When I started exploring and writing about Swiss wines some 30 years ago, few people had heard of them beyond the borders of this tiny, mountainous, landlocked country. Even today when I sing their praises – which I do at the slightest opportunity – I still get the occasional raised eyebrow.
Some people are unaware that wines are grown here; others have heard of them, maybe even unearthed a few jewels – a rare Petite Arvine from the Valais, perhaps, or a fragrant Pinot Noir from one of the cool-climate, German-speaking cantons; a complex Chasselas from the Lavaux vineyards that rise in majesty above Lake Geneva (above) or even a sleek Merlot from the Italian-speaking Ticino. Inevitably the question of price comes up, swiftly followed by the complaint that Swiss wines are hard to find outside the country.
Wine has been made in Switzerland – as throughout Europe – for at least 2,000 years, but it’s the past 20 that have seen the greatest changes. Two key developments came in the 1990s, which helped to push Swiss winemaking into another gear. Firstly, the federal government no longer agreed to buy up swimming pools (literally) of unsold Chasselas (neutral, mildly fizzy, inevitably designated as a vin de soif) at guaranteed prices, or oceans of Dôle (then a dull blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay that did few favours to either grape). In parallel, restrictions on foreign wine imports were lifted.
Producers were forced to conclude that, in a high-cost country, the only game in town was quality. Novel varieties have since been pioneered by the federal research station at Changins, ancient varieties resurrected and grapes new to Switzerland planted. And while the older generation has been quietly investing their ever-strengthening Swiss francs in vineyards, barriques and even the occasional concrete egg fermenter, the younger generation has been off on study trips and internships in France, Australia and New Zealand.
The net result has been a significant rise in quality and a delicious increase in the tingle factor of Swiss wines. At a time when more and more people are interested in sampling curiosities and hunting down original, exciting wines that stand out from the crowd, these Alpine treasures are worth seeking out.
The geography of Swiss wines
Switzerland’s vineyards – 15,000ha (hectares) in total, or about half the planted area of Burgundy – are a magnificent patchwork of widely varying climates and terroirs, from the cool, verdant slopes of the northern cantons to the sunbaked alpine terraces and parched heat of the Valais. And if you always thought Switzerland was more of a white wine producer than a red, get this: 58% percent nowadays is red and only 42% white, with Pinot Noir and Chasselas leading the pack.
The country divides itself, winewise, into six distinct regions. Starting in the north, a clockwise tour de vins Suisses takes us first to the German-speaking region, which sprawls across the gently hilly farming country of Basel through Aargau, Zurich, Schaffhausen and Thurgau to Graubünden, tucked in beneath the Alps on the Liechtenstein border. This is the region that turns out some of Switzerland’s most exciting and ageworthy Pinot Noir (sometimes labelled Blauburgunder) and Chardonnay. Winemakers acknowledge the role of climate change, which – with a little help from the Föhn, the warm wind that caresses the autumn vineyards – has brought increased ripeness to these northerly grapes. Meanwhile Müller-Thurgau, known in Switzerland as Riesling-Sylvaner, has upped its game, since many winemakers have reduced or eliminated their use of malolactic fermentation, giving a crisper profile to this otherwise mild-mannered wine.
Two white specialities to seek out in this region include the historic Räuschling, grown on the shores of Lake Zurich, and the vanishingly rare Completer, produced by Donatsch in Malans in tiny quantities and aged in used oak barrels to tame the grape’s natural acidity. ‘We’re the largest producers of Completer in the world,’ jokes Martin Donatsch – hard to dispute, since barely anyone else makes it.
Next up, across the Alps via the San Bernardino Pass, is Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian-speaking Lake District. Though its steep terraces bask in sunshine much of the year, it has about twice the precipitation of neighbouring Valais. Merlot rules here, mainly as a single varietal but increasingly in Bordeaux-inspired blends. Straw-hatted, guayabera shirt-wearing Ivo Monti of Cantina Monti ferments his prize-winning wines to the strains of salsa and then soothes them gently with Bach in the barrel. ‘Merlot is a great soloist,’ he comments, ‘but in a blend you get the whole orchestra.’
Continuing in a clockwise direction we come to Canton Valais, the country’s largest wine region, producing one-third of all Swiss bottlings. The climate was once described by poet Rainer Maria Rilke as a cross between Provence and southern Spain, with an annual sunshine rate to rival both. Here, confirms Gilles Besse, oenologist at Domaine Jean-René Germanier in Vétroz, and head of Swiss Wine Promotion, quality and professionalism are now the norm, and the days of les vignerons du samedi (part-time grape-growers) a distant memory. This is a happy hunting ground for lovers of rare varieties: Amigne, Arvine, Cornalin, Humagne Rouge and Heida have replaced swathes of Chasselas (known here as Fendant), alongside the well-established Pinot Noir, Syrah and Gamay.
Following the Rhône downstream to Lake Geneva brings us to Canton Vaud, nerve-centre of Chasselas. If ever Switzerland had a signature grape, comments wine writer Chandra Kurt, Chasselas would be the obvious candidate. In the giddyingly steep vineyards of Lavaux, stacked above the lake from Vevey round to Lausanne, the grape over-delivers to give wines of rare depth and complexity.
On the red front, Pinot Noir and Gamay have a new challenger in Canton Vaud: ‘Who would have thought we would ever grow Merlot here?’ wonders Epesses winemaker Luc Massy, who is not alone in acknowledging the extent to which global warming is changing the Swiss vinescape.
At the western end of the croissant-shaped Lac Léman are the Geneva vineyards, formerly known for tank-loads of over-cropped, under-performing Chasselas and dilute Gamay. The region has embraced the quality-over-quantity message with particular fervour: Jean-Pierre Pellegrin of Domaine Grand’Cour notes that while the total vineyard area is the same, yields in general have halved (or in his case, quartered). The area is buzzing with young talent, such as rising star Sophie Dugerdil, who recently left the teaching profession to take over the family vineyards and who is branching out with new varieties including the Cabernets and Sauvignon Blanc.
With the tiny Région des Trois Lacs, which straddles Switzerland’s linguistic French/German border in the far west, our tour de vins Suisses comes full circle. Vines flourish on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel, Biel/Bienne and Murten/Morat. Loyalties here lie with Pinot Noir – the ones from Neuchâtel frequently score in international competitions and in the annual Grand Prix du Vin Suisse – and Chasselas, which gives fine, nervy aperitif wines, quite unlike the fleshy, long-lived Chasselas of Lavaux.
Five of the best: Switzerland’s iconic wine makers
Gantenbein, Malans, Graubünden – Martha and Daniel Gantenbein’s hand-crafted wines are amongst the few Swiss wines to have gained international notoriety. Every step is dictated by a single-minded pursuit of perfection, from the selection table in the vineyards through the architect-designed cellar to the array of oak barrels toasted by Burgundy’s best coopers. Elegant, complex, long-lived Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (plus some Riesling), produced in minute quantities and dispensed by the drop through a small network of global distributors.
Marie-Therese Chappaz, Fully, Valais – Often described as la grande dame des vins valaisans, with 10 hectares of vines grown on vertiginous terraces braced by dry-stone walls and farmed along biodynamic lines. Several cuvées of Fendant (Chasselas) illustrate her belief that the grape is a great reflector of terroir, her Petite Arvine (including a late-harvest) is legendary and her Dôle (the Valaisan blend of Pinot and Gamay) unusually dense and racy.
Chanton, Visp, Valais – Josef-Marie (aka Chosy) Chanton, now succeeded by son Mario, has spent a lifetime resurrecting and rebuilding a collection of the Valais’ near-extinct specialities including Lafnetscha, Himbertscha, Resi, Gwäss and Petite Arvine. The star of the show is Heida, grown in the vineyards of Visperterminen at 800m altitude, giving a deep golden wine of exotic character and class.
Louis-Philippe Bovard, Cully, Vaud – Lord of Lavaux, Bovard started out as a lawyer and now heads the 18-hectare family estate with vines in prime sites from Lausanne round to Vevey. His recently created Conservatoire Mondiale du Chasselas, planted with 19 different Chasselas varieties [or to be strictly accurate, different Chasselas clones] aims to explore which one is best suited to Lavaux’s uniquely sited, clay-limestone soils, but Bovard is also an iconoclast, bringing Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Syrah to what was once all-Chasselas territory.
Jean-Pierre Pellegrin, Peissy, Geneva Dubbed the watchmaker of Swiss wine for the beauty and precision of his wines, responsible for an eclectic range from white and red blends aimed at the bistronomie (gastropub) market through fine Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier varietals to elegant Grand Cour white and red blends. At the summit are oak-aged Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah, designated C, P, M and S respectively.
What to buy – some favourites
Cantina Monti, Il Canto della Terra 2011, Ticino
Winner of Gran Maestro du Merlot in the 2016 Mondial du Merlot, from 40 year-old vines, foot-trodden and aged in used barriques. Deep ruby, sweetly oaky nose, an explosion of fruit (blackcurrants, black cherries) and chocolate on the palate. Suave and seductive, it sings of its steep, sunny slopes above Lake Lugano.
Donatsch, Pinot Noir Passion 2013, Graubünden
The Donatsch family are undisputed champions of Pinot Noir. This cuvée, from 30-40 year-old vines, is the second of 3 cuvées, which they benchmark against Premier Cru Burgundy. Lovely Pinot nose, sensitive oaking (new and used), present but well-rounded tannins and beautiful balance. A memorable mouthful.
Germanier, Jean-René, Cayas Syrah Barrique 2013, Valais
A thoroughbred Syrah grown on schist on the right (southfacing) bank of the Rhone – clear signs of plenty of alpine sun yet impressively fresh and only 13.5%. Oak (2 years, 50% new) is beautifully disciplined, giving a spicy, leathery, complex wine – gorgeous now with barbecued beef rib, but if you can bear to squirrel it away for a few years, it will be worth it.
Simon Maye, Humagne rouge 2012, Valais
Stamped with the character of the sunbaked, limestone Zouma vineyard, this Valais speciality has lively, black cherry and berry aromas, spicy/peppery flavours and forward tannins (no oak), conferring brightness and lift. A wine with personality, great with game, duck breast, guinea fowl.
Weingut zum Sternen, Kloster Sion Pinot Noir 2013, Klingnau, Aargau
Textbook, cool-climate Swiss Pinot, one of eight different bottlings by practised Pinot producer and vine nurseryman Andreas Meier. Bright, black cherry aromas, subtly oaked with fine structure and beautifully integrated tannins, poised, elegant and dangerously drinkable.
Gialdi, Sassi Grossi 2013, Ticino
Elegant Merlot from Gialdi’s more northerly Tre Valli gneiss and granite vineyards, which spends 16 months in barriques (80% new) in barrel-vaulted, naturally cooled cellars beneath Monte Ceneri. Magnificent plummy aromas, well-integrated oak and delightful freshness for a wine of such structure.
Peter Wegelin, Malanser Blauburgunder 2014, Graubünden
Prize-winning Pinot from multi-award winner Bündner Herrschaft grower Peter Wegelin, aged for 12 months in 500-litre casks. Bright ruby with succulent crushed red fruit aromas, shapely, well-structured and well-nigh irresistible.
Jean-René Germanier, Petite Arvine 2015, Valais
Classic Petite Arvine from Jean-René Germanier’s dramatic clay-schist moraine vineyards around Vétroz in central Valais. Citrus aromas (grapefruit), rich, intense but fully dry with Arvine’s typical saline finish. My desert-island Swiss white.
Brivio, Bianco Rovere 2014, Ticino
Alongside his stunning range of (red) Merlots and Bordeaux-inspired blends, Brivio (with star winemaker Alfred de Martin) makes this distinguished white, elegantly oaked (70% new barriques) with toasty, smoky, curried hints. A characterful, full-bodied white calling for Mediterranean-style chargrilled fish and/or vegetables.
Cru de l’Hôpital, Traminer 2015, Vully
Precise, elegant, fully dry Gewurztraminer, a speciality (for the Three Lakes region) by oenologist Christian Vessaz. Discreet lychees and roses on the nose, a rich, exotic mouthful with all the typicity and minerality of great Alsace Gewurz (and none of the sweetness of the less great).
André Fontannaz, Amigne de Vétro 2013 z, 1 Abeille, Valais
Fontannaz makes 4 different Amignes, this one partially aged in concrete eggs to give a pale straw-coloured wine with rich orange marmalade aromas. Off-dry (1 bee – less than 8g RS – is the least sweet on Amigne’s scale of 3), balanced by lively acidity. A fleshy mouthful, perfect with aged alp cheese.
Luc Massy, Dézaley Chemin de Fer 2014, Vaud
Dézaley is Lavaux’s most iconic site and Massy one of the leading interpreters of the terroir. Unlike most Chasselas (Massy makes 3 different, quite distinct examples), Chemin de Fer has an intensely honeyed nose, terrific structure, minerality and staying power – definitely a food- rather than an aperitif-wine.
Badoux, Aigle Les Murailles 2015, Vaud
An elegant Chasselas grown on steep shale/gravel terraces above Aigle. Gently floral nose, good minerality and a memorable, slightly bitter finish – Switzerland in a glass, the ideal summer aperitif (preferably sipped on a terrace overlooking Lake Geneva)
[A version of this article appeared originally in the January 2016 issue of Decanter]