Between March and late June I was busy tasting scores of Swiss white wines from every corner of the country. March is when the earliest bottled wines (except the January Neuchatel unfiltered wines) begin to show up at professional tastings. I’ve tasted them at wineries, some before they were bottled, others at a series of events including winery open days in Valais. Some I didn’t have a chance to taste, so I’ve bought bottles and tasted and then happily shared them at home.
This overview of the vintage is followed by a series of short notes, my 2018 white wine picks from various tastings.
The evidence is now in: 2018 is a very good Swiss vintage, with some producers in some areas claiming that this is a great to very great vintage. Note that we are talking about whites; the reds are still en route and while there is plenty of evidence they are good to excellent, I will wait to comment on them.
Weather and harvest notes for 2018
The weather was mostly a wine producer’s dream, with warm to hot and dry weather from the middle of summer on. Heaven for healthy, fast-ripening grapes. In Valais, to give you an idea, we had a ban on barbecues from 3 July to the first snowfall, so I’m not likely to forget this vintage’s weather for a long time.
The down side for growers was that, in most parts of the country, all of the grapes were ready at the same time. Consider this from a business organization perspective. Normally you might have four to six weeks to harvest different grape varieties in different locations. Their optimal ripeness, where sugar and acidity are balanced, depends on several factors, including altitude, sun exposure and the grape variety itself. Teams of grape pickers are lined up, assured of at least three weeks of work. One batch of grapes arrives, is pressed and starts to ferment, and the next batch moves in.
You have time to empty barrels holding the previous year’s reds before the new grapes move in to start their slow route to maturity.
Except that in 2018 it all happened at once, and more than one cellar told me about the rush to pick all the grapes at maximal maturity but then to keep them healthy and avoid fermentation too soon. Stocks of bottles and crates had to be moved rapidly to temporary quarters so grapes could be kept in cool spaces. The red grapes were the priority because few producers want residual sugar in these wines, but some felt they could take a risk with the whites. One winery told me they bought twice as much carbonic acid as usual, used to cool down the tanks for slower, controlled temperature white wine fermentation.
In the end, grapes were ripe and in some cases riper than usual, so you can expect to find some white wines that are not as dry as you’re used to. Acidity levels were also often high, however, so we’re not looking at a vintage whose wines are too soft or round. Mature grapes and sugar/acidity balance are the key words for this vintage.
An aside: if you aren’t clear about the word vintage, we’re talking about the year when the grapes are harvested. A new Swiss wine book that is advertised as offering information on Swiss vintages contains no information on these and I believe the writer or perhaps the publisher’s copywriter wrongly understood the word to be a synonym for “wines”. The 2018 vintage refers to the year when the grapes were harvested, generally for bottling in 2019 or sometimes even later, in Switzerland.
Fermentation and maturation
I am hearing this more often in Valais than in Vaud, the two largest Swiss wine regions, but fermentation does appear to have taken longer than usual in many cellars. The maturation process, which is when the wine develops after the grapes ferment and before the wine is bottled, started later than usual as a result. This, combined with a growing sense among Swiss winemakers that they have bottled wines too soon, too young in the past, means that during winery open days in late May and June some of the wines we tasted were not yet bottled. Yes, you did see them poured from bottles, but those are just samples brought out for the open house, and you might have noticed that the bottles often don’t have labels.
If you bought wines during the winery open days I suggest you let most of them sit for a bit: very few of the wines I tasted up to early June were really ready or at their best, even though you can certainly drink them. By mid-July I’m happier with them, but they are still quite young. A clue is that if you smell very little when you pour a glass from one of these newbies, this is a wine that is very young and needs more time to start opening up. It can help to open the wine a bit early and let it breathe, or better yet, carafe it – but that won’t make up for the need for more time if it needs that.
Don’t be afraid to ask the producer when the wine was bottled, and when you should start drinking it.
I have scores of guests this summer, most of them in Switzerland for the Fête des Vignerons, but I will be back here with several wine reviews and news and more, in mid-August. Enjoy this crazy-weather summer and all the wonderful wine activities going on in Switzerland.