Philip Day looks to Switzerland not to procure an exquisite example of Swiss horology but rather the domestically produced fine wine, Weingut Gantenbein.
This article about Weingut Gantenbein, Graubünden, Switzerland includes the history, viticulture and an overview of the vineyard’s portfolio of wines.
Switzerland is not noted for being one the most famous of wine-producing nations, but this small, mountainous country in western Europe has a history of making wine for more than two thousand years. Like in one of its neighbours, France, the spread of viticulture was mainly driven by monastic orders during the Middle Ages. The majority of the wine produced at that time were generally weaker and lacking in flavour than the cheaper full-bodied wines from the warmer regions of France, notably the Rhone Valley, situated further south, meant that domestic sales were affected by these better quality imports.
The wine-growers of Switzerland were hit particularly hard during the phylloxera outbreak of the 1860s. Consequently, the number of the country’s productive vineyard areas were virtually halved. Allied by increasing competition from the resurgence of other wine producing regions in the early 20th century, there was little incentive for Swiss vignerons to re-establish their plantings.
These days, Swiss wine’s lack of fame is not as a result of any lack of quality or quantity, but because it is produced for consumption, in the main, by the Swiss themselves.
The wine-producing area of this little country of some eight million people with four national languages and home to some of the most extreme geography per square kilometre of any European nation, is roughly half that (around 15,000 hectares) of the Burgundy region of France (around 29,000 hectares).
The cliché often repeated outside of Switzerland for years has been that their wines are so good the Swiss keep them all for themselves. The reality is that the Swiss don’t make enough fine wine to meet their own needs: typically 60 percent of wine consumed is imported. The majority of their small wineries producing hand-crafted wines can’t compete on price with mass-market produced imported wines, especially true given the strength of the Swiss currency and following the lifting of import controls some 20 years ago. No wonder then that only around 1.5 percent of Swiss wine is exported.
The nucleus of the vine-growing territories of Switzerland are located around its edges, leaving the centre of the country largely vineyard-free. The majority of the vineyards are located in the south-west around the northern side of Lake Geneva, under the jurisdiction of the Swiss cantons of Vaud (Canton de Vaud), the second largest wine region; Geneva (République et Canton de Genève), the third largest wine area) and along the upper stretches of the River Rhone in the alpine Valais canton (Canton du Valais/Kanton Wallis), the largest Swiss wine region. These three regions, all predominantly French speaking, account for about 75 percent of all Swiss wine produced.
There are also significant areas of vine-growing in the western canton of Neuchâtel (la République et canton de Neuchâtel); the southern most Swiss Italian canton (Ticino), the eastern canton of Graubünden (Kanton Graubünden/Canton de Grisons/Chantun Grischun/Cantone dei Grigioni) the only officially trilingual canton (German, Romansh and Italian) and the only canton where the Romansh language has official status; and finally scattered around Zürich, in the north, is the area known as the Zürcher Weinland, not forgetting the cantons of Aargau (Kanton Aargau) and Schaffhausen (Kanton Schaffhausen).
The Swiss don’t produce much of the lower-end wines because the wines they do produce are mostly artisan products. The relatively small vine parcels and vineyards, often grown on steep slopes, limit drastically the vineyard work that can be undertaken by machine. Swiss growers, however, are pioneers in producing environmentally friendly wines, using sustainable farming methods, and many have begun making biodynamic wines.
Because many Swiss wines are made in relatively small quantities, producers have trouble meeting quantity requirements of wholesalers or large retailers in other countries, meaning they fail to benefit from the savings that could be achieved through large-scale shipping and handling.
The government body in charge of the Swiss appellation system, the OIC, has a separate title for each of the country’s three official languages: ‘Organisme Intercantonal de Certification’ in francophone areas; ‘Interkantonale Zertifizierungsstelle’ in German and ‘Organismo Intercantonale di Certificazione’ in Italian. The system is based on the French appellation system and was developed during the 1980s and finally came into force in the 1990s. Like France’s INAO, the OIC is responsible for delineating the official Swiss wine regions, as well as creating and enforcing wine quality guidelines and laws.
Chasselas is Switzerland’s main white-wine grape, although its dominance is gradually ceding ground to more popular ‘international’ varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The name it goes by changes from region to region, but it still manages to account for one-third of the country’s vineyard area. In the German-speaking north, it is known as ‘Gutedel’, while in the French-speaking south-west, its name includes ‘Fendant’ (Valais Canton),’Dorin’ or ‘Perlan’ (Geneva).
Other common white varieties grown in Swiss vineyards include Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer.
More red than white wine is produced and consumed in Switzerland, roughly 58 and 42 percent, respectively, which may surprise many people. Pinot Noir (known as Blauburgunder to several wineries in the north) is the most widely planted red-wine variety. The next most popular is Gamay, used in the production of light, fruit-driven, ‘everyday’ wines, or blended together with Pinot Noir, particularly in the western regions, to produce Dôle and Goron wines.
Finally there is Merlot, which has proved remarkably successful in Ticino Canton, on the Italian border, since it was first introduced there in the early 20th century. A small amount of Syrah has also done well, in the warmest parts of the central Valais.
The villages of Switzerland’s Bündner Herrschaft have been famous since medieval times for the quality of their wine. On the edge of the wine-growing village of Fläsch in the Grisons Rhine Valley stands a striking ensemble of buildings standing proud amongst the vineyards: The Gantenbein Winery, where since 1982, Martha and Daniel Gantenbein have been producing wine and writing their own wine history, gaining themselves international acknowledgement in the process and their wines cult status.
Martha and Daniel Gantenbein have known each other for a long time, first meeting, while Martha was still attending school and Daniel was doing an apprenticeship as a machine technician. They soon became a couple and, together they took over the winery run by Martha’s family in 1981, learning the trade from the bottom up.
Initially, they were happy to simply produce a good local wine. However, as each year they benefited from new knowledge and experience, they turned their backs on producing run of the mill local wines that could quite easily be produced at a lower cost in almost any other location, deciding instead to focus on producing the best quality wines they could achieve – wines they would be happy to put their name to.
They soon realized that if they were to achieve their goal, they needed to free themselves from the wide range of wines typically produced in that area. Numerous trips – mainly to Burgundy and to the Mosel, sampling the finest bottlings from the very top domaines from both these regions – confirmed the couple’s decision to restrict themselves to three grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling.
They began by tearing up the existing vines and supplanting them with selected Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones from Burgundy, together with a little Riesling. Then they proceeded to fine-tune their wines.
The Gantenbein’s first success came quickly. Typically, most producers offer different categories of wine made from the same grape, with the quality and price varying according to factors such as where the grapes came from in the vineyards, the age of the vines, the yield and other variables. Martha and Daniel however, do things differently. The success of putting all their effort into producing just three wines of optimum quality, based on each of the grape varietals grown, lead to international acknowledgement during the course of the 1990s. This had the effect of making Gantenbein wines become rare and eagerly sought-after.
Daniel & Martha Gantenbein
Total: 6.07 hectares (15 acres)
Red: Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder, Klävner)
White: Chardonnay, Riesling, Chasselas (Fendant, Perlant, Gutedel.
Weingut Daniel & Martha Gantenbein Pinot Noir.
Weingut Daniel & Martha Gantenbein Chardonnay.
Weingut Daniel & Martha Gantenbein Riesling.
Plus a small amount of Beerenauslese and an eau-de-vie.
Calcareous sedimentary soils. The area is favoured by the southern winds (“Föhn”) which helps the maturation process of the grapes.
Around 30,000 bottles annually.
|Top Vintages Produced|
1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014
The Gantenbein’s knew from the start that the vine is the key to great wine, hence their commitment to planting burgundy clones in their vineyards. They also learned that it is essential for the grape to maintain its quality on its journey from the vine to the bottle, so they organised and refined their production processes accordingly.
The overriding principle of the Gantenbein’s is to produce singular wines of an optimum quality and consequently all their efforts are geared toward that outcome.
They devote an astounding amount of attention to detail in every stage of grape management – from the moment the grape is plucked by hand from the vine and cherished on its route to the cellar.
As far as Daniel is concerned, the most important thing is and will always be the fruit that the vineyard produces. Each vine is a unique, separate entity, that needs to be pampered and cared for.
Today, the couple run the estate themselves, together with just one other employee, and the occasional assistance from an extra two women hired for the leaf trimming. The largest part of the vineyard, an area of 12.5 acres (5.06 hectares) is dedicated to Pinot Noir. Chardonnay is grown on an additional 2.5 acres (1.01 hectares), while Riesling covers an area of only 0.5 acres (0.2 hectares).
Working in harmony with the land and using gravitational systems to get the grapes from the vines to the crush, the Gantenbeins have created a full, structured style of wines that subtlety focus on their individual complexity and elegance, that are unique to their winery.
The grapes are always picked manually in small boxes and are de-stemmed though not crushed with about 20 per cent of the fruit remaining as whole bunches. The fruit is then placed into open wooden fermenters, which have been chilled down.
Pre-fermentation at 4° C is allowed to take place for up to 14 days before the temperature of the fermenters is raised again to 13° C and fermentation proper starts. Aiming for a temperature of around 32° C towards the end of this process, over a period of about a week, the Gantenbeins undertake two or three punch-downs per day. Next comes pressing, when the press wine is racked by gravity into oak barrels for an ageing process of 14-15 months. Malolactic fermentation usually is not encouraged before spring. Before bottling, the contents of all the barrels are brought together in a large steel vat. The wine is bottled unfined and unfiltered and typically, the whole production leaves the estate over a short period of just one week. The barrels are renewed every year.
One could say that the Gantenbeins motto during their continued search for perfection has been “compare, learn, improve”, since it has led to a number of experiments. For example, in 1991, the couple used only large, German oak barrels to age the wine and the wine they produced received the accolade of the best of its year nationally and internationally. Following the use of oak barrels, the next idea was to ferment part of the harvest in oak barriques (225L barrels). Since 1993, that is all they have been using. The oak barrels the Gantenbeins use are made from wood that has been air-dried for three entire years.
Two years later, they took another decisive step: to only produce wine without filtration. The rationale for such an unusual step for wine makers in Switzerland was their argument that many valuable ingredients are lost from the wine during the purifying process of filtration.
In 2008 the wine estate enlarged the old wine cellar, replacing it with an architecturally sophisticated new cellar building, designed by architects Valentin Bearth, Andrea Deplazes and Daniel Ladner. It houses an additional space for labelling the wine bottles along with a wine-tasting station in the basement, a cuverie (a fermentation bay) on the ground floor and a restaurant on the top floor.
The brick façade, made of special tiles, has been designed so that it allows optimal temperature equalization. It was created by Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler in their studio of digital fabrication at the Technical University in Zurich (ETH) and realised by a robot at the brick-works of Christian Keller.
With its computer-designed ‘intelligent wall’ of brick tiles angled to filter and refract just the right amount of light throughout the day; everything is designed with such mechanical precision to maximise the use of space but minimise labour, whilst ensuring the gentlest possible handling of grapes, juice and wine as they moves through their various stages. The flow of the must and wine is carried out just by means of gravity, meaning that neither pumps nor filters are needed.
- Weingut Daniel & Martha Gantenbein Pinot Noir, Graubünden, Switzerland
Releases available: 1998-2014
- Weingut Daniel & Martha Gantenbein Chardonnay, Graubünden , Switzerland
Releases available: 2005-2014 (2009, 2011, 2012)
- Weingut Daniel & Martha Gantenbein Riesling, Graubünden , Switzerland
Releases available:2008 and 2013
- Weingut Daniel & Martha Gantenbein Pinot Noir Vieux Marc, Graubünden, Switzerland
An eau-de-vie produced from their own distillery. Wine lees, some wine and grape pomace (the solid remains of grapes after pressing their juice. Also known as ‘marc’ in French, hence the name.) is distilled in order to separate impurities from the alcohol and the spirits obtained and stored for 15 years in oak barrels before blending.
Releases available:1991, 1994, 1996, 2003.
- Weingut Daniel & Martha Gantenbein Riesling Spätlese, Graubünden , Switzerland
A luscious, well-balanced dessert wine produced in 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014.
The results achieved by Martha and Daniel Gantenbein’s labours have given the wines cult status and placed them soundly in the ‘very thin on the ground’ category. It isn’t even possible to turn up at the cellar hoping to purchase some, as visits are strictly by appointment but, even then, you would find the wines are always sold out. If you are in Switzerland, you will find them on the wine lists of several of Switzerland’s top restaurants, if not, all is not lost as you may be able to purchase them through the small network of worldwide distributors that are listed helpfully, on their website.
Address: Gantenbein Wine
Martha & Daniel Gantenbein
Telephone: +41 81 302 47 88