Alpine wine

Wed, 24. Jul. 2019

Pascal Rittener-Ruff has spent the last couple of years in bringing winegrowing and winemaking to the Pays-d’Enhaut. The project is all but straightforward, however Rittener-Ruff is determined to continue and receives a lot of support from the community.

Pascal Rittener-Ruff, thank you for meeting with Gstaadlife. Can you tell us a little about your connection with the Pays-d’Enhaut?
I was born and brought up in Château-d’Oex. I completed my education and professional forestry training here then moved to live and work in Villeneuve and Lausanne. After training in insurance, I came back here as the regional manager for Vaudoise Insurance. I also spent a few years as an administrative board member at the Balthus Foundation.

What gave you the idea of growing vines in Château-d’Oex?
I was motivated by the challenge. I take a keen interest in viticulture and I love nature, manual work, creating and landscaping.

Your domain is located at an altitude of just over 1000 metres. Did this influence your choice of grape varieties?
Absolutely! With global warming we have gained 200 metres in altitude for planting vines. I actually chose varieties that can be planted up to 1100-1200 metres. These originate from the North Rhine region and were developed over 100 years ago at the German Freiburg Institute and also in north-eastern France. These varieties ripen and sweeten earlier and are highly disease-resistant, with 100% of the crop being used for wine production. I’m inspired by countries like Denmark and Poland, which also face tough growing conditions.

Did you choose varieties that are more frost-resistant?
Not particularly. Riesling or Chardonnay grow well in the Pays-d’Enhaut. There’s a lot of Riesling in Alsace yet temperatures there can drop to minus 15-20C. Under-ripening is more of a concern. We need to ensure that sugar levels are high enough for the grapes to be harvested in October. Riesling usually needs until the end of October to ripen but in this area it ripens by the end of September.
 
Do you have plans for expansion?
Initially I wanted to cultivate 4000 square metres of vines below my chalet as an experimental project. I was in partnership with the president of the Swiss Oenologists; Agroscope, the Federal Research Station, was also involved. The Vaud authorities, however, refused to give me permission to do this. For reasons of quality control, they restrict wine growing above an altitude of 700 metres to a surface of 200 square metres.
 
You aren’t allowed to plant vines on your own land? That is hard to understand!
These are old laws to prevent overproduction in areas where the wine quality cannot be guaranteed. Although Switzerland has no import restrictions on foreign wines, the canton upholds these laws which prevent local production. I personally disagree with this, especially since Switzerland imports wine from high-altitude Argentinian vineyards, which have questionable production methods. I follow strict ecological principles and professional standards, yet I am denied permission.
 
Do other cantons have similar laws or is it just Vaud?
Some cantons allow 400 square metres of vines at this altitude and are prepared to consider special requests for greater surfaces.

Are you permitted to sell your wine?
I’m allowed to market my wine but, as I mentioned earlier, I’m banned from planting vines on more than 200 square metres of my land. My vineyard is currently 400 square metres and, even though I have told the authorities that my vines are not for commercial wine production, they still insist that I have to remove 200 square metres. Personally, I find this attitude dictatorial and absurd.

I read recently that other people in the Pays-d’Enhaut are planting vines. Can you explain this trend?
Throughout my 3-year dispute with the Canton of Vaud, people have supported my project. They like my wine and they find the canton’s attitude to be unreasonable. So, planting more vines is a way of manifesting support for the project and uniting people from different backgrounds and social classes. It’s a wonderful inter-personal experience.

You’ve already taken this dispute to the Cantonal Court?
Yes. I am in dispute with the Canton of Vaud and this has turned into a legal battle, with specialists and experts involved. We’re currently appealing to the Federal Administrative Court. If we win, the old law will be abolished. If we lose, I’ll be confined to 200 square metres or try to relaunch the project in a neighbouring region like Gruyère or Saanenland.
 
Do you make your wine yourself?
I use a specialist winemaker for this grape variety. I wanted to show the sceptics that they were wrong and the outcome has exceeded my expectations. Professional wine tasters have vouched for the quality of my wine and I’ve had very positive feedback. It is 12.3% proof and has a nice balance – residually sweet and very aromatic. My 400 square metres have yielded nearly 300 bottles. Now that the trend has caught on, we – myself and the other local residents who have each planted the maximum permitted area of 200 square metres – have a total area of 3000 square metres of vineyards, stretching from Rossinière to Rougemont.

Have your friends used the same grape variety?
Yes, thanks to my 13 years’ experience and proven track record, I am qualified to act as their consultant.

Could you join forces with other viticulturists to form a winemaking cooperative?
No. That would be illegal. Officially, everyone works independently but recruits outside help with the vinification. Our aim is to establish a network of home growers.

Your project has attracted a lot of publicity on Swiss television and in the local newspapers. Has this helped? Do people think it’s a bit of a David and Goliath story?
The publicity has really raised awareness and helped the general public understand the problems I am facing. Issues related to winemaking creates solidarity and I get a lot of support on social networks like Facebook and Instagram. The scale of the publicity is a reaction to the attitude of the authorities.

The press recently got hold of a letter sent by experts from the canton’s vineyard registry to the minister of economy warning that, if they did not ban my project, it could lead to a catastrophic wine surplus that could destabilise the wine market! 24 Heures told me that the resulting press story was the second most-read article in French-speaking Switzerland. So yes, it’s a bit of a David and Goliath story.
 
Are you optimistic about winning this battle?
According to my lawyer, we may well lose and the old laws will remain in force. However, at least we will have proved that wine can be produced at this altitude. If I lose, I’ll have to sacrifice half my vineyard and be content with 200 square metres. However, vinification will continue in the Pays-d’Enhaut and we could possibly ask Bern for support; the Bernese are prepared to listen.

Do you think that Saanenland is more open on this subject than the Pays-d’Enhaut?
Yes, I think the other cantons are more open. My project has many interesting facets for scientific research and Agroscope would like to be involved. A local wine would complement the promotion of other local products, like our cheeses. People from the Saanen region have approached me about growing vines. Given the growing interest, I won’t be surprised if I my project gets the go-ahead from somewhere else.
 
How can people who are interested get in touch with you?
It’s easy to find me on social media.

Has this adventure left you feeling bitter or are you happy with your achievements?
I’m not bitter. The project has rallied support. Emotions run high when it comes to local projects in the Pays-d’Enhaut and winemaking seems to have united everyone in the region. We’re surrounded by enthusiastic people from different political backgrounds and social classes. In some ways, I can understand the Canton’s protectionist stance. It takes time to change mindsets. Some areas have already changed and it will eventually happen here.

I see that you’ve called your wine “La Cuvée de la Discorde” – “The divisive vintage”.
Yes, the team at MEO came up with the name. They offered me several design options and I chose the simple line-drawing of a cracked wine glass incorporating an outline of the Gumfluh mountain to depict “La Cuvée de la Discorde”. The motif is beautifully silk-screened onto the bottle. It’s a little poke at the canton, highlighting our disagreement with the Lausanne authorities and our determination to go ahead with the project.

Gstaadlife wishes you the very best of luck for the future. It would be great to have vineyards producing local wines in the Pays-d’Enhaut.

Guy Girardet

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