Edouard Thorens

The place above the clouds

Edouard Thorens
The place above the clouds

When I can see the smoke from the fire, I know I’m heading to the right direction, and a tall guy with a giant black hat à la Marc Veyrat is waving at me from the vineyard. You know, Marc Veyrat, that French 3-Michelin Star chef that lives in the mountain and cooks with plants? Well, what I’m about to find out is that tall guy has much more in common with Veyrat than just his hat…

Julien lovingly holding one of his newly born while glancing no less lovingly at his vineyard

Julien lovingly holding one of his newly born while glancing no less lovingly at his vineyard

After braving the clouds and cold to make my way to Buitonnaz, a tiny village high up over Fully, Valais, at about 950m up in the Alps, I’m finally going to meet with Julien Guillon, the name on everyone’s lips in the Swiss wine world these days.

Despite the wind and the grey sky (Easter weekend, really Switzerland?), there’s something magical about Julien’s smile, and something about the vineyard’s energy that makes me feel calm and well, the minute I walk by the little hut and past the fire Julien lit to keep us warm, into the vines.

“Too bad you didn’t come yesterday, the dandelion were just flowering! I’ll use plants and flowers from around here to treat the vines, as much as I can. See, I’ve got some wild sage too over here.” Alright, the tone is set. Plants, flowers, Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics, sounds familiar? More and more winemakers get back to following that Austrian philosopher’s principles to a better, more sustainable viticulture, in phase with the moon and nature. Not many of them though go as far as Julien in growing plants and flowers themselves and rather just buy some readymade preparations. Call him an intergrist if you wish, but a damn dedicated one!

“In the end, the vineyard gives me back what I worked for. If I start doing shit around here, it’s not gonna give me good grapes!”

Now we’re talking. I mean, I do hear this all the time, winemakers coming up with the classic “90% of the work is done in the vineyard”, but somehow, coming from Julien it resonates differently. It might be hard to explain why, but I feel he has some real connection to what he’s doing, to *his* vineyard. Is it because he tells me about those energy-packed pink quartz stones he buried at the vineyard’s four corners? Is it because he comes sleep up here when he needs refocus? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just that sparkle in his eyes when he looks down on his vines while explaining the careful pruning he’s been working on that day.

Forget about mechanisation on those steep slopes at over 950m high! Never mind though, that's exactly the challenge Julien was looking for

Forget about mechanisation on those steep slopes at over 950m high! Never mind though, that's exactly the challenge Julien was looking for

Over 1.6 ha of vineyard spread over in Buitonnaz, Julien has no less than 9 varieties of grapes planted! Yes, that’s no typo, 10. Since last year, when that bunch of tiny plots landed in Julien’s hands, he is working with Petite-Arvine, Chardonnay, Cornalin, Gamay, and Savagnin, to name a few. “In 2017, I made only 4 wines, in 2018 I’m planning to have 17 different cuvées, all of them mono-varietal!” Yes, 17, that’s just how bold and determined Julien is. The more I listen to him, the more I can feel his passion, his drive, his resilience. The more I understand luck doesn’t have much to do with what brought him standing here in his very own plot on that cloudy day.

“I was born on September 8th, under the sign of Bacchus! At the age of 5, I fell in love with wine while helping my brother harvest in Gevrey. I always dreamed of having my own vineyard one day…”, after studying viticulture in Beaune, Julien headed back to Geneva and started working at Cave 20G in Carouge, where he discovered natural wines with Gilles Bogaerts. Being asthmatic and strongly intolerant to sulfites, goes without saying that a whole new world opened itself to him.

A few months in, Julien met with Marc Balzan, from Domaine Chèrouche in Ayent. “You know their logo, it’s called a clé Guillon, just like me. We were just meant to meet!”. They talked for hours, got along as family and kept in touch ever since. So when Julien left Geneva and wanted to open a natural wine bar in Valais, Chèrouche was the obvious first door on which he went knocking. 

Rather than selling him wine for his bar, Marc offered Julien a job in the vineyard, a bed, and  food. It’s back in the summer of 2016 and the young dreamer doesn’t need to think twice. Next thing we know, Julien is settling down in Ayent and getting one step closer to see his dreams come true. Fast forward to 2017, Julien stands on his own two feet and took over nearly 1.4 ha of vines in Ayent, planted with a few different varieties. That’s where Julien did his first vintage, before recouping the extra 1.7 ha here over Fully and another one in Ayent.

I’ve been listening to Julien’s condensed life path for the past half an hour, now, it’s time we taste some wine, and gladly, Julien made the first move.

Julien literally stole the show at the Vin Vivant wine fair in Fribourg this past March

Julien literally stole the show at the Vin Vivant wine fair in Fribourg this past March

Off to the car, he came back with two virgin bottles and a glass branded Vin Vivant, the first ever Swiss natural wines fair that took place in Fribourg a month ago. “Everybody there loved my wines, really, it was so warming and rewarding, I still can’t believe it!”. Well, let me try them, see if I can believe it or not!

First things first, I get to try a blend of 80% Chasselas and 20% Petite-Arvine that Julien has opened 3 days ago. “I’ve kept some opened wine for you, I want you to see how they hold over time.” The nose struck me straight away and reminded me of the great wines of Mythopia thanks to the distinct fresh bitterness. Then into the mouth, and boy, do I believe it all after the first sip. So mineral, so lean and clean, yet so expressive. Seconds later that fresh salinity of the Petite-Arvine still lingered on the tip of my tongue while I’m trying to process what’s going on.

2017 Mes Deux Douces or "My two sweets", two plots, two grapes, Chasselas and Petite Arvine. Two typical Swiss grapes but blended together in a very atypical wine, that's Julien's touch

2017 Mes Deux Douces or "My two sweets", two plots, two grapes, Chasselas and Petite Arvine. Two typical Swiss grapes but blended together in a very atypical wine, that's Julien's touch

After a delightful Amigne, it’s time to give the reds a try. We kicked if off with La Chute, 100% Gamaret, a grape created in Switzerland in 1970 by crossing Gamay and Reichensteiner. “I had some sommeliers taste it blind a few weeks back, and everyone took it for a Beaujolais from Lapierre or Foillard.” Right, once again, the tone is set, let me have that. The trick is Julien only macerated his grapes with 20% whole clusters for 2 weeks before pressing, rather than 4 or 5 usually. The result? Beaujo? Hell yes! They say Lapierre or Foillard, I say Dutraive or Métras. That Gamaret is Beaujo on steroids, a pure fruit bomb, with blackcurrant notes and a rich palate with all the tannins and acidity you need to age it a few years. I’m left with that soft, velvety feel and those long-lasting berries notes and I wonder how the next wine will top this one…

“People say I’m like my wines. Straight, serious, lean and clean. That’s who I am and that’s how make my wines.”

True, the wines are straight and lean, they don’t show any of those defects that one could find in ‘natural’ wines. But I wouldn’t keep the comparison between Julien and his wines to those very limitative few adjectives. Dare I say the wines I’ve just tried are joyful, lively, vibrant, ambitious even? Yes I dare. Only the greatest winemakers, just like the greatest chefs, manage to transmit such emotions through their work. When I said that hat fit Julien too well, I meant it.

On to Mateo, 100% Pinot Noir, 50% whole cluster, “Mateo, just like my son and because that’s the only wine that can make me cry.” Damn, this guy is good at creating high expectations! And damn, is he good too at crafting some amazing wines! That Pinot came from vines that were planted back in 1962 at a time when quality was still favoured over quantity. Low yields anyone? Those vines gave him merely 175 grams per sqm last year! Saying the grape is rich and concentrated as f**k would be an understatement and trust me, I’ve never had, you’ve never had, no one has ever had a Swiss Pinot that tastes so delicious! It’s just like a wild strawberry made love with Mr. Glouglou and boom nine months later this wine comes out. Take my word for it.

“I realize I’m doing wine now, but still I don’t completely realize the how and the why of all this. I guess I have a lucky star looking after me…”

There really is something so pure, so delicate, so elegant about Julien's wines

There really is something so pure, so delicate, so elegant about Julien's wines

That humility has been coming through the whole time we’ve been chatting, that’s also what makes Julien so endearing, and that’s yet another thing he has in common with his wines. As lively and vibrant as they are, they remain humble wines, they’re not trying to showcase anything, they’re not blockbuster, they’re not “over” anything. Just humble, endearing wines.

Time does fly up here, it’s been more than one hour we’re here now, the fire died but it’s okay, we’re not cold anymore, wine and laughters did the trick.

On my way back to the car, Julien entertains me with his plans for the future, orange wine, petnat’, white macerations, amphorae… you name it. Not that I needed all this to commit, but Julien, expect me very soon again indeed!

ET/SLK