Have you ever been to an event, where you had no idea why you were there, or why you were invited? One where you look around at the people and the atmosphere, and you think to yourself, “I am out of my league here.” This happened to me a few weeks ago. It was one of the most unique and riveting tastings of my wine career, with people I liked and admired, that was led and organized by one of the world’s leading ampelologists and wine sleuths; the highly celebrated co-author of Wine Grapes, José Vouillamoz. He called it Impossible Valais and said it was the most exciting tasting he had ever organized. Whether I was worthy, I’m still unsure, but I was an interested student ready to soak up any and all information to the best of my ability. José Vouillamoz is the ultimate wine geek, in the best sense of the term. A botanist trained in grape genetics, he is a champion of rare grape varieties, and willing to get his hands dirty in order to recover them from near extinction. His knowledge is encyclopedic, and he is akin to a treasure hunter when it comes to wines and wine grapes. He searches for lost grapes and supports the vignerons who preserve them. He wears obscure band t-shirts, has a dry sense of humor, he’s humble and one of my favorite people to taste wine with. He’s the one at the party with the conversation piece; you just know he’ll have the strangest and most interesting bottle of wine in a room full of wine geeks. It is a privilege to taste with him. He has an acute sense of smell and taste with fantastic anecdotal descriptors. At his “Rare Swiss Wines” seminar at the Digital Wine Communications Conference, he described the bitter quality of one of the wines as the taste you have in your mouth when you are watching TV with a bowl of cherries but are too lazy to get up to throw away the pit so you roll it around on your tongue, that kind of bitter. He is truly a man of class and wit.
He’s true to his craft, he’s a scientist, and his opinions are backed up by inarguable facts, but he’s also hilarious and is never short on great one-liners. With a witty tongue quicker than John Wayne’s trigger finger, he’s a breath of fresh air in the frequently stuffy and rigid wine community. When you are with him in a social setting, or at a tasting, you wish you’d brought an audio recorder to capture all his José-isms, (my term, I want to write a book based on these). We need him. The world’s best wine professionals descended on Montreux for the DWCC for a weekend of learning, and we can thank José Vouillamoz and his mission to put Swiss Wines on the map for schooling us all in their virtue and rarity. Thanks to José many of us look at Swiss wine through a new lens. 12 lucky participants had the opportunity to travel through his motherland for three days with him, tasting some of the best and rarest wines of Switzerland, beginning with the Impossible Valais tasting at Sensorama at Châteaude Villa in Sierre.
Though we’d all had ample opportunity to taste a multitude of Swiss wines over the weekend, I don’t believe any of us were emotionally prepared for the once-in-a-lifetime tasting that José called Impossible Valais.He explained that “impossible” referred to the rarity of the wines we’d taste. The wines bordered on the sublime, ranging from rare and “archaeological” grapes to the truly perfect 1971 Petite Arvine. Le Valais produces some of the most incredible wines I have ever tasted, but before the conference in Montreux and this trip, the only Swiss wine I ever had was young Fendant. I have since learned that Fendant/Chasselas should be considered a very serious wine. Yet, it is virtually impossible to find these gems outside of Switzerland. They export only 2% of the wines they produce and produce 0.2% of the world’s wine so it is no surprise that many people have no idea that Swiss wine even exists. The standing joke is that they export so little of their wine because it is so good that they (the Swiss) drink them all before the rest of the world has a chance.
I never knew that there was so much diversity, that white Swiss wines can age, and well. There is certainly nothing more educational than guided tastings and full immersion in a wine region. Now, after seeing the heroic vineyards and tasting the wines crafted by generous people, I am converted. Swiss wines verge on the magical, they are spirited and convey the essence of the land and people. Well crafted and generous. I hope that we will see more of these wines in the international market, without compromising their spirit. The wines we tasted at the Impossible Valais tasting were thoughtful, rare and the beginning of a very emotional wine love story.
Producer: Chanton Kellerei
Grape: Gros Bourgogne
Notes: Gros Bourgogne is indeed a rare grape, there are only .05 ha and only one producer, Chanton, who are at the center of rare grape preservation in Valais. Lovely golden yellow color with notes of apples, apricots, honey and chamomile. Fresh, dry and with a silky texture.
Wine: Arvine Primus Classicus
Grape: Petite Arvine
Notes: 1988 was an interesting vintage because it was raining during the harvest. The skins broke and thus created very unique and gorgeous wines. It was a complex wine. Green apples, mint, passion fruit, melon and chamomile. I fell in love with this wine because it had a hint of wild fermentation flavor which recalled kombucha tea or sauerkraut, lots of citrus and a very persistent finish. It was lovely and racy. Un vino importante.
Grape: Petite Arvine
Notes: Exquisite wine that was everything about autumn poured into a glass. Marmalade, leaves, chestnuts, pumpkins, citrus along with figs, dates, quince and fermenting cheese. This was an extremely complex bouquet that I wanted to come back to. Despite its 43 years of age it was fresh and well balanced with the acid matched with an oily texture.
Notes: Amigne is an grape from the Valais, there are 42 ha in the world and they are mostly near the town of Vétroz. I have to admit that I fell in love with this grape over the course of the conference and then this tasting. I find it quite exotic even when young. The 1967 was very pleasant and reminded me of distant lands. Candied fruit, Turkish delight, rose water, oranges, chestnuts and dates. It was pleasantly dry despite such sweet notes.
Wine: Johannisberg St-Théodule
Notes: 1955 is considered the vintage of the century in Switzerland. Orange peel, lilies, honey and baby powder. Extremely fresh and vibrant with long persistent citrus taste.
Wine: Rouge de Pays
Producer: Stéfano Délitroz
Grape: Rouge de Pays
Notes: This is made from grapes from 80-year-old ungrafted vines that are erroneously called Cornalin in Switzerland. It was very “meaty” with a hint of chinotto, with lots of briny notes, like olives, which was reflected on the palate along with red berries. Rich tannins and full body with a persistent finish. A well balanced and meaty wine. I would like to taste it in about 10 years.
Wine: Côte Rotie La Torque
Notes: We tasted two Syrahs blindly, one French and one Swiss All we knew going it was that one was French and one was Swiss. This one was more impressive for me but I think it was context. We had just tasted some serious wines, and I think my palate was much more responsive to this richer tasting wine at the time. Rich nose of berries, fennel pollen, licorice, wet stones, balsamic notes and pepper. On the palate it was juicy with really immense tannins. Very enjoyable wine.
Wine: Vieilles Vignes Syrah
Producer: Simon Maye & Fils
Notes: I think my nose and palate deceived me because my tasting notes are quite sparse after the first syrah. It had green notes, berries. It has less tannic than the first and I think suffered from reduction. Perhaps over the course of a few hours it would show better. I quite enjoyed tasting Syrah at the winery and in fact tasted the best Syrah I have ever tasted there.
Wine: Crystal Eyholzer Roter Eiswein
Producer: Chanton Kellerei
Grape: Eyholzer Roter
Notes: One of the most unique wines I have ever tasted. Made from the Eyholzer Roter wine grape, an extremely rare grape with a unique DNA profile. Only .25 ha of it are produced by one producer. According to Wine Grapes, “ One ancient vine 150-250 years old, has been found near Visp, in the town of Stalden, and an even older one in the middle of the town of Sion, some 50 km from Visp.” Magnificent amber colour. Wild strawberries, freshly burnt sugar cane fields and molasses on the nose. Tastes confirms the nose. Strawberries, crème brûlée, opulent and sweet balanced by racy acidity that lingers. Long and intense finish. A superb wine.
Wine: Vin du Glacier
Producer: Bourgeoisie de Grimentz
Grape: n Rèze
Vintage: Solera 1886
Notes: Glacier wine production involves the transportation of finished wine up into the cooler, higher altitudes in the Val d’Annivers. The wine is produced using the solera system in which new wine is added to existing wine that is stored in larch barrels. The rèze grape was one of the most widespread varieties in the Valais before phylloxera in the late 19th century, today it grown on about 2 ha. A very interesting wine with marmalade and retsina notes, Madeira aromas and caramel. Briny on the palate. I would call this a meditation wine. It is profoundly unique and deserves a more romantic setting for consumption.