Discovering German Switzerland

One of the great things about the DWCC is the opportunity to go on a post-conference trip in the host country.   I was lucky enough to join the three day exploration of the vineyards of German Switzerland, covering the north eastern part of the country.  The two main grape varieties are Műller-Thurgau which the Swiss prefer to call Riesling Silvaner, and Pinot Noir, which was a revelation.  Of the 15,000 hectares of vineyards in Switzerland, German Switzerland accounts for just 2600 hectares, or 17% of the total.   As we discovered, the vineyards are very scattered. 

After a two hour drive north east from Montreux past Freiburg and Bern, our first destination was Wehrli Weinbau in Kűttigen, within the appellation of Aargau.  Susie Wehrli greeted us with a welcome glass of sparkling wine, Perle Blanc, made from Riesling Silvaner and introduced the family estate.  Several constant themes immediately became apparent; vineyards holdings are small.  You can make a living from four or five hectares; Susie’s family have 12 hectares.  But production coast are high – they calculate an annual 25,000 € or 30,000 CHF per hectare, which in particularly hilly terrain, could rise to 50,000 CHF.   And within four or five hectares, you are likely to find an extraordinary variety of different grape varieties, so that production quantities are usually tiny.   Susie showed us round her cellar and then gave us a very diverse tasting including two variations of Riesling Silvaner from two different soils; one more delicate and one rich fuller and richer.   A Sauvignon was fresh and sappy.  There was also Pinot Gris, Merlot, Malbec and the most successful red was a barrel aged Pinot Noir.  And we finished with a dessert wine made by cryo-extraction, so that the Pinot Noir grapes spent three days in a freezer to concentrate their juice.  It was very intense but not very balanced.   

After lunch at a welcoming family restaurant, Hirschen,
 in a neighbouring village, there was another long drive past Zurich, Winterthur and St. Gallen to the village of Berneck, right in the north east corner of Switzerland, very close to the Austrian border and not far from Germany either.  Our destination was Schmid Wetli where Matthias Wetli and his father, Kaspar, greeted us with a glass of Riesling Silvaner from  the appellation of Appenzell.  This is another family wine estate, with 18 hectares.   They explained that the region is known above all for Pinot, Noir, Gris and Blanc.  Pinot enjoys the contrast of day and night time temperatures, which is one of the defining climatic conditions of the region.  They also have Freisamer, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, as well as Diolinoir and Gamaret, which are two crossings that are traditional to Switzerland.    Pinot Gris 6tus was elegantly spicy, while the Chardonnay was over-oaked for my taste buds.  Burgwein, a blend of Zweigelt – more commonly found in Austria - with Pinot Noir and Merlot, was ripe and spicy, and over dinner at Burg in the village of Au, I really enjoyed their Pinot Noir.  It was elegantly textured with some fresh fruit and an underlying touch of oak. And very intriguing was Fortuna t6tus, a “port” from Diolinoir, for which the fermentation was stopped, as for port and then the wine spent two years in Swiss oak barrels.  It was surprisingly port-like, with some rich fruit. 

The next day we headed to the canton of Graubűnden, and the village of Malans, one of the four villages of Graubünden Herrschaft wine area.   First we made a small scenic deviation into Lichtenstein, and then stopped at the memorial to Heidi outside the village of Mariafeld.   The autumn colours were at their finest in the sunshine, with the backdrop of dramatic mountain scenery.

First stop was Donatsch, where we were welcomed by Martin Donatsch who is the 5th generation of the family.   He told us how his father had been a great pioneer in the region.  He was the first to use small barrels for his Pinot Noir back in the early 1970s, when André Noblet from Domaine de la Romanée Conti had given him two used La Tache barrels.  He was also the first to plant Chardonnay in the area and to make both sparkling and sweet wine.   Martin explained that it is a small region of just 400 hectares, with about 60 different wine growers.  And the lion's share of the vineyards – 80% - is Pinot Noir, for the soil is limestone, similar to that of Burgundy.  There is however a difference in altitude, with vineyards here at 500 – 600 metres, and the defining wind is the föhn, a warm wind from the south, which blows up the valley.   The Donatsch family have just six hectares, from which they make 14 different wines, including three versions of Chardonnay and three versions of Pinot Noir, Tradition, Passion and Unique, which they equate to the village wine, premier cru and grand cru of Burgundy. 

1975 was their first vintage of Chardonnay.  Martin told us how it was illegal to plant Chardonnay at the time, and they were even fined, but several government officials were drinking it......   We got to taste the 2012 Passion, which was finely crafted, with some fermentation in oak.   2012 Unique Chardonnay is all fermented in new oak, just two barrels. 

Martin is one of just eight producers retaining the tradition of Completer, a grape variety that had nearly disappeared.  One of its key characteristics is high acidity; in the past it was aged for several years in an attempt to reduce the acidity, but Martin has created a new style, based on a late harvest, in late November, of grapes with a high sugar level, that are vinified to leave a little residual sugar.  The 2012 had dry honey with balancing acidity, as well as some well integrated oak.  It is a tricky variety to grow, producing big bunches, but the föhn helps to concentrate the flavours in the vineyard.  Martin enthused – it has everything you want in a white wine, minerality, fruit, elegance and alcohol.  It certainly did not taste of 14, and was beautifully balanced.   They have just 50 ares of it and are planting more, using cuttings from their own vineyard.   In the next cellar we heard the 2014 Completer fermenting noisily and later went to see the vineyard, with high trellised vines, with golden leaves, basking in the autumn sunshine.

Three expressions of Pinot Noir followed.  2013 Tradition was perfumed and fragrant with delicate raspberry fruit.  2011 Passion, with some new wood, was richer and more intense, with a firm tannic streak balancing some lovely red fruit and finally 2011 Unique from a single vineyard was more structured and concentrated, again with lovely fruit, making a beautiful expression of Pinot Noir.  Martin observed that Swiss wines do age, but they are often drunk far too young.  The label for the Unique is original; each bottle is different, with a fragment of a painting, either by Martin or his father.

And our tasting finished with two sweet wines, a lovely Pinot Gris Föhn Beerenauslese, with fresh spicy honeyed fruit, and then a rather spirity port style from Pinot Noir.   And the family also have a wine bar, Winzerstube zum Ochsen, serving traditional cold meats, where we enjoyed a magnum of 2009 Completer with lovely notes of maturity, and to prove, once again, that Pinot Noir ages, the 2008 Passion followed, with elegant fruit, and silky tannins.

And then it was a short walk to Georg Fromm.  I was particularly pleased to see Georg, as I am much more familiar with his delicious Pinot Noirs from Marlborough in New Zealand, so Switzerland was the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle, so to speak.    Georg has 4.5 hectares in Malans and made his first wine there in 1970.  Meanwhile he still owns a share of the Clayvin vineyard in Marlborough and his daughter runs a restaurant, Passione, in Kaikoura.   He explained that Pinot Noir has been grown in this region for at least 300 years; it goes back to the 30 Years War.  His grandfather had Completer, but Georg is not so keen on that variety.  It is Pinot Noir that does well here, enjoying the marginal climate, with cool nights and a long ripening period, and a soil that comes from glacial deposits. 

Georg has four different Pinot Noir vineyards and he treated us to a comprehensive tasting of those, as well as an elegant Chardonnay.  First came barrel samples of the 2013 vintage.   There are subtle differences in each.  Selfi was planted half with Swiss clones which are late ripening and half with Burgundy clones.  The wine spends two winters in oak, of which one quarter is new.  There is a week long cold maceration before the fermentation, and a fermentation that last five to seven days, and then a post fermentation maceration of seven to fourteen days, depending on how the tannins evolve.   Selfi also included 25% whole bunches, but usually the Pinot Noir is destemmed.   Fidler is all Swiss clones, and no whole bunches, while Schopfi includes 50% new wood, and 25% while bunches and finally Spielmann which is all Burgundian clones, with small bunches, and no whole bunch pressing.  It accounts for just two barrels.   There were subtle nuances of difference but overall the style was beautifully restrained with a lovely expression of fruit, and silky tannins. 

Georg explained that he used to blend everything together, but the Burgundian influence has resulted in the development of the individual vineyards.   He also makes a village wine, which accounts for half his production of Pinot, which is aged in larger wood, with a simpler vinification.  Quizzed about the tipicity of Pinot Noir, he talked about limestone and schist and the marginal climate.  And then the 2012s followed, and then 2011 Selfi and finally 2008 Selfi, again to show how beautifully the wines age.  The 2008 had a lovely depth of flavour with supple tannins.  It was drinking beautifully, on its plateau. 

And then Georg could not resist giving us some New Zealand Pinot Noir to try.  It was a fascinating contrast.  I have always thought of his Pinot Noir amongst some of the more restrained interpretations of New Zealand Pinot Noir, in the hands of his talented winemaker Hätsch Kalberer, but the contrast with Switzerland was quite dramatic, with a 1997 La Strada richer and more textured.  And we finished with a New Zealand Riesling with fresh limey fruit and notes of honey and slate.  What a treat!

The next morning saw us heading towards Zurich, past the Walensee and on to the village of Uetikon on the northern side of Lake Zurich, to Weingut Erich Meier.   Erich explained that there are about 140 hectares of vines in the area.  There used to be a lot more, but the proximity to Zurich has put pressure on the use of land for building.   The lake makes everything more temperate and the föhn also blows here, but not as fiercely as in Graubünden.   Hail can be a big problem, but not frost.  Erich has 7 hectares, and we saw his biggest vineyard, which is just on the edge of the village.  He has Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, a little Riesling Silvaner, and just 40 ares of another endangered species. Rauschling.  However, his main focus is Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  The soil is clay and limestone and the altitude about 500- 550 metres.   To illustrate how little Swiss wines travel, 85% of his wine is sold within 5 kilometres, to private customers.  However, unlike the other producers we met, he does export a little, to Germany, New Zealand, Boston and San Francisco.  And from his seven hectares he makes fourteen different wines. 

Our tasting started with 2013 Rauschling. Half of it is fermented in oak, and half in tank, with six months élevage and regular lees stirring.  It was nicely rounded with a touch of well integrated oak and good acidity, with a salty finish and a modest 13.   Next came examples of Viognier and Chardonnay – curiously Erich felt that a pure Chardonnay was too much, and includes a little Viognier in the blend, and again in his Viognier he adds a drop of Chardonnay.  I preferred his Sauvignon Blanc which was nicely restrained with some stony fruity and a good balance of acidity.  And his Pinot Noir was very stylish, fresh and fragrant and perfumed with a balancing streak of tannin.  The soil is different from Malans.  The wine is aged in wood for twelve months, and with the 2014 vintage he has started using a  tronconique oak vat for fermentation.  The wine is given a two week pre-fermentation maceration and after a fermentation with 20 % whole bunches, it goes into barrel for twelve months.  It was a great finale to a three days voyage of discovery.

And then it was a short drive into Zurich for a final lunch at Didi’s Frieden,   where we enjoyed Erich's sparkling wine and also his lightly spicy Pinot Gris.   And the final taste of the trip was a fresh peppery Syrah from the Valais, from Domaine Cornulus.  The diversity of Switzerland is infinite.   It is just a pity that there is not enough wine to round. 


This comment has been removed by the author.
Leon Stolarski said…
Rosemary, Roel is clearly a spammer with a wine business, based in Australia, as evidenced by the link in his post. Best to just delete it (or even better, to ensure you moderate all replies before they get a chance to appear).
Leon - many thanks for the advice.

Popular Posts