(Update, 29 December: many thanks to Jancis Robinson for permission to republish in its entirety a new review of my Swiss wine book ).
A series of reviews by JR staffer Tamlyn Currin includes a review of Vineglorious! Switzerland’s Wondrous World of Wines, published 27 December. Currin ran a series of year-end book reviews in 2015 and they were so popular she’s doing the same this year, a great source of information about wine books.
Switzerland’s Wondrous World of Wines
CHF24, £19, $23
Born in the US, but calling Switzerland home for the past 30 years, Ellen Wallace is a journalist and author who knows more about Swiss wine than most Anglo-Saxon wine writers. And largely because the Swiss drink all their wine and don’t export it, for most of us Swiss wine is an enigma. And yet it’s a wine region that ended up with four whole pages in the World Atlas of Wine (twice the number given to Croatia) and three pages in the Oxford Companion to Wine – this little country is far from insignificant.
Vineglorious is a beautiful little hardback book, about the size of a side plate, that starts with a clear, easy-to-read, colour-coded map of vine-growing Switzerland and a brief outline of the six official wine regions. Six chapters follow that, with slightly cryptic titles such as, ‘Friends and enemies, saints and sinners’, and ‘Silence! Vines growing’.
You know you’re in a whole new territory of wine book when the first chapter, ‘A land of extremes’, starts with a spectacular photograph of the Rhône glacier high in the Swiss Alps, in which three dessert wines made by Diego Mathier lie quietly in barrels, trekked up by mules, maturing under tons of ice. Then there is Lake Geneva, her 50-metre-deep canyons hiding shipwrecks and possibly hundreds of bottles of wine under tons of silt, and 1,000 bottles of Chasselas ageing underwater close to Montreux. Vineyards on tiny islands, by hidden lakes, clinging to edges of slopes steeper than black ski runs, fed by glacial waters along 2,000 km of handmade, often vertiginous water channels called bisses… this is wine in Switzerland. Breathtaking beauty (literally and figuratively), dizzying heights, crazy human endeavour.
Rather than a story, or a history, or a guide to Swiss wine, Wallace has collected a bijouterie of vignettes. These are not always directly connected to wine. Sometimes the link is spider-web thin – Wallace has an endearing way of wandering slightly off-piste, but she always loops back to wine with such easy grace that just as one is wondering how Sherlock or Charles the Bold have anything to do with Swiss wine, she connects the dots. The eclectic nature of the vignettes gives this book the sense of a chocolate box without a contents guide – each little tale is unexpected and unpredictable. For a rather rigidly ordered personality like mine, the book comes across as charming and mesmerising, but rather chaotic – like a child running after butterflies and popping them in the jar in whatever order they were caught. We hop from one thing to another with sometimes a link connecting the two, often not. At first I thought that this was going to be a problem but in fact, somehow, it works. Perhaps this is because the book is, more than anything, a celebration of Switzerland through the prism of her wine.
It’s not, however, messily sentimental mush, and the butterfly jars themselves are neatly arranged. While the first chapter is about the extremes of making and growing wine in Switzerland, the second is about people and legends, criminals and heroes, connected to Swiss wine, including some amusing titbits. The third is about the ‘Swiss patchwork grape madness’. This is a country where there are over 160 grape varieties and vineyards as small as 100 square metres. This chapter looks at common wines, unusual wines and varieties, and at the confusing naming of grapes (to summarise, as Wine Grapes readers will know: ‘Humagne Rouge is really Italian Cornalin from Val d’Aosta. Swiss Cornalin is really Rouge du Pays from Valais. Humagne red and white aren’t even close cousins.’) The book whisks you through different styles of wines, and ancient grapes and styles that are making a comeback – oh to taste a glass of Completer!
On the subject of grapes, throughout the book is an alphabetically ordered roll call of 53 varieties that Wallace has set into the margins, punctuating the text with a little snapshot of each grape variety that has some significance in Switzerland, including a little bit of background on its Swiss form.
The last chapters cover terroir, viticulture and the environment, marketing and tourism (Thomas Cook of travel agent fame was a strict Baptist teetotaller – imagine what he would make of his customers now…), and more than a few stories devoted to the stringent Swiss customs and their intolerance of wine-duty shirkers. Transport, health and holiness also get a look in.
Wallace is a gifted photographer, and her superb photographs fill the pages, and the imagination, with colour and beauty. But she doesn’t rely on them. Her words are equally vivid, capable of making my mouth almost water at her description of the unusual mutation of Gamay, Plant Robert, peppery black cherry in the mouth, that grows in Lavaux. And I could almost smell the resin, hazelnuts and dried fruits of Rèze, aged in its larchwood barrels.
Vineglorious is an Aladdin’s cave. You will walk out of it with at least one golden nugget, and a yen to visit Switzerland.
Here’s a link to the review itself, but you’ll need a Purple Pages subscription to read it there. Much of the rest of the site is open; if you’re a wine-lover who is not yet familiar with it, it’s well worth exploring.
Another great review, on Piedmont wines
Currin’s reviews yesterday included books on sherry and the port wines of Duoro, two regions I’m keen to explore further. But my favourite is a review of Suzanne Hoffman’s Labor of Love / Wine Family Women of Piemonte, a book now on my shopping list. Hoffman came to know Piedmont, its wines and its families during the many years she spent in Switzerland, so some of you may know this former Zurich lawyer.
This northern corner of Italy is an area whose wines I’ve been dipping into more and more, and I’m sure the book will send me running back over the border for more. Hoffman is the rare writer to take a people-oriented approach to wine, which is what I think is at the heart of wine; in this age of marketing it is too often overlooked in the wine business. Hats off.