GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Torches light the lovely 15th-century cobblestone courtyard, once a two- or three-hour carriage ride from Geneva. A hum of voices carries from an open cellar door where soft candlelight offers a glimpse of amphoras and barrels. Upstairs, in a renovated area of the old Grand’Cour château, Jean-Pierre Pellegrin describes what makes his latest trademark “P” wine, a single-grape Pinot Noir, so special.Chardonnay at Domaine Grand’Cour in Geneva
Listening attentively: sommeliers from world-class restaurants, friends from the nearby village of Peissy/Satigny and clients from the city, which is now just a short drive away.
“P” will soon be sold out. Given that Pellegrin makes it only when all the conditions for this old-vines wine are right—on average every other year—we treasure the glasses in our hands at his annual openhouse evening.Jean-Pierre Pellegrin in his vineyard in canton Geneva (photo ©2013 Patricia Cottier-Pellegrin)
Pellegrin is one of 50 winemakers from Ticino to Neuchatel who constitute the Mémoire des Vins Suisses (MVS), created in 2002, a remarkable storage bank of some of Switzerland’s best wines that are selected for their aging potential. The by invitation-only group meets at least once a year at a member’s winery for vertical tastings (several vintages of the same wine) and professional discussions, as part of a concerted effort to explore how to create more fine Swiss wine with greater longevity.Vineyards in Venthone, canton Valais, in the heart of Swiss ski resort country
For those in France: if you’re traveling anywhere near the Franco-Swiss border, consider this: France’s little neighbor, with its four official languages, its varied landscape and its scores of contrasting microclimates, is a jewel box of wonderful wines and small but superb wineries.
Wines, including fine wines, are one of the country’s best-kept secrets—a fact those who make them would like to change. The Swiss drink some 40 litres per inhabitant a year, although consumption is slowly falling, as it is elsewhere in Europe. Fine examples of the famous Swiss excellence that makes its watches and chocolate world famous, mid-range and better Swiss wines are also excellent value for the money, especially compared to comparable French wines.
But the French next door are barely aware they exist, partly because so few are exported. Of course, some might argue that the French have never made a point of knowing anything about anyone else’s wines.
And yet. At a small, elegant dinner party in a Saint-Emilion chateau near Bordeaux, held by a wine producer during the vin primeur spring sales, I found it isn’t that simple. I mentioned that I had just arrived from an area in Switzerland that produces some beautiful Pinot Noir wines, as well as the classic white Chasselas aperitif wines I hoped they might already know. A small silence followed: where can a Frenchman take a conversation like that?Visperterminen’s vineyards in canton Valais are among the highest in Europe
To my surprise, the husband of our winemaker hostess, a highly successful Bordeaux businessman, leaped into a passionate and knowledgeable presentation of Swiss wines. His family had gone skiing in the Alps every year since he was a child, he said, and they had all fallen in love with the crisp white wines of the Lake Geneva region. As he got older his father insisted they explore Swiss red wines, too. “They have all those remarkable grape varieties and terroirs! I think those whites—magnifiques!—are still my favourites.”
A lively discussion ensued. One guest, a well-traveled photographer with more than a hint of ego and national pride, refused point-blank to believe the Swiss could make good wine, scoffing at what he called a nation of bankers. One couple in the wine trade was more open-minded and curious. An American woman recalled seeing Swiss vines once when flying to Geneva en route to Lyon. Then our hostess argued that, as a winemaker of some renown in Bordeaux, she could judge a good wine when she met one, and Switzerland’s wealth went far beyond banks to include its fine wines, as her own ski vacations had proven.
In fact, Switzerland has everything it takes for a wine industry to thrive: investors, family businesses with a long history of winemaking, forward-thinking researchers, a knowledgeable and passionate client base and, most critically, very good terroirs.
Weather, as everywhere, is undependable, but as a rule it’s kinder than in many corners of the world.
Switzerland has just under 15 million hectares of vines—0.2 percent of the world’s wine-grape growing area. (By comparison, Burgundy alone has about 29 million hectares.)
Pinot Noir is the most widely grown red grape in Switzerland and Chasselas the most popular white.
The six wine regions, from largest to smallest in terms of area planted are: Valais, Vaud, Geneva, the three lakes region including Neuchâtel, German-speaking Switzerland and Ticino.
The six regions in brief
Valais is known for its many indigenous grape varieties, including the native white Amigne in Vétroz and Petite Arvine in Fully. It’s even better known for the classy Pinot Noir wines of Salgesch/Salquenen (the village straddles the language divide), and its late-harvest sweet wines, which are finding their place among the best in the world.
Vacationers also know Valais for après-ski fendant, a Chasselas grape wine, so named in the 19th-century for the grape’s tendency to melt in the mouth.Fechy, canton Vaud, looking over towards France: Lake Geneva is Europe’s largest lake, ringed by towns with numerous micro-climates and very local weather
Vaud is famous for its Unesco World Heritage site, the terraced vineyards of Lavaux that rise dramatically from the shores of Lake Geneva and which provide some of the world’s most beautiful Chasselas white wines. But it covers a much larger area, from the Vaud Alps to the nearly flat border with Geneva, showing the impact of terroir on Chasselas, from the very mineral (with minuscule pétillant bubbles at the start) to elegantly floral or even a slightly bitter finish for more sophisticated tastes. In 2012 it was identified as the birthplace of the Chasselas grape, in the widely-praised Wine Grapes by Swiss botanist and grape geneticist José Vouillamoz with Britain’s world wine experts Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding.
Geneva has had a remarkable rebirth as a wine region over the past 20 years, after major structural changes that saw numerous grape growers turn to making their own wines and diversifying their grape varieties. Like Beaujolais, it had too many mediocre Gamays but, unlike its neighbor, it was free under the law to replant with other varieties and develop new markets. Ed. note: this is changing in Beaujolais starting in 2013 thanks to changes to the law.
A well-educated younger generation is now continuing the initiative and today the canton has many award-winning wines.Vines in Jenins, canton Graubuenden (photo Jenins © Celeste Clochard – Fotolia.com)
The three lakes region is a curious area with two languages (French and German), three lakes (Biel, Murten, Neuchatel) and four cantons, but winemakers remain true to traditional Pinot Noir and Chasselas. Given that Burgundy is geographically close, it’s not surprising that there are many fine Pinot Noir wines.
German-speaking Switzerland: just over 100 years ago Zurich was the largest wine-producing area in the country. Today production has shrunk significantly, thanks to urban and industrial sprawl, but Räuschling wines from around Zurich andcanton Aargau near the German border regularly win top awards, as do Pinot Noirs from canton Graubuenden.
Ticino: think Merlot, some of the finest, for this rainy area that shares a border and a language with Italy. An old indigenous grape, Bondola, possibly blended with Merlot, is used for simple “nostrano” wines found in smaller restaurants. Switzerland’s Winemaker of the Year 2012, Claudio Tamborini, is from Lamone, near Lugano.
Wind and weather
Climates vary hugely from one region to another and even within regions, with the mountains creating a surprising number of shifts in rainfall, sunshine, temperature and even daylight hours.
The southern Alps form a barrier for clouds that dump their rain over Ticino’s vineyards, so while Ticino has an annual rainfall of some 1,800mm a year, Valais wines are protected by two Alpine chains that limit precipitation to only 500-600mm.
Warm, dry foehn winds whistle down the Rhone River in Valais and keep grapes dry and fungus-free late in the year, the secret to its world-class sweet wines. Geneva and Vaud, on the contrary, suffer the damp cold winds off Lake Geneva, as well as benefits including reflected sun. And thanks to the glaciers that scoured the land more than 10,000 years ago, leaving in their wake richly different residue, the soil is as varied as the microclimates.
Small is beautiful
Officially, Switzerland has 160 different grape varieties that occupy a minimum of 100 m2 of land; of those, 50 are planted widely. France, by comparison, has 250 officially approved varieties, but only about 40 of them account for 95 percent of all vineyards—and total Swiss acreage is only 2% of France’s. The incredible diversity of grape varieties is partly due to soil and microclimates, but also to the way Swiss wine is sold, mainly at home to local buyers. So each winery tries to differentiate its products, to fill a market niche in a country where foreign wines compete freely.
Buying locally means getting to know the winemakers, and the Swiss have a reputation for loving to try new things offered by their trusted favourite wineries. Winemakers say this explains the success of newly developed varieties that help growers improve products while cutting some costs. Gamaret, for example, is a popular cross between Gamay and Reichensteiner, developed in 1970, that resists rot and ripens early. It produces dark, purply red wine with aromas of blackberries and spices, and is widely used in blends.
Swiss winemakers also pioneered organic and biodynamic wines, with the vast majority using “integrated production”, close to organic, for years. Amphoras, instead of barrels, are very popular with organic producers, bio in French. Either terra cotta or concrete, they are porous, allowing the wine to breathe well, thanks to micro-oxygenation.
What Switzerland doesn’t have is mass production and large producers. With a few exceptions, most of Switzerland’s 2,000 professional winemakers work 3 to 10 hectares, producing 20–50,000 bottles a year—a mere drop in the barrel compared to French or Italian standards.
The unique 1895
The Swiss also don’t have a history of large-scale aging. Wineries are traditionally small family operations and land is expensive and hard to buy, so barrel rooms for storing wine have historically been a luxury. Medieval monks developed many of the vineyards; landowning nobility, common in neighbouring countries, made up only a small part of the social and political landscape over the centuries. Despite its current reputation for wealth, Switzerland was a confederated nation with poor farmers a relatively large part of the population until the late 19th century.
The idea of stocking a cellar for the next generation was not part of Swiss tradition either, although this is changing. But there have always been a few good cellars and some very fine wines that age well. The Clos, Domaines & Châteaux group of 15 historic wineries in canton Vaud has shown at a number of vertical tastings that well-aged Chasselas can be extraordinary and works well with fine cuisine. The region’s star wine is most often drunk young, when it is notable for its refreshing mineral quality, but older bottles have a golden robe and rich aromas of toast, honey and beeswax, and the taste can resemble fine dry sherry.
During an old-vintage tasting in 2008, an 1895 Räuschling from the Reblaube winery near Zurich was opened by friends who were startled by its remarkable freshness. Quick-thinking winemaker Hermann Schwarzenbach put the remains in a sterile jar and took it to the federal wine research institute. The Zurich experience is “unique” in the world of wine, says Juerg Gafner of the Agroscope research station, who led the project. The “1895” is the oldest dormant live yeast ever identified in a wine, and after three years of testing it has the wine world excited: the remarkable yeast’s offspring will be marketed to winemakers around the world, starting later this year.
“Great wines by definition include the notion of longevity,” Swiss journalist Michel Logoz recently wrote in the Mémoire des Vins Suisses newsletter, “… for a great wine must be in a position to triumph over the passage of time.”
Look hard and you’ll find Swiss wines that are one of a kind, special treasures. You’ll also find wines to suit every meal, but start with the wine and ask the winemaker, wine seller or sommelier for food suggestions, not the other way around, and you’ll rarely be disappointed. And without even trying, you’ll find Swiss wines that are simply a pleasure to drink.
Swiss wines notebook
The eclectic list below is designed to give you a broad cross-section and is not by any means simply the best wineries: Switzerland has a wealth of excellent small wineries and for each one below I could have selected several others. If you’re exploring on your own, a very useful tool is the free Vinea Swiss Wines app for iPhone (android version available later in 2013), from the Apple Store, with geomapping. It lists 450 producers selected for quality by the Vinea Association, which organizes the Grand Prix du Vin Suisse event
Recommended wines and wineries to visit
Domaine Grand’Cour Jean-Pierre Pellegrin, top winemaker noted for precision, innovation and hard work, also restored this beautiful old château. Best choices: “P” and Grand’Cour Blanc, an aroma-rich, amphora-matured blend.
In Peissy/Satigny, visits by appt. +41.22.753.1500.
Domaine Les Hutins Jean Hutin and his daughter Emilienne run this small family winery with a big reputation. Try Esprit de Genève, Gamay Vieilles Vignes and La Briva Vieilles Vignes.
In Dardagny, visits Fri 17:00–18:30, Sat 09:00-12:00, or by appt.+41 22 754 1205
Domaine La Capitaine Reynald Parmelin is a delightful, creative three-time winner of Switzerland’s Best Organic Wine award for his Johanniter. Also try Grand Cru Vaudois Chasselas, Collection Agénor, Gamaret-Merlot and Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes.
In Begnins. Sat 09:00-12:00 or by appt. +41 22 366 0846
Domaine La Colombe One-time maverick winemaker Raymond Paccot is considered one of the country’s best, now doing biodynamic. Try the Vigne en Bayel, Pinot Gris and La Colombe Rouge.
In the beautiful wine village of Féchy. Fri 16:30–19:00, Sat 09:30–12:30, or by appt. +41 21 808 6648
Domaine Louis Bovard Beautifully crafted wines, often from surprising grapes, by a winemaker who recently planted a vineyard parcel as a Chasselas conservatory. Try Dézaley-Médinette, Salix and Buxus.
In lakeside Cully, in the Lavaux area. Daily 08:30-12:00, 14:00-17:00 pm and by apt. +41 21 799 2125
Cru de l’Hôpital The winery belongs to the citizens of Morat, but young oenologist Christian Vessaz has put it on the map with wines like his Réserve des Bourgeois, Pinot Gris–Vully and Traminer-Vully.
In Môtier-Vully +41 26 673 1910
Cave La Liaudisaz A small winery run by Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, who is becoming a legend with her limited-production wines. All the vins de garde are recommended, especially her famous sweet late-harvest wines (available at the local Fol’Terre boutique/wine bar).
In Fully. Visits by appt. +41 27 746 3537
Cave de la Madeleine A family winery where André Fontannaz, now joined by his daughter, consistently produces top wines, especially the beautiful white Amignes, from that indigenous grape. Also try the Cornalin reds.
In Vétroz. Visits by appt. +41 27 346 4554
Cave Nouveau Salquenen, Diego Mathier
Another excellent family winery, twice Swiss Winemaker of the Year. Best bets: Cuvée Madame Rosmarie Mathier, the Pinot Noir collection and sweet Topas, which is matured deep inside the Rhone Glacier. Wine bar/tasting room.
In Salgesch/Salquenen. Mon–Fri 8:00-12:00, 13:30-17:30, Sat see website. +41 27 455 7575
ZURICH–GRAUBUENDENPhoto Courtesy Weingut Thomas Marugg, ©2013
Weingut Zum Sternen, Andreas Meier, a remarkable and passionate professional, runs this large winery, as well as a hotel and three restaurants. Try the Pinot Noir Kloster Sion Réserve, Sauvigon Blanc and Gewürztraminer.
In Würenlingen, canton Aargau. Mon–Fri, 08:30-12:00, 13:30-17:00, +41 56 297 1002
Weingut Thomas Marugg, an award-winning wine producer currently making some of the finest Swiss Pinot Noirs, from a blanc de noir to oaked or sweet.
In Fläsch, canton Graubuenden. By appt. +41 81 302 1443
I Vini di Guido Brivio Entrepreneur and oenologist Brivio runs a winery to admire on every level, with 600 barrels in his spectacular cellar chiseled out of the rock walls of Monte Generoso. Try the Sassi Grossi and Riflessi d’Epoca Merlots; the good years- only Platinum; and the curious, lovely white Donnay, a blend of Chardonnay and—pressed as a white—Pinot Noir.
In Mendrisio. By appt. +41 91 640 5555
Tamborini Vini 2012 Swiss Winemaker of the Year Claudio Tamborini heads this large family winery. Try the oaked Merlots, SanZeno Costamagna Riserva, and popular classics Comano and Castello di Morcote.
Via Serta 18, Lamone. By appt. +41 91 935 7545