- The Swiss Wine Guide 2009-2010, published 7 November 2008 – CHF39
- Available in bookstores and Naville kiosks in French, German, English
- 450 producers listed, introductions to the six wine regions of Switzerland
- a co-publication of Ringier Romandie SA and Vinea, wine association based in Sierre
The road to great Swiss wines today
When is a barrel not a barrel or a variety not a varietal? These are some of the questions I’ve been debating in recent weeks as I stepped deeply into the world of Swiss wines, overseeing the English adaptation of a book that has in the past four years become the reference on Swiss wines in French and German.
I’ve been writing about Swiss wines since 1986, when I put together a series of articles for a supplement on Switzerland in the International Herald Tribune. I had written a few travel, feature and business articles for the newspaper when I lived in Paris and the previous year when I moved from Paris to Switzerland an editor and I agreed that I should look for stories which showed a side of Switzerland people knew little about. Swiss wines fit the bill, we thought.
Coming from France, land of wine and food, I was surprised to see vines all around me when I moved to canton Vaud. I had been writing about European food and wine for several US magazines, and I had never heard Swiss wine mentioned. The first two people I questioned, longtime foreign journalists in Geneva, turned up their noses and said that Switzerland just turned out a lake of mediocre, tasteless white wine and then drank it all, not bothering to export any.
Yes and no. Since then I’ve been following the story of Swiss wine and its quiet development into one of the best wine countries in the world – small, but with a rich variety of excellent wines that are gaining attention in the international wine world.
The journalists were right to some extent because in the mid-1980s Switzerland, and the area around Geneva in particular, was over-producing. When grape growers began to see that their very protected market would be thrown open to wines from around the world after 1995 they took notice, and for the past 15 years Swiss producers have been working hard to replant and focus on making fewer but better wines. It has paid off.
The two foreign Geneva-based journalists, old codgers who liked to find fault with the country where they had spent their adult lives, were wrong in that Switzerland has always had excellent wines, but you had to know how to find them – easy enough if you were part of the Swiss wine world but almost impossible as an outsider or someone new to Switzerland.
The Swiss Wine Guide: ultimate reference, at last
The Swiss Wine Guide, published in English, is an excellent starting point for changing this. It has been a long time coming, with the idea nearly 10 years old, but it was not an easy project to get off the ground. The first edition of the book had trouble finding funding: 400 producers listed, details that have to be checked with each one of them, different language versions, Swiss quality printing and a cover and binding that won’t wear out after use. It’s a costly project, but the price needed to be affordable.
The Swiss Confederation, through the agriculture department, pays for part of the cost, but this means the book cannot have sponsors or advertisers. And it meant the book had to be produced in the official Swiss languages before English could be added.
The project to do the book in English finally began a year ago. It immediately became apparent that a simple translation would never work. The French and German versions, written by two excellent wine journalists, Emeline Zufferey and Eva Zwahlen, are aimed at audiences primarily in Switzerland, France and Germany who already know much about wine and often about Swiss wine.
The English version is aimed at English speakers inside Switzerland as well as at the export market. What a varied group! It includes wine debutants, the simply curious who like to drink, true wine connaisseurs and, of course, a few wine snobs. The first hurdle was creating a glossary of terms acceptable to people who are familiar with wine language, but there is not just one wine language in English. Californians and Australians don’t use the same terms as the English, who have grown up on French wines, or the South Africans and South Americans. When do we use French terms rather than English ones?
The team of 10 who worked on the book (four translators, two editors, four proofreaders) had arguments over terms like barrel versus barrique versus tank versus cask. Everyone was sure he or she was right and so we scurried to research, using dozens of well-known books on wine terminology, only to discover there is more disagreement than agreement. Or perhaps we should call it “variety” of opinion, for the richness and pleasure of wine in the end lies in its diversity.
There were humorous moments, such as when one of the translators noted that one cellar is open only on Tuesday mornings for two hours during school holidays. “Nice job, if you can get it,” he wrote me.
For me, the moment of language peace came in August, at Vinea, when I spoke with Peter Hayes, president of the OIV (International Organisation of Vine and Wine) and a well-traveled Australian wine expert.
How would he refer to different sizes of barrels, some used to aerate wines and others used to mature it before bottling – would he say, for example, that it was aged in barrique or in barrel or it was cask-matured if we were talking about a larger size? And what about the peculiar wooden container known as a “vase” in Vaud? The question seemed easy enough, but after several minutes he said, “Well, maybe we can all just talk about small barrels and big barrels.”
We could, but we probably won’t. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing about some of the terminology we’ve chosen to use in the book and why.
Meanwhile, November is when it’s time to move from the beautiful vineyards of Switzerland indoors, to start sampling some of the amazing wines this country has to offer. Hat’s off to the two writers who put the book together, and my own thanks to the team that helped me create the English adaptation.