Precious Swiss wines, and we don’t mean the price

Last year The Wine Society listed its first-ever Swiss wine, and now, as we introduce four more, we thought it high time we found out more about this small, Alpine wine-producing country. Author and Swiss-wine expert, Ellen Wallace is our guide

Beauty and the bottle

One of Europe's highest vineyards (1,150m) is in Visperterminen in Valais One of Europe's highest vineyards (1,150m) is
in Visperterminen in Valais

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.

> View our range of Swiss Wines

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), 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

Harvest time at Domaine Cruchon near Morges on the banks of Lake Geneva Harvest time at Domaine Cruchon near Morges
on the banks of Lake Geneva

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 Frenchspeaking 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.

Craggy Tourbillon castle in Sion, the most sun-blessed town in Switzerland, famous for its <br>fendant wines Craggy Tourbillon castle in Sion, the most
sun-blessed town in Switzerland, famous for its
fendant wines

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

Chasselas or fendant, the most widely grown white Chasselas or fendant,
the most widely grown white

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.

Ellen Wallace

Ellen Wallace is a journalist and author who specialises in Swiss wines. Her book Vineglorious! Switzerland's Wondrous World of Wines was published last year. Visit her website for more information

Ellen Wallace

Members' Comments (0)

There are no comments for this article.

Want more inspiration?

Sign up for a carefully-curated selection of recipes, guides, in-depth expertise and much more.

Our website uses cookies with the aim of providing you with a better service. By using this website you consent to The Wine Society using cookies in accordance with our policy.


4.4. Cookie Policy

By using The Wine Society website, you agree to cookies being used in accordance with the policy outlined below. If you do not agree to this, you must alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you or cease using the website.

The Wine Society uses cookies to enable easy navigation and shopping on the website. We take the privacy of all who use our website very seriously and ensure that our use of cookies complies with current EU legislation. The following guide outlines what cookies are, the types of cookies used on The Society's website and how they work.

You may alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you, but this will cause difficulties when accessing and using some areas of the site. Instructions on how to do this can also be found below.

4.4.1. What are 'Cookies'?

  • Most major websites use cookies.
  • A cookie is a very small data file placed on your hard drive by a web page server. It is essentially your access card, and cannot be executed as code or deliver viruses. It is uniquely yours and can only be read by the server that gave it to you.
  • Cookies cannot be used by themselves to identify you.
  • The purpose of a basic cookie is to tell the server that you returned to that web page or have items in your basket. Without cookies, websites and their servers have no memory. A cookie, like a key, enables swift passage from one place to the next.
  • Without a cookie every time you open a new web page the server where that page is stored will treat you like a completely new visitor.
  • More recently, cookies have also been used to collect information about the user which allows a profile of their preferences and interests to be created so that they can be served with interest-based rather than generic information about available goods and services.

4.4.2. How do Cookies help The Wine Society?

Cookies allow our website to function effectively. Cookies also help us to arrange content to match your preferred interests more quickly. We can learn what information is important to our visitors, and what isn't.

4.4.3. How does The Wine Society use cookies?

The Wine Society does not accept advertising from third parties and therefore, as a rule, does not serve third-party cookies. Exceptions to this include performance/analytical cookies (see below), used anonymously to improve the way our website works, the provision of personalised recommendations, and occasions when we may team up with suppliers to offer special discounts on goods or services.

The Society uses technology to track the patterns of behaviour of visitors to our site.

4.4.4. What type of cookies does The Wine Society use?

We use the following three types of cookies: Strictly Necessary Cookies
These cookies are required for the operation of our website, enabling you to move around the website and use its features, such as accessing secure areas of the website. Without these cookies, services like shopping baskets or e-billing cannot be provided. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Authentication Cookie and Anonymous Cookie
    These cookies remember that you are logged in to your account – without them, the website would repeatedly request your login details with each new page you visit during your time on our website. They are removed once your session has ended.
  • Session Cookie
    These cookies are used to remember who you are as you use our site: without them, the website would be unable to tell the difference between you and another Wine Society member and facilities such as your basket and the checkout process would therefore not be able to function. They too are removed once your session has ended. Functionality & Targeting/Tracking Cookies
These cookies are used to recognise you when you return to our website and to provide enhanced features. This allows us to personalise our content for you. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Unique User Cookie
    This cookie is used to:
    • store your share number in order to identify that you have visited the website before. Without this cookie, we would be unable to tell whether you are a member or not.
    • record your visit to the website, the pages you have visited and the links you have followed. We use this information to make our website, the content displayed on it and direct marketing communications we may send to you or contact you about more relevant to your interests.
    • This cookie expires after 13 months.
  • Peerius Cookies
    These third-party cookies are used to provide you with personalised recommendations based on your purchase and browsing history. They expire within 4 hours of your visit. Performance/analytical cookies
These cookies collect information about how visitors use a website, for instance which pages visitors go to most often, and if they get error messages from web pages. These cookies don't collect information which identifies a visitor. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous. It is only used to improve how a website works. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Google Analytics Cookies
    These are third-party cookies to enable Google Analytics to monitor website traffic. All information is recorded anonymously. Using Google Analytics allows The Society to better understand how members use our site and monitor website traffic. Authentication Cookie
In order for us to ensure that your data remains secure it is necessary for us to verify that your session is authentic (i.e. it has not been compromised by a malicious user). We do this by storing an otherwise meaningless unique ID in a cookie for the duration of your visit. No personal information can be gained from this cookie.

4.4.5. How do you turn cookies off?

All modern browsers allow you to modify your cookie settings so that all cookies, or those types which are not acceptable to you, are blocked. However, please note that this may affect the successful functioning of the site, particularly if you block all cookies, including essential cookies. For example, In Internet Explorer, go to the Tools Menu, then go to Internet Options, then go to Privacy. Here you can change the rules your browser uses to accept cookies. You can find out more in the public sources mentioned below.

4.4.6. Learn more about cookies

4.4.7. Changes to our cookie policy

Any changes we may make to our cookie policy in the future will be posted on the website and, where appropriate, notified to you by email. Please check back frequently to see any updates and changes to our cookie policy.