GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – The Federal Agriculture Office couldn’t have given Swiss wineries a better gift for Easter than the latest figures that show consumers are drinking more Swiss wine and imports are gently sliding.
The FAO notes in publishing its 2013 wine statistics that a special situation last year might account for part of this: the 2011 harvest was so abundant that parliament agreed to let some 3.1 million litres of AOC (appellation d’origine controlée) wine be sold as table wine, to help reduce stocks by making some Swiss wines cheaper and therefore more competitive. Only part of this has reached the market, though.
At most, these wines accounted for less than one-third of the increase, says the FAO.
The rest of the explanation? I’m putting my money on a mix of some consumers enjoying buying good Swiss wine for less money while the AOC rules are relaxed, with – more importantly – the payoff at last of the improved quality of Swiss wines and some very good long-term marketing efforts.
There could be a third factor, but it’s hard to measure, a dampening of enthusiasm for foreign wines, particularly less expensive New World wines that became popular when Switzerland eased restrictions on imports some years ago.
The role of price
The Swiss spend more on wine per capita than almost anyone else in the world. Switzerland is a good market for exporters from elsewhere: discerning drinkers with money to spend on wine. The Swiss have a good understanding of the pricing system for their home country wines because even urban populations live relatively close to vineyards and it’s clear that the landscape’s insistence on manual labour increases prices. A large number of Swiss consumers are willing to pay for local products and food and wine made with fewer chemicals. Switzerland is a pioneer in integrated production in vineyards in part because of consumer support for this greener approach to growing grapes.
That said, the Swiss are also widely traveled and they know what wine costs elsewhere. This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily cheaper elsewhere: a good Swiss wine is often less expensive than a similar quality wine from neighbouring France or Italy, for example. However, there are fewer lower end good Swiss wines, under CHF10, for example.
Take a good AOC wine, sell it for less than usual, and you’ll find a market. Clearly, that happened in 2013.
Learning to love your neighbour’s wine
Switzerland is proud of its reputation for quality and the wine business is no exception. But it’s been slower than some businesses to improve quality across the board. Decentralization is a political reality in Switzerland, one that has long baffled the French and Italians who look to Paris and Rome in a way that no Swiss person will ever look to Bern. You become a citizen of your commune, rather than Switzerland, and it’s only when that commune handles your request for a Swiss passport that the federal government will issue you one.
Decentralization is also a mindset, and for years this has meant that if you were from Valais you drank Valais wines – more to the point, if you were from Fully, canton Valais, you drank Fully wines and the Salgesch citizens 40 km away and also in Valais drank their own bottles. Over in Geneva, they were drinking wines from Satigny and Peissy, not neighbouring Vaud or distant (150 km) Valais, while in eastern Zurich wines from Lake Neuchatel in the west would be hard to find.
Outsiders are often puzzled by the lack of a “Swiss wine” label, but Swiss wine is a concept the Swiss don’t embrace easily, attached as they are to their hometowns and cantons.
The wine industry has had to face up to a new world, however. Consumption has fallen, and while it’s been nowhere near as dramatic as in neighbouring countries during the past 20 years, it’s gone from 300 million litres a year in 1991 to 270m litres total consumption in 2013.
The consumption of Swiss wine fell during those 22 years from 137 million litres to 107m litres. Meanwhile, consumption of foreign wines remained fairly steady at 165-170 million litres, roughly, until it began to fall off in 2010.
Some places, and Geneva comes to mind, were particularly affected by a shakeout in the Swiss wine business that was caused by over-production and poor grape prices. It forced many grape growers who supplied wineries to either leave the business or to start making wine themselves in the 1980s and 1990s. The quality wasn’t always good.
Today, these wineries have mostly either disappeared or learned to compete by greatly improving the quality of their wines. The Changins school near Nyon, where most Swiss wine producers learn or perfect their trade, deserves credit for stepping up its insistence on quality wine.
The Grand Prix du Vin Suisse competition has, in the past five years, given wine producers a place where they can compare their wines to those of other wineries.
Marketing, a 20 year buildup
In a country where people long bought their neighbour’s wines because that’s what friends and family do, marketing Swiss wines to the home crowd has been slow to take off. This has changed, and it may be the real reason the Swiss are drinking more of their own wine. Swiss Wine Communication was a body that was supported financially by wineries and their cantonal organizations to promote the industry but it went bankrupt in 2006 to the anger of producers. It took the careful creation of Swiss Wine Promotion, its replacement, and an ambitious new programme to get marketing efforts moving again in the past couple of years.
Wine fairs for the public: The Vinea Association this year celebrates the 20th anniversary of its outdoor wine fair in Sierre, initially for Valais wines, but which evolved into a national wine fair that is now a fixture on the Swiss events calendar, with thousands of people visiting. Numbers have slipped a bit recently, as they have at a number of large fairs such as the Geneva Motor Show, but for a good reason: the number of wine fairs, markets and open houses around the country has jumped and consumers have far more options for this than in the past. Particularly noteworthy: the Memoire des Vins Suisses group of top wine producers who are working together to improve the aging of Swiss wines, has opened up its annual tasting session of these often extraordinary wines to the public, for free.
Winery open days: These have multiplied in the past five years. Geneva’s was such a success that it had to rethink some of the features to keep wineries and consumers happy. But Geneva is geographically smaller with wineries closer and it took longer for Vaud, for example, to work out solutions like shuttle buses.
Wine fairs for the industry: Swiss Wine Promotion has been actively working abroad to build a stronger image for Swiss wines, in particular by taking part in major wine fairs for the industry, such as Prowein in Germany last month. Other groups, including the Memoire des Vins Suisses, are stepping up their level of participation at these fairs, where wholesalers and retailers from abroad look for wines they want to stock.
Competitions: Switzerland has become an important centre of international wine competitions, thanks in large part to the Vinea Association which runs world-level competitions for Merlot and Pinot Noir. But perhaps Vinea’s greatest success in this area has been to develop the national competition that Swiss wineries now see as a must-participate event. More than 3,100 wines were submitted by 600 producers for the summer 2013 Grand Prix du Vin Suisse judging, a majority of the country’s commercial wineries. A newcomer to the world of competitions is the three-year-old Mondial du Chasselas, designed to help the rest of the world appreciate Switzerland’s most famous grape variety, and to provide marketing tools to the cellars that win prizes.
Quality label: The Lauréats de Terravin label is not new, but its very strict quality programme for Vaud wines has set the mark in this area.
Restaurants, sommeliers, selling the local product: cantonal wine organizations have been pushing to train sommeliers, many of whom are not Swiss, to learn more about local wines in order to encourage them to sell these to the public. Changins has added a new diploma programme for sommeliers this year; it includes a mandatory series on Swiss wines. And restaurant owners are being encouraged to expand their knowledge of Swiss wines by taking part in Swiss Wine Week, where they offer wines from three regions. The first event was in November 2013 with some 200 restaurants taking part. Plans are already underway for the next event in November 2014, enlarging and expanding the offer. Diners have a good range of prices, types of food and locations to choose from.
Image abroad: Swiss Wine Promotion’s projects in this area are taking shape and include a Swiss Wine Observatory to be launched in 2015 to better understand the Swiss wine market, Le Temps reports today. More simply, and yet critically for the attention of the rest of the world, a system of collars will soon be unveiled, sporting Switzerland’s red and white colours.
At last, Swiss wines will have their own ID!