IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT TARAMARCAZ
Wine is magical. It connects people and gives pleasure. I am following my dream combining art and wine."
The Domaine des Muses Estate, in Sierre, Valais, Switzerland, was founded in 1992 by Nicole and Louis Taramarcaz. Their son, Robert Taramarcaz, a trained enologist, joined in 2002.
Robert has since shown himself to be the most talented winemaker of his generation, etching himself in the memory of wine connoisseurs the world over. Wine Advocate reviewer David Schildknecht certainly hasn't forgotten - he told me recently in Vienna, "... usually with a winemaker there are some great wines and some more average wines but with Robert, everything is great"
Did you come from a family of winemakers?
In Valais everyone is connected to vineyards and wine. It is such a part of our lives. As is common here, my grandfather owned some vineyards – creating Domaine des Muses is my parents’ dream.
Tell us about how your parents founded The Muses Estate and why that particular location.
My grandfather bought a few vineyards in Granges, near Sierre. My parents set to work developing the vineyards and acquired more. They decided to name it Domaine des Muses inspired by their close friendship with the Dutch painter Antoine Burger. Muses were a key theme in his work. Incidentally that name and friendship with the arts was key to my decision to take over the family winery.
What made you join the winery in Switzerland?
When I was 21 I was planning to go and study law. But after a series of discussions with my parents and my two brothers I decided to switch.
I have no regrets – wine is magical. It connects people, gives pleasure, and here I am coming to London, going to Paris. People all over the world enjoy my wines. If someone had told me that even 10 years ago… Magic!
As I said earlier I don’t think I would have been as willing had we not be called Domaine des Muses. It not just a name, but that artistic connection, really inspired me. I try to combine art and wine – we run a show every year to release our new vintage, always bringing a muse (an actor, musician, dancer) as our ‘godmother’ of the vintage, introducing this year’s Assemblage wines. This was started as a special event during the Mondial du Pinot one year, and was such a success we have been doing it ever since.
Where did you train as an Oenologist?
As a career changer, I had to do an apprenticeship and work experience, before going to university in Dijon. I’ve always loved sweet wines and actually wrote my thesis comparing traditional and modern methods and the different regions. It was fun presenting this work in Burgundy.
One of the influential points was my work experience in New Zealand at Sacred Hill with Tony Bish and David Mason. It gave me a grounding in international and ‘New World’ winemaking. In New Zealand winemakers are savvy, they are some of the best oenologists in the world, and keep innovating and learning. I was very lucky to go and learn from them. I also noticed how much they valued winemaking tradition. It drove home how lucky we are in Europe to have tradition going back thousands of years and how we take it for granted.
In Burgundy, they have 1500 years of tradition, fabulous wines and terroir, but as a result less evolution or exploration.
The ideal of course is to combine the two, which many of us try to do in the Valais.
How many hectares do you have? Is the winery open to tourists for wine tasting?
We work nine hectares. Many we own, but I also rent a few vineyards in locations that I think are perfect for specific varieties.
Some vineyards are located in Granges (right by the cycling trail) and the cellar facilities are in Sierre. In the summer we are open in Grange (by appointment only) and also welcome people embarking on the wine trail during weekends and events. In the winter we receive visitors at “La Cave” (the cellar) in Sierre.
Is the climate perfect for making wines?
Around Sierre and Grange we have the driest climate in Switzerland, with the Rhône creating some cool fog in the morning and often the warm wind Foehn (or the cold Bise) drying everything. We have warm dry summers and perfect mellow autumns. We might be in the heart of the Alps but we don’t have problems with maturation, almost anything can mature here – it is an oenologue’s dream location. People don’t believe that it can be an oenologue’s dream but it really is.
What type of soil is there?
In the Valais we have an incredible diversity – part of the region has granitic soils, then as you move up the valley we increasingly have limestone, especially around Sierre and Granges where our main vineyards are. Additionally the Rhône created many different alluvial cones which each have very unique mineral character.
What grape varieties do you grow and why?
I grow both international and native grape varieties. I’m very happy to have been selected as one the first four Swiss winemakers for the 'Best of 2012' and I am very proud that 11 wines that we make, from 11 different varieties made that selection. It shows how special Valais is as a winemaking region. As I said earlier, almost every variety can reach full maturity here.
Are you moving more towards international grape varieties or towards indigenous or rare grapes?
I am planning to continue to do both.
The international grapes I know and love from my winemaking education – Pinot, Chardonnay, Marsanne and Syrah especially. They also give people discovering us a familiar baseline to compare, especially if they are unfamiliar with Swiss wine.
Once people trust us, they then want the more unique and distinctive wines from the traditional varieties that grow nowhere else.
I like that so many people know us each for very different wines, my Syrah, my Fendant, my Assemblage or my dessert wine.
What makes your Fendant so different and special?
For one, my vines are over 80 years old. They are on the terroir of Vétroz which I consider one of the best for Chasselas – there the Chasselas has great minerality but also more acidity. The soil is very important for Chasselas.
Chasselas might be easy in the vineyard but needs care in the cellar as it is such a transparent grape. The terroir can really show through. To me white wine and red wine need different mindsets. A ‘Nordic’ mindset for the whites, extreme care and systematic work, whereas for the reds you should have a more supple, relaxed, ‘Meridional’ mentality.
Tell us about your Humagne Blanc. Why do you make it in the Burgundian style?
I think Humagne Blanche is special but there is so little of it grown in Valais - maybe 20 or so hectares? It’s a shame because for a long time it was the main white native variety in use. It was believed to have restorative powers. It is a wine that takes two or three years to mature properly. Although Humagne is the native variety with the best ageing potential in our culture we still drink whites young, so it is a challenge.
I chose the Burgundian style in part to make it clear that this wine should be given time to mature. I also think that for varieties that aren’t hugely expressive and in that Humagne is a little like Chardonnay, the Burgundian method is ideal.
Do you use any specific farming or growing techniques?
I am very careful with my soil and vineyards but don’t follow a particular creed. I feel many of these labels are marketing driven and this doesn’t attract me. Of course the soil and the vineyard are close to the heart of any winemaker and you want to work them cleanly and sustainably, no need to get a sticker about it.
Tell us about the awards you have won.
When I started I submitted many wines to competitions – in Switzerland, in Paris even Brussels and won medals in nearly all of them. I was a finalist year on year at the Grand Prix du vin Suisse. In fact, I think I have been in the top in nearly every one of their categories with my wines. As someone who had learned winemaking outside Switzerland, being in the top three Chasselas was especially rewarding. The full list of awards is on my website.
How did you feel about being included in Robert Parker’s wine reviewing team?
The Wine Advocate reviewer David Schildknecht included four Swiss producers in his ‘Best of 2012’ collection, and says meeting Robert and tasting his wines was the trigger. Schildknecht selected 11 of Robert's wines, made from 11 different varieties.
I was over the moon to be selected in ‘Best of 2012’ – it is such an honour, and I feel the number of different wines selected really recognised not just me, but the uniqueness, quality and boundless potential of wines in the Valais.
Describe your favourite wine that you produce.
I love all my wines with equal passion, which I think is one of the reasons I have won awards with every single one of them. Having said that, I would really like to help make our traditional Fendant and Dôle (Gamay Pinot Assemblage) more fashionable again here at home. They are unique but taken for granted.
For an oenologue, I think, the joy is to be able to craft a beautiful Pinot Noir. To be rewarded internationally for a Pinot from Valais, now that is brilliant. I have a soft spot for Pinot - a tricky wine, where people focus not on strength but elegance and finesse.
What traditional Swiss dishes would you recommend are a perfect match for your wines?
For example with Petite Arvine, the Perch – Filets de Perche du Leman (if you can find some in the UK), or Crayfish. Petite Arvine is just a fabulous fish and seafood wine.
What other interests do you have outside of wine?
I’m quite into outdoors sports – football in the summer and skiing in winter and a bit of tennis (to “support” Federer).
Mostly my passion is performing arts, especially the theatre – I try to connect my wines with performing arts as much as possible with the event in the summer for example.
It is one of the highlights of my life so far that I got to play Cyrano de Bergerac. I started making a Merlot named “Cyrano” in 2008 and in 2011 I got to play Cyrano in Sierre. That was amazing – it’s a very difficult role, 1500 lines, took a long time to learn.
I’d want to write a play about wine – that’s one of my dreams.
What are your ambitions for the winery?
To make a living doing what I love, creating a business that is also art.
I would also like to export more of my wine to more countries. I find it amazing and near magical that my wines can be enjoyed in Asia, North America, all over Europe, starting from these two small hills where my grandfather had vines.
Find Robert's Wines
We have the following wines from Robert in stock RIGHT NOW for next day delivery, and as always, no minimum order.
Dôle Tradition, Robert Taramarcaz
One of the best Doles I found in 2013 - refreshing, complex, interesting and sooooo easy drinking.
I love Marsanne and was on a quest to find one from the Valais in 2013. This was the best.
Euterpe Séduction Blanche
The equally legendary Red blend.