by Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 15 November 2014
The Swiss like to do things differently. When it comes to wine, there is no exception. Not only do they have their own wine laws, their own native grapes and Europe’s highest vines, but they actually keep most of the wines to themselves. Just under 2% of Swiss wines are exported.
So you would be forgiven for not even knowing that this small Alpine country made wine at all. If you have holidayed or lived there, you might well have discovered that not only do the Swiss make sparkling, dry whites, refined roses, soft juicy reds to elegant sweet wines – but some of their wines are now high quality.
Swiss wines may now be authentic and higher quality – but, sadly for us, like all things in the ‘land of money’ with such high land prices, Swiss wines are extremely expensive. With just 15,000 hectares of vineyards, half the size of Burgundy, there is not much in terms of volume – and the Swiss are enthusiastic drinkers (ranking in the top 10 of per capita consumption of wine). Yet, for those fascinated by new tastes and flavours, Swiss wines are definitely worth investigating.
As any geographer and historian will know, Switzerland is a highly fragmented country – with 26 separate cantons (member states of the federal state) which once had their own currency, army and tax system – all of which grow vines. With four different languages: French, Swiss, German and Romanche they offer different vinous influences. The wine industry is not only highly fractionalized, but also fascinatingly different from one corner of Switzerland to the other.
The biggest wine producers by far are the French Swiss cantons in the west, like Vaud around Lake Geneva and Valais in the sheltered upper reaches of the Rhone valley – also home to Europe’s highest vines at 1,100 metres altitude at Visperterminen.
It is the Valais and Vaud (pictured above and right) wines that we are most likely to see in the ski-resorts and in the UK. The two UK winemerchants specialising in Swiss wines focus on these two regions. Alpine Wines has the most extensive wine range, run by dynamic Swiss-born Joelle Nebbe-Mornod, who runs her wine importing business from the Yorkshire Dales. London-based Dutchman Rudy de Boer focuses on a handful of select quality estates with his R & B Wine importing firm, known as Speciality Wines.
“The Swiss themselves really know about the international grapes: Chasselas for white (also known as Fendant), Gamay, Merlot and Pinot Noir for red – the latter is now hugely popular everywhere in Switzerland”, explains Nebbe-Mornod.
“Even though they have an amazing array of their own native grapes, like the white Petite Arvine, Heida and Humagne Blanche grapes, they tend to be less popular as growers find them difficult to grow – but a new generation of growers are showing greater interest in them”.
“The Swiss are also keen grape breeders and have created ‘crossings’ to make hardier vines. Gamaret, Garanoir and Diolinoir are good examples”, she says. Of course, the latest grape bible ‘Wine Grapes’ (published by Allen Lane) is co-written by leading Swiss grape geneticist Jose Vouillamoz with Masters of Wine, Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding.
According to Joelle Nebbe-Mornod, the Swiss themselves do not like high acidity so all their wines are routinely put through malolactic fermentation (unlike in neighbouring Austria and Germany). So Swiss wines tend to always have a creamy softness rather than piercing acid.
Interestingly, I personally had always considered the Swiss best at white wines with a thrilling mountain freshness rarely seen elsewhere in Europe. Yet the wines that really stood out in my tasting of 20 Swiss wines for their high quality and more approachable prices were the Pinot Noir, Syrah and Merlots (particularly from Ticino pictured here) which showed great promise and sophistication. The Swiss themselves now drink twice as much red as white, so in the last decade many white wine vineyards have been planted up with red grapes, like the increasingly fashionable Pinot Noir.
Valais region: Petite Arvine 2009 Chanton
Grapefruit notes with a fine minerally, almost taut nerviness to the palate. Made from Valais’ most promising white grape. A good serious example of a wine with exciting alpine mountain freshness.
Valais region: Paien 2008 Simon Maye
This is the most impressive Swiss white I have ever tasted. It hails from Chamoson at the western end of the Valais, from the little known Heida grape (also known as Paien and Savagnin Blanc in nearby Jura region). Now beautifully mature, this has rich citrus fruits, great depth and luscious creamy mouthfeel. STAR BUY
Vaud region: Chasselas Lavaud Grand Cru 2012 Domaine Blaise Duboux
(£32 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
Delighted to see The Wine Society dipping their toe in the Swiss waters with this new listing – and there will be more new wines listed soon by this online merchant. This Chasselas is made from 25 year old vines grown on steep slopes overlooking Lake Geneva. Pale, citric, flinty & herby but just a little neutral on the finish.
Valais region: Euterpe Selection Blanche 2011 Domaine des Muses
Definitely worth trying if you want to sample a blend of two unusual grapes, Petite Arvine and Humagne Blanche grown in Switzerland’s driest area: Sierre. Hints of grapefruit, mineral saltiness and herbiness. One of the cult wines of Switzerland made by its most famous winemaker Robert Taramarcaz – hence the outrageous price!
Neuchatel region: Oeil de Perdrix Pinot Noir Rose 2012 Domaine de Chambleau
Almost all Swiss rose is made from the ever popular Pinot Noir. Pale in colour, light bright red fruit notes with a mineral saltiness it reminds me a little of Provencal rose in style.
Valais region: Pinot Noir 2007 Simon Maye
Smells so like Burgundy with its mature farmyard nose, but it tastes lighter similar in style to an Alsace Pinot Noir. Made in a similar way to Burgundy, but with maturation in concrete tanks.
Valais region: Cayas Syrah Barrique 2000 Jean-Rene Germanier
(£24 www.specialitywines.com; firstname.lastname@example.org)
A fascinating twist on the Syrah grape: this meaty but refined example is actually made from vines grown on shale on high terraces in the upper reaches of the Rhone valley in Switzerland. It certainly shares similarities to northern Rhone Syrah. STAR BUY
Vaud region: Merlot Lettres de Noblesse 2012 Daniel Dufaux
(£22 www.badoux-vines.ch; www.alpinewines.co.uk)
From the eastern end of Lake Geneva in the easterly Chablais zone, this barrel aged Merlot is beautifully ripe, plummy with sweet fruitcake notes and voluptuous fruits. Try this against a classy Pomerol and it would stand up very well in comparison. STAR BUY
Ticino region: Merlot 2011 Platinium
The southern sunny Swiss Italian region produces richer riper Merlot examples grown on clay soils. The Merlot does have more of a firm tannic structure than in the Vaud, but still a rich succulent fruit fleshing it out. This is not dissimilar to north east Italian Merlot.
Valais region: Mitis Amigne Reserve 2001 Jean Rene Germanier
(£24 hf bt www.specialitywines.com 0771 880 6337; 2009 vintage is £36 hf bt www.alpinewines.co.uk)
A big favourite at our tasting: this late harvested gem is made from the unusual Amigne grape. Luscious sweetness, slightly spicy with mineral freshness. So beautifully balanced. Made by one of Valais’ star winemakers, Germanier. Mitis means ripe and sweet.
Join Rose’s Champagne Masterclass & Buffet at Rufflets Country House Hotel, St Andrews Fri 21 Nov www.rosemurraybrown.com