A Rose By Any Other Name: The Confusing State of Grapes in Switzerland

Every time I travel to the States people want to know about Swiss wine. Many will ask without realizing that they already have some near iron-clad mis-information to overcome. One of the most common errors is a simple one: confusing Vaud with Valais, and vice versa. Others are surprised to learn that Riesling is not a specialty of the German-speaking cantons. Spoiler alert: it’s not a specialty anywhere in Switzerland. Some parrot the conventional wisdom that Chasselas is not a true vin de terroir and is unworthy of respect. Ugh! But the greatest misconceptions, even among professionals, are those surrounding grape names and varieties. Cornalin d’Aosta and Cornalin du Valais for instance. Many are surprised to learn that they are not the same variety even though they are related.

Cornalin du Valais (aka Cornalin or Rouge du Pays) is actually one of the oldest pedigreed varieties in Switzerland. It appeared as far back as 1313 according to Swiss native and UC Davis trained geneticist Dr. José Vouillamoz. DNA testing has determined that Cornalin du Valais is the off-spring of Aosta Valley natives Petit Rouge and Mayolet. The new variety migrated to Valais where it has thrived, off and on, ever since. In a rude bit of comeuppance it is now banned in the Aosta Valley of its birth.

Mayolet x Petit Rouge = Cornalin du Valais

Cornalin d’Aosta is genetically identical to the Swiss native Humagne Rouge whose parents are Cornalin du Valais and some unknown other. The irony is that the child of Italian natives, Cornalin du Valais, resides in Switzerland and the child of an Italian émigré to Switzerland, Cornalin d’Aosta, resides in Italy. Got that? (Perhaps the Trump administration should consider the benefits of such accidental immigration.)

Cornalin du Valais x Unknown Other = Humagne Rouge

At this point it should be noted that Humagne Rouge (Cornalin d’Aosta) is not related to Humagne Blanc which is at least as old as Cornalin du Valais. While the parents of Humagne Blanc are unknown, it is known to be the co-progenitor of at least two very rare Swiss varieties:  Himbertscha with an unknown other; and Lafnetscha with the rare Graubünden specialty, Completer.

Humagne Blanc x Unknown Other = Himbertscha

Humagne Blanc x Completer = Lafnetscha

It’s no wonder Completer and Lafnetscha are often confused with each other. They share both visual and organoleptic similarities but have been positively identified as parent and child. Completer, by the way, is one of the ancient varieties of Switzerland with written accounts of its existence from as far back as 1321 and unsubstantiated accounts from as far back as 926.

The fascinating but confusing tale of Servagnin and Salvagnin, as told here, is a cautionary tale of synonym abuse.

Another potential disaster is the one about Goron. This very rare grape is the progeny of Cornalin du Valais and an unknown other. It was banished as a stand alone variety many years ago and relegated to nurseries and the odd home arbor, but it’s name lives on in a rather dubious way.  Since 1959 the term Goron stands as a declassification of the AOC Dôle—a sometimes indifferent blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay. Recent efforts to replant Goron in its historical home of Bovernier outside of Martigny on the right bank of the Dranse River have proven interesting. If successful and Goron de Bovernier begins to appear as a stand alone variety again, then confusion over the name will begin anew. There’s nothing like setting up future controversy.

Cornalin du Valais x Unknown Other = Goron

In the parlor game of “What’s In the Bottle” you get bonus points if you know that Riesling x Sylvaner is actually Müller-Thurgau, but you give them right back if you think it’s actually a cross of those two varieties. The Swiss have been laboring under this misconception forever. In 2000 it was discovered through DNA testing that Müller-Thurgau is actually a cross of Riesling and Madeleine Royale. Well that’s embarrassing. Even so, they still prefer to call it Riesling x Sylvaner in German-speaking Switzerland where it is the most widely planted white variety.

Riesling x Madeleine Royale = Müller-Thurgau 

The promiscuous French grape Savagnin—best known in the Jura as the featured grape in Vin Jaune and to the rest of us as co-progenitor of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Grüner Veltliner—figures in several layers of Swiss confusion.

It is a parent, with Gouais Blanc, of the rare Swiss grape Räuschling—once the most common grape in 19th century German-speaking Switzerland. It is often confused with Riesling and Wikipedia incorrectly asserts that Räuschling is a cross of Gouais Blanc and a member of the Pinot family.

Savagnin x Gouais Blanc = Räuschling

In Valais, Savagnin is known by the synonyms Heida and Païen (pagan).

It’s other major synonym, Traminer, surfaces in Vully—a small wine enclave straddling both Vaud and Fribourg—but only as the aromatic, rose-colored mutation known as Gewürztraminer.

In Neuchâtel, where it may have first appeared in Switzerland—maybe even pre-dating Chasselas—it is known, thankfully, by its common name, Savagnin.

The Swiss are also big on obscure local synonyms in place of more commonly known names; including the confusing Malvoisie for Pinot Gris and the equally confusing, and more ponderous, Johannisberg instead of Sylvaner. Not to mention the Klevners (Pinot family: red, white and gris), Blauburgunders (Pinot Noir) and Morillons (Chardonnay) of the world.

Fendant is the legally protected name for Chasselas in Valais and Perlan is it’s diminutive form in Geneva. Three different names for the same grape in a mere 100 kilometer stretch. Enough said.

There are probably any number of other confusing bits surrounding the names of grapes and their origins but I’ll leave that for another time. For now you’ve done well to remember that there are two Cornalins and that Räuschling is not Riesling.

2 thoughts on “A Rose By Any Other Name: The Confusing State of Grapes in Switzerland

  1. I just discovered this while looking for info to explain my confusion between Cornalin and Humagne Rouge after a recent visit to the Valais. This was very interesting and useful, and if I had found it first it would have save me from sending an email, in English, to the Musee du Vin in Sierre. So thank you.


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