Swiss Syrah? Who would have thought it? When 15 wine professionals gathered recently for a vertical tasting of the top Syrah cuvée from the cellars of Domaine Jean-René Germanier in the Valais, Switzerland, few of us knew what a treat was in store.
Swiss wine is produced in tiny quantities, and only about 1.5 percent ever reaches the export market. The chance to taste our way through 20 vintages of one of the country’s finest was a rare one indeed.
Syrah’s Swiss story
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Syrah, also known as Shiraz, is no newcomer to the region. José Vouillamoz, who authored, with Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding, the magisterial “Wine Grapes,” reminded us that this particular vine variety made its way upstream from France’s Rhone Valley to Switzerland in 1921. The Valais’ famously hot, dry climate suited Syrah just fine. It soon got its feet down and started producing sizable quantities of decent, drinkable wine, designed for prompt consumption rather than long aging.
Then in the early 1990s, Switzerland saw huge changes in the wine-making picture and a significant push for quality over quantity. Key producers such as Germanier were well aware of what Syrah could produce lower down the Rhone in France, the grape’s homeland (think Hermitage or Côte Rôtie), and in other fine wine regions of the world. Realizing there was untapped potential to produce spicy, concentrated wines of great distinction, they set their sights on making a top-class wine that would catch the attention of those who were familiar with Syrah, but almost certainly not with ones sourced in Switzerland. Its name would be Cayas, a reference to the loose stones (caillasse in French) of the vineyards.
In 1991 the estate planted 4 hectares (10 acres) of Syrah. “La vie du vigneron est un peu courte (the winemaker’s life is a bit short),” remarked Gilles Besse, oenologist at Jean-René Germanier. In other words, it’s the next generation who will reap the benefits of what their forebears plant. Twenty-five years on, this is now coming to pass.
A newly planted vine takes at least three years to produce a worthwhile quantity of grapes, and 1994 was duly earmarked for the first Cayas cuvée. The only problem was that weather conditions in 1994 were so disastrous (“One of our worst years ever,” Besse recalled) that it was clearly not the moment to launch what was to be Germanier’s flagship wine. The 1995 harvest told quite another story, and the first Cayas was subsequently released at the then gasp-inducing price of CHF28 (about $28 U.S.).
There was much sucking of teeth and shaking of heads by the skeptics. “Too expensive,” they said. “It’ll never sell!” The wine now retails at CHF42 (about $42 U.S.), sells like the proverbial hot cakes and is considered among Switzerland’s finest Syrahs. Wine Critic Stephan Reinhardt, who covers Switzerland for The Wine Advocate, has just announced 94-point scores for the 2013, 2005 and 1999 vintages of Cayas.
Few Swiss estates continue to hold old vintages of their wines — most estates sell out at year’s end — but by dint of some canny detective work, Germanier managed to track down and assemble wines from each of the 20 successive vintages for us to taste, even buying back a case of one vintage from a neighbor and wine collector to plug a gap. Samples were taken from all bottles in advance using the Coravin system and tasted to make sure they were still in good condition.
Tasting hits high notes
The chief objective of the tasting was to see how well such a Syrah — grown in the best vineyards, picked selectively, made with skill and carefully aged in oak — could stand the test of time. We started with 2014 (not yet in bottle, due to be released in December) and worked our way steadily and with mounting respect up to 1995. There were many standouts and few duds. My favorites included 2010 (spicy, dense, intense), 2007 (a huge mouthful, lots of life still in it) and 2002 (spice again, and fresh and elegant). The most impressive — and the all-round favorite with tasters — was 1999, which combined that leathery spiciness with elegance and freshness. It also vindicated Domaine Jean-René Germanier in its belief that its top Syrahs can age with grace.
My tasting note on Cayas 2013 from a recent article on Swiss wines reads: “Thoroughbred Syrah grown on schist on the right (south-facing) bank of the Rhone, showing clear signs of plenty of alpine sun, yet impressively fresh — and only 13.5 percent alcohol by volume. The oak-aging (two years, 50 percent new) is beautifully disciplined, giving a spicy, leathery, complex wine. Would be gorgeous now with barbecued beef rib, but patient cellaring will certainly be rewarded.”
The 2013 has already fulfilled its promise with a piece of beef. My magnum of Cayas 2009, on the other hand, is slumbering patiently in the cellar, awaiting its moment of grace.