Gravner in the morning, arvine at noon, Sagrantino for dinner – and some thoughts about Swiss drinking and driving laws.

What an interesting day in wine tasting yesterday was.

It started out almost accidentally, when I stopped by the tasting room of Christophe Abbet, an excellent vigneron based in Martigny, in Switzerland, to get a couple of bottles of his wines to bring home to Quebec (including a bottle of the delightful Ambre, a slowly-matured dessert wine made from arvine and marsanne – but more on that later).

Christophe and I, along with my father-in-law and my brother-in-law and other friends and guests of his, had tasted several of his wines, two days earlier, and I’d been very impressed by the quality of his wines. We’d obviously hit it off rather well, because on this late morning, he pulled out a glass and had me taste a white wine he’d had in the tasting room with some friends, the evening before. Lovely wine, delicate yet intense, with a slightly oxidized set of flavors – fresh-cut apples, most noticeably: a Moenchberg grand cru Riesling from 1985, no less. Still exceptionally fresh. Wish I’d taken the time to note the name of the producer.

I fully remember the name of the second wine’s producer, though. Josko Gravner, an “extreme winemaker” from Venezia Giulia. It was a 2002 Ribolla, bearing a lovely golden color, and some bright, slightly oxidative aromas. Quite a mouthful, as Gravner’s long on-skin, in-amphora macerations give the wines an almost tannic structure and tighter texture than one generally expects from whites. Balanced as hell, and long-lasting. I couldn’t get enough, and was still tasting the wine’s delicious flavors well after Christophe and I had parted ways.

At lunch in Geneva’s old city, 90 minutes later, at the Restaurant Les Armures, behind the hotel of the same name, I was having a lovely glass of arvine, Valais’ most famous indigenous grape, a white whose richness is always lifted by solid acidity, and iodized, salty notes on the finish. Did extremely well with the day’s special, roast veal with wild mushroom sauce, a potato gratin and, thankfully, some broccoli to lighten the general load. Cool anecdote about the place? Bill Clinton had dinner there with Hillary, in 1994, and the owners proudly display the photographs, inside, and on an outside plaque reproducing the letter of thanks they subsequently received from the White House. Didn’t note the arvine producer, again, but though lovely it was, I wasn’t as impressed by it as I’ve been by wines from other producers – Christophe Abbet, for one, but also René Favre fils and Jean-René Germanier, as well as les Fils Maye and others.

There are so many unique wines to be had in Switzerland, and especially in Valais. The night before the Moenchberg-Gravner-arvine sequence, I’d had some Vin de Glacier from Clos de Ravire, a white made from marsanne, johannisberg and païen (traminer) and slowly matured in larch wood barrels on the edge of the glaciers of the Val d’Anniviers. A truly unique wine, slightly maderized and showing a bit of rezin – though much more discreetly than a Greek Retsina. Unique indeed.

I’ll certainly come back to the wonderful world of Arvine, Fendant, Humagne Rouge and Humagne Blanc, Païen, Cornalin and other very interesting and totally original grape varieties. But in the meantime, let’s get to another very nice wine that concluded this day of tasting.

After touring Geneva and walking around town all afternoon, my wife and I sat down at Le Lacustre, a glass-enclosed restaurant set right by the waters of the western edge of Lake Geneva, with a great view of the neon signs of luxury brands of watches and jewelry, prestigious hotels and secretive banks that line the lakeside shore. As the name in no way indicates, Le Lacustre is an Italian restaurant, with DOC pizzas (!), a varied menu and a minutely-detailed wine list where each wine is described with varietal composition, winemaker notes and tasting notes. Exemplary, really.

Among the wines, after quickly flipping through the list of Rare Wines that was put on top of the regular list (Sassicaia, Tignanello and other Supers’ galore), I set my fancy of a 2004 Sagrantino de Montefalco by a producer I hadn’t heard of, Matteo Napolini. Sagrantinos are rarely available in Quebec, so I couldn’t resist the temptation.

The wine showed a beautiful, deep ruby color. Aromas of torrefaction, with dark fruit (blackcurrant), a little cedar, and this dark, slightly rustic flavor that is also often present in sangiovese wines and that always gets me on my good side. Ample and tasty, the wine also showed a substantial amount of tannins that tightly wrapped around your teeth and gums, but felt very small-grained, at the same time. Beyond this tannic barrier, it displayed a long lasting taste that was at once tight and chocolatey (the dark-chocolatey kind), fruity (damson plums, ripe grapes and blackcurrants) and refreshing, thanks to an acidity I’d liken to that of a sauce made from fresh, not-too-ripe tomatoes.

Very nice stuff that went very well with the substantial food we were having, to compensate from the energy spent fighting the damp winter air of that cool and mostly gray winter day: Gnocchi Santa Chiara, for one (gnocchis in a nice tomato sauce with crème fraîche, basil and a little meat) and a great risotto with beans, ham and pancetta, made with some tasty broth and with the rice cooked just al dente. Well-done entrées that made us feel as though we weren’t paying too much of a premium for the lake view.

Oh, and the best thing about getting that bottle at the restaurant? We left a third of the wine in the bottle, so that we could drive home respecting Switzerland’s recently stringent rules on drinking and driving, which set the bar for blood alcohol levels at 0.05, rather than the North American 0.08.

What’s so great about not finishing a bottle at the restaurant, you say? We took the bottle home, with the leftover wine in it. I enjoyed the last glass while writing this post.

Thanks to that possibility, allowed by the authorities following the change in rules, we gladly ordered a bottle, and even a slightly more expensive wine than we would have otherwise. Taking home an open container would seem like anathema in most North American jurisdictions – as if people walking out of a restaurant with half of a 2000 Bordeaux will start swigging it behind the wheel.

To me, it felt most civilized. It’s nice to be treated like a responsible adult.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Utah, some what ironically, allows you take unfinished bottles home/back to the ski lodge as well. I think the only requirements are that you cork it and put it in the trunk.

    Sounds like some really interesting and lovely wines!

  2. I will have to take a second look at Utah. I mean, as I recently learned, they also enabled the repeal of Prohibition, 75 years ago!

    Thanks for the comment, Jared. I long for some Donkey and Goat wines…

  3. Great post, Remy. It’s a pleasure reading the work of someone who takes the time to write so well.

    Knowing that it’s legal to carry-out unfinished wine in both Pennsylvania and Delaware, I did a quick search and found that it’s far more widely allowed in the States than I would have expected. You may want to check out:

    Given the number of clauses requiring the wine to be placed in the trunk, though, I’m not so sure we’re being treated as responsible adults so much as we are simply being allowed to keep something for which we paid.

  4. Hello, I am an American living in Geneva, and I have just recently discovered the wines of Christophe Abbet. I have been very impressed, and would love to visit his tasting room in Matigny. I am not able to find any information about this tasting room online, and I would greatly appreciate any contact information you can give me. I enjoy reading your blog. Thank you, Tim

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