Gantenbein and the Secrets of Switzerland's Cult Wine
By Valerie Kathawala
For most of us, it would be easier to climb the Matterhorn in flip-flops than to lay hands on a bottle of wine made by Daniel and Martha Gantenbein. The couple painstakingly grow and make minute quantities of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling on 6 hectares of high Alpine valley in German-speaking Switzerland. Before the wines are even bottled, each and every one is already sold to long-time customers. How has this modest couple, working in unheralded terrain, become the emblem of Swiss wines par excellence?
After nearly 40 vintages, Daniel and Martha have fine-tuned every element within their control — from impeccably farmed Burgundy clones to custom-built machines that ensure the gentlest handling of the grapes from vineyard to press. It is a blend of handwork and precision that reads very Swiss. But the true secret may be their uncompromising vision and sheer joy in doing exactly what they want — together.
Fläsch, the village where the Gantenbeins live near most of their vineyards and architecturally pioneering winery, is tucked into the northeastern corner of what’s known as German Switzerland. This grouping of 17 mountainous eastern cantons, linked by a common dialect of German and a certain ruggedness of outlook, accounts for just under 20% of Switzerland’s total wine output. The tiny subregion (and AOC) of Graubünden is surrounded by stunning Alpine peaks that climb above 4,000 meters in elevation, rightfully earning it a reputation for stellar skiing and hiking, but also making it surprising terroir for the reds that dominate here, especially Pinot Noir, as well as niche quantities of Chardonnay and Riesling.
TRINK's Valerie Kathawala spoke by phone from New York with the Gantenbeins in Fläsch to unpack these legendary wines.
How would you describe Fläsch to someone who has never been there?
DG: It is a little wine village of just barely a thousand inhabitants. In 1622, the whole village burned to the ground. The next year, people started to rebuild. The house we live in, for instance, was built then. Most are built of stone, with vaulted cellars. We are at 500 meters elevation. The Rhine flows past us in a relatively flat valley; the vineyards sit at the foot of the Alps. Long ago, streams washed slate down from the mountains. The Rhine also once curved its way through the whole valley, so our soils are a mixture of alluvial sediment and a lot of slate. Climatically, Graubünden is the northernmost region of German Switzerland. What grows optimally here are Burgundy varieties. We also have Riesling, but that came more through the influence of our very good friends Ernie Loosen, Helmut Dönnhoff, Wilhelm Weil, and a few others.
What is it like to grow grapes in such an Alpine climate?
MG: We have relatively heavy precipitation and that is always a bit of a challenge. In the '70s and '80s, it was almost too cool for good ripening here. But the last few years have been optimal. Also, in the autumn, we often get the Föhn, a warm, dry wind that comes down from the Alps. Normally, that brings us warm days and cool nights, which of course contributes to gradual ripening and is very good for aromatic development.
How are you responding to the challenges of climate change?
MG: We take care that the plants stay in balance. If you see a person who’s fit and healthy, but then something happens — they don’t sleep for two nights — they’re fine. It’s the same principle with plants. In general, we make sure not to prune the vines too early in winter so that they get their rest and can maintain their reserves — whatever is necessary is worthwhile in the long run because when the vines are in balance, with a steady growth development, they can endure quite a lot.
Are there other threats specific to your area?
MG: This year we had hail in early July. Half the vineyards had hail-affected grapes and those have to be cut out — one by one. It’s especially important for Pinot Noir that the damaged grapes aren’t included in the fermentation because that introduces bitter substances to the wine. It’s always good when you can say, “OK, this year we’ll have a smaller yield, but we haven’t had to make any sacrifices in quality.” Other than that, it’s the same as in most places: powdery and downy mildew are always a concern.
Which vineyard treatments do you use and why?
MG: From the beginning, we have never used synthetic fertilizers. We also don’t use insecticides, herbicides, or copper sulfate. But we do need fungicides.
DG: You have to consider the whole picture. We get an average of 1,000-1,200 millimeters of precipitation spread out over the course of the whole year. So we have very significant greening between the rows. You have to be able to remove that. Instead of herbicides, we have built two machines that allow us to do it mechanically, without damaging the vines. At the moment, we are using minimal amounts of spray to keep powdery and downy mildew under control. Our colleagues who are organic use Bordeaux mixture, which is, of course, made of copper, a heavy metal that doesn’t break down in the soil. After eight or 10 millimeters of rain, they have to go out and spray again. So, we hope that science makes progress with its research into nonsynthetic, natural remedies. There are indications of advances there.
How did Pinot Noir become the flagship variety of your region and of your estate?
DG: The story goes that during the 30 Years War, a Burgundian general stationed here missed his wines so much that he ordered local plantings of Pinot Noir. However it actually happened, Pinot Noir has been at home here since the early 20th century. But at that time, it was all Swiss clones created by Swiss grape breeders, with big berries and a very poor skin-to-fruit ratio. We moved away from those very early on. We started to replace them with eight different Burgundy clones, all at a greater planting density — currently plus/minus 8,000 to 8,500 vines per hectare.
"We make just one wine per variety per vintage."
If you were to point to a single reason for the quality of your wines, what would it be?
MG: We make just one wine per variety per vintage. This is relatively demanding because we can’t say “OK, we’re going to use some vines for a simpler wine.” We are striving for the same quality from every single vine from the very beginning, with pruning, thinning — everything — taking the risks that lead to optimal quality.
How did you both come to wine?
DG: Martha’s parents had a mixed farm here and her father was the first in the area to make and bottle his own wines, but on a very small scale. I was born in Engadine and grew up in Malans, at the other end of Graubünden. My father was an engineer for the Rhaetian Railway but my parents had a vineyard and were hobby growers. My connection to wine was that on my fall school holidays, I always worked for growers to make a little pocket money. After that, I trained as a mechanic. Martha went to trade school.
Did either of you study oenology?
DG: No. When we decided to pursue our own domaine, we did apprenticeships in Wädenswil — Marta with a grower and I with a cellar master.
Martha and I met when we were about 20. We wanted to create something together, just us. And of course a domaine was the obvious choice.
We took over vineyards from our families, starting with 4 hectares, expanded to 6, and that’s where we are today. We were always very interested in viticulture, we traveled a lot — Piedmont, Germany, Burgundy, Napa Valley, Argentina, Chile — naturally with a focus on visiting estates and getting to know the cuisines.
"Our way has always been to drink better in order to make better wine."
And of course, whenever we drink something that enchants us, we put that domaine on our travel agenda and make sure we get to know the people who make the wines. Now we have a really good network in many regions.
How big is your team?
DG: We have many interns, though we are not permitted to formally train vintners because we haven’t taken the Swiss master craftsmen’s examination. We have one full-time employee who is our right-hand man, plus two other part-time local employees who join us when the work piles up.
With such a tight crew, what does harvest look like at Gantenbein?
MG: Actually, for us, the period before harvest is the most critical and intensive. As I mentioned, this year, we had some hail, so we had to make six, seven, even ten passes through the vineyards to ensure we’d gotten all the damaged grapes. Harvest itself takes just five to seven days. We have 10 to 15 people helping — family and friends who know exactly what to do.
"Actually, for us, the period before harvest is the most critical and intensive."
MG: Our various parcels — eight in Fläsch, two in Malans — ripen at different times. So we sometimes have to say, let’s harvest these two, then go back to the others and see how they are ripening. Because we are a manageable size, with 4.2 hectares of Pinot, 1.6 of Chardonnay, and 0.3 of Riesling, we can do that quite well.
Please share some insight into what goes on between harvest and bottling.
DG: It starts with very careful pre-selection in the vineyard, as Martha explained. The grapes are harvested into small plastic boxes, 8-9 kg when they’re full. We handle them very carefully because we want whole, undamaged grapes. And — this is very important — as soon as the grapes are picked, our team gets the grapes straight to the cellar.
"We’ve organized ourselves so that at the very latest, 15 minutes after a grape is cut, it’s been processed."
The grapes are sorted again, then mechanically destemmed using a very new vibration technology that keeps 95% of the grapes intact. (We experimented extensively with various percentages of whole cluster in the early 2000s, but concluded we don’t think it works with our style, as the stem tannins are often too green for us.) We do cold soak for up to 14 days, depending on the vintage. During this time we do a light pigeage once a day and minimize direct oxygen contact with the must. Then we press using a membrane press for most of our wines and a very old basket press for a portion of the Chardonnay.
In years when the grapes are fully healthy, we work with native yeasts. But when needed, we inoculate each of our 19 different casks with a different selected yeast so that we get the greatest possible complexity. We raise the wines from each site individually. Martha and I taste them all repeatedly, until the final assemblage.
Elevage for our Pinot Noir is always 100% new barrique, for Chardonnay it’s around 50% new oak. We raise the Riesling in steel tank. We sulfur the wines after malo, at a very low level.
Has your style changed over the years and if so how?
MG: Since we’ve had the Burgundy clones, everything has gotten a bit finer. The vines are of course older every year and we really notice the maturity in the Chardonnay. The wines are deeper, the minerality more pronounced. We find that with the Riesling, too. Now that the vines are older, we can make it dry. So it’s our starting materials that have changed our style, I would say.
DG: What we also find very important is we only very lightly tighten the screws. We have our style and it should be recognizable. Of course we want to find just a little more in the wines every year, but our adjustments must be very fine.
"Of course we want to find just a little more in the wines every year, but our adjustments must be very fine."
For example, we no longer rack the wines during elevage. That only changes the style a little though.
MG: What we’ve also learned over the years is that we favor the cooler vintages and the lower alcohol wines. But when we have a warmer year and the wine is a bit broad, or if the wine needs to have a bit more alcohol to achieve ripeness, we accept this. That is just the vintage. What’s important to us is that it brings pleasure to drink.
Critics always underscore the spectacular ageability of your wines. I am lucky to have a bottle of 2017 Gantenbein Pinot Noir waiting for me at home. When should I open it?
DG: We say you should open the Pinots either very young, at six months after bottling, or give them time. Right now, the '12s and '13s are drinking beautifully. But '17 still needs to rest.
Two last questions. First, what has been the biggest surprise of your careers?
DG: We always only wanted to make something good. We are happy to see how the wines have been accepted. To build up an international clientele that returns year after year is a really nice experience.
MG: It was also very surprising to us that in spring of this year, the “Corona year,” we were just bottling the 2018s. None of us really knew what was coming. So we went to all our customers to ask if they really wanted the wines and told them it would be no problem if not. For us, it’s very important that our customers really want the wine and don’t feel obligated to take it. And we were so happily surprised that we had no cancellations.
"Our labels say 'Martha and Daniel Gantenbein.' Because that’s how it is."
What have been the greatest satisfactions in your work?
MG: It’s always been important to us that we ourselves do the work in the vines and the cellar. Of course we can’t do everything, but we are very involved in all of the essential steps. We get to do exactly what we would like to be doing.
DG: We share all the work. Our labels say “Martha and Daniel Gantenbein.” Because that’s how it is.