The Hidden Wine Wonder of Switzerland

On April 15, 2017 at 4:34 AM, my cell phone buzzed, signaling a text message. Ever since Lillian began working overseas I have made a habit out of placing my phone on my nightstand, just in case there is an emergency call late at night. Lillian now works in Switzerland, which is undoubtedly as safe as any American city, but here’s an admission to all young readers: your parents never stop worrying about you. As I groggily reached for the phone, I knew that on this day my daughter was on holiday, visiting a winery in the Swiss Lavaux area of the Vaud wine region. The winery’s name was Domaine du Daley, which was founded in 1392 by the Saint-Nicolas monks of Fribourg. Maybe something had gone wrong. My concern evaporated upon reading Lillian’s text: “You awake? Got any good wine questions I can ask the vintner?”

Do I have any good wine questions at 4:34 AM? Of course I do! In two weeks we had a trip planned to visit Lillian and I was looking forward to sampling Swiss wines, so this subject had been on my mind. Here was my drowsy, yet lengthy, text response: “Do they put their reds through malolactic fermentation? What is their grape yield per acre or hectare? Do they ferment using commercial yeast or do they allow native yeasts on the grapes to do the fermentation? Who put the ram in the ramadamadingdong?” I then put down the phone and quickly fell back asleep. Upon awakening a few hours later my phone contained the following string of overseas texts and photos (see the accompanying photo), all from You-Know-Who.

4:40 AM: “Hahaha okay. What is malolactic?”

4:50 AM: “Wait, actually he told us all of this.

Except the ram; curious.”

7:05 AM: “Holy cow, Dad! Wow!!!! We just

had amazing wines, 6 glasses of

different wines, and he said

definitely bring your parents

here. THIS IS AMAZING!”

My reply: “I may never leave once we visit.”

On April 29th my wife and I crammed ourselves into economy seats on our international flight and prepared for the jetlag that awaited us upon landing. In my lap was John Sloan’s 1996 book, The Surprising Wines of Switzerland. I had also been Googling “Swiss wines” for more up-to-date information and, in doing so, came across a YouTube video of an American visiting Domaine du Daley and talking to the vintner whom Lillian had met, Cyril Séverin. (https://youtu.be/fAEFGxsuxhw) I made a mental note not to behave like that American during our visit. I was more than ready for a wine adventure, meaning that I wanted to see, swirl, sniff, sip, and savor Swiss wines. To set the stage for you, allow me to provide a brief introduction to Switzerland’s wine landscape.

Swiss Wine Overview

When you think of world-renowned wines, the country of Switzerland is unlikely to be uppermost in your thoughts. Despite this relative lack of recognition, vineyards have been part of the Swiss landscape and winemaking has been part of Swiss culture since the time of the ancient Roman Empire. For those who know next to nothing about Switzerland except perhaps that it makes some dandy multipurpose knives, here are some facts: the country occupies about 16,000 square miles and is nestled between France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Austria and Germany. Anyone familiar with the Heidi book series knows that Switzerland is a mountainous country, and the Alps account for two thirds of the country’s surface area. This means that the country’s vineyards are relatively high in altitude. Not surprisingly, the resulting wines have a decidedly alpine character. At such high altitudes, snow can often be seen in the vineyards during the winter months and the average annual temperatures are between 48 and 54 degrees Fahrenheit in the country’s various wine regions, which makes Switzerland one of the world’s cooler climate wine producers. On these alpine slopes, most of Switzerland’s vineyards are so steep and difficult to tend to that each hectare (which is about 2 ½ acres) requires 2,000 hours of work each year. Taking this into account, Swiss grape geneticist and wine writer José Vouillamoz claims that Swiss wine should cost between three and five times the price of Bordeaux wines. Thankfully for all of us, they do not.

Switzerland has six wine regions, with each having an identity defined by its landscape, geology and specific climate. The Swiss-German region is in the northern and eastern parts of the country near the Rhine River and its tributaries, and its cold climatic conditions just barely permit the production of fine wines. The Ticino region, which is on the south side of the Alps facing Italy, has a more welcoming climate and is known for its quality Merlot. Valais, which is at the heart of the Alps in the south, has by far the driest climate of all of the regions and is responsible for almost half of the nation’s total wine production. The Neuchatel region is in the western side of the country, wedged between Lake Neuchatel and the border with France. Directly south is the Vaud region on the shores of Lake Geneva; it is the country’s second-biggest wine-growing region. Finally, the Geneva region, which is where the Jura Mountains and the Alps meet at the southwestern tip of Lake Geneva, produces the largest amount of the country’s organic wines.

Nearly 240 grape varieties are grown in Switzerland, yet the four grapes cultivated most are Pinot Noir, Chasselas, Gamay and Merlot, which together represent 72% of the country’s harvest. The lone white grape in this group, Chasselas, is also this group’s lone indigenous grape, which makes up 27% of the countries annual crop. Unlike in the past, Switzerland now produces more red wine than white wine, with Pinot Noir recently overtaking Chasselas as the most-planted variety.

Although wine has been made in Switzerland for more than 2,000 years, the greatest increase in its quality occurred only in the past quarter century. The catalysts for this sharp upturn in quality were two key policy changes made by the Swiss federal government in the 1990s targeting the buying and importing of wine. The federal government not only sharply curtailed their purchase of excess—and generally subpar—Swiss wine left unsold on the market, they also lifted restrictions on foreign wine imports. Faced with these new internal and external challenges, Swiss wine producers were forced to increase the quality of their product to remain competitive in the nation’s marketplace. Today, Swiss wines are perceived by an increasing number of wine lovers as Alpine treasures worth exploring. Yet despite this growing worldwide interest, you will most likely need to travel to Switzerland to taste its wines because they will never be exported in any appreciable quantity. The reason is that the country’s winemakers cannot produce enough even for its citizens. Currently, only about 2% of the country’s wines are exported. (here is a short video on the individual character of Swiss wines https://youtu.be/6O-BmoaeYc4)

A “Leisurely” Walk Through Lavaux

Switzerland is a breathtakingly beautiful country and Lillian introduced us to many memorable sites during our 12-day visit, but the highlight of our trip was the day we spent in the Vaud wine region. This region is divided into four main areas, with the most famous being the Lavaux, home to about 200 different wineries, including Domaine du Daley. In 2007, Lavaux was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, largely because of the beauty of its steep terraced vineyards that overlook and slope down into the glacier-created Lake Geneva. The Lavaux climate is strongly influenced both by this glacial lake and the surrounding Alps, creating particularly favorable conditions for the cultivation of wine grapes. Vineyards have existed on these slopes since the Roman era, with Catholic monks planting most of the 2,400 acres during the 11th century.

We started our day in nearby Vevey, first taking a train to Chillon, where we visited the medieval island castle of Chateau de Chillon—the inspiration for the castle in Disney’s The Little Mermaid—before taking another train to Epesses in the heart of Lavaux. After a leisurely lunch at a restaurant in Epesses called Auberge du Vigneron, we slowly walked—or rather, climbed—a mile or so through narrow streets and past vintners’ houses dating back to the 16th century in our quest for our designated winery. I use the term “quest” because it soon became clear that Lillian was not certain about the winery’s exact location.

A curiosity I noticed while walking among the terraced vineyards was that the grapevines were much closer together than they were in the United States: about 18 inches apart. Such high vine density per acre undoubtedly impacts both yield per plant and yield per acre because closely planted vines compete with each other for available water and nutrients. Given that French is the native language and given that my most spoken French phrase on the trip was “Je parle en peu Francais” (“I speak only a little French”), the most plausible explanation I think I received regarding this high vine density was that the rich nutrients in the soil allowed for such tight spacing. But then again, perhaps I was simply being told that they liked the color of my shoes, so don’t hold me to this explanation!

As we continued huffing and puffing up the ever-inclining slopes, at least one of us in this tiring trio began to wonder whether Lavaux would be his final resting place. Then suddenly we caught site of Domaine du Daley in the distance, at the top of the next slope. To properly set the scene, imagine a winery located on a magnificently steep vine-filled hillside overlooking a crystal clear alpine lake with a stunning view of snow-capped mountains. I immediately identified it as a wine lover’s nirvana.

Cyril Séverin and Domaine du Daley

The monks who once tended the vines and fermented the grapes have long since departed Domaine du Daley, but the respect for their contributions is still deeply felt by the winery’s current owners, the Séverin family. In 1934, Julien Séverin was the winemaker and vintner at Domaine du Daley when the Bujard family owned the business. For a quarter century, Julien worked at the winery, but in 1958 he quarreled with the owner and was fired. At the time, his son, Marcel, was 14 years old. Forty-five years later, Marcel Séverin, now the multi-millionaire owner of the Sun Store pharmacy chain in Switzerland, decided to purchase the winery where his father once worked. After concluding the purchase, Marcel asked his twenty-something son, Cyril, whether he’d like to take over the operation of the winery. At that time Cyril owned a travel agency and had zero experience in growing grapes, making wine, or even selling wine, but he decided to jump into this new venture with both feet; his father would be a relatively hands-off owner and the son would be the enterprising vintner with much to learn.

Fast forward fifteen years. Cyril Séverin can now be seen at the winery and in the surrounding vineyards clad in his casual attire of jeans and a light sweater, easily blending in with his eight full-time winery employees. Two beautiful, white rescue-dogs (brother and sister) whom Cyril found in Sicily look down from the balcony of the house behind the winery, overseeing the numerous visitors to the estate. When allowed to run free, you can see them bounding through the vineyards, but I also noticed they were still attentive to their owner’s commands.

Shortly after taking over the day-to-day winery operations, Cyril received formal training at the Engineering School of Oenology at Changins in Nyon, Switzerland. When I asked more specifically about this training, Cyril confessed, “Since I was a child, in all my schooling, I never followed the rules and was always being fired, which also happened during my winemaking training.” He then shrugged, and with a bemused smile continued, “But then, a few years later, as my winery became known, the school wanted me to come and teach a wine course, but I was too busy by then.” Had he taught that course it undoubtedly would have emphasized his organic approach to vineyard management and his minimalist winemaking philosophy.

Regarding vineyard management, workers at Domaine du Daley engage in minimal spraying and selective pruning of the vines in July to reduce yield and promote better ripening of the remaining grapes. All the work on the vines, including harvesting, is done by hand. As Cyril further explained his approach to both grape growing and winemaking, “Our goal is to create authentic wines that express the pure aromas of each grape variety, so we closely monitor the vines during the maturation periods.” This discussion brought to mind Jonathan Nossiter’s 2004 documentary film, Mondovino, which explores the impact of globalization on the various wine-producing regions around the world. In the documentary, Nossiter contrasts the large, multinational wine producers’ desires for an homogenized wine style that will appeal to the largest segment of consumers against the desires of small, single estate wineries who want to continue their tradition of crafting wines with individual character, driven by terroir. The film’s two “prime suspects” in promoting this homogenized international wine style are wine critic Robert Parker and wine consultant Michel Rolland.

In discussing the film, Cyril noted that early on he was urged to invite Rolland to the winery, which is often the first step in developing a business relationship. Yet the young winemaker was not interested in taking this first step because he already knew that his and Rolland’s wine preferences were dissimilar and he also knew that he wanted to follow his own winemaking instincts and preferences. The wisdom of that decision soon became apparent to me when Cyril ushered us into the cellar and used a wine thief to draw a sample out of a nearby barrel filled with a still-young Syrah. The Syrah’s aroma had hints of blackberry and pepper and it had an elegant medium-bodied taste with crisp acidity and firm tannins. These were my first sensory indications that in crafting his wines Cyril indeed had a unique approach that did not conform to a globally homogenized style.

In his vineyards, Cyril grows various grape varieties, including Chasselas, Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Gamaret, Garanoir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. Besides the vineyards on site, the family also owns vineyards in other areas of Lavaux and in the nearby Coteaux de l’Orbe, for a total of about 15 hectares (37 acres). From these grapes, the winery makes 16 varieties of wines, about 60% white, 40% red and a few rosé, and offers two price ranges in these wines. The lower priced Tradition wines are matured for 10 to 11 months in either huge wooden barrels (from 500 to 1,300 gallons) or stainless steel containers, which yield fine wines with a lovely mineral character. The pricier Grande Réserve wines are matured for 11 to 22 months in conventional-sized French-oak barrels (or partly in barrels, depending on the wines), which produce wines with more complex structure. All Domaine du Daley wines are fermented to dryness, with little to no residual sugar, and some wines are fermented using indigenous yeast while others are inoculated with commercial yeasts. All the reds go through malolactic fermentation, as do selected whites, such as Chardonnay.

As previously noted, the terraced vineyards surrounding Domaine du Daley are planted in a rich diversity of soil created by the combined forces of glaciers, rivers and mountains. After spending over four hours with Cyril tasting a variety of his wines, I came to the conclusion that this land’s enormous mineral complexity is perhaps best reflected in the alluring aroma and thirst-quenching taste of the winery’s Chasselas wines. Chasselas is a white grape variety that is also grown in France, Romania, Hungary and New Zealand, and is actually named after a French village in the Saône-et-Loire region. Despite its French name, DNA testing of the grape revealed that its birthplace is right here in the Vaud canton of southwest Switzerland; in the 17th century it was known here by the name Fendant. Today, Chasselas is the most important white variety in Vaud, accounting for about 66 per cent of its white wines. As we sampled more than one glass of his “Le Chasselas Grande Réserve” wine, which comes from old vines with low yields, Cyril warned us that its low alcohol level and refreshing citrus fruit tastes coax many into overindulging (forewarned is forearmed!). He also explained that it is this grape’s neutral character that allows it to readily express the terroir in which it is planted, which made me immediately more aware of this wine’s minerality.

We continued to sample more wines and nibble the ample supply of offered hor d’oeuvres, cheeses, and cured meats. While imbibing, Cyril informed us that the Japanese have become some of his most important customers, a development that unfolded a decade ago after the winery received a visit from Japanese wine lovers. As they toured the winery and tasted the Chasselas, these visitors mentioned that this white wine would be a particularly excellent pairing with sushi. Inspired and intrigued, Cyril soon spent an evening blending his Chasselas with small amounts of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, resulting in his version of “sushi wine,” which quickly became popular in a number of high-end restaurants in Japan.

As Japanese wine critic Katsuyuki Tanaka explains the appeal of Chasselas to the Japanese palate, “It is the wine closest to nothingness that I have ever tasted. … If you have a glass, you find yourself in its place of origin. You grasp the spirit of the people who vinified it. … In gastronomy, Chasselas supports the purity of a kitchen. … Inside, it possesses inner strength and spiritual domination. It resembles the character of the Swiss and Japanese people.”

During our time together, it was clear that Cryil shared Tanaka’s sentiments about the character compatibility of the two cultures. On more than one occasion he mentioned his respect for the way the Japanese approach both wine and gastronomy. Perhaps it is this mutual respect that explains why, today, Domaine du Daley is unique among Swiss wineries in that it sells a hefty portion of its bounty to restaurants in Japan. Most of the rest of the winery’s wines are sold to a relatively few number of Swiss wine négociants who work for high-end Swiss restaurants, meaning that you will not find any Domaine du Daley wines in local Swiss supermarkets.

As the sun dipped lower in the sky and as we all basked in the phenomenal beauty surrounding us, I reflected on the spirit of Cyril Séverin’s winemaking. The Domaine du Daley wines truly express the terroir of the Lavuax, but it could have been otherwise. When he was still “wet behind the ears” as a winemaker, had Cyril not had sufficient faith in the uniqueness of his grapes he might have allowed someone like Michel Rolland to “fix” them so that they were more accessible to consumers. Yet he knew even then that a homogenized international wine style was neither in keeping with his region’s winemaking traditions nor with his own instincts as a winemaker. In the coming years, as his expertise deepens and expands, I am certain that Cyril’s faith in his terroir will be the winery’s guiding North Star.

 

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