Book Review: Cépages Suisses: Histoires et Origines (2017)

Cépages Suisses—Histoires et Origines  by José Vouillamoz  Éditions Favre (2017)

When you think about Switzerland and its wine you probably don’t think of the incredible diversity of its vineyards (252 cultivars) or the tiny area that contains them (just under 15,000 hectares—the same as in Alsace). It’s safe to say the sheer volume of diverse genetic material per hectare is among the most concentrated in the world, yet there are thousands of clones and genetic accessions preserved in nurseries and conservatories around the nation that are not even counted. It’s really quite staggering to think about but it reflects the diversity and strength of the Swiss wine industry and the promise of its future.

One of the people concerned with its future and charged with identifying and cataloguing the Swiss grape patrimony is Dr. José Vouillamoz—world renowned vine geneticist, unofficial ambassador of Swiss wine and and co-author (with Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW) of Wine Grapes: A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours (2012).

He is credited, along with colleagues at UC Davis in California—including his professor Dr. Carole Meredith—and others at the Université de Neuchâtel in Switzerland, with advancing the science of DNA profiling and grape identification. This important work provides insight not only into the origin of grape varieties but also into the migratory patterns of people and cultures throughout history. Looking forward, this type of research may also prove critical for the future of wine and its shifting landscape caused by climate change. We are particularly fortunate that Dr. Vouillamoz is a Swiss native and somewhat partial to local grapes.

While every bit the scientist, Dr. Vouillamoz is also an entertaining speaker known to mesmerize even ascetic Masters of Wine with his charming Power Point presentations on grapevine genetics and the importance of autocthonous varieties. He is particularly adept at refuting old tales on the origin of grapes including his now famous (in Switzerland at least) proclamation that Chasselas is native to the Lec Léman region. He currently operates a consultancy in his home of Sion, Switzerland.

His new book, Cépages Suisses—Histoires et Origines, is a narrowly focused follow-up to the more ambitious Wine Grapes. It’s really a very simple book that belies the incredibly difficult technical work required to write it. The book’s construction is straightforward. Dr. Vouillamoz identifies three classes of vines in Switzerland before focusing specifically on one of them. The three broad categories are:

1) Les Indigènes or native varieties whose histories reside entirely within Switzerland (80 types);

2) Les Traditionnels or traditional varieties (Pinot Noir, Savagnin, Gamay, etc.) found in Switzerland before 1900 (23 types);

3) Les Allogènes or non-native varieties which arrived post-phylloxera, after 1900, and which form the bulk of the Swiss vignobles (152 types).

Cépages Suisses is a book about the first category, Les Indigènesthe 80 native grapes that he further divides according to type:

1) Les Cépages Patrimoniaux or patrimonial varieties: those spontaneous crosses born in Switzerland (21 types)— including some that are not demonstrably native but are considered so because they are exclusive to Switzerland;

2) Les Croisements or artificial crosses: a new variety derived from the union of two different vinifera varieties and developed in Switzerland (16 types);

3) Les Hybrides or hybrids: a new variety derived from the union of two different grape species (vinifera x labrusca, for example) and developed in Switzerland (43 types).

For each variety Dr. Vouillamoz offers a brief overview including its principal synonyms, a brief history of origin and genetic profile, the etymology of its name, and a brief characterization of the wine produced including a list of recommended producers. Each is supported by a diagram of its family tree, including missing links, and a photograph or illustration of a representative bunch.

Besides being a sturdy reference work with plenty of facts and figures Dr. Vouillamoz gives us a peek into the current state of native grape reclamation. For instance, Completer—a variety found mostly in Graubünden but with an historical presence elsewhere in Switzerland—is enjoying a renaissance in Valais thanks to several speculative plantings in the vineyards of Clos de Tsampéhro, Marie-Thérèse Chappaz and Valentina Andrei.

Dr. Vouillamoz himself is working with Didier Joris in Chamoson to resurrect the nearly extinct native white variety, Diolle, and is a first-hand witness to its revival.

He mentions other names too—pioneers in their own right—who work to safeguard the varieties dear to them: Stefano Haldemann of Ticino works with Bondola and Bandoletta; Olivier Pittet of Valais with Grosse Arvine; Noel Eichenberger of Lucerne with Hitzkircher; Chanton Kellerei of Haut-Valais with Lafnetscha and Eyholzer Roter; and Markus Weber of Zürich who champions the little known Schwarzer Erlenbacher.

In some cases a commune or village acts to protect and promote its own heritage vines. The commune of Bovernier, for instance, with its Goron de Bovernier and the village of Esch with its precious few vines of Himbertscha.

We learn that some natives have been recently retrieved from the endangered list and now are at a tipping point thanks to the work of multiple growers and a resurgent consumer interest. These include, Rouge de Fully (Durize), Räuschling, Humagne Blanc and Rèze.

Others, while not exactly mainstream, are enjoying an increasing international reputation including Rouge du Pays (Cornalin du Valais), Humagne Rouge (Cornalin d’Aoste), Amigne and Petite Arvine. All are on the upswing and quality improvements are moving apace.

Sadly, an unfortunate few may be headed to conservatories to live out their remaining years as museum pieces. One such is Gros Bourgogne (Plantscher) which currently has no champion.

Dr. Vouillamoz’s discussion of native hybrids alerts us to the rise of the PIWI (disease resistant) varieties which may offer solutions for northern grape growers who want to preserve a sustainable, if not organic, profile for their vineyards.

Artificial crosses developed in Switzerland—some with the disease resistant qualities of the hybrids—are presented as alternatives to international varieties to be used for amelioration (added color and tannins) and, when appropriate, as stand-alone varieties—Gamaret is a great example.

While Cépages Suisses is mostly a scientific reference work that reflects an immense amount of complicated research it is beautifully presented in an easily digestible form. It’s also one of the few works devoted specifically to Swiss wine. I’m certain to use it a lot in my own research.

For the moment it is only available in French but a German translation is in the works and an English version may not be far behind.

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