Old is beautiful, and Swiss wines are no exception

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Humagne blanc 2007, Caprice du Temps, Miège, a far cry from the almost rustic young wine: robe of a deep yellow and remarkable clarity, stillness; powerful notes of flint followed by pineapple; in mouth: round, mellow and mouth-filling

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My wine last Saturday at home: a Humagne blanc 2007 from Caprice du Temps had enough character to go well with a mild chicken curry

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – The Swiss, for those who don’t know it yet, are very good at whipping up extraordinary gastronomic feasts. Switzerland has 100 Michelin starred restaurants in 2013, one of the highest per capita ratings in the world, and it has local wines that can hold their own at such meals.

It’s not surprising, then, that Swiss wine consumers, with well-trained noses and taste buds, should show a growing interest in older vintage wines. Switzerland doesn’t have a history of large-scale wine aging.

Wineries are mostly family operations and land is expensive and hard to buy, plus sitting on the wine for several years requires a level of investment that small businesses can rarely afford.

Historically, barrel rooms for oaking wine have been a luxury.

This is changing. Swiss wineries are opting for quality over quantity and a greater mix of top-line wines.

My wakeup call on this came in 2009, when I visited Sierre for a vertical tasting session by the Memoire des Vins Suisses group (MDVS), tasting several vintages of the same wine. I had my first Chasselas that wasn’t from the previous autumn’s harvest. I was puzzled, intrigued, and not entirely convinced – but at least I had the good sense to recognize it was because I didn’t understand what to expect from an older white wine.

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Vertical tasting of Vaud Chasselas wines at Chateau Chatagneréaz, Mont-sur-Rolle in November 2010

Then in 2010, the Clos, Domaines & Châteaux group organized a tasting of a large number of older vintages of Chasselas, wines that bore little relation to their light, fresh young versions and that changed my ideas about old vintage white wines.

I had previously assumed only reds could age well, with a few exceptions. Not true.

The Frères Dubois in Cully held a vertical tasting in September 2012, one decade of their Dézaley Vase 4 Grand Cru wines, a wonderful opportunity to see the impact of each  vintage on just one wine from one terroir: each was distinct, as they were, clearly, when young. But with age, the distinctive features of each vintage became more apparent.

I saw this again last November when another tasting session of Chasselas wines, a food and wine pairing but with several older vintages, was organized in Lausanne by the Association for the Promotion of Chasselas. A commentary on the wines was made by Jerome Aké, the sommelier at Auberge de l’Onde in St Saphorin, as famous for his poetic descriptions of wines as for his knowledge of Swiss wines (he was the Swiss Sommelier of the Year a few years ago).

Discovering what I like about older white wines

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Jerome Aké, sommelier and maitre d’ at the Auberge de l’Onde in St Saphorin, Vaud

Jerome on the nose of a 1998 Yvorne Chateau Maison Blanche (my translation from his French): “Intense yellow robe with touches of gold and  yellow mimosa reflections, good viscosity with tears clearly visible. A complex first nose with notes of citrus fruits and a hint of petrol, evolving towards dried fruits, nuts and fruits soaked in alcohol. After swirling, the second nose takes us down a path of minerals and spice, with notes of damp earth, nutmeg and curry powder.”

The wine in mouth, which he described well, was perfect, leading us to think of Tio pépé and lemons, a well-balanced wine with “remarkable freshness, worthy of great Rieslings as they develop.” The wine’s finish was marked by mineral freshness, making it perfect for fine cuisine.

We had it with coquilles Saint Jacques.

And there, I think, Jerome helped me see what it is I like about well-aged white wines: when they are good, they are surprisingly fresh.

A public new to older vintage wines can find it puzzling and even confusing to taste them on their own: if your idea of a Chasselas is crisp and mineral and very young, you might need complementary food to appreciate a 10- or 15-year-old version of the same wine, with its darker colour, nose of toast and beeswax and roundness in mouth.

Other white grape varieties age well, too

Chateau Lichten, Leuk in canton Valais

Chateau Lichten, Leuk in canton Valais

The same is true for other grape varieties, not just Chasselas.

I discovered how well Petite Arvine can age, at the Rouvinez winery in Sierre in August 2012 when the family hosted a vertical tasting session.

Petite Arvine is one of my favourite wines, with grapefruit and sometimes lemon notes and a slightly salty finish that I love (if you’re not into salty finishes, just a note to reassure you: the wine is not salted!).

I found it hard to imagine how it would age well.

The first Chateau Lichten Petite Arvine, from vines on a hillside near Leuk – you drive above them as you head up to Leukebad/Loèche-les-bains – was put on the market in 1994, and we tasted 10 wines from that year to 2010. The 2002 in particular but also the 2004 were startling: lemon and grapefruit notes very much in evidence, and beautifully fresh in mouth.

For a detailed description of the wines we tasted, Lauret Probst wrote a lengthy blog post (French).

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Aged sweet, late harvest wines at a tasting session for professionals and friends organized by Maurice Zufferey and Denis & Catherine Mercier to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their two wineries in Sierre, in February 2013. These are among Switzerland’s finest wines, most of them made from grapes left to wither on the vine, with an excellent aging capacity.

A very special vertical tasting took place in Sierre in February, hosted by two members of the MDVS, Denis & Catherine Mercier and Maurice Zufferey, who jointly celebrated the 30th anniversaries of running their wineries. They brought out several vintages from their wine collections for a small group, using the wines as a springboard to discuss their problems and successes in aging different wines.

Cornalin, which today is widely considered one of canton Valais’s most successful native grape wines, was saved from near distinction by Zufferey’s uncle, Claude Calot, with whom he worked as a young wie producer. He has been making Cornalin for several years, and the older vintages were beautiful.

The Nuits des Vieux Millésimes is born

Journalists, sommeliers and special guests tasting older vintage Mercier and Zufferey wines (Alexandre Truffer, far right)

Journalists, sommeliers and special guests tasting older vintage Mercier and Zufferey wines, at the 105 year old Chateau Mercier in Sierre (Alexandre Truffer, far right)

Wine writer Alexandre Truffer had the foresight in 2012 to see that the best way to help wine-lovers explore the growing collection of older vintage Swiss wines would be to have very good chefs create meals around them.

The Nuit des Vieux Millésimes was born: wineries with older vintages join forces with chefs in French-speaking Switzerland for one night and diners can take their pick. The 2012 night was a great success, with 10 restaurants, and this year 15 were part of the project, with long waiting lists for some of the restaurants, all of which offered the special menu and wines Thursday 28 February.

I joined about 80 people at Le Crans in the resort of Crans-Montana, for a meal featuring older vintages of nine sweet wines, a feat I doubted could really work (I was wrong).

Alexandre organized another event last Saturday, an older vintages fair in Morges, where the public could try vertical tastings, several vintages of the same wines, from a number of different producers.

Golden opportunity to taste some, in 10 days in Ticino

The Memoire des Vins Suisses deserves some special credit for encouraging wineries to move in the direction of aging. The group, 50 of the country’s best producers, has created a bank of wines. They each add to the stock of their original, selected wine in the “bank” each year. They share their knowledge of what helps a wine age well when they meet once a year, each time in a different corner of the country, with its own geographic and climatic conditions. They taste the wines to see how they are aging.

And they invite the public in to sample their wines. Put Bellinzona on your agenda, 14 March from 14:00-18:00 for the next Trésors du Vin Suisse tasting session. It’s free if you register in advance online or CHF20 to just show up at the door.

Coming next: How to eat a 9-course dinner and drink 9 sweet wines