The Other Rhône – Vins Genevois

Not all the wine regions on the banks of the Rhône are French. The river actually starts in the Valais region of Switzerland (where Mike and John Favre produce their superb “St Pierre” petite arvine) before flowing into Lac Leman and then popping out the other side in Geneva. From there it flows for a few short kilometres through the vineyards of the city’s suburbs before crossing the Swiss/French border into Savoie.

I’ve been drinking a lot of Genevan wine lately, which is surprising when you consider that I’m surrounded by vineyards where I live in the Côtes du Rhône. It’s true that Genevan wines have something different about them, not least a handful of unusual grape varieties, but that in itself wouldn’t be enough. My biggest discovery has been their overall quality.

The Vineyards of Geneva

Travelling north west from Geneva’s city centre (marked in yellow above) you hit the airport, literally right on the border, but go in any other direction and you’ll find vineyards. Some of the main wine producing communes/villages (red dots) are shown , but there are plenty of others and all within a few minutes drive.

The vineyards at Landecy. The point at which the slope of vines stops and the field begins is the Switzerland/ France border.

White wine

As far as white grapes are concerned, Chasselas is quantitive king. It’s importance has shrunk over the last 15 years, but it still makes up around 30% of the total grape harvest, black grapes included. If only its quality merited such large scale planting. I’m sure there is great Genevan chasselas, I just haven’t tasted it yet. All of  them have been perfectly drinkable – I’ve never had one that was actively unpleasant – but, being kind, you’d have to say that a forceful personality was not their strong point.  Being less kind, you could say they tend towards the bland end of the spectrum, like a Swiss version of cheap pinot grigio.

Domaine de Paradis Chasselas from Satigny. Believe me, I’m not picking on this one in particular…

 

…or this one. Le Clos de Céligny Chasselas.

The other main white grapes are a more interesting mix largely influenced by neighbouring eastern France – chardonnay, pinots blanc and gris, aligoté, sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer and viognier are all grown. At one time, the vineyard area given over to (German) müller-thurgau was second only to chasselas, but thankfully (it’s not much better) it has slipped back to around 5th place.

Red wine

Gamay dominates Genevan red wine with 60% of the total production. Pinot noir is second and the traditional Bordeaux grapes – cabernet sauvignon, cab franc and merlot – are all in the top ten. But third and fourth spots are taken by Swiss-only grapes, Gamaret and Garanoir, both crossings of gamay (there it is again) and reichensteiner developed specially for the Swiss climate.

Gamay, gamaret and garanoir, aged at least partly in barrel, make up main constituent parts of a style of red called “Esprit de Genève”, which is intended to be a standard bearer for the canton’s wines. No matter who makes an “Esprit” wine, and there were 15 producers who made a 2010 vintage, they all use a similar front label so that there’s consistent branding.

The Esprit de Genève 2010 of Cave de Sézenove. With my nice Ikea rug as the background.

One of the things I’ve found interesting is that many of the reds have a distinct family relationship, at least in terms of structure and texture if not flavour, with certain syrahs from the northern Rhône, despite the cooler climate, the different “terroir” – mostly glacial deposits compared to largely granite – and, obviously, the different grapes. I’m not saying that there are Swiss Côte-Rôties, but you can draw comparisons with some of the softer, less weighty St Josephs and Croze-Hermitages.

Here are some selected tasting notes, hopefully representative but by no means exhaustive.

Domaine des Curiades, Lully

Curiades is run by brothers Jacques and Christophe Dupraz and  is the most consistently good of the producers I have tasted. My one slight issue would be their love of oak, but that’s my prejudice. The wines aren’t unbalanced by too much oak, but I think they’d be just as good, and maybe a bit less “international”, with a bit less. The Coteau de Lully vineyards dominate an impressive hillside position.

Two of Curiade’s wines – the Viognier 2010 and the Marquis de Coudrée 2011

Esprit de Genève 2010

60% gamay, 40% gamaret, all oak aged. Still a young, rich purple colour. It mixes flavours of black forest gateau and black cherry compote with something more medicinal (Germolone to be exact). Soft, ripe and mid-weight.

Marquis de Coudrée 2011

Smelling this immediately made me think of cabernet franc, which in fact only makes up around 15% of the blend. There’s 80% merlot and the balance is cabernet sauvignon. There’s germolene (again) but with juicy raspberries and kirsch.

Viognier 2010

An extremely classy viognier that plays to the floral – parma violet and lavender – side of the grape. Richness without heaviness. It hasn’t got the opulence of the 2009, but I’ve had Condrieu that isn’t as good.

Cave de Sézenove, Sézenove

Claude and Jacques Bocquet-Thonnay’s winery is in Sézenove. But like Domaine des Curiades, their 6.5ha of vineyards are on Lully’s south east-facing slopes, great for exposure to the sun and protection from cold winds.

Esprit de Genève 2010

50% gamay, 20% merlot, plus 20% gamaret and 10% garanoir, both oak aged. This isn’t as dense as the Curiades’ “Esprit”, more cru Beaujolais than Rhône syrah, and the oak is less pronounced. It mixes brambles, blueberry and a slight leafiness with plenty of white pepper spice. Juicy and refreshing. Perfect with a plate of charcuterie.

Cave de Genève, Satigny

Although the Cave is in Satigny, the forty plus members of this co-operative are spread over more than twenty villages, between them growing 27 different grape varieties.

Infini and Rue des Belles-Filles by Cave de Geneve

Rue des Belles-Filles Cabernet Franc 2011

Feels a bit like a sulky teenager. Leave it another six months to a year, by which time is should have become softer and a bit more outgoing. For what it’s worth, at the moment there are aromas of black friuts – cherry, blackcurrant – cinammon and wet clay. It’s structure is more Friuli cab franc than Loire. There’s also some bitterness on the finish, an almost saline/campari/charcoal element, which I suspect some people will like more than me.

Infini 2010

Also on the young side – a deep purple blend of oak aged cabernet sauvignon and garanoir. The nose recalls black fruits, smoke, firesides, licorice, leaf tea (lapsang?), dark cellars. That and the somewhat stern palate (another year should help) make the wine seem closer to Piemonte than anything from Bordeaux or Napa.

Christian Guyot, Bernex

Christian’s vines are spread across Lully, Laconnex and Soral. He makes the Genevan red wine I have enjoyed more than any other – Trois Helvètes 2009 – but I’ll tell you now it wasn’t the most consistent wine. Of the six bottles I’ve drunk over as many months, a couple were massively “reduced” and stinky. The smell largely disappeared with a bit of breathing or a copper coin, but never went completely. As a lover of northern Rhône syrah, Burgundy pinot noir and Bandol, I don’t have a problem with a bit of animal funkiness but others who drank it with me were more concerned. The other four bottles were full of personality and juicy fruit. Trois Helvètes is a diolinoir, garanoir, galotta blend. But if I tell you that diolinoir was created by crossing pinot noir and rouge de diolly and that galotta is a gamay/ancelotta cross, I suspect you won’t be greatly enlightened.

The current vintage is the 2010, which I haven’t tasted. But Christian’s was voted the best 2010 Esprit de Genève, so that should promise well for the TH. He also grows tempranillo, the Rioja grape. You’ve got to admire his climactic optimism.

Domaine du Centaure, Dardagny

Claude Ramu’s estate covers 18ha on a gentle slope in Dardagny. In addition to the usual suspects, he grows Cabernet Dorsa (a cab sauv/dornfelder cross), Findling, Kerner and Scheurebe, so leans more towards German varieties than some of his collegues.

Les Eliades Scheurebe 2010

Les Eliades Scheurebe 2010

A bright, zesty, intensely grapefruity, off-dry scheurebe; its crisp acidity would make it ideal as an aperitif. I drank it in Geneva with a (very good) selection of sushi and it was just the ticket.

Availability

Now here’s the problem, or actually two. First, not a single wine I’ve mentioned in this blog appears to be sold in America and only the (Valais) petite arvine of the Favre brothers and the chasselas of Domaine du Paradis (pictured but not really reviewed) can be bought in the UK. Second, the pricing can sometimes be a bit “ambitious”, to say the least. Genevan producers have a captive, wealthy market on their doorstep that will drink all they produce at almost any price. Unless you’re a particularly farsighted winemaker, there’s not much incentive to lower your prices to be able to compete on foreign markets. But here are some people who can maybe help:

UK

Online UK wine merchant Nick Dobson sells the wines of Abeilles d’Or and Domaine du Paradis, both based in Geneva. So if you fancy something specifically Genevois, he’s your man. Theatre of Wine and Bottle Apostle both sell that lovely petite arvine in London. And the Favres’ UK agent, For the Love of Wine, will undoubtedly be willing to tell you wherelse you can buy that and any other wines on their extensive Swiss list. Click on their names to go to their websites.

USA

Swiss Cellars in Wisconsin has one Genevan wine (hurrah!) as well as numerous wines from the Favres (but not that wine) and from other regions. Their wines are available in selected states. Weimax Wines and Spirits in California has a decent range of (non-Genevan) Swiss wines.

Despite the difficulty in getting hold of Swiss wine, and despite their “high end” prices, I urge you to give them a go. They have more than curiosity value on their side.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours where I discuss wine, food and the Rhône Valley. But rarely all at once, and sometimes not at all if something else takes my fancy. There is plenty of Rhône wine related stuff on our website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – and you don’t even have to book a tour or wine tasting to read it. But we won’t say no if you do.

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