Swiss Wine: Petite Arvine

Petite Arvine is one of the “speciality grapes” of Valais canton and is generally considered to produce high quality wines.  The people of Valais are so proud of it that they hold festival (the “Arvine en Capitales”) in Fully every two years for the producers to show their wares. Unfortunately I found out about the festival too late to attend the previous one (in Nov 2013) and I now have quite a long wait till the next one.

The origins of Petite Arvine are unclear.  Local lore has it that it originated in Martigny, but it’s also been suggested (presumable by the less patriotic sort) that it may have come from the Aosta valley over the Alps in Italy.  Either way, it’s not a grape that has travelled far since it’s pretty much only grown in these two regions.

As with so many of the Swiss grapes, it’s a tricky one to grow.  Late ripening and needing lots of sun and water, it’s also fragile and prone to wind damage.  It’s really no wonder that it’s not widely grown around the world and that the Valais are so proud when they get it right.

While Arvine is a synonym for Sylvaner, Petite Arvine is a completely different grape.  It was originally thought that it was related to the Aminge variety also grown in the region, but this has recently been disproven (by DNA testing no less) so now it’s parentage is also unknown.

The grape can produce a wide variety of both dry and sweet wines and the defining flavours are usually rhubarb, citrus (moving to honeyed fruit for the sweet versions) and a slight saltiness. Both the two bottles I tried were dry wines, but they were quite different from one another.

The first Petite Arvine I tried was a 2012 vintage by Jean-René Germanier  (CHF19.90 in Coop).  Given that on their website the vineyard boasts of “their place among the premiers crus” of Valais I had high hopes for this wine.

Petite Arvine Jean-René Germanier

Petite Arvine Jean-René Germanier

The bottle itself was certainly elegant enough and I was also impressed by the custom corks which had the vintage printed on the end and the name of the producer along the side.

Petite Arvine Jean-René Germanier - the cork!

Petite Arvine Jean-René Germanier – the cork!

The wine itself was a pale gold colour.  It’s 14% which, to me, seems fairly strong for a white but it seemed to have no legs in the glass.  The nose was a mix of citrus fruit and mineral tang.

Petite Arvine Jean-René Germanier - in the glass

Petite Arvine Jean-René Germanier – in the glass

In the mouth it was very dry and acidic at first; however the finish was softer and a little sweeter in a pink grapefruit sort of way i.e. still full of acid and punch, but with a hint of honey to take the edge off the astringency.  I found that when I tried this wine with some food it seemed to get even more acidic and lose all sweetness which wasn’t great.  The label had promised rhubarb, but I couldn’t detect any in this bottle.

All in all the acid was a bit much for me in this wine, but saying that I can see how it would work well as an option for an aperitif.

The next Petite Arvine was also from 2012, this time by Frédéric Zufferey  (CHF24.90 in Globus)

Petite Arvine Frédéric Zufferey

Petite Arvine Frédéric Zufferey

While a very similar colour to the previous wine there was something special about the hue of this one.  It seemed to have an internal vibrancy and glow that just doesn’t come across in the pictures, but which instinctively drew your eye to the glass.

Petite Arvine Frédéric Zufferey - in the glass

Petite Arvine Frédéric Zufferey – in the glass

Once again there was a fairly high alcohol content (13.5%) but no legs.  It had one of the strangest aromas I have ever come across in a wine, and I hesitate to even write this, but it smelt like a box of Ryvita crackers!  While I’m rather partial to a Ryvita or two (usually topped with cheese!) I can’t say it’s an aroma I usually look for in a wine.

Fortunately, while there was a certain savouriness to it, it didn’t taste too much like Ryvita.  Instead it had a warm creamy fruitiness and a general rich feel in the mouth.   I think that there was a hint of soft pear and peach, and maybe a little of the fabled rhubarb, although to be honest, I found it hard to be specific on the flavours when my nose was still screaming Ryvita!

Once again this wine was fairly acidic, but in this bottle there was also more sweetness as well as a slight (and again unusual) saltiness to offset the acid tang.  When I had previously read the descriptions of Petite Arvine and seen salt listed as one of the flavours to expect I wasn’t quite sure about it (luckily no one mentioned aromas of Ryvita or else I probably would have avoided this grape altogether), but in this wine it really did work.

While this was possibly the weirdest wine I’ve had in a long time (or possibly ever), it’s one I really enjoyed.  Their website says that’s it’s sold out, but I’m going to keep my eyes open for this in the shops.  I would love to get some more and see what other people make of it!

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