Whenever I try to find words that I could associate with Switzerland, I think of:
The Alps. Banking. Watches. Chocolates. Cheese. Bears.
What I never think to associate with the country is wine. For good reason: In all my years of being in the wine industry, I’ve never encountered literature (leisure or textbooks) about Swiss wine, let alone try a glass.
In a stroke of good luck, however, I managed to find a couple of bottles from Santis that I simply had to get… For research, of course (sure).
As this was an exercise in research, I decided to find as much text as I could on the topic and engage myself in a little experimental study using the bottles I bought.
Here are my discoveries.
Generally, the reason why Swiss wines have barely made it on the map is that the production is quite small. Historically, they did not focus on inheriting the processes of their wine-producing neighbours (like the rigid grape classifications of Germany to the north or the geographical delineation of France to the west), but over the years, they’ve stepped up their game.
Geographically, they are an interesting nation, as one could naturally assume the impossibility of growing wine grapes in cold conditions and considerable altitude (a strange adversary to an otherwise ideal situation between the 45°-47° latitude*), but they’ve managed to take advantage of their great lakes (normally large bodies of water mitigate warm areas by cooling them down, Swiss lakes do the complete opposite), and their local wind called the föhn (which also warms up wine producing cantons). They have also installed terraces to combat erosion brought about by the severe elevation, as well as practice irrigation to address the dryness. Switzerland is also regionally divided in what’s called cantons, and each canton shares similarities with its closest neighbour. It’s reflected both in the language of that area (although I have it on good authority that it’s not exactly the same as, say, the German language from Germany), and winemaking practices (for example, they have inherited the practice of regional classifications from France and the use of indigenous grapes from Italy).
Speaking of grapes, their most famous red wines largely make use of Pinot Noir (or Blauburgunder, as it’s called in the German-speaking side… It’s interesting to note that Germans call the same grape Spätburgunder, hence the linguistic similarities). White wines largely make use of a widely planted local grape called Chasselas.
When I tried to go through the list of grapes used in Swiss winemaking, I was flabbergasted with the amount of grapes they have that I’ve never heard of (it is for this reason that my resource book implied that Switzerland, therefore, is a dream come true for people who are obsessed with ampelography**).
As always, to completely wrap my head around these grapes and wine styles, I decided to taste the wines and see how it compares to the book.
My first wine was the white wine Blanc d’Amour from Fendant, Valais. Valais is the most important canton in Swiss wine production, and Fendant is famous for Chasselas-based white wine. I initially braced myself for an assault of acidity (there is an indirect correlation between acidity and temperature: The colder the wine region, the more acidic the wine style tends to be), but apparently Switzerland considers acidity an enemy, and they greatly practice malolactic fermentation*** to address it. The Blanc d’Amour, in my opinion, was like the nutty, floral brother of the Sauvignon Blanc, with indeed gentler acidity but an interesting retention of green fruit notes. I would drink it extremely chilled because it got a little pungent (but not at all unpleasant) when it warmed up.
The rosé I had next, the Nid d’Amour Oeil-de-Perdrix (or “partridge eye”), was in my opinion a nice, more grounded cousin of the famous French Provence rosés. Oeil-de-Pedrix wines are produced in the Trois-Lacs (Neuchâtel) canton, and to be labeled as such requires the wine to be made with 100% Pinot Noir. This surprisingly easy drinking wine displayed classic strawberry notes from a Pinot Noir, and possessed enough acidity that kept the wine interesting. I was so surprised how well it paired with a vegetarian pizza I had, as well as (drumroll please) premium chicharon with spicy vinegar.
Also from the Valais canton was the red wine that I had: The Grand Mêtral Humagne Rouge. After DNA tests, it has been discovered that Humagne Rouge is also the Cornalin d’Aoeste, an Italian grape from Valle d’Aosta. The Oxford Companion to Wine promised a powerful, rustic, “wild” and tannic wine. One of the “biggest” wines I’ve ever had (note: not something I would have without food), I felt that it was something that would pair well with a salty slab of beef.
In conclusion, I feel like the wines I’ve tried (and read up on) were surprisingly good, and I’m quite looking forward to exploring the region more.
What Alpine wines have you tried? Cheers!
*The textbook ideal sites for wine production globally are located between 30°-50° latitude. There are some exceptions, of course.
**The study involving the identification and classification of grapevines
***There’s a highly technical explanation for this practice, but the easy way to understand it is to think of the acidity of a beverage going from something as harsh as green apples to something as gentle as milk. Commonly applied to white wine production, wines that have undergone this procedure tend to smell a little buttery.
Wines included in the experiment are available in Santis BGC
Sources for the text include The Oxford Companion To Wine (Jancis Robinson), What To Drink With What You Eat (Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page), and Grapes and Wines (Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand)