Swiss wine – maybe, no longer such a hidden gem…

To most people, Switzerland is more about milk & honey (as in Toblerone) or fancy watches, than it is about wine and even to many a winelover, Swiss wine remains somewhat of a mystery. Something, you may have heard of but never had the chance to come by.

The reason is obvious, as the Swiss consume just about all of their production domestically. Actually, 98-99% is consumed within Switzerland, the brilliant wine writer, Chandra Kurt explained at a master class at the Swiss Embassy in Copenhagen back in June.

For those of us keen on exploring the wines of Switzerland, the good news is, that there is room for increasing the production of approx. 20% with which to actually target foreign markets. And given the high quality of the wines as well as the array of very interesting varieties, I have to say, that I left the event hungry to learn much more.

Swiss consists of 26 cantons in which four different languages are spoken: German, French, italian and Romanche and within these 26 cantons, about 14,700 hectares are planted with wines – not a lot, actually. Around half the acreage of Burgundy or one tenth of Bordeaux.

Although, the Swiss people consume but everything, the vignerons produce, it is no nearly enough for the Swiss market and the Swiss production only covers around 35% of the country’s consumption of wine, which equals some 34 litres per capita annually.

Where is Swiss wine produced?

The vast majority comes from the French-speaking parts of the country, where around 75% of the countries entire wine production comes from, 19% comes from the German-speaking parts and 7% from the southernly, Italian-speaking parts.

What many people may not realise is, that Switzerland is actually a very diverse country in terms of winemaking. The country is very mountainous with around 70% of the country at 270-1100 metres above sea level and these very diverse conditions are home to more than 80 different varieties. A lot more, actually!

A quick look at what is planted, reveals that 57% are black grapes and 43% white. Surprising, maybe, if – when thinking about Swiss wine – you only think about Chasselas, but Swiss wine is so much more.

Actually, Pinot Noir is the most widely planted variety at 26% and Chasselas is indeed second at 25% and with the top four varieties making up 68% of the plantings, not a lot is left for the remaining 76+ varieties.

That, is varietal diversity right there!

Switzerland’s 62 different AOCs

Those are big numbers, but thinking about all of the different grapes and the highly diverse typography as well as the differing cultural background of the 26 cantons it might come as less of a chock.

The masterclass included 8 very different wines from different regions and made from very different grapes.

First up a pair of Chasselas from Château Châtagneréaz in the Vaud region. The one region in Switzerland to actually bottle more whites than reds.

Chasselas, which is also known as Fendant in Valais and Gutedel in German speaking parts of the country, is believed to be born on the shores of Lake Geneva, but today, Vaud IS Chasselas – or maybe better put the other way around – as 61% of the 3,775 hectares of vineyards in Vaud are planted with Chasselas. So, just over 2,300 of Switzerland’s 3,733 hectares planted with Chasselas found in Vaud.

In Vaud, people hardly ever even mention Chasselas, when talking about it. Rather, do they talk about e.g. Yvorne, La Côte or Dézaley. They talk about terroir!

Oh, and the dramatically beautiful Lavaux with its two jewels, AOC Grand Cru’s Calamin and Dézaley, to the east of Lausanne is an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2007.

Photo: http://www.swisswine.ch

Chasselas fell out of fashion since the 1980’s, but recently it has been gaining ground again, and now many producers are once again producing wines that are suitable for extended cellaring, such as Chasselas was always capable of.

2020 1er Grand Cru Mont-sur-Rolle from La Côte AOC was nutty and toasted with a winegum fruity feel. Creamy texture and moderate acidity. What a difference nine years make… The 2011 Mont-sur-Rolle was full of melon, peach and nectarine, marzipan and honey. Beautiful, mature Chasselas!

Thirsty on exploring Vaud Chasselas? Lavaux Passion in mid-September should be a great opportunity to both enjoy the beauty of Lavaux as well as plenty of amazing wines with the sun nourishing from the blue sky above and from the lake as well as the reflection of the heat from the ancient stone walls. Or visit Vinorama to learn about the unique characteristics of the UNESCO site of Lavaux whilst being offered to taste hundreds of wines.

The region of Valais is beautifully located on the northern bank of the river Rhône, enjoying a very dry and sunny climate with roughly 2,500 hours of sunshine and around 650 mm of precipitation a year. Parts of Valais are even semi-arid and some of the hills are home to 6 species of cactus originating from Mexico…

These conditions allow for winemaking at higher altitude than elsewhere in the country and maybe the steep slopes are why phylloxera didn’t make it to the Visp Valley, although Valais was ravaged by the louse in the early 20th century. As a result, in Visperterminen, thousands of un-grafted Savagnin Blanc were preserved. 

Appellations with aliases

Many grapes in Valais go by different names. Chasselas is known in Valais as Fendant and Malvoisie happens to be Pinot Gris. Such is the confusing reality of wine.

We were shown two wines from the grape Heida, another name for… Savagnin Blanc.

2020 Heida Clos de la Couta from Domaine Jean-René Germanier is a Bio Swiss certified organic wine from vineyards between 650 and 800 metres above sea level. 85% of the wine stayed in steel tanks on the lees with the remaining 15% seeing time in old 500 litres oak barrels.

This full bodied, quite high in acid wine should make for a great companion to Mediterranean and Asian cuisine with its bruised apple, lemon peel, white stone fruits and minerality. The latter gives the wine a fiery expression, that I really like.

The wine of a village

Clos de la Couta is the old vineyard owned by the families of the village of Vex, but the vineyard was largely abandoned and in 2010 Domaine Jean-René Germanier were consulting the communal council in removing the old vineyard, consolidating the terraces and planting Heida and Pinot Noir on the small vineyard.

Ô Faya Farm is truly unique. I lost track as to just how many different animals are co-existing there beside the 17 cows… Illona’s Jutz d’Heida is a natural, funky, unfiltered Savagnin produced with whole clusters and natural yeast. Used barrels and fermentation through winter. Only 40 mg/l sulphur added – and only before bottling. The resulting wine is honeyed with aromas of the must itself and a cider feel to it. If you can find a bottle somewhere, get it!   

Just what is PIWI?

As I have said already, Switzerland is rich in different, lesser-known varieties. Quite a number of these are PIWI grapes and more of chose are coming. But what are they, these PIWI’s?

PIWI varieties have are bred to have high resistance to fungal diseases and thus to enable a significant reduction in the use of pesticides. These robust and innovative grape varieties are to be seen as an obvious addition to conventional, traditional grape varieties where intensive plant protection can be part of everyday life. PIWI vines, with their high resistance to fungal diseases allow a significant reduction in the use of pesticides, thus protecting the environment.

One opinion is, that PIWI grapes may be an answer to climate changes, too, as they have been bred to deal with weather extremes and therefore should be better armed to combat other extremes as well.

A bit off topic, but e.g. in the still cool and maritime climate in Denmark, most wine is produced from PIWI such as Solaris, Muscaris, Johanitter and Rondo.

Sauvignac is such a PIWI variety. A crossing of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and an unknown variety. The variety is productive and moderately vigorous. It buds a good week later than Chasselas and even ripening a week later than its peer, it is still an early ripening variety. Sauvignac is not that sensitive to downy mildew nor is it to black or grey rot. As to powdery mildew, the leaves are a bit less susceptible than are the grapes.
It comes with small, moderately compact bunches of medium sized berries with a moderately thick skin.

Ticino in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland is the only Swiss wine region on the southern slopes of the Alps and they receive up to 1,600 mm of rainfall a year but makes up for it with plentiful 2,200 hours of sunshine. With its maritime influence, Ticino is often referred to as Mediterranean Switzerland and in this climate, Merlot has thrived for more than a century, making some of the most prestigious of the country’s wines. Gradually, Merlot has replaced local varieties such as Freisa and Bondola and today it accounts for around 80% of Ticino’s planting. And instead of planting e.g. Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay to produce whites, between on fifth and one quarter from those close to 900 ha of Merlot, is made into Merlot Blanc.
Perhaps, producing great wines just on one grape, known to us all, is why Ticino is the best known Swiss wine region.

2021 Iris from Azienda Mondò is a Ticino Sauvignac, produced from a 6 hectares property that was planted in the 1990’s. This wine has a moderately rich nature with aromas of citrus and more exotic fruits as well as pastry. Given, that Sauvignac can sometimes lack acidity, this was not the case with this one.

Should you want to further explore the wines of Ticino, an old mill near Chiasso, Casa del Vino Ticino, has become sort of an embassy of the regions wine, or visit Ticinowine Festival, which takes place in luxurious locations in French or German-speaking Switzerland.

The Geneva region is characterised by its proximity to the Jura mountains and the pre-Alps as well as Lake Geneva and the river Rhein which gives quite a mosaic of meso- and even micro climates. This is where the first ever wine in what is today’s Switzerland was produced by the Celts in ancient times.
Today, wines are predominantly made from Gamay and Chasselas, but winemakers in the area are always experimenting and as a result lots of wines are made from PIWI grapes, as well.

Divico is another of Switzerland’s PIWI grapes and it was created in 1996 as a crossing of Gamaret and Bronner. The idea behind Divico was to allow for much less crop protection products to be used to combat downey mildew, powdery mildew and grey mould. It is an early budding and late ripening variety, whose results have been promising enough to have a number of people convinced that the future of English reds could lie in this variety. Given its somewhat short life as a commercial variety (Was only put on the market in 2013) and a reported total acreage of as little 66 hectares (2020), though, we need more evidence to fully evaluate its potential.

Divico Rosé 2020 is a lovely Divico from Florian Ramu in the Genève AOC. The wine displays lots of ripe, predominantly red fruit and liquorice with a really nice freshness to it and tannins providing a beautiful structure not too unlike Nebbiolo.

Taste the Pinot Noirs from Tom Litwan in Aargau and you just might get an idea, why this fickle grape variety is the most planted in Switzerland.

German-speaking Switzerland is a wine region covering no less than 16 cantons(!) and one split into a western, a central and an eastern part.  Aargau with its 400 hectares is located in the western part.

Like in Germany, waterways are key parts of the big picture here with vineyards sitting on the steep banks of rivers Limmat, Aare and Rhine as well as on the shores of lakes Constance, Zurich, Thun and Lucerne.

The German-speaking area is vastly dominated by Pinot Noir, which occupies well over 50% of the regions 2,662 hectares under vine. In this, the 3,000 winegrowers in the region draw on an old heritage from the Duke of Rohan, who is said to have brought Pinot Noir to Graubünden way back in 1631. Little surprising, Müller-Thurgau (Riesling-Sylvaner) is second in plantings here. Afterall, Dr. Hermann Müller came from Thurgau in this area.

If you want to explore these wines further, consider going for the Food Festival in Schaffhausen, where lots of gourmet restaurants highlight beautiful wines of the region, notably Pinot Noir.

Back to tasting the wines:

Tom Litwan makes very seductive Pinot Noir!

We tasted to 2019’s from vineyards around 500 metres above sea level with high contents of limestone. For his 2019’s Tom, who is a firm believer, that biodynamic grape growing is the way to go, chose to use 20% of whole bunches and when fully ripe, I love the added freshness, it brings to the wine! Also, he doesn’t use new oak and the wines prove him right. New oak would mask the beautiful fruit in these wines.

Rüeget Elfingen shows lifted aromas of ripe, red fruit and roses. On the palate the red fruit is backed by herbaceous notes from the whole clusters, generous acid and an elevated tannic feel with Chalofe Thalheim being the more complex wine. The bigger one. A wider array of fresher, less opulent fruit and a bit of mushroom. Both are beautiful examples of great, Swiss Pinot Noir!

So much interesting stuff is going on in Switzerland

Back to those percentages of plantings. Currently, only 32% of Swiss vineyards are planted with varieties other than the top 4, but that is going to change massively in years to come – and not least because of PIWI grapes. Believe me that!

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