Wine Blogging Wednesday 47: Swiss Salt

I really have to thank Erin and Michelle at Grape Juice for setting up such a playful WBW: Today’s Wine, Brought to You by the Letter “S” is a terrific theme, one that, as they intended, forces you to think outside the (bag-in-)box.

I thought of Savennières and sauvignons, of sweet wines and all sorts of stuff. I even went through the S section of the Oxford Companion to Wine, and finally, wound up with a wine that starts with an “a”. Or a “p”. Depends.

It’s called petite arvine, and among the many distinctive varietals of Valais, in Switzerland, it scores very, very highly. This colorful white wine is at once rich and enlivened by bright acidity, bursting with aromas of grapefruit, pear and apple. When you taste it, you’re struck by a quite a mouthful: rich and round, and then lighting up with mineral notes that end, invariably, on a touch of salt.

So there you have it. It might be petite arvine, but it’s the touch of Swiss salt that brings it rolling into the line-up for this Wine Blogging Wednesday.

Now, petite arvine is quite a survivor. At one time, in the early 1980s, there was something like a measly 14 hectares left in the whole of Valais, the only place where it is found in any measurable quantity. There are a very few exceptions outside of Switzerland, like Mas de Daumas Gassac, where Aimé Guibert had admiringly planted a few hectares that he includes in his white wine. There’s also a Swiss woman called Hildegard Horat, who makes wine at La Grange au Quatre Sous, in Languedoc, that planted some arvine in her adoptive terroir. I’d so love to taste that one (see a French blog post on this wine).

Being lucky enough to have in-laws in Valais, I’ve tasted my share of petite arvine from a number of great producers like Domaine de Beudon or Jean-René Germanier, among others. My favorite is René Favre’s petite arvine from Chamoson, a beautiful terroir filled with stones brought down from the mountains by the glaciers over thousands and thousands of years. Made from old vines, planted between 1927 and 1955 (which must therefore have been among the few hectares that survived arvine’s time in purgatory), it shows remarkable depth and precision, something which has been enjoyed with superlative comments all the way to New York City. I actually collaborate in importing a few dozen cases to Quebec, with Insolite Imports: it’s one of the things in life that I am truly, constantly proud of.

It’s terrific with trout, poultry, whether simply grilled or smothered in a creamy sauce. It’s also lovely as an apéritif, with nuts and almonds and, say, dry-cured ham. Or with raclette and fondue, those winterly classics of Swiss cuisine.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Arvine ages sublimely well. And as it does, it gains so much richness and sweetness (with the acidity still holding the structure together), that you can easily serve it with foie gras. A great solution if you think sauternes and such are a little rich for starting a meal.

In any case, I haven’t met an arvine I didn’t like yet. Generally, it’s so good, it is almost, in itself, worth a trip to the mountains of Valais, land of the Matterhorn and dozens of other stately mountains. Oh, and the skiing isn’t bad either…

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  1. Posted July 20, 2008 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    I’ve not had this varietal, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that if you can’t pronounce it, order it! It’s one sure way to try new things!

  2. Posted August 1, 2008 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    I spotted an Italian one (from Collio) by a producer called “Skok”.

    They called it a Bianco Pe Ar.

    I got apricot, peach and mint from it.


  3. winecase
    Posted August 2, 2008 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Lar, Bianco Pe Ar does seem like a fantastic wine, from all I’ve read. But I’m not sure I see the connection between petite arvine and an Italian wine made of 60% chardonnay, 30% pinot grigio and 10% sauvignon blanc.

    • Andrew Taylor
      Posted March 18, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Good article but you need a correction on the trajectory of Petite Arvine. It has been cultivated in the Valais since the 1600s and is actually one of the principal white varietals. Only 14 hectares in the 1980s? You may be referring to Cornalin on the red side but again the dates are wrong. There was a handful of vignernons in the Valais that saved Cornalin from extinction back in the 1950s. The uncle of a wineamaker who I know very well (Maurice Zufferey) was one of the leaders of this movement.

      • Posted March 23, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        I thank you for submitting this comment. Arvine was largely abandoned up until the 1980s, and while I don’t have the documents (from Vins du Valais) that I used when I wrote this, I remember the acreage was very low. The real push to bring back the indigenous varieties like cornalin, humagne, arvine and others came in the early 90s, in particular when the doors were opened to wines from Europe and elsewhere and strong protectionist barriers dropped, leaving the high-volume Swiss production in a bad position. The story is essentially the same with Cornalin, Humagne and Arvine, with varying low points. It is true that handfuls of vigneron kept the old varieties alive decades before that, but the push to encourage indigenous Valais varieties came later, with strong support from the Canton. That is the indications you’ll see on this page from the Château de Villa web site, a good reference on the subject.

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  1. [...] Bête showed bright with an underlying leesy note, making for an interesting wine. He also dug up a Petite Arvine from Switzerland of all places, noting the richness, saltiness, and ageability of this hard-to-find [...]

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