Those willing to explore the world of Swiss wine are in for an uphill battle: not only they are pretty difficult to find outside their own Country, but they also have quite an important price tag attached.
For this reason I was more than happy to take part in a seminar from Yama91 (read “Yama kyuuichi”) about the wines of Jean-René Germanier, a grower from the Valais region. Gilles Besse, nephew of Jean-René and associated director of the domaine, was there explaining the wines and guiding the tasting.
I had already met Monsieur Besse some years ago (around 2014) when he had come to Kobe with other Swiss producers for an event I was helping with.
This time he was too busy to have a chat, but I remember him being a very nice guy, maybe a bit shy at first, but opening up after the wine had started to flow. He even gave me a bottle of his Petite Arvine, which I had very much enjoyed after going back home.
First, a map.
Switzerland is a very small Country in the business of wine, only 14,835 ha (0.2% of the entire global production), with more than a half coming from the Vaud (3,778 ha) and Valais (4,941 ha).
While its alpine image (“à la Heidi”) is very strong, Switzerland has a varied in climate, with the areas around the Lake Léman being pretty warm. Surprisingly (?) red grapes are more widely grown that white grapes, around 57% vs 43% of the entire area, but the most widely planted variety is the white Chasselas.
Germanier is based in Valais, the southern area just north of Valle d’Aosta and Piemonte, so the discussion focused on this high altitude region traversed by the river Rhone.
Their vineyards lie mainly on well draining slate soil located 500-800 m above sea level, though some parts are on moraine (a “pudding” like soil structure of glacial origin composed by clay, sand and stones). The climate is worth of notice: the valley is very windy and dry because the mountains stop the humidity creating a rain shadow. So lot of sunlight (around 2,000 hours during growing season), but also cool nights and high diurnal temperature variation.
Owned vineyards amount to 50 ha, with another 110 ha provided by contract growers. They are planted at around 10,000 vines per hectare.
Red grapes occupy 65% of the area (25 years ago this figure was only 25%).
Both reds and whites are fermented in stainless steel with cultured yeasts: Germanier has been very clear on the fact that he does not “believe” in ambient yeasts, which for him have nothing to do with terroir. He wants to have control of the process, to know what is happening in the must and this is possible only with selected yeasts. Total destemming is regularly practiced to avoid green tannins.
The ageing regime varies: oak barrels, old and new, have been introduced in 1995 and nowadays are employed for the reserve line. Some whites like Petite Arvine and Amigne (much less the Chasselas) spend some time on their lees.
There were five wines to taste, four of them by Germanier and the first one by Domaine Henri Cruchon, a Chasselas from the Vaud region to compare with Germanier’s Fendant du Valais, from the same grape variety and vintage (2017).
And it was a pretty interesting comparison: they were both pretty light and high in acid, but the Cruchon was a little bit more structure, maybe thanks to the warmer climate of the Vaud, and more characterized by floral, citric and minty aromas. The time it spends ageing on its lees is pretty evident from the creamy mouthfeel and yeasty bready hints.
The Germanier was intense as well, but kind of sharper: more stones, flint, a light fizziness on the palate, hints of white peach and jasmine. A good aperitif wine or to be drank with fish or raclette.
Wine number three, the Germanier Valais AOC 2016, is made from Petite Arvine. This is another white variety which is pretty rare, as there are just 200 ha in Switzerland and probably in all the World. The plantings are concentrated in Valais, where it was recovered some decades ago from the brink of extinction. According to Gilles Besse, Barbaresco producer Gaja tried to plant this variety in the Langhe some time ago, but he did not succeed and he afterwards renounced.
Petite Arvine is very different from Chasselas: its weight and fruitiness somehow reminds me of Viognier, but the high acidity (2016 was a cool vintage in Valais) and salty finish betray a different origin. The aromas are again intense: pear, melon, lots of stonefruits, chamomile, jasmine, but in all its richness the wine is dry (though some Petite Arvine wines on the market may have some residual sugar). It could be cellared for 3 to 5 years, which is not unusual for this grape variety.
The fourth wine was the Amigne de Vetroz Grand Cru Bio 2016, from the eponymous Amigne variety.
If Petite Arvine is rare, Amigne is almost unique: just 40 ha in Valais, the only region where it is grown, with 30 of them just in the village of Vétroz. The grape performs well on the typical slate soils of the area, but suffers from millerandage, that is the berries of a same bunch ripen very unevenly, so they differ in size. As a consequence the yields are lower and it is also difficult to manage because in a bunch some grape may still be unripe while others are at full maturity.
I candidly confess that I was much less impressed by this wine compared to the first three. Sure there was fruit, tangerine, peach, yellow apple and a fresh acidity that really seems to be the hallmark of Valais wines. However I missed some more intensity, both on the nose and in the mouth. The previous Petite Arvine had been too bold maybe, but I just could not get excited about this one.
Finally a red: a Humagne Rouge Valais AOC 2016. This grape is also knwon as Cornalin and needs sunny terroirs to properly ripen. It is another quite rare specialty, with just 128 hectares in Switzerland and some more in Valle d’Aosta whence the variety comes from.
Well it is a pretty light wine, starting from the pale ruby, made in stainless steel. Low tannins, high acidity, quite light body, but a good aromatic intensity: red berries, herbs, grass, green pepper, iron minerality and crushed strawberries in the aftertaste. Which is good and well, were it not for the price.
The price: yes, that’s a pretty big problem with Swiss wines. I often complain of Japanese wine, but here we are on a different level.
Even though the wines are good, the cheapest one, the Fendant, is sold for 3,240 yen, which starts to be territory for decent Chablis, Rieslings and Sylvaners. The Petite Arvine is 4,752 yen and these two could even be ok with a proper promotion. On the other hand the Amigne and the Humagne Rouge, respectively 6,156 yen and 4,104 yen, are simply too much for me, especially the red.
Just to avoid confusion: this is not a problem with this producer, this is a problem with Swiss wines, whose cost of production is pretty high for the economy that they have there and hinders their deserved recognition. Good luck selling Pinot Noirs at 17,000 yen here, when you can probably start getting a premier Cru Saint-Georges for the same price.
Dear Swiss producers: ask me to comment your wines and I will say that they are pretty good, they express a Swiss-like peculiar alpine quality that sets them apart from those of other Countries. I like them. But ask me to buy them and maybe I will pass.