Why you should care
There’s much more to European wine than Champagne and Chianti.
Chocolate, cheese, and watches — Switzerland’s been famous for these for decades. But wine? Few people outside the Alpine country know that the Swiss also produce unique, top-quality wines.
No surprise if you’ve never heard about them, because the Swiss love their own product so much that they export only 2 percent of their bottles. They drink the rest themselves. In fact, they drink more wine per capita than Spaniards or Italians, whose highly quaffable plonk is part of the daily diet.
Given the small size of the mountainous country, production is understandably limited. Yet cramped between mountain peaks and outside cities, the Swiss have managed to plant about 15,000 hectares of vineyards on which they work tirelessly to extract an average 100 million liters of wine a year.
…hand-harvested and produced in small quantities by small, family-run wineries.
“The reason why Swiss wines are so special is that they are almost all hand-harvested and mostly produced in small quantities by small family run wineries,” explains Ingrid Salamon, a German wine expert.
Wine is one of those products that improves more or less proportionately to the amount of tender loving care it receives, which unfortunately means that the good stuff is inevitably dear.
Notable examples are the gravity-defying vineyard terraces in the Lavaux area, overlooking Lake Geneva. This stunning location, covered with row upon row of lusciously green and meticulously trimmed vines, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, under wine production since the 11th century. Some of the region’s many family-run wineries have been in business for up to 17 generations.
The most productive winemaking cantons are in the French-speaking part of the country including Vaud, Geneva, Neuchâtel and the Valais. Next on the list is the Italian-speaking Ticino — renowned for its merlots — followed by some German-speaking regions like Zurich and Schaffhouse.
While Switzerland has adopted some foreign varieties, such as pinot noir and chardonnay, the country has an astounding number of indigenous grape types. In total, Helvetia is home to 40 vine varieties that are virtually unknown elsewhere in the world. And some of them have gained the praise of famed wine connoisseurs like Robert Parker.
Among the most popular local grapes are the cornalin, a fruity variety with an intense purple-red color, and the chasselas, a white grape born on the shores of Lake Geneva used to make a summer wine with a non-fruity but crispy, mineral taste.
Others include the sherry-like “vin des glaciers” (glacier wine), and “Heida,” which Salamon describes as possessing a “somewhat floral and sweet mouth feeling with a watery and rather dry finish.”
Swiss wines are more expensive than other European vintages due to the country’s small-scale and predominantly artisanal production. But judging by how well some of their other luxury products are doing, a high price tag might actually be a good thing.
“The quality of Swiss wines comes from a Swiss savoir-faire that’s already recognized worldwide,” says Nicolas Schorderet, of the Swiss Wine Export Association. “Because Swiss wines are rare, we trust they’ll have an appeal for those in search of quality and exoticism.”
Granted, they might never be able to compete with the fame of the French or the cheap price of the Spanish. But as for quality and exoticism, it’s worked for watches and chocolate. Why not wine?