Last week I gave a presentation on Swiss wines and led a tasting session of five wines from western Switzerland for a group of 30 Chinese managers from Harbin. They are following a three-week intensive course at the Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz’s International Programme in Solothurn. Strong interest, lively discussions and wonderful questions all around.
Here are the five wines we tasted, each one presented with a short theme or story, to help them get a handle on the complicated little world of Swiss wines. Next time – we’ll be doing it again in a few months – the selection will be different, to cover other areas in Switzerland. Having just spent three days in Ticino with its beautiful wines, it was hard to leave out that region! And Geneva, and Zurich and Graubünden. Next time.
Sadly, Chinese visitors can take home only two bottles of wine, but all of these producers have some experience with exporting to China.
1. Chasselas “Cru de Brez”, Kursner, Féchy in canton Vaud. Cellar price CHF14.00. We talked about the birth of this grape in the Lake Geneva region, possibly Switzerland’s most famous grape variety.
The managers all work in the Chinese railway industry and they enjoyed the fact that this wine is currently available in the restaurant cars on Swiss Intercity trains.
2. Rosé, Oeil de Perdrix, Le Petit Chateau, Vully, canton Fribourg (Three Lakes region). Cellar price CHF14.50. An opportunity to explain how rosé wine is made, how incredibly it can vary – from dry to sweet to sparkling – and why Neuchatel remains a centre of excellence for the saigné Oeil de Perdrix wines.
Since one of our reds was a Pinot Noir and another a Dôle made with Pinot Noir, this served as an introduction to that grape variety, too. It also prompted a good discussion about food and wine pairings, how this wine works well with fish or chicken or light meats, as well as vegetable dishes.
3. Muscat, Maurice Gay, Chamoson, canton Valais. Cellar price CHF16.80. Talking about the nose of a wine and the fruits you might expect to find, to an Asian group who have grown up with different fruits, will always get you a lot of puzzled looks. And people who are not used to exploring the nose of a wine find it difficult at first to detect more than alcohol there, so Muscat gave us a good chance to really smell the wine.
What a chorus of aha’s! We talked about food and wine pairings, about the difficulty of matching wine to spicy foods. When I asked how many people thought this would be good with Chinese food – Claude Crittin at the winery suggested it to my son, who lives in China – a majority of hands went up promptly. The winery is one of Switzerland’s main wine exporters, with China as one of its markets.
4. Dôle, Domaine des Muses, Sierre, canton Valais. Cellar price CHF24. The history of Dôle let us look briefly at the complex world of winemaking for small wineries like those in Switzerland: you need a wine that is fun and popular and sells well, and Dôle is a blend that was created for just that; you need something to do with your lesser grapes, and de-classed Dôles are sold as the cheaper Goron, once a hugely popular café drink you shared with friends while discussing the world.
Robert Taramarcaz is widely considered one of Switzerland’s best winemakers and he’s on a mission to ensure the popularity of Dôle by showing what it’s like when it is made well. AOC (appellation contrôlée) rules say it must be 85% Pinot Noir and Gamay, with 15% other local reds allowed. Taramarcaz sells his wines to restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing.
5. “Servagnin”, Domaine Henri Cruchon, Morges, canton Vaud. Cellar price CHF20. This is a very special Pinot Noir from the Morges area, made according to strict quality standards by a group of 17 wineries. It has a delightful story, not 100% proven by historical records but too charming to skip: Marie, the daughter of Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, gave these vines from her father’s vineyards as a thank you gift to the villagers of St Prex, where she went to escape the plague in 1420. The vines, reportedly direct descendents, nearly died out in the 1970s but were saved by a handful of people and today these are some of the most beautiful Pinot Noirs in Switzerland.
We talked about the history of the grape, how it is difficult to grow but in the hands of good winemakers it gives very elegant wines. I said that for me this is a “perfect” wine – not the most spectacular, but simply a wine that has a clean and lovely nose of red fruits, is very pleasing and smooth in mouth, with a medium-long finish: a wine that is very well-balanced, with all the parts just right. We discussed the many dishes that would happily go with this wine, from grilled chicken to calve’s liver and onions.
To my surprise, because I don’t think of Pinot Noir, with its delicate notes, as necessarily working with Chinese foods (soya sauce in particular), I think this was the most popular wine among my fellow-tasters. Oenologist Catherine Cruchon, the youngest member of the family to join the winery, was part of a team of wine producers from Vaud who paid a marketing visit to China this spring with the Vaud cantonal wine office – she may have a winner to sell there!