Swiss Wine: Make It Good and They Will Come

2017 is beginning to feel like a breakout year for Swiss wine. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate kicked things off in January (Issue 228) with a comprehensive tasting of Swiss wine, a friendly tip of the hat to our local pinot noir, a gala gathering of the clan at its Matter of Taste event in Zürich and an implied commitment to regular visits and in-depth coverage. In the blink of an eye, the January report was followed by another in February (Interim end of January Issue) with more protestations of love from its author Stephan Reinhardt. Noteworthy in the February report was an expanded focus beyond the Mémoire des Vins Suisses portfolio to lesser known names from under-the-radar regions—Basel-Landschaft are you listening?

More recently, the British wine monthly Decanter prominently featured Swiss wine in its annual World Wine Awards (DWWA). It recognized 184 Swiss medal winners—3 platinum, 8 gold, 81 silver and 70 bronze—from all six regions and in a number of varieties and styles. Interestingly, merlot—not pinot noir—was the big winner among the reds. (Results from another competition, the 2017 Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, reinforced the excitement: 3 grand gold, 12 gold and 27 silver). The upshot: Swiss wine is holding its own in international competitions, thank you.

Finally in May, JancisRobinson.comthe eponymous, on-line subscription newsletter–featured a review of 56 wines from a smattering of Swiss names. (The Perseverance of the Swiss). Contributor Julia Harding MW, no stranger to Swiss wine, cites colleague and Swiss native, José Vouillamoz, for his evangelism and her conversion. Her boss, Jancis Robinson, is known to be a fan of the rarer, seldom encountered Swiss varieties—cornalin, humagne rouge, petite arvine and paiën—but remains, unapologetically, a chasselas skeptic. File under: There’s no such thing as bad press.

The good news is that all this attention from the most influential global wine authorities is resonating with knowledgeable audiences. Their coverage, some of the most comprehensive to date, challenges other reviewers and writers to keep pace by doing their own reporting on Swiss wine. It may be working—I’m aware of two serious wine writers from major publications planning stories on the Swiss wine industry this year.

Let’s take a closer look at what these influencers found and what it means for the future.

No need to go into too much detail with the Wine Advocate’s report which I covered earlier (see: Parker Does Switzerland: Parts 1, 2 and 3). Stephan Reinhardt’s review of nearly three hundred wines (in two issues) focuses mainly on a cherry-picked Mémoire des Vins Suisses selection and a Jean-René Germanier-sponsored vertical of Cayas syrah. Reinhardt manages to convey a personal sense of excitement for the wines in a professional and admirably detached way. I don’t agree with all of his evaluations but disagreement among tasters is par for the course in this business. Importantly, he appears willing to branch out beyond the famous names to plumb the depths of Swiss wine for his audience. That audience is broad and well-heeled and if his efforts bring more interest and wine tourism to Switzerland then the industry and its reputation will continue to soar.

 

The Decanter World Wine Awards, Concours Mondial and other similar competitions present a different set of issues, albeit dominated by one: competition syndrome—or, how to evaluate the same pod of medal chasers—whose only marketing strategy is to enter every conceivable competition—without undermining the credibility of the results. Many of the best producers do not enter competitions because there is nothing to gain and everything to lose by them. They are loathe to place their hard-earned reputations in the hands of a few blind-folded tasters. They, and the rest of us, should know that medals are to be approached with skepticism.

To its credit the DWWA offers a more comprehensive perspective than the Concours Mondial in terms of quality. It has sought out some of the better names and, perhaps through its influence as a leading wine publication, attracted some higher profile entrants to begin with. The quality of the panel might have something to do with that. The Concours Mondial on the other hand medals a smaller percentage of wines which, in theory, makes it a tougher competition.

Nevertheless, the DWWA does highlight some excellent Swiss wine. The fabulous 2013 “Il Canto della Terra” from Cantina Monti in Ticino is a worthy platinum winner and the 2015 Petite Arvine from Cave du Rhodan stands out among the gold medal winners for its pin-point expression of terroir in this often heavy and alcoholic vintage.

Undervalued silver performers include the 2015 Dézaley “Haut-de-Pierre” from Blaise Duboux, the 2015 Syrah “Les Bernunes” from Cave Caloz, the 2013 Pinot Noir “Unique” from Weingut Donatsch and the 2015 “Malcantone—Rosso dei Ronchi” from Cantina Monti.

Underrated bronze medalists include the 2014 Petite Arvine from Histoire d’Enfer and the 2015 Crescendo from Tenuta San Giorgio.

I was also happy to see Winzerei Zur Metzg awarded two silver medals for its 2015 sauvignon blanc and 2015 pinot noir. I had expressed ambivalent feelings about Patrick Thalmann’s wines in an earlier post.

The bottom line: Any of these wines could have jumped into the next category without that extra ½ point docked here or there. That’s why for some the solution is to avoid competitions altogether.

 

Julia Harding’s article for jancisrobinson.com is in a way the most consequential. It grew out of a trade presentation by Swiss Fine Wine in London which gathered together twelve Swiss producers in search of an export market.

Ms. Harding’s opening comment is telling: “Swiss wines don’t get much exposure in the UK, though they certainly deserve to based on their quality.”

There’s a bit of irony in this because there already exists a significant Swiss presence in the UK thanks to importers like Alpine Wines. But her point is well taken. Exposure in the form of tastings supported by government trade organizations, industry associations and private wineries are necessary to get the word out. It is also of critical importance to get the wines in front of today’s tastemakers, the new wine elite: the restaurant sommelier. It appears the UK already has an infrastructure available to spike exports and importers with the mettle to educate a new audience.

By the way, Ms. Harding was very complimentary to all the wines she tasted but reserved highest marks for Domaine des Muses and Jean-René Germanier from Valais and Les Frères Dutruy from La Côte in Vaud. Domaine des Balisiers in Geneva also fared well for its “Le Comte de Peneyassemblage aged in amphorae.

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