At a time in which American wine drinkers are spoiled for choice, Swiss wine—which traces its origins back at least to Roman times—remains an enigma. Switzerland’s self-sufficient and insular nature accounts for this in part, as locals consume nearly 99% of the country’s 15,000 hectares worth of production each year. Price has traditionally presented another hurdle, as Switzerland’s relative wealth, combined with the labor-intensive nature of its Alpine viticulture, ensures that the bar for entry is quite high. However, given the steadily rising prices in the blue-chip regions of France and Italy, Swiss prices that seemed extreme ten or fifteen years ago look far more manageable in 2020, and the best of these incredibly distinctive wines actually offer true value.
As enchanting as the idea of Swiss wine is—these rolling hills and wide valleys encircled by the majestic Alps constitute one of the most stunning vinicultural areas in the world—the reality is, in many cases, underwhelming. When a grower can easily sell his production to loyal locals year after year, there is little incentive to truly stand out, and indeed the vast majority of Swiss wine is made from chemically farmed, often irrigated vineyards and produced in a highly technical fashion. The spirit of non-interventionism and environmentally conscious vineyard care has not caught on here to the extent that it has in its neighboring lands, but there are a small number of notable and exciting exceptions to that rule…
With her family’s six hectares in the Coteaux de Sierre zone of the Valais, Sandrine Caloz represents the vanguard of this cadre of naturally minded Swiss winegrowers, and her wines combine a pre-technological sensibility with an intelligent, schooled precision. She modestly claims to make wine the way her grandfather Fernand did, and indeed the enameled tanks crammed into the tiny cellar underneath the family home are the very ones Fernand and her father Conrad used before her. When we began working with the Caloz family a dozen years ago, Sandrine—then in her early twenties—was learning alongside her father, and she still speaks with utmost admiration for his preternatural skills among the vines. Still, while her wines proceed clearly from those of her forebears, Sandrine brings an additional element of searching, exacting focus to her work, and hers are among the most remarkably expressive and pure wines produced in Switzerland today.
When Sandrine shows us around the vineyards, her parcels are easily identifiable: islands of vibrant, vegetation-laden green amidst vast neighboring tracts of chemically neutered grey dirt. Conrad began the conversion to chemical-free farming in the 1990s, and Sandrine went the extra mile, attaining organic certification with the 2017 vintage, and garnering “Organic Winemaker of the Year” status from the certifying organization Bio Suisse in 2019. Sandrine tirelessly proselytizes the virtues of responsible winegrowing to a new generation of growers, and her encyclopedic knowledge, piercing intellect, and deep human warmth make her a phenomenal teacher and advocate.
Like her predecessors, Sandrine’s modus operandi in the cellar is minimal and unfussy, allowing site and variety to carry the day: only indigenous yeasts are employed for fermentation; aging occurs in the aforementioned old enameled tanks for one year without racking; sulfur is used sparingly (only just post-malolactic-fermentation and neither at harvest nor at bottling); and the wines are bottled with just a non-sterile filtration. She has been experimenting with whole-cluster fermentation and zero-sulfur elevage on a portion of her Pinot Noir crop over the past few vintages, and we will track those developments with excitement.
With the just-arrived 2018s, Sandrine has achieved heretofore unseen levels of chiseled precision in her white wines—no mean feat in the often scorching-hot vineyards of the Valais—along with a palate-staining minerality to rival the greatest German or Austrian Rieslings. Her reds remain uncommonly compelling for the terroir, combining thrilling tension with crunchy Alpine fruit and a spicy-savory quality reminiscent of the Northern Rhône (a river that, in fact, originates in the Valais) which grows more prominent with time in bottle. Few do justice to this most Alpine of regions like Sandrine, and all lovers of terroir owe it to themselves to experience the amazing work this young woman is doing; if she were producing wine in a more historically hallowed appellation, these would undoubtedly be highly allocated, heavily Instagrammed, and far more expensive.
2018 Fendant “La Mourzière” Valais
The most widely planted white variety in Switzerland, Fendant (known elsewhere as Chasselas) can occasionally suffer from low acidity and an overly neutral character; not so with Sandrine’s, which sizzles on the palate and offers a muscular, mouth-coating minerality. Hailing from steep chalk-rich slopes in the historically renowned vineyard zone of La Mourzière, the 2018 Fendant displays lemon verbena, raw almonds, white pepper, and smoke in its aromatic and flavor profiles, with a density that belies its modest 12% alcohol.
2018 Petite Arvine “La Mourzière” Valais
Petite Arvine ranks among the most complex and long-lived of indigenous Alpine varieties, and Sandrine’s—from terraced vines in the Les Clives cru within La Mourzière—rivals great dry Mosel Riesling in its combination of hyper-focused acidity and nearly overwhelming minerality. Alpine smoke shows up as a grace note here, as intriguing flavors of anise, flambéed bananas, and orange blossom weave together on the strikingly long but squeaky-clean palate. This offers some of the sense of weight one gets in a Northern Rhône white, but with a dramatically brisker profile than anything to be found in that category.
2018 Heida-Païen “Les Bernunes” Valais
The ancient Savagnin is planted sparingly in the Valais as well, where it is known as either “Heida” or “Païen” depending on which language is being spoken in this polyglot locale. A far cry from its salty brethren across the mountains in the Jura, the Savagnin from here is rich and dry, with mouth-coating viscosity and a real sense of lurking power. From her family’s small parcel in the limestone soils of Les Bernunes, Sandrine’s Heida-Païen is her most full-bore white wine, with gushing, thick, exotic fruit corseted by strict, punchy minerality, and a streak of white-hot acidity that promises years of positive evolution in bottle.
2018 Gamay “La Mourzière” Valais
Sandrine’s Gamay is planted in the poor-soiled limestone vineyard Les Fontanettes, which sits above her hometown of Miège in the commune of La Mourzière. Produced in classic semi-carbonic fashion, the 2018 Gamay evokes the purest and most vivid strawberry, with glimmers of white pepper and Indian spices. The palate is seamless, with the strawberry theme echoing; actually, it’s very much like biting into that elusive Perfect Strawberry, where the acid is bright and clean and the fruit is ripe and succulent, and the whole thing is just so delicious that you just know, at the moment you’re eating it: fruit doesn’t get any better than this. Even the most coveted of Beaujolais growers rarely craft Gamay at this level.
2018 Pinot Noir “La Mourzière” Valais
The finicky Pinot Noir is particularly well-suited to the limestone soils and extreme diurnal temperature shifts of this part of the Valais, and, like her Syrah below, Sandrine’s version rivals its French counterparts in its racy purity. Swiss red wines, however, rarely display marked tannins—Sandrine certainly does nothing impose any undue structure upon her wines—and her Pinot Noir instead derives its pristine sense of architecture from acidity and spice. A subdued sense of smokiness adds complexity, and the licorice-tinged fruits flirt with confiture but stop well short, coating the palate with juicy, mountain-herb-tinged red berries. While unmistakably Alpine, this deftly splits the difference between fans of Burgundy and fans of the New World in terms of potential appeal.
2018 Syrah “Les Bernunes” Valais
As some locals like to joke, the Valais is “the real Northern Rhône.” The mighty Rhône, after all, originates high up in the Swiss Alps, and Syrah finds a particularly gorgeous expression in these high-elevation vineyards—similarly savory and peppery to its French brethren, yet more ethereal and less stern, with a sense of lift difficult to find further downriver. Sandrine’s Syrah is remarkably spicy, offering gutsy flavors of black licorice alongside pretty red-cherry notes and mild, fresh tannins; it is a wine of seeming contradictions that manages to hang together beautifully, and its lurking mineral potency should emerge more fully with a few years of age.
2018 Humagne Rouge “Les Bernunes” Valais
The indigenous Humagne Rouge—confusingly, the same variety as Cornalin in the Valle d’Aosta—offers one of the Valais’ most singular drinking experiences, both smokier and more scruffily analog in feel than Syrah, and with a penetrating sense of dryness. Sandrine’s is in fact racier and more linear than either her Syrah or her Pinot Noir, but its sense of minerality exceeds that of the other reds in the cellar, and the wine has proven its durability in the cellar through numerous examples we at Rosenthal have enjoyed over the years.