Chardonnay in Switzerland: No Respect

To the casual observer of Swiss wine the primacy of pinot noir among the red varieties suggests that its stablemate, chardonnay, enjoys the same favored status among the whites. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Even though chardonnay ranks as the fifth most planted variety in the world—almost 200,000 hectares spread among countless winemaking nations—it’s monopolized by a few: the big five of France, the U.S., Australia, Italy and Chile. Together they account for 73% of the world’s chardonnay vines. That leaves 27% for the rest of us with Switzerland lagging well behind such perennial chardonnay powers as Brazil, Greece and Japan. Switzerland’s puny .16% of the world’s chardonnay plantings is no less feeble than its unimpressive 2.4% presence at home.

What gives?

History for one thing. By the time chardonnay emerged as a viable entity—courtesy of a 14th century meeting of pinot noir and gouais blanc—the terraces of Lavaux were already a going concern. While there is little to no evidence as to what populated the terraces it is not unreasonable to assume that gamay and chasselas were present. Pinot noir was introduced into the region at the beginning of the 15th century as a replacement for gamay. Chasselas, as a native variety, must have had some presence before it first appeared in writing in the 16th century. Chardonnay may have been introduced somewhere between these dates because of its connection to the Cistercian monk’s who built the terraces (the monks also managed the vineyards in France near the home of chardonnay.)

Whatever the case, the phylloxera scourge of the late-19th century cut viticulture in Switzerland by half and forever reconfigured the vineyards that remained. From then on chasselas has reigned in Lavaux, crowding out everything else.

Even today chardonnay fights for respect in Switzerland—plantings have risen by only 10% in the years between 2000-2015 while worldwide plantings skyrocketed during the same period.


 

Chardonnay in Switzerland
Region          Hectares          % total*

 

Geneva            104 ha.               7.4%
Vaud                  40 ha.               1.1%
Valais                 68 ha.               1.4%
3 Lakes              36 ha.               3.9%
German             63 ha.               2.5%
Ticino                48 ha.               4.4%

 

Total               359 ha.              2.4%

 

2015 Statisticsswisswine.ch

 

*% of total vines in each region

 


 

Chardonnay Around the World 
Region            Hectares          % total*

 

France          44,593 ha.          22.43%
U.S.               40,846 ha.         20.55%
Australia        27,773 ha.           13.97%
Italy              19,709 ha.            9.91%
Chile             13,082 ha.           6.58%
Switzerland       321 ha.               .16%

 

2010 Statistics: Wine Economics Research Centre Database—The University of Adelaide

 

*% of world’s chardonnay vines

 


Don’t be fooled, the scarcity of chardonnay in Switzerland is not for lack of exciting real estate. In fact, Switzerland contains some of the most compelling soils in the world. The deep chalk base of Fläsch in Bünder-Herrschaft, for instance, or the clay and limestone matrix of its neighbors, Maienfeld, Jenins and Malans. Likewise, the textbook limestone formations and gentle slopes of Neuchätel are enough to give even Burgundians pause. Throw in the light-filled and unusually warm and dry climate of Schaffhausen and Aargau and you find four perfect venues for chardonnay.

Of these four priviliged areas only Bündner-Herrschaft and Neuchâtel boast consistently well-made examples, but even among those there are few specialists. The frustrating Swiss penchant to be all things to all people means that specialty is a risk most people don’t take. Small family wineries in Switzerland offer everything from soup-to-nuts and are reticent to lose a client just because they don’t offer a particular style of wine. That’s why you’ll find whites, reds, fizz and stickies (and multiple cuvées of each) under the same roof. Vine diversity for commercial advantage and insurance against climate risk played a bigger roll in the past than it will in the future. Perhaps then we’ll see more quality chardonnay and less muller-thurgau. Don’t get me wrong, MT has its place but it’s the most planted white grape in German-speaking Switzerland and a consistent under-performer.

Less exciting is the Valais—Histoire d’Enfer and Didier Joris notwithstanding—where indigenous varieties petite arvine and amigne vie with successful transplants savagnin, fendant (chasselas) and sylvaner for white wine supremacy in soils not especially suited to chardonnay.

Ironically, Geneva—with the highest percentage of chardonnay vines—is the least interesting in terms of compelling wine. There are far too many hollow, neutral or overly sweet chardonnays with only a few standout exceptions—Jean-Pierre Pellegrin’s Domaine Grand’Cour is one.

Ticino with a scant 48 hectares shows promise but is still uneven and saddled with the burden of white merlot as its signature white wine.

Issues Going Forward

Climate change is not so gently nudging resistant growers into rethinking their vineyards. The majority of Switzerland stands to benefit from the changes but not without some planning.

We already see Martin Donatsch gradually replant Dijon clones of pinot noir higher up the hill in Malans while replanting the later ripening Swiss clones on the lower slope. This in an effort to retain and harmonize the sugar/acid balance of the future. (see: Profile: Weingut Donatsch)

The Adank family of Fläsch reserves the upper halde (hill) exclusively for white varieties including the late-ripening chardonnay for the same reason. Their chardonnay vines are massale selected from this chalky hillside. (see: Profile: Weingut Familie Hansruedi Adank)

The iconic Gantenbein family vineyards, on the other hand, are almost fully planted to Dijon clones for both their spendy pinot noirs and chardonnays. It will be interesting to see if the wines retain their quality in the coming years without the moderating influence of Swiss clones.

Along with clonal diversity and site management, overcropping is another area of concern. The bad old days of the Swiss wine industry was one of near fraudulent blending and massive overcropping. Insipid wines were the norm and the damage was slow to repair. Proper clonal selection and rigorous farming are necessary to exact the best quality fruit and in a world of technically sound chardonnay rigor is required to stand out. It’s no accident that the elements missing from Swiss chardonnay are extract, intensity of flavor and texture. The things most closely associated with low-cropped, old vines.

Swiss Style

In Switzerland you won’t find the tropical bombast of warmer regions like California and Australia but you will find the cool climate freshness new-age chardonnay enthusiasts demand. Ironically, it’s German-speaking Switzerland that is most deferential to the Burgundy model and not la romandie. The barrel-fermented, lees-enhanced, not yet post- pre-mox style we think of as typical white Burgundy is perhaps the one best suited to the Swiss climate, soils and temperament. (NB. The style is changing once again in Burgundy. The reductive, struck-match style of winemaking is gaining adherents as a response to the premature oxidation crisis of the early 2000’s.)

The recent Mémoire des Vins Suisses tasting in Bern provided the opportunity to taste three different styles of chardonnay from three different regions. These are my impressions:

img_1310Chardonnay Réserve, Bielersee, Steiner Schernelz Village, Ligerz, Bern: This small family estate located in the Lake Bienne (Bielersee) district of the Three Lakes region was the surprise of the tasting. It presented three vintages of its reserve chardonnay each of which displayed a consistent house-style and an even progression of development. Most noticeable in all of them is a dense, creamy textured core with both purity of fruit and a streak of minerality. The aroma and flavor of oak is present but not the toasted, sometimes acrid notes one frequently encounters. The creaminess is expressed in both texture and aroma—a real fresh cream aroma, not one of butter.

And as if to disprove my previous assertion there are some subtle tropical notes be found in the older examples. The operative word is subtle. Everything about these wines expresses balance and polish. Bravo!

2014: Straw colored. Nice, creamy, vanilla nose—a bit like rice pudding. Very lively but rich palate of creamy oak and lemon cream freshness. Medium-bodied with nothing out of place. Elegant and balanced but fills the mouth with flavor.

2012: Straw/gold in color. Subtle guava, passionfruit and a milky cream nose. Seamless palate of cream fixed with citrus notes and a mineral spine. Can absolutely see the progression from the 2014 to here. Lovely arc of development. This is excellent.

2009: Straw/gold in color. Interesting nose echoes Sauternes and Scotch whisky sweetness. More butter too. Palate is ripe and a bit tropical. Exotic with a bit too much acid showing through. Seems fairly developed but in an interesting place and no denying it tastes good.

Chardonnay, Christian Hermann Weinbau, Fläsch, Graubünden: Christian Hermann img_1311is one of the standard bearers of the Burgundy model. His chardonnays display the full-bore commitment to the style: élevage in barriques, bâtonnage and full malolactic fermentation. On the downside they generally show more structure than fruit and the winemaker’s hand more than mother nature’s touch. This may be a case where clonal diversity is called for. I know the Hermann pinot noirs to be 100% Swiss clone so it’s logical to assume their chardonnay is likewise undiversified.

Nevertheless, this is a winery to watch with a solid aesthetic and the wherewithal to make terrific wine.

2015: Straw colored. Curious herbal and aspirin tablet nose. Otherwise very restrained with some vanilla. Stylish lemon flavors and freshness. Finishes a bit acid but given the vintage I would expect this to fill out a bit. Very good potential.

2012: Straw/gold in color. Nose is of roasted grain, herbs and some vanilla. A bit shy. Palate is also roasted with toasty lemon fruit. Medium-bodied but finishes slightly acidic.

2009: Straw/gold in color. Green vegetative and citrus nose. Lemony palate without a lot of texture or flavor interest. Finishes acidic. Not much ahead for it I fear.

img_1312Dosso, Christian Zündel, Beride,Ticino: This is where things fall off the rail a bit. Stephen Reinhardt of The Wine Advocate (Issue 228—Switzerland: A Short Trip) lauds the 2014 Dosso using descriptive terms such as “lean”, “elegant”, “very firm”, “restrained”, “just-ripe fruit” and “rigid acidity” among others. (This by no means is the full review. I’ve chosen the descriptors that I agree with but reached opposite conclusions from). He goes on to indicate that whatever excess acidity the wine possesses will be absorbed with age. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Zündel who is a pioneer in Ticino and a brilliant winemaker, by all accounts, or to Mr. Reinhardt, but I’m not so confident.

The two older vintages available at this tasting showed very little acid integration and very little development otherwise. The question I kept asking myself was: Where’s the fruit?—followed by: Is this even made from fruit? I recognize that people smarter than me love these wines but I remain to be convinced.

2014: Straw colored. Really acidic. Lemon juice. Hard to see beyond it.

2011: Straw colored. Slight volatility though nothing over-the-top. A tad more flesh but still very acidic. Not much flavor interest or joy.

2008: Straw/gold in colorSome roasted grain and green herbs but pinched. Beginnings of curry spice. Still too acidic. Lean, ungenerous, minimalist style.  Not for me.

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