To give it its proper title, Sue Style’s latest book is The Landscape of Swiss Wine – A Wine-Lover’s Tour of Switzerland. Now you all know that I’m a bit of a fan of Swiss Wines, and from time to time I do ask my readers to indulge me in reading about them. It must be difficult because until recently Swiss wines have kept a fairly low profile on export markets. Once-upon-a-time that was no bad thing. With no competition, Swiss wine used to be made up almost entirely of inexpensive (well, inexpensive to the average Swiss) bulk wine, with producers going for as high yields as possible. A few oldies still retain a fondness for those days, but thankfully such wines are as rare as a top Graubünden Pinot nowadays.
Many people will be aware that many of Switzerland’s wine regions are breathtakingly beautiful, as you will see from the few shots of the book reproduced here. Terraces of vines cling to precipitous slopes in several. In the modern world of viticulture such winemaking is expensive, and around the late 1970s and early 1980s many producers began to realise that survival rested upon being able to charge more for their bottles, and charging more meant a focus on quality. If Switzerland has had a revolution since the Protestant Reformation, then the modern Swiss wine scene (I hesitate to say “industry”) has seen one.
With raising quality comes the desire for confirmation, and so the past decade has seen increasing numbers of Swiss wines reaching foreign shores, albeit in small quantities. At the same time we now see Swiss wines entered in international wine competitions, and unsurprisingly they are making their mark on the world stage. The relatively small volume produced doesn’t mean we will see an avalanche of these wines in the UK, but aside from the UK’s one specialist mail order merchant, Alpine Wines, we are also beginning to see Swiss wines on some retail shelves, whether they be smart department stores or the kind of small independent wine merchants who are also doing so well selling natural wines.
I’m grateful to Wink Lorch for making me aware of Sue Style’s book, because I’d neither read nor heard anything about it. I do know Sue’s work, however. She’s written nine books, including The Taste of Switzerland, and writes for Decanter Magazine and The Financial Times Weekend. She is based in Alsace, so has been well placed to travel throughout Switzerland for the required research.
Well, what did I think? It’s a book which I admit I didn’t find perfect, but those quibbles were minor and personal. I think it’s great. If you have the slightest interest in jumping on Swiss Wine before everyone else does (the natural progression, after all, following Wink Lorch’s books on Jura and French Alpine Wines), then you should seriously consider reading this. Not that its £35 cover price is an easy stretch for everyone.
Sue constructs her narrative around a clockwise path, beginning in the Valais (being the valley of the River Rhône) in Southern Switzerland, and taking us on a journey through each of Switzerland’s regions which make wine, finishing in Ticino, the Italian-speaking Canton which specialises in Merlot.
In doing so she introduces a host of wonderful autochthonous grape varieties, including the rarities Completer, Plant Robert, Räuschling and Diolle, along inter alia with Humagne Rouge and Blanc, Chasselas, Cornalin, and the wonderful Petite Arvine. We also get to meet some outstanding classic imported varieties. Sharing the limelight with Merlot, there’s Pinot Noir, Gamay, Chardonnay, and others, some planted for decades, and making genuinely world class wines (like the Pinot Noir of Graubünden, especially those of Daniel and Martha Gantenbein). She also introduces us to the Swiss PIWIs (pronounced “Pee-Vee”). These are disease resistant crossings developed in Switzerland especially to help combat the various rot diseases, and which have been taken up, enthusiastically in many cases, especially by those producers eschewing synthetic vineyard treatments. The most well known include Gamaret and Garanoir.
There are, if I have counted correctly, profiles of fifty producers and wineries. The largest number, quite rightly, are from The Valais, Switzerland’s largest region for both volume and quality (18 entries). Vaud has seven entries, Geneva Region three, Graubünden gets three, Ticino Five, and the other regions just two or three entries each. For every producer there is sometimes a photo of a favourite bottle, always some lovely photographs of the winery or their vines, though all too rarely a photo of the winemaker (but I’m sure that it’s just me who likes to see the woman, increasingly a woman in this often male dominated nation, or the man, who makes the wine).
I should note that there are other entries of a similar size covering subjects as diverse as Swiss wine competitions, wine organisations, special events, and one on Switzerland’s ubiquitous Chasselas grape variety, all illuminating.
Do I agree with Sue Style’s choices of producers (she’ll wonder who I think I am)? Well broadly, yes, although there are one or two cutting edge producers not included. The example I’d give which my regular readers may well know is Mythopia. This Valais winemaker probably has the biggest profile of anyone making wine in Switzerland among certainly the more adventurous London and metropolitan crowd in the UK, and to be honest, they have done more than any other to “popularise” Swiss wine in small UK independent wine shops and restaurants of the type frequented by you lot. But the wines are very “natural”, perhaps a bit too edgy for many, including the Swiss Wine authorities. They are also perhaps less well known in Switzerland itself than in London, New York, Berlin and San Francisco.
The book was published with “generous support” from Swiss Wines Valais, and the publisher, Bergli Books, received a structural grant from the Swiss Ministry of Culture. There’s nothing unusual in this. I have French books and CDs which received similar funding, and it’s good to see projects which promote culture receiving such support elsewhere in Europe. I’m not suggesting that those getting an entry were in any way prescribed to Sue, but most of them happen to be members of a key Swiss Wine organisation, Memoires des Vins Suisse.
This organisation was founded in 2002 as a way to illustrate how well Swiss Wines can age. Each member (there are currently 56) supplies sixty bottles of one wine every vintage, a wine which is in some way unique, or typical of a style, grape variety or terroir. There’s a big annual tasting, remarkably free to the public (but you need to book), which examines a selection of vintages of these wines in order to prove the point. It’s a big deal in the country.
Another objective of “Memoirs” is to facilitate interaction between Swiss producers. In the past a certain insularity, possibly built into the temperament and loyalty to Canton, was made even more pronounced by the difficulty of physically getting around and between the mountains. But the modern Swiss winemaker has probably worked abroad, perhaps in France or Germany, but equally likely, also in California and New Zealand. Sharing ideas, and goals, has recently become much easier, and is very common among the best.
Each featured producer gets two pages, setting out their philosophy and way of working (increasingly organic, biodynamic and even “natural” in some cases), introducing their terroir and their wines. A silhouette map pinpoints their vague location, and a panel lists Sue’s favourite wines, full contact details, information about buying the wines and visiting (many Swiss wineries helpfully open their doors for tastings on Saturday morning, others just for the annual portes ouvertes events). Another wonder of Switzerland in general is her well-signed walking paths, and the vineyard trails in some regions are near legendary. Information on these is provided in brief on local paths worth following.
I could list all my favourite producers, but that wouldn’t really help a lot. Wine legends like Marie-Thérèse Chappaz and the Gantenbeins are very hard to source (although the abovementioned Alpine Wines does manage to plead tiny quantities of Marie-Thérèse’s wines, you just need to catch them swiftly when they land). I have the advantage of close friends in Geneva, whose own wine region boasts a few more worthwhile domaines in addition to those which appear in the book (although the featured Domaine Les Hutins is remarkably good). But the city’s wine stores are equally a good source for bottles from other Swiss regions, including those you won’t find outside of the country (it’s certainly the only place I’ve personally seen bottles of the Completer variety).
I will list a few which you might be able to track down in the UK – Albert Mathier (amphora wines), the Mercier family, Domaine des Muses, Simon Maye and Germanier (all Valais), Badoux (Vaud), and Peter Wegelin (Graubünden)…and if I may, one more that doesn’t appear in the book, Domaine de Beudon (Valais). But going on the many other producers I know that are featured, I think you can try any of them with confidence.
What were my quibbles? Well, my main one is maps. I’m a stickler for maps in wine books, even if they are not incredibly detailed. They put the different regions in a geographical context. I’d have liked more producer profiles too. But in both cases I can see why those things didn’t happen. I’m thrilled that we have this book, in English, at all, without wishing upon the project what could have been prohibitive costs and time constraints. Anyway, the new “Wine Atlas” is due to be published in October and that will give us some cartographical context.
If you happen to be in Switzerland try to seek out the wines from producers Sue recommends from the smaller wine regions, especially those of the north, which even in enlightened markets don’t often get a look in. The German speaking Cantons in particular are top-secret suppliers of some thrilling Pinot Noir. If you are in or around Geneva and have a way of getting out into the vineyards to the west of the city, a visit to the wine villages around Satigny (where the Cave de Genève co-operative is based) and Dardagny (one of the villages best endowed with good artisan producers) makes for a pleasant afternoon, or Saturday morning.
Equally, if you have a few days in Geneva, get the train out to the UNESCO-listed vineyards of Lavaux (between Lausanne and Montreux). They vie for the title of the most beautiful vineyards in the world with those of the Valais (Martigny to Brig), the Douro and Ribera Sacra, perhaps. There’s an excursion you can make, by car or train, to the Lavaux Vinorama near the village of Rivaz (which you can read about in my 2017 article here). As usual, there are well signed vineyard paths nearby, on the terraces which drop alarmingly in some places to the glinting Lac Léman, below.
There’s equally plenty to see if you find yourself in Basel or Zurich (though if in the former, do pop over the German border to visit Ziereisen, won’t you!)
Sue Style’s “Swiss Wine” is published by Bergli Books (2019, paperback/soft cover, 188pp), and is available (currently) for £35.19 from a popular web store, or CHF34,90 from Bergli Books’ own online store.
Alpine Wines (online and mail order) has the largest source of Swiss wines in the UK, although their focus is perhaps slightly more on the French-speaking regions (not exclusively).
Newcomer Wines 5 Dalston Lane, London E8 and online) imports Mythopia, and is increasingly another great source for Swiss wine.
Other than the above, check out independents, who often surprise with the odd Swiss producer. I am positive we shall see more. You almost never saw a wine from the French Alps ten years ago, after all.
Geneva has a branch of the famous Lavinia chain, but the top department stores usually have a good basement wine department. Other cities likewise. As the book says on the title page, its a “guide to tasting, buying, and experiencing the best wines of Switzerland”. I’d add that it’s the best guide there is for those purposes. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m sure a few likeminded wine lovers reading this review will enjoy it too.