Meet your maker: Alexandre Delétraz

With little experience but armed with plenty of courage, aged just 27 Alexandre Delétraz took the plunge to become an independent vigneron – a difficult and costly task in Switzerland. A multi-tasker, with the belief that hard work gets you everywhere, Alexandre has made a 200 percent effort to get where he is today with Cave des Amandiers, one of the newest wineries in Valais, the French-speaking region, that was built in 2008. His desire is to create great wines in exceptional terroirs, trying to best reveal the qualities of Valais’ native grape varieties (Petite Arvine, Païen (Savagnin Blanc), Cornalin, Humagne Rouge also known as Cornalin d’Aoste) in an authentic environment. 

Maintaining his vines manually, thanks to the complicated topography of steep hillsides made up of small terraces that range between 450 metres and 900 metres elevation, this makes for “heroic viticulture” which I got to sample twice. I visited Alexandre in 2016 then in 2018 and he’s a very generous man, always trying to do his best, with a supportive family who’s always by his side and his wines are a great fingerprint of this relatively unknown paradise you should take the time to travel and discover. 

Where did you study and where did you work before creating your personal project?

I don’t come from a family of winemakers but my parents are real wine lovers, and for as long as I can remember, they would take us on their trips to nearby Burgundy, their favourite wine region. Before I set up my own winery, I first studied business and then began studying viticulture and oenology. So I’m a trained oenological engineer but in the end it’s really the experience you gain that counts. I worked for different Swiss wine producers before and after my education.

When I left school I wanted to become a vigneron indépendant (self-employed grower-winemaker), and I’d already decided on the region.

Where is your winery located and the most important characteristics of the region.

 The largest winemaking area in Switzerland is the French-speaking region. We’re in Canton Valais – Switzerland is a nation of federated cantons – which is the largest canton in terms of production, with 4,800 hectares of vines. My domain covers 6.5 hectares of vines grown almost entirely on terraces supported by dry stone walls. 

Two “protagonists” formed Valais: the Rhône glacier, which retreated about 10,000 years ago and which left its shape, in the form of a U. The other protagonist that carved out this landscape is the River Rhône, which starts in the Swiss mountains. Vineyards are mostly on the right bank of the Rhône because these have the greatest exposure to the sun and they are the earliest grapes. 

Valais’ climate is quite special, a continental climate that veers towards Mediterranean, with winters that are dry and sunny, summers that are hot, and windy autumns, especially in Central and Upper Valais, where the foehn, a local name for it, is a hot and drying wind.

Our vines are grown in three communes. The commune of Fully is home to the bulk of my domain, with five hectares. It’s also the jewel of the Valais vineyards, with gneiss and granite throughout the vineyards, soils without limestone and low levels of clay, often made up of sand and silt. It’s really an incredible area with enormous potential in terms of quality.

Combe D’Enfer.

Could you define yourself personally and professionally?

That’s a tough question because when you’re an independent wine producer, your private and professional lives are so intertwined – the Cave des Amandiers project is all-consuming. But even if this work is very demanding in terms of my presence in the vineyard and in the cellar, the family home adjoins the cellar, so I can have a family life where I’m there for when my children and my wife need me. And I can also be completely invested in my work, living right there – it’s not uncommon for me to get up in the middle of the night to do the rounds in the cellar if I’m at all worried or concerned about something.

Sometimes it’s a bit complicated to separate the two or to take a break, but I’m so lucky to have work that I really love.

What made you fall in love with making wine?

First of all my parents, who are gourmets. Wine has been their common ground. Then I was drawn to nature and wanted to work outside, and plus there is the hugely varied job of a winemaker.

But I was also lucky to undertake my training with wine producers in Switzerland who really loved their work.

How did you start your project and what made you believe in the region you decided to work in?

When we’re young we are so blessed because we’re willing to take risks and we easily believe in our own bright futures. This allowed me to get started even though I knew very little – I have to admit that – I had in fact done only three harvests for my bosses and as a trainee! But, my enthusiasm and my desire to be independent as well as wanting to build a domain were so great that I was able to go beyond my shortcomings and attempt the adventure. 

I was very lucky because I set up the project aged 27, with a single worker and in charge of three hectares. The first vintage was 2008 and we were in luck because it was noticed right away by sommeliers, sommeliers who also gave me the room to develop and who helped my name to get out. That’s still very much the case today.

I decided to set up in Valais because I’d always been drawn to terraced vineyards, and it’s also the place in Switzerland where the potential of terroir, minerality and the landscape and native grapes are fantastic and still not well known at all.

What’s your professional dream?

I have several, but I would really like to strengthen my knowledge of my terroir, and then I thought, why not also do that with new ones? I would also like to bring together my vines and concentrate on a few emblematic areas within the commune of Fully because the vineyard area here is very chopped up.

Which season of the year do you prefer?

I like spring because it’s the start of nature’s cycle and for the aromas that form part of it. I also like the wonderful Indian summer that we have here, when the vines on the slopes and the mountain forests take on magnificent colours – that’s also the harvest season, the moment when you’re rewarded for all the hard work out in the field. 

With whom would you like to make a wine?

My dream would be to be able to make a wine with masters such as Emmanuel Reynaud or Jean-Louis Chaves – I would absolutely love that!

Do you follow any particular rules of your own to produce wine?

We’ve moved to organic farming for the entire domain; we’ve now been working without using any herbicides for five years. That’s a real challenge when it comes to the soil, for a mountain vineyard, where all the work has to be done by hand.

Otherwise, it’s the winemaker’s good sense that has to dominate. In other words, you can’t blindly follow a prescription. Each decision and action must be as logical and forward-thinking as possible because the work is enormous. We have to put our energy and limited means into projects that make sense, while increasing the typicity and quality of our grapes.

Who helped you to become who you are today? 

You know, to be honest, I set out with so little experience as a winemaker aged 27, but I was so eager to learn and to put together a domain. So much of my education has come from visiting and talking to my colleagues in Switzerland and abroad, as well as through reading. As soon as a wine interests me, I try to learn as much as possible about the people who made it and to understand the terroir that produced it. I also try to understand the paths it’s taken to become the way it is when we taste it.

Also, I’ve had so many trials and observations in the vineyard and in the cellar, and these have let me build this up. After several years of feeling my way and experimenting, I think a style is now starting to appear. I’ve never had a problem questioning my work and whatever I do starts with the principle that nothing is ever definitively acquired – I think that’s one of my strengths, that there aren’t any taboos.

How do you make your wines reach people’s feelings?

Clearly, we’re influenced by contemporary products, but you can’t follow every fashion if you want to create your own identity. Here, in Switzerland – and of course this is my personal opinion – wine producers change too easily and often too quickly, basing what they do on ideas from salespeople who travel around to the cellars, and always trying to please the consumer because they think that’s what clients are looking for. 

Right now dolia concrete eggs are all the rage. There’s this idea that this will take us back to our roots – but in fact people are forgetting that our ancestors, the Celts, already worked with wooden vats. Amphorae were imported later by the Romans. 

While it’s true that this way of maturing wine is interesting and can be complementary, I’m not sure it always makes sense here. We’re part of a globalisation of practices in vineyards and cellars, so how do we differentiate ourselves from this international anonymity, when we try to stick with the rest of the world?

I think I now make wines that are less aimed at the general public than I did at the start, wines that are probably more identifiable as mine, but it’s clear that the next step is to get enough people following me so that I’m able to live from it and keep this adventure going. We’re looking for and trying to achieve honest expression in the wines – the goal is huge and has an impact on the way I work.

What’s your view on wine in your area?

Right now in Switzerland and in Valais we’re going through a major viticulture crisis and we’ll probably see, in the next decade, a reduction in vineyard surface areas, which makes so little sense when you look at the very good quality of wines we have now.

Like all Swiss products, our production costs, and this is especially true for a mountain vineyard, don’t allow us to compete with imported wines of an equivalent quality. I’m convinced that we need to increase even further the quality and our own individuality, if we want to get out of this current slump. For example, we need to concentrate on our native grapes, at least for Valais – what is the point, really, of me planting 1,000 m2 of Sauvignon, with the highest cost to make it on the planet, when a fellow winemaker in Australia can plant one hectare of it in the same day and produce it at one-tenth the cost?

Again, we need to put the accent on our identity and make an effort to export because local consumers are not going to be able to absorb the national production.

What do you feel when you create and drink wine?

 I’ve always thought of myself more as an artisan rather than an artist. Even if the nuance holds true, we have inherited a millennium-old tradition yet it’s a craft to which we bring our own knowledge and personal culture.

We’re going to take raw material, grapes, and make wine from it. This transformation, which takes place mainly during the harvests, pulls me in completely – all of my attention, all of my energy, my whole being – everything is focused on the grapes, the must and the wines to come. Even the whole time while I’m there for my family and my children, my spirit is in the vines and in the cellar, and all the rest touches me little during this time.

 When I taste my wines I am very critical, but I do this in my own cellar and for professional reasons. I happily taste wines made by my colleagues as often as I can, especially those made abroad. It can be really inspiring, especially when you’re lucky enough to come across beautiful wines.

Could you tell me about your biggest adventure as a wine producer?

The biggest adventure has been ongoing, for the past 12 years! To create a domain in Switzerland, from A to Z, is a fantastic adventure that requires a personal investment of 200 percent – plus you have to come up with the financial means to get started because the investment in vinification equipment is huge. You need to be multiskilled and persevere. 

What’s the last thing you learnt?

This year we’re going to try to improve the quality of our racking in order to be able to move to fine filtering and we’re even imagining working without filtering. We’ve seen that it’s possible for wines matured for 18 months and we will be doing it now systematically.

What is the biggest difficulty you face today with your job?

 We’re mastering the production side and still improving, so the most complicated is, in fact, selling and communication. How can we make our wines known and show that they stand out from the crowd? The thing that is stopping new domains and beautiful wines from emerging is the huge number of wines, of all kinds, on the market.

It’s very tough, even for professionals, to notice an artisanal, high quality terroir wine because it is so hidden among this massive pile of wine.

What do you think about biodynamic viticulture and natural wine?

We will probably move to biodynamic viticulture in the next few years and we’re already carrying out some tests to go in this direction, but the higher cost has to stay within bounds for us – but especially for our customers because this has an impact on the price of a bottle.

For wines that are called “natural”, there’s such a huge debate – the term bothers me, because it gives rise to a Manichean dual view of the world of wine, where other wines are automatically on the other side and thus relegated to something seen to be artificial. Whereas I don’t have the impression at all, far from it to the best of my knowledge! that I’m making artificial wines, when I use homeopathic doses of sulfites.

We need to remember that the most natural final outcome for fermented grape juice is vinegar – as in the French word vin-aigre– and it’s human intervention that allows us to make an intermediary product, which is wine. In this case there is already a human “manipulation” of the process and if you think of it that way “natural” wines don’t actually exist. But the wines we call “natural” do help us rethink our practices and ask ourselves about the use of chemical substances in the cellar and the ethical limits that we set ourselves. It’s a healthy debate that every wine producer needs to consider.

I produce a wine called Pet’Nat’, a sparkling wine using the ancestral method, which is not filtered, with no added sulfites, and for me, it’s interesting. The CO2 which is present and pressure will protect this wine, but it’s clear that you have to keep it chilled to avoid a new fermentation.

Taking into account how Covid-19 is affecting the world, what adjustments have you made so far and how do you see it from here to harvest? 

Self-distancing and confinement and restaurants closing have had several effects: sales to restaurants stopped, but at the same time private customers have ordered more than usual and they’ve turned to their favorite producers. Even if their orders don’t make up for the lost volume of orders from restaurants, there’s a positive feeling that has come out of this. Clearly, we have to reduce as much as possible our costs in the vineyard and in the cellar, as we look at a drop in income.

Please choose one of your wines and tell us what food you would enjoy it with.

I would like to offer our Petite Arvine les Seyes 2018” Petite Arvine is a native Valais grape, planted on 200 hectares. We produce about 1,500 bottles of this wine, which comes from a lieu-dit or cadastral area that is historically a hillside area for Petite Arvine in the commune of Fully. Production is about 35-40 hectolitres per hectare, with the must vinified in 12 hectolitre casks (muilds) and there is no malolactic fermentation. It’s a Petite Arvine with a lot of freshness and tension, with a superb salty finish that has a wonderful bitter, mineral touch – a really fine gastronomy wine. It’s such an interesting wine for sommeliers, for pairing with different dishes.

It’s not a Petite Arvine that is remarkable for the way it expresses the grape variety, but it’s a wine that is truly marked by the place it comes from – it’s really a wine that is transparent in defining terroir

Last week Come Wine met Patricia Ferrari, pioneer in Trevelin, Chubut, in Patagonia.

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