Wine column for week of March 18

Switzerland has been making wine for more than 2,000 years but until recently Asian markets saw none of it. That’s because almost all the wine produced is consumed at home.

A mere 1.5 per cent is exported, mostly to neighbouring countries like Germany and France. Wikipedia says wine bottles were found in a tomb near Lake Geneva about two centuries before Christ.

Current production is tiny – perhaps 1.1 million hectolitres. In other words, all of the wine made in Switzerland represents perhaps an eighth of what Bordeaux makes. About three bottles in five produced are red and the rest are white.

The Valais region represents the largest production area, accounting for about two in five bottles produced nationally. It has almost 50 wine varieties.

The Swiss Wine Store in Hong Kong has begun importing wine, and it matches beautifully with a range of Asian foods, especially the more subtle versions.

The most common grapes are pinot noir and chasselas. The latter is the main white variety. It is also known as fendant.

In the Valais region vines grow on steep slopes leading down to the Rhone river. Some slopes are so steep the baskets of picked grapes are collected via helicopter.

The climate is dry and sunny, boosted by a hot wind known as the “foehn”. Summer temperatures can reach 40C, meaning high diurnal variations — the range between day and night temperatures — which ripens grapes nicely. This produces wines of original and robust character.

Two of the country’s best wines are the Fendant Balavaud and the Dézaley Chemin de Fer, both grand crus. As in France, grand crus represent the best of the best. These whites have formidable structure and could be cellared for several decades, but also drink beautifully while young.

The 2011 Fendant Balavaud Vétroz is made by Jean-René Germanier. The wine is influenced by the shale soil of Vétroz, which gives strong aromas of flint and white flowers. It is ripe with crisp acidity and has a delightfully long finish. It pairs well with freshwater fish, sushi, and lighter Asian dishes like dim sum.

This wine has won several medals in Switzerland – remember, until now almost no Swiss wine has been exported so all awards are domestic. It was rated the best in the chasselas category at last year’s Swiss wine awards. For the past five vintages it has received gold medals, again in domestic awards.

The Jean-René Germanier vineyard is regarded as one of Switzerland’s best wine producers. It is also one of the oldest, having been founded in 1886. Germanier’s wines are served on Swiss International flights.

The 2011 Dézaley Chemin de Fer is also made from chasselas grapes, from the Vaud region. It is soft and appealing with aromas of pears and green apples, with that same hint of flintstone of the other chasselas.

I found this wine opulent, even velvety in texture, with a touch of honey yet quite dry. Similar but different to an older riesling from Alsace. The soft texture means it pairs beautifully with creamy dishes, or strong fish or shellfish that have creamy texture. It would also be excellent with aged cheese.

The vineyard is one of the best in Switzerland. Its soil is composed of rounded pebbles known as puddingstones because they resemble the plump raisins used to make Christmas pudding. The wine’s name refers to an old railway line in the area, “chemin de fer” being French for railway.

Chemin de Fer is one of the two or three most revered wines from the Dézaley appellation d’origine contrôlée, or AOC. Only a dozen winemakers are entitled to use the appellation.

Dézaley is also a UNESCO world heritage site.

* Published 21 March 2013 in China Post. Find a link here. Published 2 April 2013 in WineTimesHK. Find a link here.

Categories: Not home, wine

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