If you ask most people about wines from Switzerland, they either show their total ignorance (and who could blame them, unless they live in that country which exports a mere 1% of its total production of wine), or else, possibly, mention those spectacular terraced vineyards of the region of Lavaux, running down to the lake Léman near the town of Lausanne in the canton of Vaud, or perhaps the equally spectacular and steep ones of the Valais region, in the upper Rhône valley to the east of the same lake. If you mention the wine region of Geneva, few but locals will have much to say about the wines that come from the more gentle slopes that rise up from the Rhône river as it flows westwards towards the French border and then on to Lyon. The canton of Geneva produces just 9% of Switzerland’s wines, yet there are some notable exceptions to the general mediocrity of Geneva’s wines and I was fortunate enough recently to meet one of these exceptions. This producer’s name is Jean-Michel Novelle, and he works, with his wife Anne, on the family estate called Le Grand Clos in (for the cellar) and near (for the vineyard) the village of Satigny. Given the rather lax regulations for the production of this region’s wines, Novelle has opted out of the local appellation. His production is unusual in many ways. To start with, from just seven hectares, he produces some 20 different wines and, in various sporadic tastings over the years, I have yet to taste a poor one.
In a region that used to rely very heavily on the Chasselas grape, just tae a look at the list of the grape varieties that Novelle has introduced here over the 25 odd years since he took over from his father: Petite Arvine, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Muscat Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah (and did I forget some?). Some of these produce single varietal wines, within the range that is named « Iconique ». Other go to compose blends under the « Empreinte » designation. There are bubbles and sweet wines as well as reds and whites, so nobody should feel left out here in terms of types of wine, although, given the quantities of each line from this small vineyard, you do need to stay alert to get hold of a few bottles. Another unusual thing here with, considering that these are wines of high quality that are produced in tiny quantities, is the reasonable prices for which Novelle’s wines are sold. One does not instantly associate Switzerland with bargain basement deals, and these wines, although not dead cheap, are very fairly priced for their quality levels. His pre-tax price list shows a range that runs from 14 to 32 Swiss Francs per bottle (about 12 to 27 euros). Only the remarkable sweet wine made in tiny quantities using the solera system justifiably rises above these levels.
Another point of singularity is Novelle’s total abandonment of the use of wood for either fermenting or maturing any of his wines. He feels that now his vineyard is ageing, he obtains from his grapes sufficient density and depth for his wines not to require what he considers to be a masking of the fruit/terroir combination. I can respect his choice without necessarily agreeing with it in every instance, although all the wines that I tasted (14 out of 20) showed plenty of character and intensity as well as perfect balance between fruit, acidity and other flavour types.
He has used no fertilizer on his vines since 1980, allowing the roots to go deep, and he and keeps his treatments to a strict minimum. He prunes late, which helps to avoid damage from late frosts (very useful in 2017!). All the grapes are harvested in small boxes of 5 kilograms. Jean-Michel Novelle prevents malolactic fermentation from taking place in his wines and is also an adept of sterile filtration to ensure total stability and cleanliness in his wines, alongside with their great freshness. No « letting nature take its path » nonsense here.
Add to all this the distinction of the labels, most of which harbour fine colored drawings of animals of all kinds, and very carefully designed packaging in general. Care at all stages in other words.
1). Sparkling wines using the traditional method
Brut Rosé, Rosé des Noirs (pinot noir). This wine, from a base of 2016, was disgorged especially to check on its progress, but is not yet on sale. Pale in colour, very lively yet with lots of finesse and a salty tang that may refer to (imprecisely) as « mineral ». Good length.
Brut Zéro 2008, Blanc de Noirs (pinot noir). This was tasted from a magnum and I cannot see it on the price list so it must be rare! It has the firm but precise style that is thematic in Novelle’s style. Again with a mouth-watering and slightly salty tang to it. Very savoury and with excellent length and balance. I would never have guessed that this wine is over 10 years old.
2). White wines
Empreinte Blanche. When Novelle entitles himself « vigneron créateur« , you may think that he is just being pretentious. But just take a look here: this is a non vintage blend of Chasselas, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petite Arvine, Savagnin Blanc (aka Traminer) and Savagnin Rose (aka Gewurztraminer)! Indeed it is extremely complex, both aromatically and in terms of its textural layers. Powerful and long, with all its angles well-polished and fleshed out. (Price 14,80 FFS)
Empreinte Aromatique. Another non vintage blend, this time using Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer, Gewurztraminer, Viognier, Muscat and Petit Manseng. It has 10 grams of residual sugar but barely feels sweet, the sugar just helping to prolong the aromatics.Highly original, with lovely complexity coming from this unusual alliance between aromas and structure. Again with great savoury quality and length. Loved this with cheeses and could be very interesting with foie gras . (Price 14,80 FFS)
Iconique Pinot Blanc 2016. I do not often taste wines from this grape variety that knock me out, but this one does the trick. Lively and lemon-like, very precise in its flavours and not trying to seduce one with any extraneous trappings. Delicate yet long. Could drink quite a lot of this! (Price 15,75 FFS)
Iconique Pinot Gris 2016. Naturally more rounded and powerful, as befits this variety which is a paler version of Pinot Noir, it also has this mineral-like spinal core that keeps it in line and focused while providing added length. (Price 15,75 FFS)
Iconique Chardonnay 2016. In a similar style to the two preceding white wines, with its style that I would qualify as austere but finely-tuned. In this case though I feel that the wine could gain in volume and complexity with some degree of wood fermentation and ageing, and perhaps also a partial malolactic fermentation. Style is one thing, religion is another! (Price 23 FFS)
Iconique Viognier 2016. This is a very different style of Viognier to what one tends to mostly find elsewhere in the Rhône valley. It has the aromas without the weight, and this is a good thing to me. Deliciously fragrant and yet very fresh. (Price 23 FFS)
Iconique Sauvignon Blanc 2016. This stands well apart from most of the wines from this variety that one tastes these days. It has all the characteristic crisp vivacity, but without any hints of the grassiness that spoils so many. Lovely quality of fruit that is intense without becoming aggressive. It has complexity, length and depth. Very good. (Price 23 FFS)
Iconique Savagnin Blanc 2016. Perhaps the most surprising and impressive wine in the series of whites that I tasted from this producer. The only Savagnin/Traminers that I taste with some frequency come from the French Jura region. This does not resemble any that I have tried from there, including the good ones. I am not saying that it is better, merely different. Very crisp and lively, it has an astonishingly vibrant core and great length. (Price 23 FFS)
Iconique Traminer 2016. It is finely perfumed, quite delicate in its texture and has the central core of slightly salty chalkiness that underscores most of Novelle’s wines. Should make for a great match with slightly spicy dishes. (Price 23 FFS)
Also tasted a Muscat d’Ottonel (Iconique Muscat 2016) that was finely perfumed but did not take more notes than that
3). Red wines
I tasted only two red wines outside of a dinner situation during which I find it impossible to take notes and carry on a conversation with my table neighbours.
Rouge Pinot Noir 2016. This is part of a recently introduced range for Novelle in which he is attempting to produce wines with lesser intensity and more emphasis on fruit, in order to suit younger consumers. A pale ruby colour, bright and clear. Very fruit driven, fresh and clear, with such a delicate touch of tannins that the wine is just held as if by a touch of eye-liner. Very attractive in its style. (Price 19,45 FFS)
Iconique Syrah 2016. Quite delicious! It has all the fruit that one could want from this variety and a very clear-cut and easy-to-like approach. It is not massively tannic, but the tannins are totally integrated in the substance of the wine. (Price 32 FFS)
I also tasted, at table the Empreinte Solera sweet white wine. It is fabulous but I could not take notes at the time
I hope that one can find these wines outside of their homeland. They are certainly worth the effort. Novelle is a dedicated, rigorous and enthusiastic winemaker who does not give in to fashion but who is always seeking to improve and create from his tiny experimental vineyard. He also consults for a fine Chilean producer called Amayna.