This could be a watershed year for Swiss wine, the year when wine tourism comes of age. Lausanne in March became one of the world’s 10 Great Wine Capitals, a network of wine centres that is behind the five-year-old International Best of Wine Tourism awards. Switzerland’s first awards, whose winners compete in the international awards, took place in 2017. The Great Wine Capitals, meeting next week in Verona, Italy, share best practices and Lausanne/Vaud, as the newest member, is likely to come home with ideas from hot wine tourism destinations like Napa Valley and Bordeaux.
A CHF1 million a year canton Vaud public/private venture in place since 2015 to train the wine industry to think along tourism lines is bearing fruit. The number of projects that qualify for certification as wine tourism centres of excellence has grown.
Wine tourism, oenotourisme in French, once meant that in addition to visiting a winery and tasting its wares, you could stay in an inn or B&B linked to the winery and perhaps eat there as well. It still means this – but so much, much more. Decades ago, wines were sold to the neighbours, but when borders opened up and world wine production increased, wineries needed to find more ways to woo new customers. Forbes has published an overview of the field that comes close to defining it.
Bring on wine tourism – and just in time for the Swiss, for 2019 is the year of the Vevey Fête de Vignerons, which will make Switzerland a wine focal point a year from now. The festival, to celebrate the best growers around Vevey and honour the rich winemaking traditions here, is held only once a generation (22-25 years). The last one said farewell to the 20th century in 1999. Since then, the new “branch” of the booming international tourism industry, wine tourism, has grown up in neighbouring countries. Add to this the massive Concour de Bruxelles (10,000 wines in a competition with 350 international judges) which will take place in Aigle in May 2019.
25 years of French, Italian experience
Wine tourism has seen remarkable growth in Italy and France for some 25 years. By 2010 France could boast that it had 10 million “wine tourists”, 42% of them foreigners, led by Belgians and British visitors, according to VisitFrenchWine.com. The government has poured money into this new branch of the tourism industry, training winery staff, people in the hotel and food businesses, and a wine tourism certification system has operated for some years.
Italy is often considered to have kicked off the European wine tourism movement in 1993, nearly 30 years after Napa Valley in California, with its first open cellar days, Cantine Aperte – 25 wineries took part. An estimated 6 million visitors stopped by the 21,000 participating Italian wineries at last count. An industry has grown and blossomed in these two countries around the idea that people want to learn about wine as part of a visit to a production area.
Switzerland slow to create wine tourism branch
The concept of marketing wines this way has been slower to take hold in Switzerland, where decentralization of every aspect of political and business life is often seen as a blessing.
But power in the hands of the communes and cantons can also mean it takes longer to organize joint efforts, such as establishing and funding Swiss Wine Promotion. My Switzerland, the national tourism office, is also decentralised, so that while it promotes events and tourism products designed at the local level, it does not create Swiss-wide wine+tourism offers.
Trends enjoyed elsewhere may take longer to root, when local approaches carry more weight than national.
The classic approach of trekking off for a winery visit has never been easy here, given the small size of many Swiss family-run wineries. Smaller wineries are often not open to visitors because all hands are busy in the vineyard. Larger ones are not always representative of cellars in the area, or they are cooperatives and you’re unlikely to talk to the winemaker. And then there is the problem of language, with English a rarity until recently.
One positive note for visitors, until recently, has been that the producers often felt no need to charge money – at the same time, foreigners in particular often say they are uncomfortable with this because they assume it means they have to buy some of the wine. Awkward if you’ll be flying soon, but simply off-putting if you’re looking to learn rather than get drunk, no matter how often wineries say guests don’t have to buy.
The logical choice has thus been to create group efforts, and for the past 25 years, this has been the main way you could get to know wines in Switzerland. The Vinorama in Lavaux opened in 2010 and serves as a good example: all the local wineries, some quite small and most without parking options, sell their wines through the centre. Films are available, tastings, hikes up the hill, and there is room for cars and buses. In canton Valais, a joint effort by wineries in the Pfyn-Finges Nature Reserve and the nearby Valais wine museum with its wine trails has created some nice options for visitors to understand these special terroir products.
Fairs, open days for a transition period
Events were organized with wine tastings and wine fairs, such as Vinea (an initiative of wineries 25 years ago) in Valais, Arvinis (a private venture created about the same time) in Vaud, Expovina every late autumn in boats on Lake Zurich.
Geneva pioneered the cantonal open cellar days in 1987. They arrived on the scene elsewhere about the same time that many villages’ traditional wine harvest days disappeared: wineries were allowed more flexibility in their harvest dates, children no longer dropped out of school for a few days to help bring in the grapes. I remember clearly the last such village festival in St Prex, in Vaud, in the 1990s. I loved it. For weeks I’d walked by the field that was turned over to growing masses of bright flowers for the parade, which was a very local affair, after a harvest that clogged the highway to Morges and every small artery around the village, for two weeks. Too costly, too much work, too little interest, the wineries decided. The number of wineries was dropping and more of the grapes were going to the (very good) cooperative, La Côte.
Switzerland, like its neighbours, has seen a significant rise in the quality of grape cultivation in the 21st century; one result is a better understanding that not all grapes should be harvested at the same time, and a given winery’s harvest is now often spread out over a month or two, not including late harvest grape-picking in some places, which can stretch the work into December.
Branching out, new ideas
More recently the Mondial du Chasselas competition has organized festivities around its winning wines, at the Chateau d’Aigle; this year’s Festival du Chasselas is 29 and 30 June. What Swiss, and more particularly Vaud, growers long considered their own grape, Chasselas/Fendant, is recognized as a grape grown around the world, with the Lake Geneva region as its birthplace. That’s a story with appeal for visitors.
Russin in Geneva (15-16 September 2018) and Féchy in Vaud (22 September) have continued their celebrated harvest-period festivals, fine-tuning them to younger drinkers. Other villages such as Vétroz in Valais (Amigne on the Road, wine and food trucks, 24-25 August 2018), have adapted their festivals to promote certain grapes through theme days.
Expanding frontiers: wineries with foresight
A small number of dynamic wineries and others in the Swiss wine world began pushing more creative options about 10 years ago. A handful of private guided tours of wineries quickly popped up, of varying quality; more recently canton Vaud has developed a series of eight pedestrian trails with apps. eBiketour in Geneva set up tours on e-bikes in 2015. Also in Geneva, the cantonal agriculture office opened a series of wine trails through the countryside and in 2013 added what has become a very popular wine rally to its cellars open day.
More wine boutiques now have educational themed tasting sessions. Some wineries have organized regular hikes (Cave Roduit in Fully, Valais) or musical evenings (La Colombe in Féchy, Vaud with classical music, Cave Beetschen in nearby Bursin with music and Molokovs, others with occasional jazz nights). Some (La Capitaine in Begnins, Vaud) offer food and wine pairing evenings or markets (Chateau d’Eclépens). A group of wineries in Morges recently banded together to offer a flexible 6 wines tasting deal for CHF15, in English, that helps you to understand the terroir.
It comes together
Vaud’s public/private wine tourism project is now three years old and has certified some 30 applicants, mainly wineries. The 2017 Swiss Wine Tourism awards (September 2017) are a showcase of great projects – not just the winners but the total group of 60 that entered.
Wine drinkers, you are about to be courted – the options for great new ways to explore wines are expanding. Chapeau! because people need and want more than endless wine tasting days. Wine should be part of our social lives, and learning about it is best done when wine isn’t the only thing on the day’s menu of activities.
My guess is that wine fairs and even the cantonal open houses could start to decline or re-design themselves, and maybe this is not a bad thing in the end. Wineries should be happy to see people appreciate their products in a variety of contexts, learn to distinguish better wines and how to enjoy them in a healthy context.
Good things await us, the wine tourists in Switzerland. Let the fun begin!
Useful link: the Swiss Wine Directory searchable wine tourism guide, a work in progress