Little Swiss wine is exported but it’s worth seeking out because of the high quality, though prices can be high. For publication in week of 6 March 2017.
Domestic demand for wine in Switzerland is high by world standards, and consumers are also demanding in terms of what they expect. The Swiss spend an average of 600 Euro per person on wine each year and are in the top 10 of consumers globally.
But Swiss winemakers only produce 40 per cent of what people drink, meaning three in five bottles are imported. Luckily for consumers, three of the world’s major producers – Italy, France and Germany – surround the country.
A tasting of Swiss wine was held in London on February 27. Why bother, given the fact Swiss winemakers are not desperate to sell overseas. In a typical year perhaps 3 per cent of Swiss wine is exported. Michele Caimotto, a former sommelier who runs the Wine Rose consulting business, explained that winemakers simply wanted the world to appreciate the quality of what they create.
Switzerland is a sophisticated country with three national languages (German, French and Italian, though everyone seems to speak excellent English) and a high standard of living. One in four of the population was born overseas. The capital Geneva is a melting pot of cultures.
About two-thirds of Switzerland’s land mass consists of mountains so the area available for vines is limited. The country currently has about 14,800 hectares devoted to viticulture in six regions.
Vaud (25 per cent) and Geneva (10 per cent) in the west of the country produce about a third of all wines. Valais in the southern centre contributes another third. The Three Lakes in the north-west of the country (5 per cent) and the German-Swiss region in the north-east (19 per cent) are cooler and tend to focus on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Muller-Thurgau. Vaud is known as the “home” of the indigenous Chasselas grape, though it is grown in most parts of the country.
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 the valleys where agriculture takes place. Mont Blanc is the highest peak, at 4,800 metres. Even in summer snow flecks these mountaintops.
The limit for viable production is often said to be about 600 metres above sea level, but Swiss wines are grown at close 1,100 metres in exceptional meso-climates. Michele Caimotto noted that 90 per cent of the country’s vineyards refrain from using insecticides, one of the highest proportions in the world.
Pinot Noir represents about 28 per cent of total vine plantings, followed by the white Chasselas with 26 per cent. Switzerland’s total area of vines is smaller than Champagne, but it is the world’s seventh largest producer of Pinot (France and the United States are the world leaders).
Pinot Noir ripens early so it tends to flourish in cool areas of the world where the growing season is long enough for flavours to develop. Switzerland has the advantage of high diurnal ranges in summer; a wide difference between minimum and maximum temperatures enhances grape flavours.
Michele Caimotto presented a masterclass on Chasselas from 2015 and Pinot Noir from 2012. In the 2015 vintage “almost everything went well,” he said, giving wines with natural balance. But he noted that it required talented winemaking to extract a sense of terroir with the Chasselas grape. One of the finest is the 2015 Dezaley Chemin de Fer Chasselas from the Vaud region. Benjamin Massy, son of winemaker Luc, explained that the name came from the railway that hugs the edge of the valley where the vines grow. This is a wonderful wine with delicious texture that sings of the beauty of the valleys.
Also impressive was the creamy 2015 Classique Fendant from Domaine des Muses in Valais. Fendant is the local term for Chasselas in Valais. Winemaker Robert Taramarcaz named his estate after the Muses from Greek mythology. Special mention must be made of the 2011 Polymnie sweet wine, named after the muse for poetry. It is 80 per cent Marsanne with the balance Pinot Gris, and is an elegy to beauty.
Young Pinot Noir offers a range of floral aromas such as violets, rose petals or geraniums with flavours of red fruit such as strawberries and sour cherry (the latter is referred to as “griotte”). Tertiary aromas develop with age when typically Pinot Noir offers “forest floor” notes combined with traces of truffle, leather and spices such as nutmeg or clove.
The 2012 vintage in Switzerland was challenging, Michele Caimotto said, with variable weather in summer. “Winemakers needed to sort thoroughly to get quality fruit.”
Georg Fromm is a master winemaker with more than 50 vintages to his credit. He used to own the Fromm estate in New Zealand, and thus often worked two vintages a year. Fromm said Swiss clones tend to ripen up to a week later than Burgundy clones, sometimes in mid October. From the 2012 vintage he managed to produce elegant, savoury and precise wines that can be cellared for decades, yet are drinking easily now. Indeed, all of his Pinots are impressive and would adorn any serious wine drinker’s cellar.
Fromm pointed out that Oregon has started planting Swiss clones of Pinot instead of clones from Burgundy. He has planted different clones in four unique vineyards named Selvenen, Fidler, Spielmann and Schopfi in Malans in the country’s north-east. “The single vineyard Pinots are a quest for the essential characteristics of the respective clones,” he said. Selvenen means forest in the original Romanic dialect in the area and Fidler is named after the violin player. All are Swiss clones apart from Schopfi which is Burgundian, and all are tributes to his talent.
Also impressive was the 2012 Schlossgut Bachtobel Pinot Noir #2, with its soft tannins and zingy acids from the northern region near Zurich. Winemaker Johannes Meier said he avoided excessive oak to let the fruit “display its beauty”. The wine spends a year in relatively neutral 800-litre barrels. His Pinots are named simply #1, #2 and #3 but they are far from simple.
Michele Caimotto said a feature of Swiss winemaking was attention to detail in both viticulture and production. “Export volumes may be small but Swiss wines are worth having on any good restaurant’s wine list.”
Below is a video of the Richard Gilliard estate in Valais made in 2014. 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.
REPORTERS OR MOUNTAIN GOATS?