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Swiss Vintners Carve Wine Cellar Out of Glacier

Helena Bachmann
Posted: July 9, 1999

Winemakers in a small town in southern Switzerland have given new meaning to the term "ice wine." Faced with a shortage of cellars in which to stock its dessert wine, the Mathier family, which owns the Nouveau Salquenen winery, came up with a novel idea: storing six barrels of the 1997 vintage in the high Alps, in a snow- and ice-covered cave deep inside the Rhone glacier.

"We were faced with a storage problem, but nature gives us an answer to everything," said Yvo Mathier, the winery's marketing director.

Last October, after 380 tons of ice were cleared from the glacier, the six oak barrels, each weighing 660 pounds, were placed under 35 feet of ice. They remained there, at temperatures ranging from 30 to 33 degrees F, for eight months before they were retrieved at the end of June.

"It was an ideal environment, because sweet wine, which has a high sugar content, needs low temperatures and very high humidity," said Mathier. "But because there was no precedent for this, until we went up there, we weren't sure whether we would find the barrels intact and how the wine would develop."

Once unveiled, the wine did not leave experts cold. "It is smooth, harmonious and expressive," said Jean Crettenand, a Swiss enologist invited to give his impressions when the wine was retrieved. "The low temperature worked wonders."

Situated in Salquenen, in the midst of the Swiss Alps, the Mathiers' 62-acre estate produces 36 different wines, totaling 50,000 cases per year. The 300 cases of the glacier-stored wine, made from Marsanne, Amigne and Silvaner (known as Gros Rhin in Switzerland), will be marketed under the Gemma label. The wine is not distributed in the United States, but can be ordered through the winery.

Despite the backbreaking labor involved in transporting the barrels up and down the steep mountain, the family is planning to stock its 1998 vintage in the glacier cave again. The only problem, according to Mathier, is that due to global warming, the glacier moves about 130 feet every year. "We just hope we can find it again," he said.

For another unique way of cellaring wine:

  • September 30, 1995
    Loire Winemaker Sinks His Pouilly-Fumé off the Coast of Brittany

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