I was reading an article written and published in April by Valerie Kathawala on the Planet of the Grapes web site (that’s the US online magazine, not the London wine merchant of the same name), called “Have Swiss Wines Finally Arrived?“. It looks to me like the Americans may be stealing a march on the Brits and I want to address that before it’s too late.
The UK has always been firmly established as an important market for wine, in fact ever since the Middle Ages. In the modern era our auction houses, traditional fine wine merchants, and our system of reliable and trusted bonded warehouses for both the trade and private customers has given the UK an edge over rivals for the storage and trading of fine wine. As wine spread its lustre around the world London became a major centre for the sale and trading of wine not just by UK residents, but by those around the rest of the world. On this trade has been built increasingly sophisticated and eclectic consumer tastes, so that in Metropolitan Britain you can buy almost any wine you care to.
In a city where you can buy wines from places as diverse as Czechia, Georgia, Vermont and even Wales, there has been one country which for its size of wine production and overall quality has been mainly absent: Switzerland. You can certainly buy Swiss wines in the UK. Two of London’s best importers sell a small number of Swiss wines, both “wholesale” (though that perhaps gives a poor impression of the quantities) and retail. That’s Dynamic Vines and Newcomer Wines. Then there’s Alpine Wines up in Yorkshire (online only), which with a portfolio covering broadly Europe’s Alps and pre-Alpine regions, is based around a Swiss core. Swiss-born Joelle Nebbe-Mornod has assembled the largest (by far) range of Swiss wines available in the UK.
The problem is that Swiss wines just don’t appear in any numbers throughout The UK’s diverse independent retail scene. Only one of my favourite retail wine shops sell any. It’s as if wine shop owners and wine journalists are wholly unaware of their existence. As the authors of the latest edition of The World Atlas of Wine (8th edn, Mitchell Beazley, 2019) wrote, “Even now, in a more open and curious wine world than ever before, Swiss wine remains little-known beyond its national borders”. This is a shame because especially as tastes have moved towards wines of freshness, and towards wines made from interesting autochthonous grape varieties, Switzerland is an obvious fit.
In the past very little Swiss wine left the country, around 1% by most estimates, though I’ve been contributing to that figure by sticking bottles in the back of my car for very many years as a regular visitor, largely to Geneva, but also driving through on trips to Piemonte and Aosta. Thirty years or so ago that export figure was no bad thing, because with the focus on a home market and an older demographic, the styles of wine most often pandered to a somewhat old fashioned taste and quality perception. Quantity very much trumped quality, a fact compounded by the unusual state of affairs that Swiss vineyards were often tiny and in the hands of thousands of part-time grape growers who either sold their grapes or made wine for home consumption. But as vineyard costs skyrocketed from the 1980s onwards professional producers realised that the only way to make a living from wine was to be able to charge more…for quality.
If foreign markets didn’t really want Swiss wines before this shift, after it they could afford the wines even less. The Swiss have always had this near-mythical strong currency, and Swiss wines have, as a consequence, always looked expensive on foreign markets. This is equally a myth. When comparing like with like, the best Swiss wines are by no means more expensive than their peers. The only Swiss wines that look poor value to me are those last remnants of a previous age, wines made without care and conviction.
As the market for wine has broadened in Europe, Asia and North America, and especially as the sub-market for organic, biodynamic and natural wines has exploded, we have seen an equal explosion in interest in seemingly everywhere but Switzerland. Yet many of her best wines are made without recourse to synthetic agro-chemicals, and so many are made from exciting varieties that we’ve never heard of. Grape varieties like Petite Arvine, Cornalin, Humagne Rouge and Amigne, even Chasselas, sit beside European favourites, especially Pinot Noir and Syrah, making often stunning wines. Even the obscurists have Completer or Plant Robert to seek out, or failing those, Heida/Païen, Rèze or vitis vinifera crossings such as Gamaret or Diolinoir.
Switzerland’s almost 15,000 hectares of vines boasts more than 250 grape varieties. If the world grows somewhere between 1,300 and 1,400 varieties in anything approaching commercial quantity (though there are claimed to be around 10,000 grape varieties, including hybrids), it is equally true that somewhere in the region of 80% of the world’s wine on sale comes from a mere twenty of those varieties. So for Switzerland and her 250 grape varieties, that’s a large slice of the action. You want diversity, you got it. That said, a small caveat, approximately 55% of Swiss wine is made from one of two varieties, Chasselas or Pinot Noir. You’ll find a lot more than those two in any Swiss wine shop, but don’t necessarily expect to find Rèze or Humagne Blanche.
Until very recently there was, as will be obvious by that statistic for vineyard area planted above, little Swiss wine to export. Most of that which was exported was there because a few quality-minded producers wanted their world class wines to be seen on the international stage, perhaps as confirmation of their place at the top table. A good example would be Daniel Gantenbein, who makes wine in the Eastern Canton of Graubünden. His Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have always been on a level with the best of Burgundy and the New World and it would have been a tragedy for those wines to be unknown outside of Switzerland, yet to find them you would need to discover them on the list at a top restaurant, or know one of the few lucky outsiders who had a small allocation.
Something changed with the 2018 vintage. I think actually even before this recent vintage some of the more outward looking producers (not always the younger ones) were casting their gaze beyond their home market. What 2018 provided was a particularly large harvest, generally of very good quality. With consumption at home falling rapidly and a lot more wine to sell all of a sudden, an increasing number of producers sensibly decided that overseas markets were appealing.
London saw a little bit of Swiss promotion in the spring of 2019 when four estates from the Valais came for a tasting organised by wine PR group, Westbury Communications. Aside from the promotion of Swiss wines in the Swiss Pavilion on the Thames at the time of the London Olympics, I can’t really recall anything similar. But when it comes to interest from foreign shores, the Americans have got in there quickly. Knowing the market, Japan will follow if my intuition is right.
There has always been a little more interest in Swiss wines in the United States, perhaps in part because of small pockets of Swiss immigrants, but equally because North America has a long tradition of really innovative importers serving the major cities (especially New York and San Francisco). The Americans are probably more well versed in what has been written about Swiss wines, especially via American writer Jason Wilson (Godforsaken Grapes), and despite his profile in the UK via “Wine Grapes” and his work with Jancis Robinson, a great appreciation there of the work of the world’s best known grape geneticist, José Vouillamoz, who comes from a village beside the River Rhône in Switzerland’s Valais.
Whatever the reason, there has been much more of an awakening to the possibilities of Swiss wine over there than there has been in the UK. I remember many years ago purchasing a mixed case of Swiss wines from the English merchant, Tanners, but that innovative exploration into the unknown has never been built on. But now, with what looks like a bigger focus on exports from Swiss producers being jumped on by the USA, the UK could miss out.
The point of this article is a call to arms. To UK importers to get some Swiss wine on your books. To UK independent retailers, look, if you have Jura and Savoie on your shelves then add some Swiss wine. And finally to all you wine connoisseurs out there, I don’t mean those who collect Pomerol and Puligny but all you disciples of Ganevat and Overnoy, get out and explore. Before my friend Valerie helps corner the market for her own compatriots.
The big champion of lesser known wines in the UK, Les Caves de Pyrene, does not import any Swiss wine (as far as I’m aware), and that original offering from Tanners of Shrewsbury obviously didn’t go well enough for them to have any Swiss wines listed all these years later. The exception I’ve not yet mentioned is The Sampler, whose branches in London often have two Swiss producers on the shelf. The mecca for the seeker of luxury, Hedonism Wines, in London’s Mayfair will often have some Swiss wine. It was once my only known UK retail source for Daniel Gantenbein, but there has been none on my last visits before Lockdown. Oddbins branches have, in the past, sold some of the wines from the large but quality-focused Valais producer, Provins. So if you know of any sources for Swiss wines aside from those I have mentioned, please do let me know.
Where to look generally, and outside the UK? Well I’ve written (for which read “banged on”) about Swiss wines often enough, and I will provide some links at the bottom of this article. You can attack the work of three authors to find out more. First of all Valerie Kathawala, who writes insightfully on mainly German, Austrian and Swiss wines from her base in New York. Then there’s a book, which I have reviewed here (20 Sept 2019) by the late Sue Style (“The Landscape of Swiss Wine”). Finally, there’s the entertaining “Godforsaken Grapes” by Jason Wison mentioned above. I’ll provide links to all of those.
My own articles mentioned, and linked to, below give a little more detail about the country’s wines. Perhaps the oldest of them shows that my writing has come on a little over the years. It’s hard to gauge how much interest there might be in Swiss wine in the UK, especially given the perception that it is going to be expensive. But remember that the Swiss wines sold by the two London merchants mentioned, albeit they are natural wines, are of a quality matching everything else they sell. Those sold mostly online by Alpine Wines give a broader opportunity to try the wines of almost every Swiss wine region. I’ve even bought White Merlot from Ticino…for research purposes I should stress.
Before adding in these links I would like to travel around Switzerland highlighting what you might be missing. My articles will include producer names, not that you will find most of them on the shelves here, but they might inspire the adventurous wine buyer.
My main link with Switzerland is via close friends in Geneva, an Anglo-Swiss couple, one of whom we first met high in Nepal’s Annapurnas some decades ago. This enduring friendship has been built on a passion for walking in mountains and for wine. Geneva has its own vineyards, and quality here has improved dramatically. The best wines are often from “Burgundian” varieties and some of the new vinifera crosses. The vineyards circle the city at the western end of Lac Léman, but the best of the wines probably come from the area between Satigny and Dardagny.
The latter is a pretty village on the French border, with some very good private domaines, which is bustling with visitors when the cellars are all open for the portes ouvertes (usually held in late May). The Cave de Genève is at Satigny, and the quality of wines made by the city’s co-operative has really taken off in recent years. A good place from which to sample some of those new varietals.
Vaud is effectively the wine region which stretches across the top of the lake from Geneva, via Lausanne, to Montreux, and then up the Rhône as you approach Martigny. The part before Lausanne is called La Côte, with usually quite simple (but often good) wines from appellation villages like Mont-sur-Rolle and Morges. After Lausanne things get very interesting. Lavaux has several named village appellations and two Grand Crus (Dézaley and Calamin).
The steeply terraced slopes which drop majestically to the lake are a UNESCO Heritage Site, and the source of (mostly) top class Chasselas. Stop at the Lavaux Vinorama tasting centre just outside of Rivaz (accessible by local train from Geneva with usually one change and a short walk if you don’t have a car).
The vineyards away from the lake, further south, can be warm and villages like Aigle make equally seductive wines. The 12th Century castle at Aigle, just off the A9 Autoroute, also houses a wine museum.
If the Valais claims more top wines, and rather stunning scenery, then that part of Canton Vaud, the terraces of Lavaux between Lausanne and Montreux, can probably stake a solid claim for the most astonishingly beautiful. They are also somewhat closer to Geneva, close enough for a visit.
On approaching Martigny the driver is presented with two choices, both equally appealing. You could head into the mountains towards the Grand St Bernard Pass (and tunnel), which at almost 2,500 metres above sea level connects Switzerland with Italy’s Val d’Aosta region. But we are staying in Switzerland, so we will follow the Rhône eastwards, towards its source near the Saint-Gothard Pass. The vineyards of note start almost immediately at Fully, home of one of Switzerland’s very finest winemakers, Marie-Thérèse Chappaz. Villages along the A9 here, including Chamoson, Vétroz, Sion and Sierre, are not only the heart of Valais wine, but provide remarkably scenery, surely some of the most beautiful mountain vineyards anywhere in the world. It’s surprisingly hot here (it’s one of the best sources in Europe for apricots and in summer stalls line the roads, be sure to grab a punnet). Viticulture requires some judicious irrigation from the year-round snow and glaciers surrounding the peaks.
If you want to seek out the local wines the list here is long. Petite Arvine is usually very good, and Heida (Savagnin) too. Fendant, the Valais name (exclusively now) for Chasselas, can be superb from top names as well. Reds from Cornalin and Humagne Rouge can equal the very good Pinot Noir and Syrah you’ll find here. Dôle is a much maligned Pinot/Gamay blend, but from a top producer it can be very tasty. Producer is always key. The great rare speciality of the Valais, which often comes from the glacial side valleys like the Val d’Anniviers and Visperterminen, is Vin de Glacier. Usually made from the autochthonous Rèze, and aged in pine or spruce barrels, it is a real oddity but one you should try.
Remember that most writers will tell you that the best Swiss wines come from this region. Certainly this is an over-exaggeration, but this assertion does have a ring of truth to it.
Skirt the Simplon Pass and you will arrive in Ticino to its east. Ticino is known for one thing pretty much. What wine student has not heard of Ticino Merlot? But how many have tasted it? Merlot is no longer a variety I generally seek out, but the suggestion that the wines can be “Pomerol-like” in their richness is not really far-fetched. Anyway, how can you not like a wine region which has the audacity to turn this plumpest of red grapes into white wine? It’s not going to set the party alight, but as much as a quarter of the Canton’s production is now made into white Merlot (Merlot Bianco as this Italian-speaking region likes to call it). Worth a try because…like the surrounding Alpine peaks, it’s there.
The Canton also known occasionally by its French language name, Grisons (especially in the famous Tourte aux noix des Grisons), is most highly regarded, viticulturally, for a small wine region north of Chur and close to both the border with Liechtenstein and Austria’s Arlberg Tunnel, called the Bündner Herrschaft. Led by Daniel Gantenbein, there are three or four producers making more than worthwhile Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Some of it is very fine indeed.
Although usually eye-wateringly expensive, from a grape variety you may well not know, the regional rarity here is Completer. It’s an ancient white variety, occasionally seen as Malanstraube (Malans is one of the BH’s top wine villages). It was originally described as acidic and dry, but is now often made as a sweet wine. You’ll find a little Completer in the Valais, but Graubünden is its home. It’s origins go back to the time of the Cistercian monks who are said to have brought viticulture to the region, as they first did throughout France and Germany.
I’m grouping all the minor German-speaking Cantonal wine regions together for a reason. Usually you will find this group, along with the more qualitatively important Graubünden, combined under the fairly recent moniker of Deutschschweiz. Seventeen Cantons here grow less than 20% of Swiss wine and until recently it has been of mostly local interest. Much wine has historically been made from from varieties once seen as only fit for jug wine, like Räuschling. Thürgau will of course be familiar from Dr Muller’s eponymous crossing of Riesling and Madeleine Royal, so much maligned for the sugar water it was required to produce in 1970s Germany.
Increasingly it is worth nosing around here. Both of the grape varieties mentioned above now make very palatable wines (the MT is often erroneously labelled Riesling x Silvaner, it was once thought Silvaner was the second grape in the crossing), especially from around Zurich, whose wine bars and natural wine scene have encouraged young producers. In fact the wine producer grouping, Junge Schweiz-Neue Winzer (aka JSNW) was founded in 2010 in this part of the country.
Some of Switzerland’s most exciting winemakers, from all over the country, are now members of JSNW. Their wines are often promoted in Zurich by the glass (exceptional wine BTG is a rarity in Switzerland, where it is more often of a standard those who ever bought wine in an English pub in the 80s/90s will remember well), and they are a significant presence at the big Swiss wine fairs like Mémoire des Vins Suisse (Zurich) and Festivins (Fribourg).
Travelling anti-clockwise around the country, this is the last wine region, or really group of small regions, we come to. The vines north of Lausanne and at the southern end of the long Lac de Neuchâtel are technically still “Vaud” wines. The Three Lakes region covers the vineyards which follow the western shores of the Lac de Neuchâtel and the smaller Bielersee, along with those of Vully to the east, which are close to the Murtensee. It’s the only Swiss wine region which both crosses Cantonal boundaries, and covers vines in both French and German-speaking Switzerland.
In the general run of things the wines here are of minor importance, often made from Chasselas (whites) and Pinot Noir (reds). However, there is a regional speciality worth seeking out, as almost everywhere in this country of grape and wine-style diversity. Oeil de Perdrix (partridge eye) denotes a very particular colour and style of pink, or pale rosé, wine. It used to be found in other regions, especially Geneva, but the term is now reserved for use by the growers of Neuchâtel. It can be a lovely summer glass, fragrant and pale, and as everyone says, a perfect accompaniment for Neuchâtel (or any other) lake fish.
More recently the producers in the Three Lakes have upped their Chasselas game and, perhaps realising they can’t match their Vaud rivals in Lavaux, have invented a kind of “Nouveau” with a twist. They have begun releasing unfiltered Chasselas in late January. Perhaps they had tasted the exquisite Chasselas-sur-Lie made by one of their top producers (La Maison Carré), not a Nouveau but a cut above most. Cloudy young Chasselas may not appeal to everyone, but if you have enjoyed a raucous night of Stürm in a Viennese Heuriger you would be more than adequately equipped for this. Actually, the lover of natural wines would genuinely appreciate the style.
This swift circuit of Swiss wine regions does not remotely do enough to promote the diversity and excitement you can find in Switzerland. Of course, as with anywhere the blind traveller will find many dull wines. But you just need a little guidance.
There is no better guide in English than the recent book by Sue Style (Bergli Books, 2019). Sadly Sue passed away soon after publication. It’s not a perfect book. It was published with financial support from Swiss Wine Valais and the Swiss Ministry of Culture, and it does miss out one or two producers I’d have expected to see in there, at least for their presence on export markets. The most notable would be Mythopia, from close to Sion in the Valais. Natural wine may not be mainstream in Switzerland, but some of her acknowledged greats make wine using natural methods. The Landscape of Swiss Wine (A Wine Lover’s Tour of Switzerland) was reviewed by me in September last year. Read my Review here.
The other book I mentioned near the beginning of this article is not about Swiss wine per se, but the great diversity of grape varieties in Switzerland are touched upon, and the book begins its journey there. I recommend Godforsaken Grapes by Jason Wilson because if you don’t know Swiss wine, yet you are open-minded and adventurous enough to read my blog, then I think that once you begin this book you will be hooked and desperate to taste some of these wines. My review from December 2019 is here.
Read the excellent article which prompted me to write this piece, Have Swiss Wines Finally Arrived? by Valerie Kathawala.
There are a few articles on Swiss wine on Wideworldofwine, and I won’t list them all. Not those containing the reviews of individual wines in my monthly “Recent Wines” articles and at importer tastings. However, the following articles may be of interest.
Time for More Swiss Wine is about the Spring 2019 event at Wringer & Mangle, near London Fields. The four Valais producers represented on that evening were Domaine Jean-René Germanier, Domaine des Muses, Domaine Thierry Constantin and Provins.
Rolling Back More Swiss Wines is a recap of the wines I drank on a 2017 visit to Switzerland. It may only be interesting for those wishing to go deep, but it does have notes for a Bianco di Merlot and one of the interesting blends made from new crossings in Geneva (in this case Gamaret and Garanoir).
A Lavaux Affair details a visit, on the same trip, to the Lavaux Vinorama at Rivaz. You can read about the wines I tasted, but perhaps more importantly, learn about a nice day trip opportunity from Geneva. You can get a light lunch at the Vinorama, and the stunning vineyards are intersected with well marked paths along the wine route for a postprandial stroll.
What, More Switzerland was only the eighteenth article I wrote on this blog. I’d been writing for less than six months at this point (1 February 2015, so long ago), so don’t be too harsh on me. Its value, aside from light entertainment, lies in one or two more producer suggestions, and a perspective from five-and-a-half years ago.
If you are in Geneva there are a host of wine shops, but if you are keen to seek out top wines, such as Gantenbein, remember that the city does boast a branch of Lavinia.
Zurich likewise has a number of highly recommended wine stores (recommendations from the more well known wine writers’ web sites – Jancis Robinson lists a number), but it has one small shop which might interest those readers who much prefer to stick to natural wines. The Bottle Shop is at Nietengasse 7, 8004 Zurich. Check its opening hours carefully. The Swiss part of the list is small but well formed.
So come on everybody, let’s pull our collective fingers out and see some Swiss wines on our shelves. We can’t have it all going to the land of the Donald (sorry Valerie, a cheap shot, I know, only joking, but the Brits do need to get back into the game).