A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Amigne de Vétroz - Valais, Switzerland

Reader Kate has translated this post into Polish.  Those interested in checking out her translation can do so here.

There are some grapes that are grown in such limited quantities that its a wonder that one ever runs across them at all.  When I'm reading about wine and I come across some of these super-obscure grapes, I can do little more than cross my fingers and hope that some insane importer is distributing something from that grape in my neck of the woods, but for the most part I have to make a mental note and hope that maybe one day I can visit some of these regions and bump into these grapes in their natural habitat.

Today's grape is one of those crazy-obscure grapes that I never expected to bump into.  To be totally fair, I actually had never heard of it until I saw it in the shop, but once I picked it up and did a little research, I realized what an unusual find I had made.  The grape is Amigne and it is a minor specialty of a very small region of Switzerland called Vétroz, which is located within the Valais in the southwestern part of Switzerland.  I have four different sources and all four have different figures for total acreage devoted to the vine.  The Oxford Companion to Wine is the most conservative giving a figure of 25 hectares under vine, while the first bottle that I was able to try indicates that there are 33 hectares under cultivation.  The Amigne producers website says there are a total of 38 hectares across all of Switzerland (with 27 of them in Vétroz) while Wikipedia indicates there are 43 acres under vine as of 2009.  Whatever the actual number is, it is very small.  To compound matters, Switzerland exports very little of its production (less than 2%) so finding a wine made from this grape is a serious challenge.

Be that as it may, two (yes, two) bottles did end up in my cellar, so I'm here to tell you a little about Amigne.  It's a very old grape, thought to have been brought to Switzerland by the Romans.  A writer named Columella (AD 4 – ca. AD 70) mentions a grape called vitis aminea in his De Re Rustica which is purported to be the very same Amigne grape grown today.  However, the first specific mention of Amigne in print doesn't come until 1878.  It was long thought to be related to Petite Arvine, but DNA studies have recently shown that it has a parent/offspring relationship with a grape called Petit Meslier, a nearly extinct grape grown in limited quantities in Champagne (there are about 20 hectares under vine there). This relationship also apparently means it is somehow related to Gouais Blanc and our old friend Savagnin, though I don't understand the family tree enough to completely sort out how they link together.

The first Amigne based wine that I tried was a 2003 Jean-Rene Germanier Amigne de Vétroz that I picked up from my friends at Curtis Liquors for about $35.  The wine was a golden color in the glass with a fairly shy nose.  There were aromas of orange and honey with some marmalade, spice and floral notes to it.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium though just shy of being full-bodied with fairly low acidity.  It was sweet, which warrants a brief digression.

Amigne is made in many styles from bone dry to extraordinarily sweet.  Until 2005, you had no way of knowing which style was in the bottle you picked up just by looking at the label.  As of 2005, though, the winemakers of Vétroz all got together and introduced the abeilles scale to indicate the sweetness level of the wine.  The scale consists of a rating from one to three bees with each bee representing a step up on the sweetness ladder.  One bee (dry) means the wine has between zero and eight grams per liter of sugar; two bees (half-dry) indicates 9-25 g/l and three bees (sweet) means there is more than 25 g/l.

Since this bottle was made in 2003, it did not have the abeilles scale on the bottle, but I'd guess it would fall on the higher end of the two-bee rating, if you made me guess.  The lowish acidity of the grape exaggerates the sensation of sweetness, so while it tasted pretty sweet to me, I would hazard the opinion that it still was technically half-dry rather than fully sweet.  In any case, there were flavors of mandarin orange and tangerine with honeysuckle flowers, orange marmalade, apricot jam and baking spice.  Oz Clarke, in his Grapes and Wines notes that Amige can sometimes have a bit of a brown bread character to it, and that definitely came through a bit on the finish.  The wine is tasty and well-made, but the low acidity was a problem for me.  It came off syrupy and cloying without the acid balance and was tough to drink for more than a glass at a time.  It actually reminded me quite a bit of some of the off-dry whites from Georgia that I tasted a few months back, though it was a bit more complex and focused than those wines (and also double to triple the price).

When I bought the wine above, I wasn't sure about the aging potential of Amigne, so I wasn't sure if the wine was perhaps past its prime.  To hedge my bet, when I saw a bottle of the 2006 "Les Ruinettes" from Serge Roh at the Spirited Gourmet, I went ahead and picked the bottle up for about $34.  As it turns out, I didn't have anything to worry about as Amigne's drinking window is really open for 5-10 years beyond the vintage date.  In the glass, this wine was a light gold color with a fairly strong greenish tinge to it.  The nose was shy with some aromas of grapefruit peel and orange with a little honeysuckle flower, but overall there wasn't much going on.  On the palate, the wine was on the fuller side of medium with low acidity and was medium sweet.  It's hard to see from the picture, but this wine had an abeilles rating of two bees (you can see three bees, but only two of them are fully darkened, which is how the scale is measured).  There were flavors of mandarin orange, sweet grapefruit, and honeysuckle flowers with the same kind of brown-bread finish to it.  This wine was less obviously sweet than the other, and was higher in alcohol.  The Germanier bottle was 13.5% while this was 14.5%, indicating perhaps that more of the sugar was converted during fermentation, making this a little less sweet.  The overall taste sensation was the same, though, with a serious lack of acidity that I personally couldn't get over.  There probably are wine drinkers out there who will be a fan of this syrupy style, but personally, I'd rather invest in an auslese or spätlese level Riesling.

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