I am lucky to have friends in Geneva who appreciate wine, and whenever I’m there, they ply me all kinds of Swiss wines. Rather than internationally known superstar wines (the finest Swiss wines are only a little less expensive in Switzerland than in foreign markets), they tend to be the kind of wines locals would drink.
Many Swiss are fiercely proud of their own Canton. Indeed, I’ve been warned never to take a Vaud wine as a gift when dining in the Valais, and I’m not sure whether that was a joke – I think not. But luckily our friends are open minded, so on my recent trip I was able to sample a wide selection of every day Swiss wines from all over the country. These are not fine wines, as such, but they give an idea of the diversity that you will find if you explore Swiss wine.
Gamaret-Garanoir “Legende” 2014, Domaine du Centaure, AOC Genève
It’s worth expanding on this wine a little more than those which follow. If you find yourself in or near Geneva and with a car, you could do worse than spend an afternoon in the rolling, gentle, hills to the west of the city, that part of the Genève AOC which is known as Le Mandement. There are vines all around the villages of Choully, Satigny, Peissy and Dardagny, stretching up to the French border (where there are some small crossings giving easy access from France) and south beyond the Rhône, to Bernex, Lully and Soral, bordering the Genevois sub-region of Entre Arve et Rhône.
Domaine du Centaure is a fairly typical 20 hectare family estate, based at one of the prettier villages, Dardagny (most of the vines are on a hill overlooking the château). They would be considered one of the best producers in the village, certainly one of the oldest . They, like many others here, make a bewildering array of cuvées (around 25 at last count). Gamay and Pinot Noir are specialities, but Claude Ramu also follows the regional tradition of using more unusual new red grape varieties which are becoming ubiquitous in Western Switzerland. In this cuvée it is Gamaret and Garanoir.
Gamaret is a cross between Gamay and Reichensteiner, and Garanoir is a clone of Gamaret. This one is aged in oak, but it’s not massively intrusive. It tastes like Gamay with a bit more structure and a different perfume. It has the structure to age a few years, but it’s drinking now as a fresh wine on the medium to light side. With the oak, it’s worth giving it some air, in a carafe or at least with the cork out for an hour.
Claude also makes several more quite interesting wines. Try the rosé made from Pinot Noir and Gamay. This is a pale, almost orange colour, which used to be called Oeil de Perdrix (partridge eye). This name has now been reserved for the famous pale wines made around the Lac de Neuchâtel, but the style is still common in Le Mandement, and can be as delicate as its colour suggests. Also take a look at his Aligoté. It is, after all, a grape whose star is rising all over France, and the best of the reasonable amount of this grape planted around Geneva can (though not always) be very crisp and tasty.
I should really mention a few other domaines from this part of the Genèvois, in case you go wandering. Domaine Dugerdil (Sophie, there is more than one), Domaine Les Hutins, Domaine Les Faunes (Frédéric and Ludovic Mistral) (all at Dardagny), and Domaine des Curiades (Lully) all make wines I’ve enjoyed. I was treated to a really good tasting at Domaine Les Faunes a couple of years ago. Their cellar is open for a couple of hours most days, as is Domaine du Centaure (see their respective web sites for opening hours). Domaine du Paradis (Satigny) gets plaudits but I’ve never tried their wines. Domaine des Abeilles d’Or is one of the few Geneva estates imported into the UK, available via Alpine Wines.
There’s a fairly good co-operative in Satigny, the Cave de Genève, with an on-site shop (although it’s a bit industrial around Satigny, and the cave co-operative is no exception). The photo below is of one of their prestige cuvées, Infini 2014, from their “Les Passionnés” range. It is quite typical of the top of the range efforts from many Swiss producers in Vaud and Geneva, in that it’s a blend of Bordeaux varieties (Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc with Merlot) wrapped in new oak. The chewy blueberry/blackberry fruit is impressive but time is needed to soften the tannins and integrate the oak. Yet this co-operative makes an enormous range under five or six different labels. I once bought a very nice tasting case promoted by a Genevois newspaper magazine, where the wines were all pleasant quaffers, and relatively inexpensive by Swiss standards. Alpine Wines (see link above) import a range of wines from this co-operative.
The Genevois vignoble is largely an area of family domaines. You should be able to find the brochure of the Vignerons Encaveurs Indépendants de Genève, along with a vineyard map, at tourist offices in Geneva. Most domaines can be visited, some requiring an appointment, but the majority have an open cave for part of the day (often late afternoon in the week and Saturday mornings). Most are generous with tastings, but there is an expectation that you will make a purchase if you take full advantage of this generosity.
Goccia Bianca, Bianco di Merlot Ticino 2014, Cantina Sociale Mendrisio
No, not a mistake. Switzerland’s Ticino region is Italian speaking. In terms of wine production, it is the country’s fourth largest (behind Valais, Vaud and the Genèvois), but almost all its wine is red. What Ticino is famous for is Merlot, planted there after phylloxera. Some is very good, but almost all of it is very expensive. This wine was not, I think, quite in the price bracket of some of those reds. Neither was it the finest wine I drank last month. But it was very decently made, not completely unlike an Entre-Deux-Mers, though that’s doubtless auto-suggestion because the grapes are so different. A little bit of white flowers comes through, and the palate is dry and on the lighter side. But come on! How often do you get to try a white Merlot? Oh, apparently Tesco, one of the UK’s largest supermarkets, sell one for £3.95. Never mind!
Gamay 2015, AOC Genève, Domaine des Lolliets/Dunand & Fils, Soral
The village of Soral is over on the left bank of the Rhône, a few kilometres after it exits Lac Léman. This Gamay is the only wine I’ve tried from the domaine, but they seem to get good press reviews. There’s a lot of weedy high yield Gamay produced in the region. Whist this may not show the wild exuberance of the Beaujolais I tend to drink, this is clearly a well made wine, in a modern style, with more concentration than many. Enjoyable.
Zürcher Clevner “Turicum” 2013, Weinkeller zum Stauffacher
This wine was quite mature, surprisingly so given the vintage, but again, I don’t get to try many wines from the Zürich region. Labelled as both Clevner (don’t confuse with Alsace Klevner, nor Klevener) and Blauburgunder, this is, of course, Pinot Noir. Pinot is now the most widely planted red grape in the country, and is capable of world class quality (especially in the eastern Canton of Graubünden/Grisons, where Daniel Gantenbein fashions tiny quantities of the best Pinot in Switzerland around the village of Fläsch). This cooperative makes Pinot Noir from all over Eastern Switzerland, and there’s a lot of decent stuff to sample. This wine was difficult to judge on account of its maturity (posssibly heat affected), but it appeared to be at the simple end of the spectrum. [This wine is spelt “Gürcher” on the Vivino App, but Zürcher on Swiss retail sites).
Fendant “Treize Étoiles”, Caves Orsat, Martigny (Valais)
Fendant is considered the typical white wine of the Valais, and is their name for the Chasselas grape. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that Petite Arvine is my favourite white variety from Valais, but there is no doubt that Fendant is synonymous with the region.
Caves Orsat is a large producer, founded in the 1870s, now owning 30 hectares under vine but also taking grapes from many local growers. It is both the tradition, and the bane, of Swiss wine that there are thousands of small scale grape growers who tend small plots, albeit with care. So the other side of the industry, to that of the artisan vigneron, is larger producers on whom these owners of tiny parcels rely. Such producers usually have various ranges, from fairly simple wines produced with relatively high yields, and usually with chaptalisation, up to a premium range.
This wine doubtless belongs to the former category, especially as it has no visible vintage on the label (becoming less common, but not unusual). In that respect, it is a simpler wine than the various Chasselas I wrote about in my last article, tasted at the Lavaux Vinorama Centre, near Rivaz (Vaud). Nevertheless, this wine shows typicité, and the freshness you expect from the grape variety. After a while you get a nuttiness and a slightly bitter note on the finish, which I sometimes think of as quince with a hint of the skin of a hazelnut.
Yet these wines do have a real affinity with hard cheeses, especially a gruyère, which makes them excellent for raclette and fondue. Usually light in alcohol at this level, they will also accompany a lunchtime quiche, and similar dishes.
Chasselas “Grand Cru” 2015, Domaine Châbles/Martial Neyroud, Montreux (Lavaux)
I have a confession, something I don’t fully understand about Lavaux wines. Yesterday I listed the Lavaux crus and stated that Dézaley and Calamin are designated as “Grand Crus”. This is what the literature and the vineyard maps clearly state. So I’m at a loss to know why this Montreux wine is so labelled?
This is a wine I brought back to Geneva from Vinorama. It is at a simpler level, similar to the first Chasselas I tasted there (see previous article here), but a step up from the previous wine. Pretty much the same dry wine with a nice lifted zip which doesn’t come across as too acidic. Herby, nutty, with a tiny twist of lemon or grapefruit. It has a touch more colour. The cheaper Chasselas are usually very pale. As well as the food matches suggested for the previous wine, I think this will stretch to plainly cooked fish, such as salmon. But it does pretty well as a preprandial appetizer – in Geneva a Chasselas aperitif is pretty much de rigueur. It would be wrong, and rude, not to…
Humagne Rouge “Escalier de la Dame” 2007, Yves Granges, Saxon (Valais)
Yves and Elisabeth Granges make wine around Saxon, between the Valais Crus of Fully and Chamoson. Humagne Rouge is a speciality of the region, and is possibly my favourite autochthonous Swiss red variety. Sometimes Humagne Rouge can taste a bit like a rustic Syrah with a touch of Nebbiolo. It also reminds me a little of Aostan Fumin. In fact, this grape is also found in Aosta, but called Cornalin d’Aoste there (confusingly, there’s an attractive red variety called Cornalin in Valais, but it is quite different).
The best Humagne Rouge have earthy tannins, deep cherry notes and a bit of spice, and they can age too, especially when from one of the best sources. This wine was enjoyable, and did exhibit some of the characteristics mentioned above, but once more, this bottle was getting towards the end of its plateau of maturity. If you are in the Valais you will find some very good Syrah and Pinot Noir, but it would be a shame not to try a Humagne Rouge (nor indeed a Cornalin).
Sherpa Rouge 2012, Vins des Chevaliers, Valais
Vins des Chevaliers made the first Swiss red I ever tasted, nearly thirty years ago now. It was the classic Valais red blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay, called Dôle. The proportions of each grape in the blend can vary, but most people will tell you that the more Pinot there is, the better. Dôle can be insipid, insubstantial, and with a confected bubblegum note, but it can also be very good. Back at the end of the 1980s this producer’s Dôle didn’t really impress, but it has improved.
The wine below is one of a pair, specially made with 2CHF from each purchase going to the Swiss Sherpa Foundation. It is labelled in a way you will often see in Switzerland, an “Assemblage Rouge”, or in some cases the fancy sounding “Grand Assemblage de Nobles Cépages” (as with that Cave de Genève cuvée above). Such wines don’t always back up their claims with grape details, and you can take a bet that these wines will also be oak-bound if you drink them young. We do at least know that this wine is a blend of Pinot Noir and Humagne Rouge. Rugged, like the people it helps support.
The Valais region has a long connection with Nepal’s Sherpas, and although not a Sherpa, and not from Nepal, the Dalai Lama (who does have strong connections with Switzerland, and a Himalayan connection too) owns a vineyard here. It’s one of those wine facts which is absolutely useless to anyone, but it’s a nice story. The vineyard is called Les Amis de Farinet, and it claims to be the smallest vineyard in the world, less than two metres square and consisting of just three vines. These are, purportedly, Chasselas and Pinot Noir, but don’t ask me of which variety there are two vines! Blended (presumably in tiny proportions) with grapes from other vineyards, about a thousand bottles are produced, raising $35,000 every year for charity.
Petite Arvine2015, Cédric Flaction, Saint-Pierre-de-Clages (Valais)
Saint-Pierre-de-Clages is in the lower part of the Rhône Valley, between Martigny and Sion. Cédric Flaction is quite restrained as far as Swiss winemakers go. He only makes fifteen or so wines. There’s a certain mineral restraint to them, but coupled with a little opulence straining at the leash. This gives them a certain tension.
As Humagne Rouge is my favourite Swiss red variety, so, I think, Petite Arvine is my favourite white. Expect a touch more weight than a Chasselas/Fendant. In the best bottles there will be a touch of the exotic (here you might find pineapple, often apricot too), and a combination of creamy fruit with salinity on the tip of the tongue as the wine lingers there. This wine is by no means one of the more expensive made from this grape variety (this was purchased in a smart Geneva store’s wine department for CHF 26). Producers always suggest their wines will age, and Flaction reckons 5 to 10 years for his Petite Arvine. I’m not sure many people will give it that long, and every Petite Arvine I’ve drunk has been under five years old.
There are plenty of wines mentioned here, but for a small country which grows over 200 grape varieties, this doesn’t even scratch the surface. A tiny proportion of Swiss wines are exported, all estimates seem to suggest under 1% of production. The Swiss are avid wine drinkers, and they import much more wine than they produce. Couple that with their strong currency, and the high costs of relatively small scale mountain viticulture, and it’s no surprise that we see little in the UK. It will not be getting any cheaper, after the post-brexit fall in sterling.
But despite these rather depressing facts, I would still urge you to try Swiss wine. Only today, a wine loving friend said they’d never tasted a Swiss wine. The country has so much to offer which is so very different to what you might be used to that it is a big shame to ignore Switzerland completely. I am happy to admit that I have a romantic attachment to Swiss wine, but then, for me that’s half of what wine’s all about. As well as these fairly simple wines, Switzerland does produce a good number of genuinely fine wines, and boasts a number of internationally recognised producers whose wines grace many a smart wine list all over the world. Go forth and drink them.