An Honest Attempt to Debunk the Myth That Swiss Wine Is Expensive

It’s a familiar refrain: Swiss wine is too expensive, it won’t sell. Crooners of that song, including the eminent and influential Jancis Robinson, repeat it so often that most consider it axiomatic. Well, I’m here to say that nothing can be further from the truth—at least some of the time.

The Set-up

The best way to think about all of this is to compartmentalize the issues. Domestically it is widely held that the low end of the Swiss wine market is indeed expensive relative to the low end anywhere else. It’s virtually impossible to find anything drinkable at less than 10CHF and you don’t begin to see anything interesting until around 12-15CHF. On the other hand, the very best Switzerland has to offer is rarely above 60CHF with a good chunk of that segment below 40CHF. This includes rare autochthonous varieties as well as wine made from forbiddingly rugged landscapes that cost a fortune to farm. Just on the labor cost per bottle alone, the high end can be absurdly cheap on both a relative and absolute basis.

The following charts provide a basis for comparison. They show the currency exchange rates for the Swiss franc versus the US dollar (1.00=1.04)and the British pound (1.00=0.73) as of June 15, 2016. The Swiss franc price listed is the retail price at the cellar door, direct to the consumer, which is the way a lot of Swiss wine is sold. (N.B. These prices do not include cash payment discounts; in Switzerland the consumer generally has 30 days credit.) Prices for the foreign equivalents used for comparison are the lowest internet prices available in the country of origin. While not exactly apples to apples I think the price comparisons do reflect a reasonably accurate picture vis-à-vis relative value.

The Wine

The two best examples of Swiss value are, conveniently, the two most widely planted varieties: chasselas and pinot noir. Together they cover almost 60% of the Swiss vignobles. While chasselas can be an acquired taste and because it has no direct equivalent internationally it is perhaps the harder case to make. Pinot noir on the other hand is an international darling and can be plugged into the value for money equation much more easily.

The task of assigning chasselas a place in the international market is a difficult one, but perhaps recent history can be a guide. Thirty years ago (recent history for those of us who lived it) the Austrian wine industry was coming out of the diethylene glycol scandal that nearly destroyed it. From its ashes rose a tarty, unfussy, seriously thirst-quenching variety that seemed to express its terroir transparently: grüner veltliner. Since that time I have often compared it to chasselas, not for any organoleptic similarities, but for their sheer likeability and grace at the table. To my mind they serve the same purpose—as an aperitif, alongside a lighter first course or drawing a vivid counterpoint to the hard and salty cheeses of the world. They both occupy roughly the same price range, 12-25CHF with a few outliers at the margins, and they both have a similar standing in their respective countries.

The main differences are at the extremes of the price scale. While it is easy to find entry-level grüner from top producers at between 10-12CHF, there is little chasselas of quality at that level in Switzerland. The true sweet spot for chasselas, including its most prestigious Grand Cru bottles, is between 18-25CHF. Single vineyard and Smaragd bottlings of grüner can run much higher than that, often up to 40CHF. Thus the common pattern in Switzerland asserts itself: value is in the best.

Producer(entry-level Chasselas)         CHF/$/£
Anne-Catherine & Denis Mercier      16/16.57/11.70
Domaine Cornulus                    16.5/17.12/12.07
Luc Massy                           15.5/16.08/11.34
Blaise Duboux                       16.5/17.12/12.07
La Colombe                          12/12.45/8.78
Frères Dubois                       13/13.49/9.51
Christophe Chappuis                 15.30/15.87/11.19
Louis Bovard                        14.50/15.04/10.60
Maison Blanche                      20.50/21.27/14.99

Pinot noir presents a much clearer case for Swiss value. As we all know the age of pinot noir is upon us. Its ascendancy is as much a rebuke of Bordeaux and California greed as it is for its own heartbreak, underdog persona. The sometimes hundreds of dollars per bottle people are willing to pay for top burgundies, it’s reasoned, goes to a hard-working farmer for a scarce, artisan-made product. That is a rationalization that no longer favors the luxury goods purveyors of current Bordeaux. Plantings of pinot noir worldwide have increased dramatically but so have prices; California and Oregon pinots are routinely above 50CHF and, discouragingly, the quality at or below the 20CHF level is abysmal. Pinot from down under is of uneven quality and prices there are climbing as well. Burgundy is currently untouchable for most consumers and even Bourgogne simple is priced well above entry-level Swiss pinot. Die-hards are beginning to find value in Alsace and Germany but scarcity and availability loom as big issues there.

The prices listed in the chart below are for entry-level pinots from a variety of producers. I find great value in some of these wines but, once again, the real value comes with the single-vineyard, barrique-aged, spätlese or reserve cuvées of the same producers, most of which are under 35CHF. There is routinely very little differentiation in price between the least and the most in Switzerland and that is precisely where value is found. With the warm 2015 vintage much of Switzerland is poised to over-deliver with respect to pinot noir which enhances the value proposition even more. To reiterate, we are looking at quality, entry-level pinot in Switzerland for 15-25CHF per bottle. That is easily competitive with any in the world.

Producer(entry-level Pinot Noir)        CHF/$/£
Anne-Catherine & Denis Mercier      20/20.71/14.62
Domaine Henri Cruchon               14.5/15.12/10.60
Domaine de la Maison Carrée         20/20.71/14.62
Weingut zum Sternen                 18/18.64/13.15
Weinbau Ottiger                     18.5/19.15/13.52
Weingut Pircher                     16.5/17.08/12.06
Baumann Weingut                     15/15.53/10.96
Schlossgut Bachtobel                19/19.67/13.89
Weingut Wolfer                      16/16.57/11.69
Weingut Donatsch                    22/22.78/16.08
Weingut Georg Fromm                 22/22.78/16.08
Peter Wegelin, Scadenagut           20/20.71/14.62
Weinbau von Tscharner               25/25.88/18.27

Two varieties from Switzerland that do not fare as well in the international value equation are petite arvine and merlot. Petite arvine is a special case in that its only competition is from a handful of wineries on the other side of the Alps in the Aosta Valley of Italy. There, the six most prolific producers—Grosjean, Les Crêtes, Ottin, Château Feuillet, Le Clocher and Feudi di Maurizio—produce an inconsequential amount relative to the already inconsequential amount produced in Switzerland. Internet prices for the Italian rivals are significantly below the Swiss equivalents: 14-16CHF versus 24-28CHF but this may be a case of who notices or even cares. Petite arvine covers a mere 1% of the Swiss vignobles and is a strictly Valaisan specialty. There tends to be only one cuvée per house so there is no entry-level petite arvine typically available.

Producer(Petite Arvine)                 CHF/$/£
Anne-Catherine & Denis Mercier      26/26.86/19.08
Domaine Cornulus                    18/18.60/13.21
Benoît Dorsaz                       24.5/25.31/17.98
Maurice Zufferey                    25/25.83/18.35
Domaine Rouvinez                    24/24.79/17.61
Gerald Besse                        24/24.79/17.61
Philippe Varone                     24/24.79/17.61

Merlot and its blends on the other hand are the one glaring example of Swiss over-exuberance. Merlot is the fourth most planted grape in Switzerland covering around 7% of the vineyard area. It is most frequently seen in Ticino, the Italian-speaking south, where it makes excellent world-class wines, and in the Vaud and Geneva where it gets mixed reviews. For Swiss merlot to become interesting you’ve got to fork over 35-60CHF which brings a lot of the world’s best merlots into play, including Bordeaux. Taken on their own, Swiss merlot can be a lovely drink especially if one appreciates finesse and elegance over power and assertiveness. Just don’t come here looking for value.

As far as the rest of the Swiss vignobles a single question comes to mind: what constitutes value when you are judging a one-of-a-kind wine grown nowhere else in the world? It is important to note that labor costs in Switzerland are no trifling matter. Every worker is paid what amounts to a living wage and when one considers the extra labor needed to tend the extreme vineyards of Switzerland it is a wonder how the wines sell as cheaply as they do.

The following chart offers the current range in price for a number of other varieties found in Switzerland. I have briefly commented on the general quality versus their peers in other countries and on their own terms if native. There are others varieties such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, aligoté and viognier that are not mentioned because I don’t believe they rise to the quality levels found elsewhere.

Variety                  Range       Comments
Cornalin* (Rouge du Pays)30-50CHF   (Outstanding; 
                                     deserves fame)
Humagne rouge*           20-30CHF   (Very good; 
                                     deserves 
                                     recognition)
Amigne*                  20-30CHF   (Very good; 
                                     deserves 
                                     recognition)
Completer*               40-50CHF   (Outstanding; 
                                     deserves fame)
Rèze*                    rarely seen
Gwass*                   rarely seen
Lefnetscha*              rarely seen
Païen (Savagnin)         20-30CHF   (Savoie & Jura; 
                                     good quality, 
                                     comparable value)
Rauschling*              15-25CHF   (Not convinced; 
                                     need a larger 
                                     sample size)
Gamay                    15-20CHF   (Beaujolais; 
                                     uneven, 
                                     can be very good, 
                                     comparable value)
Mondeuse                 15-20CHF   (Savoie & Jura; 
                                     good quality, 
                                     comparable value)
Syrah                    25-50CHF   (Ubiquitous; 
                                     good quality, 
                                     not great value)
Marsanne                 30-40CHF   (Ubiquitous; 
                                     good quality, 
                                     not great value)
Plant Robert*            25-30CHF   (Very good; 
                                     deserves 
                                     recognition)
Johanisburg (Sylvaner)  15-20CHF   (Alsace/Germany; 
                                     good quality, 
                                     comparable value)

*autochthonous

Conclusion

In this day of US dollar/Swiss franc parity Swiss wine can offer value where the world needs it most. The shortage of affordable, graceful, terroir-driven pinot noir is becoming acute. The rise in prices at the quality end tells you as much. In my opinion, Swiss marketers should focus their efforts on pinot noir by establishing its viability in foreign markets. The quality will speak for itself.

Likewise, savory whites of the chasselas ilk can add a lot to the world’s wine vocabulary. Chasselas has found a cult following in Asia, especially Japan, for its affinity with the seafood based cuisine found there. It’s a beautiful marriage. Chasselas compares in terms of quality and price not only to grüner veltliner but also to sauvignon blanc and even chenin blanc. It’s my belief that the wine world is ready for chasselas and there is no better time than with the current exchange rates to make the most of it.

Swiss marketers are you listening?

 

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