Every year since 2007, VINEA, the Swiss Wine Association and Vinum, the Zurich-published wine magazine have together organised Switzerland’s leading wine competition, the Grand Prix du Vin Suisse. This year – the 11th in its history – around 2,800 wines were submitted from over 500 different growers and allocated to 13 different categories. The wines were judged initially in June in Sierre by a team of 170 tasters, who came from all around the world to this small town in the heart of the Valaisan vineyards. Their job was to whittle down the list to 6 wines in each of the 13 different categories.
In early August, it fell to a small jury of ten of us to judge the 6 wines shortlisted in each category and place them in our order of preference. The wine receiving the most votes in each category would get gold; the next highest-scoring would be silver and so on. All wines were, of course, tasted blind (as pictured below), so although we were told the grape variety or the blend composition, we had no idea who had produced the wine.
The names of the shortlisted six in each category have just been published, so we now know which wines we were sniffing, slurping and spitting (you can see the list here). What we don’t know is who won what. For that we have to wait for the gala evening of the GPVS, held on October 31 2017 at the Kursaal in Bern, when all will be revealed. (This event is open to the public. For information and reservations, contact Vinum, www.vinum.ch or www.grandprixduvinsuisse.ch.)
The first afternoon brought seven flights:
- Chasselas – Switzerland’s signature grape, not much to say, not much to choose between them, and not surprisingly dominated by wines from Vaud, Chasselas’ spiritual home, with some from Valais (where it’s known as Fendant);
- White varietals – which included a Pinot Blanc, 2 Arvines and 3 Heidas/Paiens, the Savagnin grape of Jura fame, which goes by both names in Switzerland;
- White blends (grapes not specified) – an intriguing flight dominated by Suisse Romande (and one wild card from Basel/Graubünden), a delight for those who like their whites fruity-but-dry, with good structure;
- Pinot Noir – Switzerland is a promising source of Pinot Noir, and we had some good examples, the best from the cooler regions like Zurich and Schaffhausen;
- Gamaret/Garanoir – wines could be varietals or blends of these two modern Swiss crosses, popular in Geneva, Vaud and Valais. (Gamaret is valued for its resistance to rot, good colour, supple tannins and relatively low alcohol; Garanoir ripens earlier, is similarly resistant to rot but with more fruity, spicy qualities and higher alcohol than its sibling.) A new category this year and my least favourite flight – purplish-black, a bit rustic/simple and jammy;
- Red blends – an exciting flight with majority grapes ranging variously from Regent to Merlot, Diolinoir, Merlot and Syrah, giving some rich, fleshy but elegant wines;
- And finally, sweeties. with upwards of 8g residual sugar – a quality selection where natural sugars were beautifully balanced by acidity, made variously from Arvine, Muscat, Gewurz, Pinot Gris, Sylvaner and Ermitage aka Marsanne Blanche.
The following morning we had six flights:
- Sparkling wines – some quite classy examples (2 pink, 4 white) from both French- and German-speaking cantons, suggesting that Switzerland’s varied grapes and cool climates can lend themselves well to sparklers;
- Riesling-Silvaner (aka Müller-Thurgau) – confined to the more northerly, German-speaking cantons, always a bit bland/flabby, though many growers nowadays are making this without malolactic (secondary) fermentation, thereby retaining apple-y acidity and giving the wine a bit more oomph;
- Rosés – an interesting range of shades, from trendy, palest shell-pink to raspberry-hued, with some nicely aromatic, fruity examples – Neuchâtel, with its historic plantings of Pinot Noir, always shines in this category, though some came from Geneva with a wild card from Zurich;
- Gamay – to my taste many were over-oaked and over-extracted, trying too hard and in the process losing the plot – and the lipsmacking fruitiness of Beaujolais’ signature grape. All were from Suisse Romande: Vaud, Geneva (big Gamay producers) and Valais.
- Merlot – always Ticino’s strong suit (90% of the Ticinese vineyards are planted with it) but with new challengers coming increasingly from Vaud;
- Other red varieties – one Cornalin, the fragrant Swiss red speciality from the Valais and all the rest Syrah, with which the Valais, Switzerland’s upper Rhone Valley, excels.
To finish we had two Best-in-Class (“Vinissimo”) flights to determine the winning white and the winning red.
This is the second time I’ve taken part in the re-dégustation (re-tasting and final selection of wines) for the GPVS and it’s a great opportunity for me to get up to speed with what’s cooking in Switzerland’s tiny viticultural paradise (whose entire vineyard area, remember, is similar to that of Alsace, and about half that of Burgundy). I’m delighted to see that some celebrated domaines continue to submit wines (Domaine des Muses, Jean-René Germanier, Les Frères Dutruy, Caves de Chambleau among others), even though they don’t need the notoriety. It’s also good to find new names in the lineup (Chai du Baron, Kindhauser-Berghof, Johanni Weinbau…) and I welcome wild cards like the enigmatic Vinigma, whose grapes are grown in Jenins/Graubünden and trucked across to Basel to be vinified in their cellars just behind the train station (note to self to plan a visit soon).
The GPVS provides a snapshot of the Swiss wine world today, a chance to see who’s doing what, with which grape(s) and terroirs, and to judge how well they’re succeeding. To find out the full results, check back here again in early November.