding capacity not to need irrigation.
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They made their first wine in 1996. AD The Aviator, their flagship wine, is a blend of the year’s best Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. Its proportions varying from year to year, and some years it is not even made. The unpredictable aspect is the Cabernet Sauvignon, which can sometimes be difficult to ripen in Hawke’s Bay. Merlot is easier, but it is the Cabernet Sauvignon that provides the backbone and aging potential. The producers want a long ripening period, and aim for low yields, paying great attention to canopy management. Nor do they pick too early. As Paul Ham observed, “It is a battle of nerves over the potential rain at harvest time.”
The name The Aviator is a tribute to the many pilots who played their part in New Zealand’s aviation history and trained on de Havilland Tiger Moth planes from the Bridge Pa airfield. So, appropriately, the London tasting took place in the Royal Air Force Club on Piccadilly. And the Tigermoth biplane features as a logo on most of their labels.
Over the years Alpha Domus has employed three winemakers. Grant Edmonds, who now makes the wine at Sileni, and his own wine at Redmetal Vineyards, was their first; he was followed by a Dutchman, Evert Nijink; and now Kate Galloway makes the wine, building on the work of Grant and Evert, benefiting from older vines and fine-tuning the winemaking process.
The winemaking process for AD The Aviator has become established over the years. There is an initial cold soak for the grapes, followed by some hand-plunging and pigeage during fermentation, and then a period of aging in new and used French oak barrels. Finally, the very best of the individual barrels is selected for blending, with the winemaker looking “for perfume and aroma, with soft tannins,” Paul Ham says. “And it must be food-friendly.” At its best, this is a wine that can rival Bordeaux.
We tasted from young to old, beginning with:
2010: 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Cabernet Franc, 26% Merlot, 10% Malbec
Deep young color; ripe rounded cassis nose, with some vanilla and fruit. Paul Ham explained that they want New World fruit, with Old World complexity, and that is what they have achieved in this wine. The palate was still quite firm and youthful, but with underlying elegance balancing some ripe fruit, with a rounded finish.
2009: 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 18% Malbec, 18% Cabernet Franc
Medium color. A light, rather restrained nose. Closed and understated on the palate, with a little sweet cassis and vanilla. Quite elegant fruit on the finish. And generally less expressive than 2010.
2007: 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Cabernet Franc, 23% Merlot, 13% Malbec
Medium color. An elegant smoky cedary nose. A medium weight palate, with some acidity and also some tannin. A youthful edge to the wine, with some lovely fruit. An elegant concentration of flavor, and still plenty of aging potential.
2002: Kate’s first vintage. 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec
Quite a deep color. Rounded ripe and smoky on the nose. Quite a tight palate, with a firm finish. Still youthful with some cedary minty notes. Some length.
2000: Made by Evert. 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 12% Malbec
Medium color. Elegant smoky nose. Quite a firm cedary palate. An edge of tannin with some acidity. A satisfying glass of wine, with balanced fruit and concentration, with length and elegance.
1999: 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 15% Malbec
A lighter year; they very nearly didn’t make it. Medium color, with a little age. Soft cedary vanilla nose. Quite an elegant dry palate, with some supple tannins. Elegant cedary notes. And a long finish.
1998: 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 14% Malbec.
A hot dry year, which posed difficulties for some winemakers in Hawke’s Bay. Medium color, and still quite youthful. An elegant nose, with some cedary fruit, and on the palate, quite structured, with elegant fruit, structure and depth. Nicely intense, with a hint of menthol from the Cabernet Sauvignon. Did the gum trees nearby have an impact? Satisfying length and depth.
1996: This first vintage was made by Grant Edmonds and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The Cabernet Franc and Malbec were not yet in production. Medium colour. Soft cedary notes on the nose and palate. A softer palate than the others, with some elegant cedary fruit. Maybe just beginning to slither off its plateau, or maybe not? Whatever, it was soft and sweet and still very elegant. A great note on which to finish a tasting of New Zealand’s history, with a wine that also amply illustrates Hawke’s Bay’s ability to rival Bordeaux.
Top photo: From left, Darren Chatterton, vineyard manager; Paul Ham, managing director; and Kate Galloway, winemaker. Credit: Courtesy of Alpha Domus
Once upon a time, Alsace wines were relatively simple to understand. Alsace is virtually the only French appellation that allows the mention of a grape variety on the label, and with a couple of easily identifiable exceptions, the wines tended to be dry. But things seem to have changed in recent years. Am I alone in feeling disappointed that a wine I thought would be dry from the label turns out to be rich with a sweet, even cloying, finish? And then matters are complicated further with all the grands crus names. There are 50 altogether, but I can only ever remember a handful. Happily, a recent visit to Maison Trimbach in Ribeauvillé has served to restore my faith in the region.
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Trimbach makes the full range of Alsace grape varieties, with elegantly leafy Pinot Blanc, some rounded Pinot Gris and some deliciously understated Gewürztraminer — we joked about whether a restrained Gewürztraminer really exists. But it is really with Riesling that the Trimbach style comes into its own, emphasizing the slatey minerality of the grape variety.
A full range of Riesling
Trimbach makes seven qualities of Riesling, beginning with the simple Riesling based on grapes purchased from some 30 growers, picked and pressed by hand. The vinification is very simple, usually entailing a malolactic fermentation and certainly no oak. Freshness and minerality are the key characteristics. The wine has a fresh slatey note, with very good acidity, and a firm dry finish — just as Alsace Riesling should be.
Next up the scale is the Riesling Réserve, a selection of grapes, mainly from Trimbach’s own vineyards around Ribeauvillé. The vinification is the same, but the grapes come from vineyards with a higher limestone content. The result is a wine that has citrus notes and is very mineral, with wonderful freshness and great length. There is a certain austerity on the palate, making for a very pure example of Riesling.
The cuvée of Vieilles Vignes comes from vines that are 35 to 40 years old. They first made this cuvée in 2009, from two foudres of particularly good wine. The flavors are rich and intense, but not sweet. The wine may be a little more gourmand than the Réserve, but the fruit is always balanced with steely acidity, making a wine that is dry and honeyed, with an elegant finish.
The Cuvée Frédéric Emile is one of the flagship wines of Trimbach, whose grapes are grown in marl and limestone soil. We tasted the 2007, which Anne described as a miraculous year — full of scares about the next climatic hazard, but everything turned out well in the end. The nose was rich and honeyed, very intense with an underlying austerity. On the palate, the wine was firm and slatey with very good acidity and razor-sharp clarity. I could almost describe it as the Chablis of Alsace.
The other flagship Riesling is the Clos Ste Hune, from a vineyard the Trimbachs have owned for 200 years. The soil is pure limestone, and the vines are an average of 80 years old. The wine is made the same way as Frédéric Emile, but here you taste the effect of terroir: They are quite different. The Clos Ste Hune is very slatey, very mineral, very powerful, with very good acidity and still very youthful, with wonderful length.
And then we were given a treat: 1985 Clos Ste Hune. The colour was golden, with an elegant nose that was dry and slatey, but with an underlying richness. On the palate, there were lots of nuances, with some very intriguing dry honey and some lovely notes of maturity. It was rich and elegant, but not heavy or sweet, with a lingering finish. A fabulous glass of wine that demonstrated just how beautifully Alsace Riesling ages.
The Vendanges Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles, traditionally sweeter and richer, are only made in the very best years. The 2002 Vendange Tardive Riesling was light golden in color, and on the nose, rich with a maturing nutty nose. On the palate it was very elegant, with very good acidity — there was a little noble rot in 2002, but that is not essential. The palate was beautifully balanced with rich honeyed fruit, combining fresh acidity with some sweetness. It was subtle and nuanced.
Our tasting finished with 2001 Sélection de Grains Nobles Frédéric Emile. The grapes were picked in mid-November, with some noble rot. The color was golden and the nose maturing beautifully, as only fine Riesling can. On the palate there were nuances of dry but honeyed, nutty fruit, with some slatey characteristics and a touch of minerality, with a smooth rich finish. It was a powerful example of the heights that Riesling can achieve.
Top photo: Trimbach vineyards in Alsace. Credit: Courtesy of Maison Trimbach
Who would have thought, 30 years ago, that New Zealand would be producing Pinot Noir with an international reputation? It has all happened in an incredibly short time, so that several of the original pioneering winemakers are still involved in the industry. And a recent tasting in London and New York demonstrated just how successful Pinot Noir is in New Zealand.
This was a tasting that I could not possible miss: three decades of Rippon Vineyards Pinot Noir, beginning with the 1990 vintage, which I tasted as a vat sample the very first time that I went to New Zealand. Rippon Vineyards in Central Otago was one of the first New Zealand vineyards that I visited. It is the most fabulously beautiful spot, with breathtaking views over Lake Wanaka toward the Southern Alps. Central Otago lies on the 45th parallel, which makes its vineyards some of the southernmost in the world — there is not much land between Otago and Antarctica. Whereas most New Zealand vineyards are on the country’s east coast, Central Otago enjoys a continental climate, with harsh winters and warm summers. Schist is the dominant soil at Rippon.
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These days, Nick Mills makes the wine at Rippon, but it was his father, Rolfe, who was the true pioneer. Rolfe’s grandfather bought the land in 1912, and Rolfe began planting vines in 1975.
“It was all very much a learning curve, experimenting with many different grape varieties,” Nick said. “Pinot Noir was just one of several. And nothing was known about different clones. You got cuttings from other growers, and there was a strong element of self-sufficiency and indeed isolation.”
The first commercial wines of Rippon were made in 1989, and in 1990 a talented Austrian winemaker, Rudi Bauer, took over for a few years. (He now has his own estate, Quartz Reef.) Back in 1990 there were just six wineries in Central Otago; nowadays there are 120 wine growers, though not all with their own winemaking facilities.
New Zealand Pinot Noir has regional variations blossom
At the time that Rippon was getting started, Chard Farm and Gibbston Valley were also experimenting with Pinot Noir, among other grape varieties, in Central Otago. And at the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island, Larry McKenna, who had arrived in Martinborough in 1986, was busy putting Martinborough Vineyards on the map for Pinot Noir, alongside his neighbours at Ata Rangi and Dry River.
Elsewhere on the South Island, there were pockets of Pinot Noir in Nelson, Waipara and Marlborough. Today, Pinot Noir is the most widely planted red variety in the country, and the regional variations are becoming more apparent. I generally find that wines from Central Otago are riper and richer, from enjoying long hours of summer daylight, while those from Martinborough are more savory and maybe more structured.
But back to Rippon. Carrying on the family tradition, Nick studied winemaking, including a course on biodynamics, in Beaune and worked with winegrowers in the Côte d’Or. Sadly, Rolfe died in 2000, and in 2003, Nick’s mother suggested that it was time for Nick to come back to Rippon and take over responsibility for the winemaking.
He talked of how his winemaking has developed. “There are so many things to consider. Whole bunches? Do you add the stems? Are they ripe? You need to understand your fruit.” He certainly shows that he does with this range of wines, which tell the story of the family land.
Top photo: Rippon Vineyards. Credit: Briar Hardy-Hesson