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Dazzling Swiss Wines

Switzerland is quite unlike any other wine producing country that I have ever visited. Quite simply, it has some of the world’s highest vineyards, with some of the most dramatic scenery imaginable, including the most breathtakingly steep slopes covered with vines, along with some of the world’s most obscure grape varieties. Tending your vines is intensely demanding, and mostly done by hand. And where else would you take a cable car — indeed your own private cable car — to reach your vines?

On our first morning we had an appointment at 10 o’clock with Jacques Grange from Domaine de Beudon at the foot of his cable car close to the village of Fully in the Valais. The Swiss have a reputation for punctuality, and sure enough at 9:53 the machinery began to hum; minutes later, a cable car came into view over the brow of the cliff and at 10 a.m., Jacques was on the ground at our side. For a moment we watched a helicopter spraying some of his neighbor’s steep vines — much to Jacques’ irritation, as he practices organic viticulture and unless you spray early in the morning, when there is no wind, the chemicals inevitably drift. (He sells off the grapes from the vines that might be contaminated in that way.)

And then we took the cable car up to his higher vineyards and house where he gave us our first tasting of fendant, with understated mineral fruit, and also of petite arvine, which was a new variety for me, and only grown in the Valais. It is delicately peachy, slightly honeyed with a dry finish. Jacques’ highest vineyards are at 2,920 feet (890 meters), while those on the valley floor are at 2,428 feet (740 meters). You look down on the Rhône that flows through the valley — it is rather narrower here than in France. Other discoveries included diolinoir, a perfumed müller thurgau, or riesling sylvaner as they prefer to call it, and some intriguing red humagne, with peppery cherry fruit.

Switzerland’s tiny vineyards are a treat

We continued our journey of discovery with Marie-Thérèse Chappaz a little further down the valley. She has 10 hectares (about 25 acres), also outside the village of Fully, and grows 17 different grape varieties to make 17 different wines. Her vineyards too are spectacular, several tiny plots separated by terraces of stone walls. If you put all the terrace walls together in the Swiss vineyards, they would run the length of the Great Wall of China. There were four different examples of fendant, grown on different soils, with firm minerality and fresh stony fruit, and subtle nuances of flavour. We tried some petite arvine, with lovely peachy flavors, and then some red humagne and cornalin. Dôle is a blend of pinot noir and gamay, and Marie-Thérèse also makes delicious examples of each grape variety. Next came some oak-aged marsanne, which is called Ermitage, and also some convincing syrah — we are in the Rhône valley, she firmly reminded us, and it did indeed have some wonderful fresh peppery fruit. And finally there were the dessert wines, a sweet pinot gris, which the Swiss call malvoisie, as well as late harvest petite arvine and marsanne. Her enthusiasm was infectious, as she opened bottle after bottle. Her wines, like virtually all the wines that we tasted, had a wonderful drinkability.

The wines of Switzerland are born in the mountains; they are not wines that pack a punch of flavor; in contrast, they are understated, subtle and refreshing. Undoubtedly, they deserve a wider audience, but sadly, quantities are tiny, and the wines seldom travel outside Switzerland. Also, given the strength of the Swiss franc, they are expensive on the export market.

Next, we headed on to the north side of Lake Geneva. Whereas the Valais is just one appellation, Lake Geneva has a positive plethora of different appellations lining its shores, such as Dézelay, Epesses, Chardonne and Villette and other names that I had never heard of, again most of which rarely travel outside Switzerland. Many are based on chasselas (it is not called fendant here), but the flavor still retains a wonderful stony minerality, enhanced by the dazzling luminosity of the lake.

We tasted with Henri Chollet from Domaine Mermetus. He emphasized again how tiny vineyards are in Switzerland. He has 20 different grape varieties, in 130 different plots, making a total of eight hectares (about 20 acres) altogether. And thinking of the difficulties of the terrain, he laughingly said that most of them were accessible by a road, but 20 percent were “more sportif.” He introduced us to another new variety, plant robert, explaining how there has been a move to revive and replant some of the old varieties. Plant robert, which is related to the mondeuse of Savoie and refosco of Italy, had almost disappeared. It is now all very strictly controlled, with the precise provenance carefully checked in the nursery. Work in the vineyard is closely supervised, and there are now 21 winegrowers with some plant robert, totaling a minuscule five hectares (about 12 acres). M. Chollet is the largest producer with just 8 ares, about 8,600 square feet! And it was delicious, with some ripe spicy fruit, an elegant streak of tannin and a lovely fresh finish. And then it was time to head toward France and more familiar flavors.

Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.

Photo: Jacques Grange’s neighbors in Fully, treating their vines by helicopter. Credit: Rosemary George.

Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.