GENEVA, SWITZERLAND / AMONG THE VINES – A hard week at the office started with tasting 80 sparkling wines Monday, including a handful of French champagnes. Oddly, friends and family showed very little sympathy for a solid eight hours in front of my three tasting glasses, sitting in a large 15th century chateau in Neuchatel.
The occasion was a tasting of Swiss sparkling wines just before the holidays, organized by fellow wine writer Laurent Probst, the man behind the Swiss wine blog in French, Vins Confédérés.Tasting wine at Chateau Colombier, waiting for the next flight of three wines
Thirteen of us took part in the blind tastings “discussion”, a mix of wine journalists, oenologists and wine producers. More often than not there was a consensus about the wines that ranged from excellent to poor, with a feeling at the end of the day that Switzerland’s wineries have plenty of very good fizz to offer wine-lovers for the holidays, but you need to choose carefully and consider how you plan to serve it.
These are interesting and good alternatives to champagne, which is costly if you buy top of the line wines – considering buying locally and discovering the good wines around you beyond the more usual red and white still wines. Prices range from CHF15 to 35.
The perfect chance to check out Swiss sparkling winesA beautiful dark and fruity Gamay from canton Vaud
An excellent opportunity to try some of these (and a few others that weren’t part of this session) is the first Des Bulles et du Gamay wine fair being held at the Chateau d’Ouchy Saturday 23 November. For CHF25 you can sample 100 wines, sparkling but also some of Switzerland’s excellent Gamay (and offshoots Gamaret and Garanoir) wines.
The entry price gives you two coupons for CHF10 off on purchases of CHF100 or more, so if you’re buying for the holidays you can recover the cost of the ticket. You’ll also find some very fine foods to nibble while you’re there.
At earlier tasting session of the wines to be served in Ouchy one of my favourites was Philippe Bovet’s “Brut” from Givrins, Vaud, with a nose of violets and fresh grapes, CHF28. When I tasted the same wine Monday, it didn’t make it onto my list of favourites: I was probably influenced by the heavier wine that preceded it, something to keep in mind when you’re tasting more than one.
Swiss wine buying tip: If you’re keen to order sparkling wines for the holidays but you don’t have time to visit wineries, consider ordering the bottles online and having them shipped via the post, which is how Swiss people often do it. The service is quick, good and probably cheaper than what you’ll spend on petrol, although there is nothing quite as good as visiting a cellar!
What are sparkling wines?Gamays and sparkling wines in Ouchy
Bubbly wines that don’t have the legal French champagne label go under the names effervescent or sparkling wine, which simply means they have carbon dioxide that creates bubbles. A second fermentation process is where this happens, a subject too complex to get into here.
Sparkling wine is generally made using one of three methods (Wikipedia has a good explanation): from natural fermentation, either in a bottle, as with the méthode champenoise, also called the traditional method, or in a large tank designed to withstand the pressures involved (as in the Charmat process), or as a result of carbon dioxide injection.
Know your dry to sweet labels
(Please note: the original labeling list has been corrected – I was writing too late at night!)
A key piece of information, if you don’t have much buying experience, is to know that sparkling wines in Europe are labeled based on the amount of sugar. Starting on the dry end, from very dry or “brut nature” to “extra brut” and “brut”, then on to sweeter ones, confusingly called “extra sec” then “sec”, “demi-sec” which is actually semi-sweet, to sweet, called “doux”.
My general conclusions
- Switzerland has some very good sparkling wines, but as with all Swiss wines, there are so many styles from so many very different terroirs that it is difficult to generalize about them. Nevertheless, Vaud put in a particularly good performance here.
- While a handful of small wineries had very good products (in each case these are wineries whose entire lineup is good), most of the best are from larger wineries, where quality controls are rigid, essential for good sparkling wines.
- It’s important to know what you plan to do with a sparkling wine because some are designed to be aperitif wines while others are good for accompanying meals – some that tasted on their own would seem too rich are perfect for fish in cream sauce and roasted meats.
- If you’re looking for one to go with dessert, consider either a brut or a sweet sparkling wine.
- The traditional method is the most common way of making these, possibly with the exception of the ones from Ticino, where the Asti Spumanti influence from Italy is apparent.
- Only two of us were women and we agreed that our notes on the wines often didn’t correspond to the men’s, mainly concerning the residual sugar in the wines: we felt the man liked wines we found too sweet.
- Tasting sparkling wines: there is an art to it, part of which is avoiding numbing your sense of smell by leaning into the carbon dioxide too quickly, or too much.
My favourites from the 80 Swiss sparkling wines
These are all well-made sparkling wines; after this, it’s really a question of taste and personal preference, and the fun of wine lies partly in exploring and learning your own tastes. My list won’t match those of my colleagues. I like wines on the dry side, the bruts, for a clue to my tastes.
Top pick, a wine we all liked and good value for money: Brut Rosé Les Romaines, Frères Dutruy, Founex, Vaud – lovely pale pink, elegant nose of raspberry, balanced and good structure in mouth, long, (Pinot Noir, Gamay, Gamaret) CHF25
Second pick, another from Vaud: L’Apex, La Colombe, Raymond Paccot 2009, dégorgé 2012, Féchy, Vaud – a classic, closer to champagne than many of the wines we tasted, some citrus to the nose, toast notes, CHF26 – currently out of stock
My other selections, in random order:
“Eclypse”, Domaine d’Aucrêt, Epesses, Lavaux, Vaud – elegant bubbles, complex nose, a wine designed to please the crowd (Chasselas), CHF23
“Brut de brut”, Giroud Vins, Sion, Valais – elegant fruity nose with white fruits, a hint of quince (Chardonnay), CHF15-17
“Val d’Eve”, Brut BdB, Hamme, Rolle, Vaud – floral nose with white fruits, well-balanced, elegant blend (Chasselas, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc), CHF20
“Cuvée Régina” Besson-Strasser rosé, Winzerkeller Strasser, Laufen-Uhwiesen, Basel – elegant fruity nose (Pinot Noir), CHF21
“Brut 2011 Cuvée Prestige”, Louis Thiébaud, Bôle, Neuchatel – apricot, pineapple notes – this was one of the ones the two women found too sweet, but overall it was very popular with the tasting group (Chardonnay), CHF24
“Cuvée Louis-Edouard Mauler” 2009, Le Prieuré St-Pierre, Môtiers, Neuchatel – apples and almonds, clean, fresh, well-made and balanced, just what you would expect from Switzerland’s most famous maker of effervescent wines (Pinot Noir), certain to please a crowd, CHF35
“Melchior” demi-sec rosé, Kursner Vins, Féchy, Vaud – a sweet dessert wine with a delightful pink colour, raspberries and blackberries; although unctuous it is not cloying (Gamay), CHF25.