Beauty and the bottle
Hold a glass of chilled chasselas white wine and look over Lake Geneva, or admire the view from St Moritz with a pinot noir from nearby Malans, and you're an instant convert to Swiss wines – it's impossible not to be, in these settings.
This is the old debate about wine: how much of its wonder and beauty lies in the way we experience it. It's a tricky question for Swiss wine marketers because 98.5 percent of their wine is happily drunk in the country, near ski slopes, hiking trails, on Lake Geneva paddlewheel boats, in some of the world's best restaurants (Switzerland has more Michelin stars per capita than any other country), and in village cafés.
Clearly, Swiss landscapes help, and if marketers can package a bit of that with the bottle for sale outside the country, all the better, especially now that the recent surge in the Swiss franc may make it harder to export.
But the wine itself is convincing, a fact little known outside Switzerland except among a small number of professionals who have been watching the awards these wines win at important world competitions, for example in Paris and Brussels.
Swiss wines, from the economics to the grape varieties, are as complex as this little country of eight million people with four national languages and the most extreme geography per square kilometre of any European nation, whose wine-producing area is half that of Burgundy's; 15,000 hectares versus the neighbouring French region's 29,000.
The export conundrum
The Swiss exported only 1.5 percent of their wine in 2013 and yet the hills are covered in vines in many areas, a combination that baffles new arrivals to the country. Who's drinking all this wine? The cliché for years has been that it's so good the Swiss keep it all for themselves. The truth is that the Swiss don't make enough to meet their own needs: 63 percent of wine consumed was imported in 2012. Small wineries with hand-crafted goods can't compete on price with mass-market imported wines, especially true after import controls were lifted 20 years ago. That bad news had a silver lining, however. The industry has had a shakeout, with the best surviving and improving sharply.
It's Swiss – it must be expensive
Another cliché is that Swiss wine is so expensive no one can afford it. Rubbish. The Swiss don't make lower-end wines because these are mostly artisanal products: small vine parcels and vineyards, often on steep slopes, which limit drastically the vineyard work that can be done by machine. Swiss growers are pioneers in environmentally friendly wines, with 90 percent using Integrated Production (sustainable farming) methods, and many of the most respected and best-known cellars, for example Henri Cruchon near Morges and Raymond Paccot in Féchy, both in Vaud, making biodynamic wines.
Compare a mid-range Swiss wine to an equal quality one from France or Austria and the Swiss wine is often slightly cheaper, if home market prices are compared. And even after the Swiss franc shot up against the euro in mid-January, few Swiss rushed over the border to buy French wines. Because Swiss wines are made in small quantities, producers have trouble meeting quantity requirements of wholesalers or large retailers in other countries, so they fail to benefit from the savings made by large-scale shipping and handling.
Swiss wine primer
More red than white wine is produced and consumed in Switzerland, 58 and 42 percent, respectively. Pinot noir is the main red grape, followed by gamay and merlot – the latter thanks to a century-long love affair between merlot and canton Ticinoin the south, on the Italian border.
The shores of Lake Geneva are home to chasselas, the most widely grown white, which accounts for 70 percent of the production in canton Vaud, the second largest wine region. Its gem is the Unesco World Heritage site of Lavaux, dramatic terraced vineyards above Lake Geneva that were carved out 1,000 years ago by wise and thirsty monks. It's laced with a chain of hiking trails linked by hamlets with charming cafés that offer great wines.
Geneva, the third largest wine area, has some beautiful gamays and a mix of unusual whites such as kerner. Geneva has benefited from new, mainly red and disease-resistant grape varieties developed in the 1970s by the nearby federal research station. Esprit de Genève is a hugely successful project by several top Geneva growers who each produce a very high-quality blend that uses cousin grapes gamaret and garanoir.
Canton Valais, famous for resorts such as Verbier and Crans-Montana, is the largest wine region. The mountains and Rhône river valley have an extraordinary number of microclimates that call for as many different grapes. This is home to the country's largest winery, Provins, which disproves the poor reputation of co-operatives. This one, as well as others in Switzerland, is an excellent winery with a range of prices and styles that even on the cheaper end display the famous Swiss insistence on quality.
These three regions, all French speaking except for one tip of the Valais wine area, account for about 75 percent of Swiss wines. You'll also find lovely, delicate wines to match the rolling hills around Neuchatel-Vully in the west, such as oeil-de-perdrix, a saignée-method rosé from the free-run juice of pinot noir. Christian Vessaz, makes 'traminer de Fichillien' world-class proof that this grape, made as a dry wine, can give spectacular results here.
The German-speaking region runs from Basel in the northwest to the greater Zurich region, (seek out the nativeräuschlingfrom Meilen, a lemony white with a great personality, perfect with fresh lake fish), St Gallen on the eastern border and Graubünden, with St Moritz, Klosters and Davos. Its pinot noirs in particular are gaining equal notoriety for being very classy indeed. Two pinot noir World Champion winemakers hail from here, both of them under 35, part of Switzerland's remarkable upcoming generation.Ticino has heavily forested mountains that cover much of this delightful Swiss Italian area. Every square metre of vineyard is a treasure, with the forest always battling to take over. Ticino has given a good name to merlot, which in France (with some notable exceptions) and other areas is mainly grown to be used as a lesser grape in blends. Here, it is encouraged to grow into its full glory and is made as a varietal (single grape) wine most of the time.
Little-known facts about Swiss wine
Sediment from the Rhône glacier, deep in canton Valais, is found in the Mediterranean, carried 800-plus km by the Rhône river. The Rhône famously feeds the soils of Châteauneuf-du-Pape – and those of 'Cayas', a syrah from the Jean-René Germanier winery in Veytroz named among the world's ten best syrahs at that grape's world competition in 2009.
Switzerland has 160 grape varieties that grow on no more than 100 square metres; 40 of these grapes are indigenous. Some are enjoying a comeback, such as completer, a complex and rare white wine that even when dry has notes of quince, greengage and honey, found mostly in canton Graubünden. In the past 20 years they have become the new darlings of Swiss wine-lovers, thanks to improvements by talented winemakers such as Maurice Zufferey, Denis Mercier and the Rouvinez brothers, who have mentored the young generation. Robert Taramarcaz, one of these, is a remarkable producer who is a champion of the region's wine traditions. These wines include humagne rouge, a rustic red; and cornalin, a difficult grape that gives a rich and elegant red wine, whites païen (called heidain German-speaking areas), aka savagnin blanc; the grapefruit and rhubarb wonder with a salty finish that is petite arvine, and the beautiful and widely praised amigne, made dry but also as a late-harvest (noble rot) sweet wine that is the equal of the world's best.
Morges and Lausanne, on Lake Geneva, are also home to two delightful reds brought from the brink of extinction; plant robertand servagnin, a strain of pinot noir.
I hope that I have whetted your appetite to try these hand-crafted Alpine beauties and will allow yourself to be convinced by the wine in the glass – the best advocate of all.