The Lake Zurich region was once a large wine-producing area, hard to believe when you stand anywhere at the edge of Lake Zurich now and see mainly industry and homes. But many of the slopes that are so populated today were once vine-covered.
A mere 150 years ago Zürichsee had some 2,000 hectares of vineyard: from Zurich to Rapperswil-Jona and back there are just 137.8 hectares today.
The Schipf winery on the right bank has a magnificent painting from 200 years ago showing nearly endless vineyards across the lake in Kilchberg. The winery itself was created in 1582 and vines were grown on the spot for at least 200 years before that. (More on this in Vineglorious! Switzerland’s Wondrous World of Wines)
The geography of Zurich’s vineyards
Let’s start at the top and work down, size-wise: German-speaking Switzerland is one of six official Swiss wine regions, the third-largest with 2,656 hectares in 2018, after Valais and Vaud. Unlike the other geographic regions, it sprawls across the country, from Basel in the northwest to St Gallen and Graubünden in the east, with eight official sub-regions.
Canton Zurich is the largest sub-region, with more than 600 hectares and nearly as many wineries; its official wine website provides contact information for all of them. Keep in mind that in 1880 the canton had 5,500 hectares. Phylloxera wiped out many vineyards and a changing economy as well as shifting tastes in wine did the rest of the damage.
Within canton Zurich there are five sub-regions, one of which is called Zürichsee, a name that signifies different things – for some, the area to the east of the dam near Rapperswil-Jona, for example. For wine, it includes vineyards on both sides of the lake as well as the city of Zurich, with 13.44 hectares and 9 wineries. For more on the city’s wineries and history, read Artisansuisse, The Urban Vineyards of Zurich, May 2019.
Zürichsee has been home to some of the best Zurich area wineries in the 75 years since the end of the second world war, when the area under vine began to stabilize. Names like Schwarzenbach in Meilen have upheld the reputation of the much-loved and old local grape Räuschling, while dozens of others have continued to make excellent Pinot Noir, the most widely grown grape here and in nearby bits of cantons Aargau and Thurgau, and Riesling-Sylvaner.
I spent a day in December tasting wines from the Zürichsee region, with other wine writers, for the wineries here are keen to establish a new reputation that credits improved overall quality. They have every reason to do so – I certainly discovered some new names whose wines I will want to re-taste over time.
Pinot Noirs here are doing well, as climate change makes this grape easier to grow in areas previously too cool to consistently mature as needed. Riesling-Sylvaner develops good aromas here, making it an interesting grape, and Räuschling’s quality has steadily risen, making good ones easy to find in restaurants now. This is the perfect drink with a good lake fish.
Einsiedeln’s fabled Elbling
Let’s start with this: old is not necessarily good, when it comes to wine. There is a danger that we romanticize “old” grapes, as in the ones that were once popular and fell out of use. As we move into a period of people falling in love with old, rediscovered grapes that mesh with our romantic notions of the good old days wines when were made sustainably (think green) and chemical additives hadn’t yet been invented, we risk forgetting that many of these grapes came with problems. They were susceptible to disease, they provided more grapes than the market wanted and the quality was iffy, they were unreliable or worked well in warm years but failed to mature in cool years. Tough to make a living with these.
Zurich wine, for example, was described in 1302 as “almost undrinkable due too its tart acidity”. Well, gee, here we are again in 2019 with the wine that was hugely popular then, Elbling. Can we make something better with it?
I met this grape during my 24 hours of Zürichsee wines, during a visit to the Einsiedeln monastery and basilica, home to a secondary school and Europe-wide famous pilgrimage site. The Elbling (white) is primarily a curiosity wine for me; let’s see what growers can do with it in future. CHF18 a bottle, a sensible 11.5% alcohol, fruity with a sour touch, suggested as a summer wine. It did not excite me, but it has a story to go with it, including the fact it’s made under the abbey where pilgrims stream in to visit the historic black virgin and hear masses.
“Konvent” is the winery’s most popular wine, and while I can see why, as it’s an easy to drink wine, it probably won’t interest people with sophisticated palates. It has four days maceration, wild yeasts are used for one week, malolactic fermentation occurs and it spends some months in Burgundian large oak casks. I found it too oaked and the tannins younger than expected. Another red wine that has growing public interest is Cuva, a Gamaret-Pinot Noir blend, previously 85% Pinot, but the 2018 was 45% Pinot and 55% Gamaret. It’s made in the style of an Amarone, with dried grapes and the strawberry notes almost jump out of the glass at you.
The closely linked lives of the village, monastery, church and winery nevertheless offer a place well worth a visit – they are rich in history, sitting in a beautiful area and the small winery team is making a big push to improve the wines. They are made from grapes in three vineyard areas and oenologist/cellarmaster Dominic Mathies is a font of information about the changes both at Einsiedeln and in the larger Zürichsee region.
Next week, Zürichsee notes
Expect to learn about some fine whites and great surprises among the red wines.