Culture: Get to Know Petite Arvine, the ‘Diva’ of Swiss Grapes
“Petite Arvine is a noble and unique white wine variety. We call it the ‘Diva’ of Swiss grapes because it is capricious and can be challenging to grow,” says Laurence Schlatter, Swiss-native winegrower and co-owner of Merryvale Vineyards in Napa, California.
“In Switzerland, you can find three different styles,” he explains. “Dry, racy, fresh and citrusy, aged in stainless steel; rich, smooth and complex with notes of rhubarb, aged in neutral barrels; and late harvest, showing beautiful notes of stone and citrus fruits and a balance between the sweetness and acidity.”
This early-budding, late-ripening grape is cherished for its ability to maintain searing acidity throughout its long growth cycle, often complemented by the high level of phenolics extracted from its thick skins.
The white Vitis vinifera grape is—as far as anyone knows— an indigenous Swiss variety, with 99.7% of Switzerland’s plantings located in the Valais region. “Petite Arvine is an ‘orphan’ variety,” says Schlatter. Official DNA analysis has never found any links to parent varieties, or kinship with any other grape. But the orphan has found happy adopted homes, even outside Swiss borders.
Valle D’Aosta, Northwest Italy
The second most planted acres of Petite Arvine can be found in the Valle d’Aosta DOC in northeast Italy. The late-ripener thrives well in the Alpine conditions, basking in the sun of the south-facing terraced vineyards, achieving full, robust ripeness. It is oft referred to as the “grape of the glaciers.”
As in Switzerland, winemakers produce a variety of wine, the most common being a dry, fresh expression fermented in neutral vessels.
Okanagan Valley, B.C., Canada
By sheer chance Swiss-trained winemaker and co-owner of Arrowleaf, Manuel Zuppiger, came across Petite Arvine at an Ontario nursery. “We weren’t sure how it would grow here. It was an experiment for us,” says Zuppiger.
Turns out, the grape grows well in the semi-arid, continental climate of the north end of Okanagan, where Arrowleaf is located. But the short growing season makes it a challenge to achieve enough ripeness to make the rich, dry wine produced in Switzerland.
Thus, Arrowleaf’s expression is off-dry, balancing sweetness with the extremely high acidity resulting from the shorter growth cycle.
Along the Northern California coastal mountain range, just outside Humboldt, Alder Springs Vineyard sits at 1,600 to 3,000 feet elevation. Perfect growing conditions for the Alpine-native Petite Arvine.
“Our first vintage, I pressed it a little lighter because I was scared of the tannins,” says winemaker Joseph Ryan, who sources from Alder Springs for Sonoma-based Ernest Vineyard. Now, he embraces phenolics, incorporating foot treading and skin contact into his winemaking scheme. The result: “more tannin and structure—more of an age-able white than simple quaffer.”
In 2021, Merryvale’s Schlatter decided to graft Petite Arvine in Napa’s Carneros AVA—a region with much less altitude. “We had space for it, and we thought the climate and soil were suitable.” The first vintage is currently maturing in neutral French oak. “So far, it is showing very Petite Arvine characteristics,” he says. “It is vibrant and … we can’t wait to introduce it to our customers.”
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
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