A Swiss Winemaker in the Land of the Rising Sun

A passion for wine

Text Claude Hervé-Bazin / Photo Anoush Abrar
Date of publication Winter 2019-2020

The Domaine du Daley was founded in 1392 in Lutry, in the canton of Vaud, making it the oldest commercial entity in Switzerland. An impassioned and fascinating man helms the company today: Cyril Séverin, who has returned the Valais-based company to its much-loved familial roots. Under his leadership, the company’s wines have overcome numerous obstacles and frontiers in their quest to conquer the Japanese market.

The Séverin family history is both full-bodied and well-structured. The family is known in Switzerland for their rapid success in pharmacies, championed by Cyril’s father, Marcel Séverin. In 2003, he used his fortune to purchase the Domaine du Daley, where his father and grandfather had worked for decades as agricultural workers, and he has since passed the reigns on to his son, Cyril. The young man quickly found his calling in the Domaine. Using all the vigour and Valais tenacity he was born with, he revolutionized the company’s production process and began to focus intently on high quality. It was the perfect decision given Switzerland’s high production costs and its unique climate and soil conditions, not to mention that it aligns with the Séverin family love for quality cuisine and fine wines. Despite the associated extra work and additional costs, sustainable agriculture and organic production have become a necessity according to Cyril, who is pushing “greater purity for greater pride.”

Today, Cyril Séverin oversees some 15 hectares of chasselas, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, viognier, pinot noir, gamaret, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, and plant robert (a biotype of Gamay) grapes, on a sunny, south-facing, riverside hill above Lake Geneva. It represents one of 1000 Swiss wine-growing areas, cultivated with a focus on small but high-quality yield, for a total production of some 65,000 bottles a year. It’s a mere drop in the ocean that represents global wine production, but it’s a sumptuous drop indeed.

Unique Vinification and Export Exclusives
Grass grows freely between the cuttings, which are harvested in small, precise trays. Behind closed doors is a special three-level wine cellar, entirely developed by Cyril Séverin, where the wine production process uses gravity to its advantage: the grapes are delivered on the terrace then transferred to fermentation tanks via trapdoors, where their juice drips down to wooden casks on the lowest level. It’s the only one of its kind in Laveaux, and the wines are elaborated with great patience. The reds are unfiltered and sulphur is used sparingly.

“Wine reflects the character of its maker,” says Séverin. The 16 great vintages from Domaine du Daley are precise and ambitious, “of great finesse and complexity.” Among them, seven whites, including the Tradition chasselas, the Grande Réserve chasselas, and La Légende. In a surprising twist, Séverin also produces rosé wines from older gamay vines that he describes as “juicy and aromatic.” Among them is Sakura, vinified as a white wine and exclusively available for the Japanese market, and, when the year is right, a pure Syrah named Sy. Both are incredibly popular in Asian markets.

In the Land of Cherry Blossoms
To Cyril Séverin, wine is a philosophy, a desire to do well on principle. Japan places high value on Living National Treasures, and Cyril knew the Japanese would appreciate his commitment to correctness. But would the finely vinified chasselas, with a chardonnay structure and a hint of sauvignon blanc, go well with sushi? Cyril Séverin intended to find out, so he packed his bags and headed to the Land of the Rising Sun. He started out with his Swiss Sushi Wine, a unique fermentation that has since almost become the norm. It worked. Then came his pure chasselas and his pinot noir. Back and forth he went, Switzerland, Japan, Switzerland. Then he decided to open a branch in Tokyo. Along the way, Cyril made friends and grew his network of connections. When he met the hardworking Tsutomu Yoshida, a reseller of high-end Swiss watches and owner of the restaurant Yoshida, the spark between the two businessmen was instant. 300 bottles quickly made their way to Tokyo the first year, then 600 the next year, and 1,200 the third year. The restaurant’s tables saw the Daley wines proudly rub shoulders with wines from Romanée-conti and Pétrus — complete with a personalized label entirely in Japanese. With the guarantee of Swiss quality supporting their branding, the Domaine du Daley’s success took shape in large part due to the Japanese culinary scene, which was soon consuming upwards of 10,000 bottles a year.

Passion Born in Valais
The Séverin family planted their roots in Saint-Séverin, near Vétroz and Conthey, just above the large Rhône Valley, where there’s no shortage of passionate winemakers. In good neighbourhood spirit, Cyril Séverin cites some of his favourite local specialties: Marie-Thérèse Chappaz’ biodynamic wines, named a “Swiss wine icon” by Gault&Millau; Simon Maille and Denis Mercier’s Syrahs; the diverse and unique particular wines from Domaine Cornulus, and many others.

And while Séverin does ski, he specified: “I only ski in Zermatt because in order to ski well, you have to eat well.” And drink well, he could have added. In line with proper Swiss tradition, he has been taking to the slopes since he was six or seven years old, and he enjoys returning to those same Swiss slopes, season after season. His enthusiasm for Zermatt is infallible: “I think Zermatt is the most beautiful place to ski in all of Europe,” he exclaims, “and it has the best mountain cuisine out there!” What more could you ask for?