Switzerland – small wonderland of wine

Whether chocolate or clocks, what comes from Switzerland is always made particularly well and thoroughly. It is world renowned for this. Swiss wine on the other hand is not necessarily an export hit. In spite of this, it requires a great deal of effort and care. And Switzerland would not be Switzerland, if it did not have a couple of small secrets.

"Swiss wines are lighter and are drunk young." Such generalised sentences, which are often written, make José Vouillamoz's otherwise infectious smile freeze. On the contrary, Switzerland "is a small wonderland of wine", says the grape geneticist, and squeezes a Chasselas grape between thumb and index finger. "Did you see? Not a drop comes out."

What at first glance seems like an act of defiance is a botanical demonstration. The phenomenon is quite unique with wine grapes and not the only special characteristic of Swiss wines by a long shot. Vouillamoz, co-author of the standard work "Wine Grapes", has researched Swiss grape varieties for many years and has brought some autochthonous treasures to light. These wines are widely unknown abroad.
Photo: The Alps. Source: Matthias Stelzig
Photo: Vineyards. Source: Matthias Stelzig
Photo: Vineyards. Source: Matthias Stelzig
Photo: Red vine grapes. Source: Matthias Stelzig
Photo: Montreux. Source: Matthias Stelzig
Photo: Vineyards. Source: Matthias Stelzig
Photo: Lake Geneva. Source: Matthias Stelzig
14,883 hectares of wine growing area is not much for a whole country to start with. Yet Switzerland is small and rugged. Around half of the country is in the Alps, a third consists of forest, a further quarter of unproductive natural areas, often steep screes. For millions of years, the tectonic plates of Europe and Africa have collided here, with the result that ice masses, glaciers and 3350 summits are at 2000 metres altitude. Too high for wine growing. The soil layers are not very thick, so the water level quickly starts to fluctuate. In addition, there are 1500 lakes and eight million inhabitants - a rising trend - which makes Switzerland a densely populated country.

So it should come as no surprise that the Swiss vineyards are located in small scale structures between Alpine slopes and lakeshores. The many inland waters in the canton of Geneva or the Three Lakes Region, often provide a warm terroir and a fantastic landscape. You do not have to look far to find postcard motifs of plump grapes with views onto deep blue water and snowy peaks. Due to the active tectonics, in Switzerland the soil and bedrock has intermingled in glaciers, mudslides and rock falls, and so offer lush mineral soil in many locations, which is ideal for vines.
Photo: Vineyards in the Alps

Much variation in a small space

The soil composition changes very quickly, even within individual slopes the upper area is sometimes different from the geological situation at the base. Also the traditions in the country with four national languages vary significantly. And the best part: A rich abundance of autochthonous varieties, of which many are unknown even to connoisseurs. In total, over 200 grape varieties grow in Switzerland, many of which only over a few hectares. The Swiss Federal Ministry for Agriculture even measures the vineyard acreage in square metres!

To start with, in Switzerland, it is climatically crucial which side of the Alps you are on. In the North it is temperate, Central European and sometimes windy, and on the South slopes more Mediterranean. On the banks of Lago Maggiore in Ticino, dwarf palm trees grow. Of course, the weather greatly depends on the altitude. The low Jura mountain range offers good conditions for wine growing. Indeed, even in the most mountainous cantons of the Alps, there is always wine growing somewhere. There is wine growing in areas which you know better as winter sports resorts.

The weather extremes lead to really variable harvests. In this way, the wet and cold spring of 2013 delayed the budding so much that in the end, the smallest harvest for over thirty years was brought in. 16.5 % less than the previous year is painful. In some regions, local hail showers meant that more than half of the harvest was destroyed.
Photo: José Vouillamoz

Chasselas – Egyptian myths and Alpine reality

The wine regions are as varied as their location factors. The canton of Vaud, the second largest growing region, right in the West is more than two thirds stocked with Chasselas. As the most important variety in terms of area, Chasselas provides high yields with low acidity values in the dispersed growing areas on the banks of Lake Neuchâtel, Lake Murten, Lake Geneva and Rhône, and therefore a good part of the many easy to drink wines.

The origin of the grape variety, perhaps best known abroad, is often misplaced in the distant past. 5000 years ago it was grown in Egypt, is what it says in glossy magazines, "unfortunately, however, this is nonsense", says José Vouillamoz. A gene analysis in 2009 disproved the connection that an over eager grape variety researcher constructed in the thirties. In certificates, the first white wines appear in the 13th century. Origins such as the Grands Crus of the Cistercian monastery Dézaley is closely associated with this even today. However, the first Chasselas is only mentioned in a botanical book in 1612.

From Switzerland, the Chasselas spread to Alsace (Krachgutedel), to Germany (Chasselas) and Eastern Europe, and it is a cross breeding partner in varieties such as the Huxelrebe. Indeed it has its widest variety in Switzerland, which an endless list of synonyms also testifies to. The best known of these is Fendant. Various clones of the neutral grape absorb terroir influences well. Therefore, in Vaud most labels point out the origin and terroir and not the grape variety. With energetic quantity limitation of optimally ripe grapes, Chasselas also has a great aging potential. Hardly any grape variety has such leaps in quality. In a vertical sample, it is almost impossible to match older vintages with their deep aromas of nuts and honey to their fruity and flowery successors from the same vineyard.
Photo: Valais vineyards

Valais wonderland

Valais with the largest wine growing area and range of grape varieties shows the possibilities and risks of Alpine wine growing like no other region. Most vineyards are located on slopes between 400 and 800 metres altitude, high on the upper reaches of the Rhône. The sites are up to 70% steep, often also terraced. Due to the tectonic activity, the Valaisans have to expect a moderately serious earth quake every 60 to 100 years. The last earthquake was in 1946.

Vineyards can almost only be worked by hand. This makes it doubly hard in a high wage country, and you notice it in the prices of every wine shop. For foreigners they are astronomical. The average bottle price is €7. In Germany it is slightly over €2. Wine has been in Valais, as so often in Europe, since ancient times. Even the Celts tasted wine around 700 BC, which they probably made themselves. Yet imported wines from producing countries in Southern Europe were the more comfortable alternative. It is similar today. Italy, France and Spain dominate the import market.

Many of the local grape varieties have been growing here since Roman times. Petite Arvine (link05) is one of them. After around three years of storage time, the white varieties develop the most delicate notes of bees wax and blossoms, grapefruit and lime, and a typical salty note in the finish. Botrytis versions have an aroma of truffle and saffron. In spite of the medium value, the acidity is fine, and it feels creamy in the mouth. The wines are highly elegant and age for several decades.

However, the negatives can also be seen. The varieties make almost every demand that a vine in a vineyard can make: Only the very best, sunny sites, protected from the wind, good irrigation, poor soil, early budding, late harvest - and therefore a significantly increased harvest risk in the usually uncertain weather cycle. In addition they are allergic to herbicides. When people concentrated on mass-yield in the whole of Central Europe after 1945, the mass producer Chasselas almost wiped out the varieties. Today, thanks to winegrowers, who had simply had enough of the neutral wines, the stocks have recovered from 14 hectares to 166 hectares. Still microscopic but decent in Switzerland.

Humagne Blanche, which appears in the first certificates at the beginning of the 14th century, is no less rare. Susceptible to disease, low yield, and with a fluctuating harvest quantity, it is not really a winegrowers’ dream. The wines can taste wonderfully of flint and pinecones, but also blueberries, violets and plums. Due to its high iron content, postpartum women used to drink the "vinum humanum" against blood loss. The effect is unlikely today. But its soft and fruity style was obviously well received.

Last but not least is the white Heunisch, the genetic father of many varieties that appear in Switzerland. It becomes the German Gwäss, called Gouais in French, which can both be understood as an expression of disgust in Latin. The variety produces such gruesome wines that it is sometimes forbidden to grow it in France. "Thereby, it is the Casanova of grapes", explains Vouillamoz, who has decrypted the genetic contexts. "Hardly any grape varieties have passed on their genes for natural cross breeding so often". Further down in the family tree are Gamay, Chardonnay, Riesling, amongst others.
Photo: Old wine containers in a museum. Source: Matthias Stelzig

Newly discovered reds

Although white grape varieties are prevalent, 58% of vineyard acreage is allocated to red wine. Pinot Noir is the most important variety, even if slightly in decline, but is grown almost everywhere. In the cantons of Schaffhausen and Grisons, it is the main grape variety. Thereby, the prices are proportionately cheap in spite of high demand. Particularly in Valais, Pinot Noirs from good clone material, which is harvested when physiologically ripe, achieve a remarkable quality and are delicate yet complex. This development is also new, thus experience with aged wines have yet to materialise.

However, together with Gamay, Pinot Noir is also the starting material for Dôle. The best known Cuvée in Switzerland is also a source of pride for Valais. In spite of this, it does not have the best reputation in the country. A Dôle can contain up to 15% further red wine varieties, or it can also be a pure Pinot Noir. For some winegrowers, this is an invitation to dispose of poor qualities. Made from the right base wine, however, the structure of the Pinot and the rich fruit of the Gamay complement each other to make a very pleasant wine.

Apart from Pinot Noir, Syrah has also achieved increasingly better results. Euphoric winegrowers therefore like to call themselves "Rhône Supérieur", but they are still some way from the top qualities there. Merlot is a trademark of Italian Switzerland. Around 3800, mostly part-time, winegrowers farm 1000 hectares in Ticino with this variety.

In spite of its long tradition, particularly in medieval monasteries, the small economy all over Switzerland is above all a product of the Napoleonic laws. In the case of inheritance, they prescribe a division of land ownership amongst all male descendants. This has meant that, over the generations, the area ownership of the individual winegrowers has become increasingly smaller, and in extreme cases uneconomical.
Photo: Room for tastings. Source: Matthias Stelzig
Photo: Cellar with mosaic. Source: Matthias Stelzig
Photo: Cross. Source: Matthias Stelzig
Photo: Gwäss from 1988. Source: Matthias Stelzig
Photo: Company sign. Source: Matthias Stelzig
Photo: Wine cellar. Source: Matthias Stelzig
Photo: Street sign. Source: Matthias Stelzig
Photo: Old door handle. Source: Matthias Stelzig
Auch Importweine waren nicht nur in der Eisenzeit ein Thema. Im 17. Jahrhundert schlug man sich mit Billigware von der unteren Rhône herum. 200 Jahre danach waren ausländische Weine noch immer eine Konkurrenz, dazu kamen die Reblauskrise und immer mehr Wohnbebauung an den klimatisch günstigen Seeufern. Von 33.000 Hektar im Jahr 1960 blieb nur gut ein Drittel, der Weinbau drohte völlig bedeutungslos zu werden. Der allgemeine Ruck durch die Weinwelt in den achtziger Jahren mündete immerhin in einer AOC-Gesetzgebung, die erstmals zwischen Tafel-, Landwein und Grands Crus unterschied. Vor allem wendeten sich gute Winzer wieder den autochthonen Qualitätsweinen zu.

Heute werden 80 Prozent der Flächen naturnah bewirtschaftet. Die Anbauflächen sind stabil und die Produktion sinkt, was für steigende Qualitäten spricht. Durchschnittlich eine Million Hektoliter Schweizer Wein wird fast vollständig im Land getrunken und deckt zwei Fünftel des Bedarfs. Die Produktion von Einstiegsweinen wird wohl mittelfristig sinken.

Der pro Kopf-Konsum ist mit 36 Litern pro Jahr vor allem in Konsumentschichten Ü50 hoch, der Markt gesättigt, und traditionelle Trinkgewohnheiten ändern sich nur langsam. Doch der gesellschaftliche Druck der Anti-Alkohol-Lobbys macht sich auch in der Schweiz bemerkbar. Das Glas Wein zum Mittag wird immer seltener. Carnotzets, Zimmer eigens für den unverzichtbaren Aperitif, in denen nicht selten wichtige Entscheidungen fallen, stehen immer öfter leer.

60 Prozent der Weine in der Schweiz sind Importe. Es gibt gerade mal acht Prozent Mehrwertsteuern, und satte 20 bis 30 Prozent des Konsums entfallen auf Premiumweine. Solche Rahmenbedingungen wären eigentlich eine Einladung Hersteller aus anderen Ländern. Trotzdem haben es ausländische Neulinge auf dem Markt nicht leicht. Schweizer greifen gern auf das zurück, was sich bewährt hat, das gilt besonders für Weißwein. Und ein Weinliebhaber, der mehr als zehn Euro für eine Flasche Wein ausgibt, entscheidet sich in drei von vier Fällen für einen Schweizer Wein. José Vouillamoz kann darüber zufrieden lachen.

Matthias Stelzig