Ever found a bottle of Swiss wine in the U.S.? This is actually quite difficult to do. Several factors help to explain this unfortunate state of affairs. First of all, the Swiss themselves are avid wine consumers, wisely drinking most of the wine they make. Per capital consumption of wine in Switzerland is about 40 liters annually, placing them fifth in the world. As a result, they export less than two percent of their production. In fact, they import a lot of wine, partly because they can’t meet demand with domestic production (and also perhaps to add more red wines to their home grown whites, which predominate). Swiss wines are also tough to find here because they are pretty expensive, due largely to scarcity, a strong currency, and relatively high wages for workers. But none of this changes the fact that the wines are distinctive and delicious.
Knowing that I had a lot to learn and few opportunities to taste the wines here in the USA, I took advantage of a recent trip organized by the British-based Circle of Wine Writers to visit Swiss wine country. What I found was a gorgeous county filled with beautiful sights, good food and wine, and very friendly people.
Small though it is, Switzerland shares borders with Germany, Austria, Lichtenstein, France and Italy. Proximity to those countries is evident in the languages, cuisine and wines of Switzerland. It is--among other things--the home of the source of the Rhône river, the Rhône glacier. It boasts the highest altitude vineyards in Europe, over 3700 feet, at Visperterminen. Surprisingly, these vines are grown on their own roots in very sandy soil, which is inhospitable to phylloxera.
Switzerland is home to six official wine regions: Geneva, Vaud, Valais, Swiss German, Neuchatel and three lakes region, and Ticino. According to Swiss Wine Promotion, the major grapes are Chasselas, representing 29 percent of grapes grown, and Pinot Noir, accounting for 30 percent. Chasselas is considered indigenous to Switzerland. Other indigenous white grapes are Amigne, Petite Arvine, Himbertscha, Humagne Blanc, Lafnetscha. Bondola is a red grape indigenous to Ticino.
On my particular trip, we visited Vaud, Valais and Ticino. From Geneva, it was about a two-hour drive to Domaine de Bovy, perched just above Lake Geneva in the village of Chexbres in the Vaud. The winery sits half way up a slope that ends on the banks of Lake Geneva. The Savoy Alps loom across the lake. In a cellar lined with large, oval, 2500 to 5000 liter barrels, Vincent Bovy pulled samples of the 2013 Chasselas for tasting. Each of the barrels had paintings that were the work of his grandfather, Maurice. As you can gather, this is a country that provides some very picturesque experiences.
Bovy has vineyards in several locations, including “grand cru” Dézaley, located in the terraced vineyards of Lavaux, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is such an important area for Chasselas that the grape is not required on the label. In fact, a white grape is named on a Dézaley label only if it is not Chasselas. The Bovy 2013 Dézaley was a highlight of the trip. It was a very elegant wine, dry with crisp acidity yet rich and round in the mouth with a strong mineral component. Bovy also opened a 2000 of the Dézaley to show how it ages. It was youthful and vibrant with chalky, citrus aromas, intense and round in the mouth with dried citrus peel flavors and a honey note to the finish. Chasselas is a second-stringer in most other countries where it is grown, but in the best spots in Switzwerland, it makes gorgeous, utterly convincing wine
From the Vaud, we traveled to the Valais, Switzerland’s largest wine region with 13,000 acres of vines, 20,000 winegrowers, and 700 winemakers. We arrived on the eve of the Vinea Swiss Wine Fair, an annual outdoor event featuring wines and foods of the region. On our first night in the region, we were treated to a raclette dinner of cheeses from five different valleys. Raclette is both a cheese as well as a ritual by which the cheese is prepared and served. It is warmed and scraped into tasty pool on the plate, and then served with boiled new potatoes and pickled cornichons and pearl onions. The result? It was perfect with Chasselas wines.
One visit was to the breathtaking Clos de Cochetta vineyard, which was acquired by the Robert Gilliard wine company in 1957. When driving along the banks of Rhône river and looking up the steep mountainside, the Gilliard name is prominently painted on a stone wall. But prominence is always relative: This dry-stacked stone wall is over 65 feet tall, perhaps the tallest of its kind in the world of wine. We drove up into the mountains and came to a stop near a small gate with an ornate metal gate that was emblazoned with “Domaine de la Corzette Gilliard” in gold letters. We walked through the opened gate, following tracks toward a light, which was at the end of a tunnel. When we stepped out and into the light we were on the side of the mountain where the stone walls held back the steep terraces of vines. At this point, we were standing on a level area where a small metal cart sat on the track.
Our host, Marek Moos, who handles marketing, explained that this was the area where harvest workers traditionally brought the bins of hand-harvested grapes. Formerly, the bins were loaded onto the metal cart and pushed through the tunnel to be loaded onto trucks to be delivered to the winery. Prior to mechanization, this process used to take at least a month. Today, the bins are picked up by helicopter at various spots in the vineyard to be delivered in a ten minute trip to the winery. Harvest now takes roughly two weeks, and the grapes are in good shape when they get to the winery. In relation to sheer quality, the helicopters are undoubtedly worth what they cost to employ for this purpose. But with regard to my initial warning that Swiss wines can be expensive…well…now you get the picture.
We then walked down to pergola-covered outdoor dining area. That’s when my vertigo kicked in. We were standing on a terrace at the bottom of the stone wall we saw when driving up the mountain. The view from this spot looked several hundred feet straight down the terraced mountain to the river. We walked down that mountain after lunch, at many points on stone stairs with no railings between us and the sheer drop to doom. Needless to say, I clung tightly to the stone walls, but while doing so, I was also grudgingly admitting that this was the most beautiful and exciting vineyard tour I’d ever experienced.
Gilliard is one of the only wineries we visited that has wines in the U.S. Dreyfus Ashby imports a white Les Murettes Fendant ($28; The Chasselas grape is called by the synonym Fendant in Valais, so that’s what you’ll be getting in this wine) as well as Dôle des Monts, ($30), a red blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay.
We then hopped a train to Ticino, an Italian speaking region with a more Mediterranean look and feel than other parts of Switzerland--partly on account of lots of palm trees, polenta and pasta. Merlot is the important variety here, representing almost 90 percent of the vines. In addition to the expected red wine, many producers make white Merlot in a crisp dry style with no hint of color. It can be remarkably delicious.
Ticino region is divided by Mount Ceneri. In the northern area, called Sopraceneri, there is alpine influence especially in the granitic soils resulting in more linear, mineral driven wines. In the south, Sottoceneri, the climate is more Mediterranean and the soils are largely comprised of limestone and heavy clay. Consequently, the wines are more spicy, with tobacco notes in the reds. Two wine companies, Gialdi Vini and Brivio Vini, work together to celebrate the differences. They do not own vineyards, but have long-term relationships with growers. The winery for both companies is in Mendrisio with naturally temperature controlled, very old aging cellars. These were built hundreds of years ago, abutting the base of Mount Generoso. The two companies also collaborate with two other companies--one from the northern area and the other from the south--to create the wine Quattromani (or “four hands”) Ticino Merlot. The 2012 was rich and smooth in the mouth, though very youthful, needing time for the oak and fruit to integrate.
I enjoyed the opportunity to experience the great natural beauty of Switzerland and to learn more about their wines. Generally, I find the whites more consistent in quality. As might be expected, the red grapes often have to struggle for maturity at the end of the growing season. Style-wise, the reds tend to lean toward the lighter, tighter end of the spectrum, and some producers are better than others at working in this style. Also, as mentioned, the wines are expensive relative to comparable wines from other parts of the world. But when the Swiss get things right, they make wines to remember for a lifetime.