In a land famed for everything but, our contributor Adam Graham sniffs out the seductively secret wine trail that is catching on in wine enthusiasts’ hearts and bellies around the world. From small hamlets to border towns, our contributor takes you through all that you need to know about the secretive world of Swiss wine.
When it comes to food, Switzerland has two celebrities, cheese and chocolate. But few know of its unsung hero: wine. Most Swiss wines remain unknown, as the country only exports 1-2% of its production. In fact, many never leave the villages they’re produced in, and are so locally quaffed they could be described as vine to belly.
Most Swiss wines remain unknown, as the country only exports 1-2% of its production. In fact, many never leave the villages they’re produced in, and are so locally quaffed they could be described as vine to belly.
I’ve sipped superlative Swiss wines from all over the country. Unlike France, Italy, California, and just about everywhere else on the planet, Swiss wines are not controlled by a centralised appellation council, so grape expressions run the gamut and the nomenclature of grape names vary from region to region, turning casual tastings into complex language lessons (often with a hefty side of myth-imbued history as told by local winemakers with humour as dry as the stony white wine they produce). Over 200 varietals of grapes are grown in more than 20 regions across the country. Some unusual Swiss grapes include whites like Heida, Fendant, and Petite Arvine, and reds like Eyholzer Roter and Durize.
But Swiss wines are also having their moment in the sun and have become very collectable. Former Wine Advocate critic David Schildknecht helped spotlight Swiss wines by including several in his annual Best of 2012 collection including one from Canton Valais; Robert Taramarcaz at Domaine des Muses; two from Canton Vaud: Blaise Duboux in the picturesque hillside village of Epesses, and Pierre-Luc Leyvraz in the equally gorgeous hamlet of Saint-Saphorin; and the last, Cantina Kopp von der Crone Visini in Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton known largely for its robust Merlots.
And nowhere in Switzerland is the wine better than Canton Valais. The Valais, as it’s locally known, is a divider, both physically and culturally. The canton is split down the middle by the röstigraben, the linguistic equator that separates the German- and French- speaking regions, so named because rösti (a simple hash-brown potato dish) was historically believed to be beloved by Swiss Germans and loathed by French Swiss. It’s also Switzerland’s biggest, oldest and sunniest wine producing region with mountain-clinging vineyard terraces dating back over 1,000 years, and flanking both sides of the Rhône.
The canton is also home to some decent Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Merlot. Its unique varietals — whites like Amigne and Dôle Blanche and reds like Humagne Rouge, Dôle Carminoir, Durize and Eyholzer Roter — are especially worth seeking out. Visitors will also want to try dry whites, Heida, Sylvaner, and Chasselas (or Païen, Johanisberg and Fendant if you’re speaking upper Valesian dialect.) Generally the whites have a stony, gunpowdery characteristic that the region is known for, while the Chasselas — considered by all Swiss to be the only wine drinkable with fondue — has slightly less minerality.
Any visit to Valais should also include a stop in the weathered town of Sierre. Founded in 515A.D., it plays host to the wine museums of Musée Valaisan de la Vigne et du Vin and Château de Villa’s Sensoroma Oenotheque, a 16th-century estate. Other highlights include La Cave Pierre-Antoine Cretten, whose old-world tasting room in Saillon is a good place to sample crisp Fendants, melony Petite Arvines and reds like Pinot Noir, Carminoir, Cornalin that come from century-old vines so tasty that they won the Grand Prix du Vin Suisse.
The Lavaux is another popular wine area in Switzerland, and at about 90 minutes north of Geneva, these shores make up another major wine region altogether. The Lavaux is a UNESCO World Heritage site and located in the Canton of Vaud. It’s whittled into a green, rocky ridge and snaked with old stone walls (purported to retain the sun’s heat), and dotted with slate-roofed churches. Oenophiles are fond of describing Lavaux’s whites as having stony, flinty characteristics and (as some would claim) notes of gunpowder. The Swiss French have an even better term for it — pierre à fusil.
Oenophiles are fond of describing Lavaux’s whites as having stony, flinty characteristics, some even claim with notes of gunpowder. The Swiss French have an even better term for it—pierre à fusil.
Ninth-century monks began planting vines in Canton Vaud, and the stone walls they erected still stand. The landscape is fantastic — a grid of vineyard terrace walls plunge down the mountain towards Lake Geneva like some sort of oenophile’s, long-lost Machu Picchu. The grapes themselves are completely unique to Lavaux — whites like Ermitage, Chasselas, and Doral grown nowhere else, and gamey and ancient Lémanic reds like the ancient Plant Robert.
Brothers Jean-Francoise and Jacque Potterat at Vins Potterat are sixth-generation Lavaux wine makers and maintain the outdoor tasting room and caveau in the 10th century village of Cully, and one of a few producers making Plant Robert. As with all vintners here, it’s best to call ahead to arrange tastings. The 800-year old vineyards of Les Frères Dubois SA are adjacent to the Cully train station and a good place to bag a bottle of Dubois Saint-Saphorin or Clos des Abbesses. Get a vertical of Lavaux varietals at Rivaz’s Vinorama, a modern wine museum and tasting room built into the hillsides.
The best way to experience Lavaux is to visit villages instead of caveaus. There are dozens of charming Lavaux villages and hamlets to see; a few notables include Cully, Chardonne, Lutry, Grandvaux, and Epesses, each a tidy chocolate box village worth spending an afternoon in. The Lavaux includes the appellations of Lutry, Villette, Épesses, Calamin grand cru, Dézaley grand cru (vignoble de la commune de Puidoux), Saint-Saphorin, Chardonne, and Vevey-Montreux. Download the free Vins Vadois app for more information on wineries, festivals (of which there are many), restaurants, and news.
If you don’t have at least one long, wine-soaked meal in Lavaux, you haven’t experienced its essence. Some of Switzerland’s best food can be found in its old world auberges, which beg to be splurged at and lingered over. L’Auberge du Raisin in Cully is a favourite. The dining room’s parquet ceiling is marinated in decades of fondue steam and its hearth is where aged flanks of steak dripping of fat are charred to order fireside. The wines are excellent too — a Calamin Grand Cru from Louis Bovard and a Viticole de Lutry Chardonnay were memorable sips. Modern and miniature Le Bourg 7 is tucked away in Lutry’s winding narrow streets and offers tapas and local wines by the glass.
The Rhine area of the Swiss-German Speaking Wine Region is a popular production area for Blauburgunder (Pinot Noir) and Müller-Thurgau (Riesling-Sylvaner) grapes, and places like Stein am Rhine, Egglisau and Schaffhausen are ideal for sampling some local juice, while urban areas like Basel, Zurich, St. Gallen, and suburban Aargau also produce their own outstanding wines.
Note: Swiss Wine Promotion and VINEA Association host the third edition of the Swiss Wine Week from November 12-22 at locales throughout Switzerland, please contact the concierge at The Chedi Andermatt for more information.
(Featured image: The wine-growing region on Lake Geneva in Lavaux in the Canton of Vaud features terraced vineyards and is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While only one to two percent of Swiss wines are exported, many of them make their way onto wine critics’ lists of best wines from around the world. – Photograph courtesy of Switzerland Tourism)