Whenever I mention Swiss wine — which I do at every possible opportunity — most people get a glazed look in their eyes. Some folks are unaware that wine is even grown in this tiny, mountainous, landlocked country. Those lucky few who have had the chance to taste a delicate Chasselas from Lake Geneva, say, or a smooth, plummy Merlot from Lake Lugano tend to get distracted by their high price and lament the fact that the wines are hard to find outside the country.
Besides, they may add, there are so many interesting — and more accessible — bottles out there waiting to be sampled, and the time and effort required to track down these expensive, elusive Swiss drops is just too much of a stretch.
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Bear with me: There are treasures in them there hills (make that mountains), and now is the moment to start discovering them. Why now, all of a sudden? Wine has been made in Switzerland — as in the rest of Europe — for at least 2,000 years, but it’s in the past 20 that there have been huge changes. Swiss winemakers have access to all the same kinds of recent technical advances that have benefited wine making all over the world. But a hugely significant — and specifically Swiss — development came in the 1990s, when restrictions on the import of foreign wines were lifted. At a stroke, that oh-so-comforting protectionist cushion was removed and winemakers were faced with serious international competition and forced to raise their game.
An introduction to Swiss wines
For Paolo Basso, Best Sommelier of the World in 2013 and a Swiss national, the key players in this story are the new generation of wine growers. “They are much more dynamic (than earlier generations),” he explained in a recent email. “They have studied viticulture and enology not just in Switzerland but also abroad, they travel widely and they enjoy discovering wines from other countries.” While they remain hugely proud of their deeply rooted wine making traditions and culture, this does not stop them from constantly striving for innovation and improvement.
Swiss vineyards are a magnificent patchwork of different climates and terroirs, which means there are always exciting discoveries to be made. At a time when more and more of us are interested in sampling curiosities and hunting down original wines that stand out from the crowd, these Alpine beauties press plenty of buttons. Basso concludes, with complete impartiality: “If the Best Sommelier of the World is Swiss, it’s because Switzerland has some of the best wines in the world!”
Here’s a selection of Swiss wines to put on your bucket list. The country’s calling cards, which together account for the majority of plantings, are Chasselas and Pinot Noir, but some of the most exciting finds come from grapes that are indigenous to Switzerland and seldom (if ever) found outside.
Chasselas (aka Fendant)
Switzerland’s signature white grape, known in the Valais as Fendant and in all other Swiss regions as Chasselas, gives delicately fragrant, low-acid, low-alcohol wines with a slight prickle. When made from the best genetic variants, planted in prime sites (such as Lavaux, recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose impossibly beautiful vineyards climb steeply up from the shores of Lake Geneva), and its vigorous growth carefully controlled, Chasselas can give wines of distinction and subtle depth. Most examples are floral, fresh and highly quaffable, making them the perfect aperitif wine.
Petite Arvine is one of Switzerland’s most thrilling white varieties, indigenous to the Valais region and to neighboring Valle d’Aosta (Italy), which has recently shot to stardom. It makes wines that vary from lip-smackingly dry with gorgeous grapefruit tones and a characteristic salty finish to luscious, highly concentrated, sweet wines from late-harvested grapes. Some of the most expressive come from the village of Fully near Martigny, whose biennial event, Arvines en Capitale, celebrates this unique variety. This distinctive white wine is perfect with raclette, preferably made using an aged alp cheese from the Valais.
Heida (aka Païen)
This is none other than the Savagnin grape of the Jura region (where it gives the famous Vin Jaune), which is now firmly anchored in the Valais region. When the wine is made in the upper part of the Valais region, where German is spoken, its name is Heida; further down the valley toward Lake Geneva, where French is spoken, its name is Païen. Grown in tiny — but steadily increasing — quantities, it gives full-bodied, spicy white wines of enormous distinction. The excellent Provins cooperative, which makes this bottle, recommends Heida with assertively spiced and seasoned dishes such as scallop carpaccio or fish tartare with coconut milk.
Another grape indigenous to the Valais, this ancient white variety is extremely rare: worldwide there are only 40 hectares (98 acres) grown, of which 35 hectares (86 acres) are found in the village of Vétroz, its spiritual home. The small-berried, late-ripening grapes give luscious, deep golden, honeyed wines of varying sweetness. In Amignes from Vétroz, the degree of sweetness is helpfully indicated on the label by a bee motif: one bee indicates an off-dry wine, two is sweeter and three bees is fully sweet. In August 2015 the winegrowers of Vétroz introduced a festival dedicated to “their” grape titled Amigne on the Road, with food and wine trucks serving local specialties and wines from 15 of the village’s wineries. Amigne is a delight served with a buttery, caramelized tarte tatin or enjoyed on its own, just for the pleasure of it.
The famous red grape of Burgundy, this is Switzerland’s most widely planted vine. In the French-speaking cantons it goes by its French name, while in the German-speaking regions it may be labelled Pinot Noir or Blauburgunder (“blue Burgundy”). It is grown in almost all regions, with cantons Graubünden in the east and Neuchâtel in the west both acknowledged centers of excellence. Today, thanks to the effects of climate change, ever finer, fully ripe examples are emerging from the more northerly cantons of Zurich and neighboring Aargau. At the Gasthaus Zum Sternen in Würenlingen, where this one comes from, they pair it with Suure Mocke, a fine dish of beef braised in red wine.
This is another characterful variety that came from the Valle d’Aosta region of northern Italy (where it is known as Cornalin). Arriving in the Valais via the Grand Saint Bernard pass during the 19th century, it made a niche for itself, while always remaining a bit of a rarity. In the past 20 years it has enjoyed a renaissance, joining the Valais’ other highly sought-after specialty grapes. It can be a bit of a country cousin, with a rustic character and pronounced tannins, but in the right hands and with careful vinification (including some barrel-ageing) it gives scented, cherry-red wines that can age with elegance. Try it with richly sauced game dishes (venison or wild boar) or roast lamb, or with a soft, washed-rind cheese such as Vacherin Mont d’Or.
The world-famous red grape arrived in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, from Bordeaux, France, in 1906 and now occupies almost 90 percent of the region’s vineyard surface area. You can find it both as a single varietal and in a blend with other red grapes. Wine maker Ivo Monti of Cantina Monti (whose wines regularly sweep the board in the annual Grand Prix du Vin Suisse) comments that “Merlot is a great soloist, but if you add other varieties, you get the whole orchestra.” Tiny quantities are also vinified as white wine (the Merlot grape has red skins but white juice), labeled Merlot Bianco. Merlot pairs well with richly sauced meats, porcini mushrooms or — for a typically Ticinese match — a bowl of roasted chestnuts.
This relatively new variety, a Gamay Noir x Reichensteiner cross, was developed in the 1970s by Switzerland’s viticultural research station. It has been particularly successful in the Geneva vineyards where it is made as a single varietal, as here, or blended with its sibling grape Garanoir. Its early ripening, bluish-black grapes give deeply colored, supple, spicy wines, which would match well with pinkly roasted duck breast or beef in a red wine butter sauce.
Sourcing Swiss wines
In the United States (Madison, Wisconsin): Swiss Cellars.
In the United Kingdom: Alpine Wines.
In Canada: Swiss Wine Imports.
Alternatively, consult www.winesearcher.com for your nearest local supplier. Better still, visit Switzerland and explore the vineyards yourself, using the free app supplied by Swiss Wine Promotion body, Vinea.
Main photo: A patchwork of Swiss vineyards in the Valais, near Chamoson. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style