Switzerland's Scrumptious Surprises: Swiss Wine

Young and fresh, Swiss wine delivers flavor.
October/November 2003
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Winemaking in Switzerland dates back at least to Roman times. Though the industry has, for years, relied primarily on a high-acid, mediocre product, the last decade has seen a marked increase in quality.

Despite the high altitude of many of this nation’s vineyards, there is no doubt of the potential to produce superb wines. Large lakes, which retain heat, and warm winds that blow down mountain valleys ensure ripeness in most years. The growing season for some Swiss vintages stretches into December.

Many lovers of French wine are devoted fans of the southern Rhone Valley (think Chateauneuf-du-Pape, among others) and the northern Rhone (Hermitage, for example). Many people, however, are not aware of the wines produced closer to the source of this renowned river.

Though the Rhone enters France soon after flowing out of Lake Geneva, the river’s source lies farther east, high in the Valais canton, where steeply terraced hillsides form some of Europe’s highest vineyards. Here light soil, with a high proportion of limestone, is exceptionally suited for growing grapes. The world-renowned Chardonnay and Riesling are popular, but a number of lesser-known grapes, such as Gamaret, Granoir, Elbling and Arvine are also produced. The Valais produces about 40 percent of Swiss wine, about half of that made from the white Chasselas.

The vineyards of west Switzerland huddle close to major lakes, including Geneva, Bienne and Thun. This region, with its variation in soil types, produces the most wine of any region. Chasselas predominates, but Riesling, Chardonnay, and others are making headway.

Eastern Switzerland, also called German Switzerland, has soil composed largely of slate and moraine, both conducive to fine wine production, and a wide range of grape types are produced there. The noble Riesling, the elegant Pinot Gris and the spicy Gewurztraminer are leading the way in improvement in this area.

The last major wine-producing region of Switzerland is Tissino, in the south, bordered on three sides by Italy. With its relatively warm climate, the area is particularly suited to the ripening of grapes, and the red Merlot accounts for 80 percent of production. The soil is light and sandy with a high proportion of granite and produces rich, fruity wines.

The great variety of altitude and soil types combined with a wide range of grapes as well as French, German and Italian tradition has led to the development of a dramatic diversity of styles. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of Swiss wines are made to drink young and fresh. A few are intended for aging, though, and in some cases command prices in excess of $100 per bottle.

Weather variations from year to year can be extreme, so vintages are extremely important. The best bet for travelers is to ask for recommendations at fine wine shops and restaurants. One cultural tip, however, can be offered in advance. In the United States, consumers rightly associate screw tops with extremely low quality. This is not necessarily the case in Switzerland. The finest wines will be sealed with a cork, but a screw top may well cap a delightful beverage. Remember to be open-minded about this packaging technique.

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