Swiss Wine Week, from September 6, is designed to highlight an industry where almost all locally-made wine is consumed at home. For publication 8 September 2014.
Domestic demand in Switzerland is very high — the Swiss are in the top 10 consumers globally on a per head basis — and Swiss winemakers only produce 40 per cent of what people consume, meaning three in five bottles are imported.In a typical year perhaps 1 per cent of Swiss wine is exported.
This means Swiss winemakers are not desperate to sell overseas. Almost everything they produce is drunk at home. Two thirds of Swiss wines sold cost between 15-34 Swiss francs a bottle (about $US 16-36). Why create a Swiss Wine Week? Local winemakers simply want the world to appreciate the quality of what they create.
The winners of Mondial des Pinots, an international competition with pinots from 25 countries, were announced. Switzerland is the seventh largest producer of pinot noir in the world, and makes exceptional pinots. This competition involved 1,288 pinot-based wines from 465 wine estates.
Only 8 per cent received a gold medal and five wines – one from Burgundy, another from Germany and three from Switzerland – gained the highest honour, a “great gold” award. The three locals all came from Valais.
Valais is the largest of the country’s six wine regions. It makes a third of all Swiss wines. Our tour started in Sierre, the region’s capital. Vaud is the second biggest region, producing a quarter of the country’s output.
Switzerland is a sophisticated country with four national languages and a high standard of living. One in four of the population was born overseas.
Mountains make up two-thirds of Switzerland’s land mass and Valais has some of the highest peaks, so viticulturalists have learned to grow vines anywhere. Some slopes are 60 degrees to the horizontal. It feels like vines grow in every available space.
Mountains that average 4,000 metres loom above. Mont Blanc is the highest peak, at 4,800 metres. Even in summer snow flecks these mountain tops like dandruff on an old man’s shoulders. The limit for viable production is about 600 metres above sea level, though wines are grown at more than 1,000 metres in exceptional meso-climates.
The pinot awards were the brainchild of Vinea, the body that represents Swiss wine to the world. This week Vinea (vinea.ch) announced its Swiss wine app for smartphones, and also launched the Swiss Wine Directory.
A highlight of our time in Valais was a visit to the Richard Gilliard estate. Getting into the vineyard is a unique experience. Access is through a 60-metre tunnel cut through a mountain. The world’s highest dry-stone wall surrounds the vineyard. It is 22 metres high in parts, made of slate and schist.
Built over several years from 1885, the wall snakes for 280 metres around the slopes at about 650 metres above the town of Sion. Some slopes are so steep they must be almost impassable in winter. All picking must be by hand, though some small machines have been tried.
Harvest starts in mid September and continues until the end of October. Three pickings are needed because grapes ripen at different times.
Some locals suggest the slate provides a mineral hint to Gilliard’s whites. The 2013 Clos de Cochetta fendant (another name for chasselas) sings gently of lemons and is an excellent aperitif. The 2013 Clos de Cochetta petite arvine is more aromatic and offers grapefruit and lime notes plus a distinct saline hint, a characteristic of this grape variety. It would be an ideal drink with oysters, though these are elusive and expensive in a land-locked country like Switzerland.
The Ticino region in the south is the fourth largest in the country, and while it only has 1,000 hectares of vines the wines are unusual. One of the most attractive and rare is the bianco rovere made by Brivio. This is a white wine made from merlot grapes aged in oak for seven months. The 2012 vintage has aromas of smoke and chestnuts mixed with freshly baked bread and a rich texture, and is quite delightful.
Wine writer Ellen Wallace, an American based in Switzerland for more than a quarter century, launched her book Wineglorious: Switzerland’s wondrous world of wines during Swiss Wine Week. It is a charmingly written and handsome introduction to a wine industry that has the potential to thrill the world.
Disclosure: Vinea paid for Stephen Quinn’s accommodation in Switzerland, as part of a tour by the Circle of Wine Writers.