Swiss wine visit

From the Alps to Lake Biel

By Panos Kakaviatos for 

15 September 2018

Greetings dear readers – and sorry for a long absence.

Looking for a new apartment here in Strasbourg, and my work for the Council of Europe, which will be taking me to Vienna, Austria ; Odessa, Ukraine and Athens, Greece in the next few weeks … And I may have been listening to too many podcasts when not working.

So, as we approach the final days of summer, I want to highlight a visit to Switzerland, last month, when I tasted some fine Swiss wines, thanks to friend and fellow Bordeaux wine critic Yves Beck.

I see Yves at every barrel tasting season in Bordeaux, where we had met a few years ago.

And thanks to Michaela Gabriel, a professional wine taster whom I meet regularly as a judge for the biennial Mundus Vini wine tastings in Germany, as she co-owns a fine winery in Switzerland.

Excellent Pinot Noir and better than usual Chasselas 

But first let’s focus on a gorgeous sunny August morning near Neuchâtel, as I pulled into the driveway of Domaine Sainte-Sébaste in Saint-Blaise.

Yves drove up shortly afterwards, and we met with owner Jean-Pierre Kuntzer. He tends to 19 hectares of vines, after having taken over from his father since the mid 1980s. His grandparents owned a house with vineyards, but his parents Alice and Jean-Claude Kuntzer built the cellar in Saint-Blaise back in the 1950s.

The main grape variety for production is Pinot Noir, followed by Chasselas, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer.

Although we did not see any of the vines, it was great to view the vat room and to of course taste the wines.

Jean-Pierre Kuntzer with Yves Beck (seated) in the tasting room

If a tree fell in the forest ? 

As with most all Swiss producers, his wines are mainly sold to fellow Swiss. And it begs the question: Would you know if a tree fell in a forest, if nobody was there?

The very best wine we tried was a special cuvée of Pinot Noir, the Clos de la Perrière Neuchâtel 2015, which could easily rival a fine village Burgundy of the Côte de Nuits. Even a premier cru. At €44 a bottle, you may think it pricey, but actually it is a great price/quality ratio.

Excellent Pinot Noir: just 3,000 bottles per year

In Burgundy, that same quality would cost “€20 more”, remarked Yves. I would have guessed double the price.

But Kuntzer only makes 3,000 bottles a year – and all is sold in Switzerland.

Biodynamic precision

The wines of Domaine Sainte-Sébaste have gained in precision since 2012, remarked Beck, who knows the domain well.

Since that year, the domain cultivates its vines according to biodynamic principles and has been certified as such by Demeter.

This method is based on a search for balance between the vine and its environment, meaning the renunciation of chemicals, in favor of preparations from plant, animal and mineral materials to meant to protect the plant and fertilize the soil.

The first wine we tried counts among the more basic, and for me that is the test of a talented vintner and winemaker. Jean-Pierre passed the test because this was a tasty Chasselas-based white. At 11.8% alcohol, the Saint-Sébaste Selection AOC Neuchâtel 2017 came across light, yet with white flower and wet stone aspects that transcend what one’s “Chasselas expectation” may be.

I like the salinity on the palate, too. Interesting to note, Yves said, that while other parts of Switzerland were struck by hail, the Neuchâtel region was spared, and thus had a better vintage.

Tasted again recently at a barbecue party in Strasbourg, and many people appreciated it. Glad I purchased a six pack, well worth the €12.60 price.

No need for “fûts de chêne” designation 

In assessing the wines in a lovely tasting room, I was struck by some image issues that reminded me of Greece.

For example, Kuntzer recently decided to stop adding the text “fûts de chêne” on labels for bottles whose wine was aged in some oak, because it sounds a bit cheap. Yves agreed. Such a designation makes me think of inexpensive Bordeaux supermarket wine … And I encountered the same issue with some Greek wine producers a few years ago.

Anyway, I digress a bit, but this goes to show how “Old World” wine producing countries can vary in maturity when it comes to image creation of fine wine.

Other wines tried included a tasty Chardonnay Reserve 2016 that is aged in 20% new oak – and for which until recently the “fûts de chêne” designation was on the front label. The wine exuded crushed mint, green apple, and hints of oak, but rather more a compliment of oak derived flavors, than being obtrusive. I liked the overall freshness on the palate, and it clocked in at 12.5% alcohol.  And since that vintage, the oak information is only on the back label. Wise choice!

Perhaps even better was the cuvée Chardonnay Les Nonnes 2015. Coming from a warmer vintage, which scared me a bit, it was nonetheless more complex. Sure, a bit more alcohol (13%) and more yellow stone fruit than white, more yellow apple than green, it was agreeably rich on the nose, almost giving off an impression of aromatic “sweetness”, but the impression was of a dry white on the palate.

The Sauvignon Blanc, by contrast, was not as interesting, also aged in a bit of oak, but with a rather more varietal character.

Finally, we went red. As said, the star of the show proved was the 2015. Sure a warmer vintage, but this suited the grape well. With about the same alcohol level as the 2016 – 13% – it had greater depth, no doubt because the vines are in a special plot with more limestone and a better clearly southern exposure that heightens the ripeness. Aged with about 20% new oak for 12 months, only 3,000 bottles are made of this excellent juice. I am glad to have purchased three bottles. Spherical, ripe and very “Pinot” with notes of fresh earth as well as bright red berry fruit.

Michaela Gabriel and Yves Beck at Johanniter Keller

Charm and substance at Johanniter Keller

From the get go, the wines of this estate please the taster with both charm and seriousness.

Of course an estate is only as good as its more simple bottlings and Johanniter Keller – run by winemaker Martin Hubacher and his partner Michaela Gabriel – has a Pinot Blanc that fits the French phrase “boire comme du petit lait”, which means very easy to drink because it is so yummy.

The Johanniter Selection 2017 – made from Chasselas – was delicious and smooth, and clocking in at 11.8 per cent alcohol, a vibrant drink. It was fascinating to taste as well the 2009 vintage of the same wine, at 12% alcohol, to show that well made Chasselas can age. And Chasselas wine has been a tradition here since the 1945 vintage, when Fritz Hubacher sold a wine under the name “Johanniter” for the first time.

A bit of history 

Still, the history of the Johanniter cellar, like other Swiss domains traces back centuries. In the 13th century, many Swiss monasteries and abbeys owned wineries on Lake Biel. The house in front of the Twanner church belonged to the Order of St. John. In 1528 it was secularized by the state of Bern. But it was not until the mid 19th century that the canton sold the estate to the Hubacher family. In 1994, Martin Hubacher took over the business from his father.
In 2008, the sales room was rebuilt – it is a charming place! The wines can be tasted in an ambience that meets the quality of the wines.

When we go to the Pinot Blanc 2016, which clocks in at per cent alcohol, I was very seduced by its creamy and immediately smooth and tasty aspects of white flowers and stone fruit. Michaela proposed a few bottles in exchange for bottles from my wine cellar, and I asked for two of these.

Among the whites and perhaps all the wines we tasted, what stole more the show for me was the Chardonnay Lac de Bienne AOC Chardonnay 2016, which Yves scored in the mid 90s, and I get it. The 30% new oak is well integrated to complete a wine both nuanced and fresh in aspect, its 12.8% alcohol providing fine balance to 5.5 grams of acidity. A very smooth and serious drink. I was happy to be able to have one of the bottles, because the estate is sold out, now.

Elegant wine, elegant label

The 2017 was very good, too, but perhaps not quite as fabulously balanced as the 2016. But it could be just because the 2017 is too young at this stage, and will prove just as good later.

What got us in the mood for a hearty lunch however was the Oeil De Perdrix Lac de Bienne AOC 2017. The color is onion peel pink and the charming strawberry bouquet with touches of red cherry very refreshing and appealing, made from Pinot Noir grapes. But this wine rosé is quite vinous, quite rich and I could easily have it with roast chicken. The palate is more raspberry with a pleasing zing, even if the wine – at 13% alcohol – conveys richness.

Of course Michaela and I go back a few years, as we met tasting together at Mundus Vini, and it was great to finally visit her domain – a gorgeous place overlooking Lake Biel. We enjoyed a grilled lunch for which I helped to prepare salad, using spices and herbs from her garden, while Yves grilled the meats. Later that evening, we enjoyed top flight wines from outside of Switzerland (Yves brought along a 1999 Mouton Rothschild): more about that dinner on this page of my blog.

Wine and cheese overlooking Lake Biel

From noble Pinot Noir to Nobling 

The reds were very good, too. I enjoyed the Pinot Noir Lac de Bienne AOC 2017, showing off raspberries and other red fruit aromas and flavors and smooth tannins. There is a lighter elegance to this wine that invites drinking, which we did. And while it can be enjoyed young, one can age it for three years or so for a bit more earthiness. I think it is a good deal at under $20. The Pinot Noir Réserve Lac de Bienne AOC 2016, aged with some oak, showed a slightly reductive aspect at first, but then revealed deeper and darker fruit, with Pinot typicity. It clocked in at 13.5% alcohol – higher than its Pinot Noir counterpart tasted before, at 13% alcohol. The oak was noticeable but not obtrusive. Certainly the wine displayed superior precision and depth. At about $30, the price is merited.

Another red that was delicious was the Saint Laurent Lac de Bienne AOC 2015, which was put into bottle in February this year. Although “almost too young” remarked Michaela, I just fell for its refined palate texture. Sure, it had density, but there was also precision in its expression of damson and red cherries as well as touches of chocolate. The 12.8 per cent alcohol was well balanced by 4.7 grams of acidity per liter, and this wine has the tannins to age well for a decade.

I must say, too, that the elegance of the domain, both its interior and exterior, is mirrored by a fine choice of classical labeling that immediately appeals. When I brought a bottle of Pinot Blanc to enjoy with friends, they remarked positively about its classical and clean label. They also liked the wine, which is more important …

One of the most interesting wines we tried at Johanniter Keller was the made from the Nobling grape, which is a crossing between Silvaner and Chasselas. Dubbed Oräntsch, which – in German – is pronounced like orange. The seven-hectare estate, with vines on gorgeous slopes overlooking the Biel Lake, only started to harvest this grape in 2016, so this is their first vintage (photo above).

Yes, an orange wine in der Schweiz! Fermented in open wood tanks, and aged one year in used oak barrels, with no sulfites added. The wine is then placed in steel tanks from which it is bottled, unfiltered. It has a slightly amber-yellow outlook, with aromas of raisins and cinnamon. The palate showed fine acidity with flavors of herbs and ripe green apple. I did not get an overly oxidative aspect, and enjoyed it with some cheeses. As part of our exchange of bottles, I got one to take home as well, but have not yet again tried it. From memory, it was enjoyable!

It is not so surprising to read that the wines from this estate have earned many awards in recent years. The website, which is only in German, includes a “top 100” counting awards from well respected contests, including Mundus Vini, Gault & Millau, Expovina (Zurich) and Concours Mondial de Bruxelles among others.

If you ever do a Swiss wine route, do not hesitate to include Johanniter Keller on your itinerary.

Domain Angelrath in Twann Bielersee 

Another fine producer in Twann and not too far from Johanniter Keller is the The Bielersee wine with the characteristics a family estate run since 1999 by Ursula Angelrath.

She grows traditional varieties in just over two hectares of vines including Chasselas and Pinot Noir, as well as the white specialties Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. As usual on Lake Biel, the wines are vinified in their own cellars and sold primarily to private customers.

By this time I was not taking as careful notes, but the wines were all very pleasing and the labels amusing for their evocative adjectives. Apparently, in conservative Switzerland, such use of evocative adjectives proved “controversial” – at least according to this news report (in German).

But how silly can that be? Indeed, I enjoyed the labels for being appropriate to the wines. Take for example the Chardonnay Bielersee 2017 “pfiffig & en vogue”, meaning at once snazzy and smart and … in vogue. Made without any oak influence, the 2017 vintage comes across very fresh and bright, with some subtle white pepper notes that perhaps accentuate that snazzy aspect. At 13% the wine has depth and body but its hallmark is a brisk green apple aspect. Indeed, the wine did not undergo malolactic fermentation.

I also enjoyed very much her Twanner Chasselas Bielersee 2017, which exhibited a light straw color, a lively nose with citrus notes. True to the label adjectives here – leicht und prickelnd (German for light and tingly) – the palate was indeed lively and bright, with pleasing white peach and stone fruit aspects. Overall, straightforwardly dry, with refreshing acidity: a fine way to start a summer evening.














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