Book Review: Roche et Vin: A la Découverte des Vignobles Suisses — Edited by Rainer Kündig (2018)

Roche et Vin — A la Découverte des Vignobles Suisses edited by Rainer Kündig 
AS Verlag & Grafik (2018)

When I moved to Switzerland from California, four years ago, I had some hard choices to make. Among them, what to do with my library of wine books. Forty years of collecting left me with hundreds of volumes which were far too many to drag overseas. I weighed bringing the most trusted volumes — Wine Grapes, The World Atlas of Wine and The Oxford Companion to Wine — but decided each will be available in a new edition soon and can be purchased as needed. In the end, I donated most of the collection to a budding community college culinary program and gifted the others to interested friends.

Besides, my new-found interest in Swiss wine demanded a new, more topical library.

The problem, I soon discovered, is that reference works pertaining to Swiss wine are almost non-existent. There are some old texts rendered in German gothic script that are undecipherable and some seriously out of date guides in French and German but there doesn’t exist a single overarching reference work that makes sense of it all.

Recently Swiss native José Vouillamoz, co-author of Wine Grapes, published a terrific book titled Cépages Suisses (reviewed here) that details native Swiss grapes. Even more recently Swiss Wine Promotion, a quasi-government marketing arm, published Wine Regions and Wines: Switzerland which is a handy guide but is, at best, rudimentary. There are a few good history books — my favorite is Histoire de la Vigne et du Vin en Valais, edited by Anne-Dominique Zufferey, and a couple of others that are published in association with regional wine museums — but there is nothing in depth or all-encompassing. One of the few in English is by an American, Ellen Wallace, whose book Vineglorious! Switzerland’s Wondrous World of Wines is a delightful exploration of the countryside including some visits to Switzerland’s best producers, but, as wonderful as it is, it’s not intended to be exhaustive.

So it was with great anticipation that I received my copy of Roche et Vin (Stein und Wein in German) a specialized reference work — ten years in the making — with highly detailed contributions from dozens of specialists within several disciplines. As its title indicates, but may not fully convey, this is a book about the geology of Swiss vineyards and the evolution of its distinctive wine terroirs. It discusses every component we think of when we think of site-specific terroir — soil, geology, aspect, climate, etc. — and it does so with concise explanations, graphs, maps, drawings and photographs. What’s more, it’s an attractively put together boxed-set with a main volume (livre principal) and ten regionally-specific booklets (livrets).

The main volume is 240 pages in length and nearly a complete reference work on its own. Its format is like that of the individual booklets but with a generalized national focus. It begins with a discussion of what makes Switzerland unique among the wine regions of Europe. As you might expect, its primary emphasis is upon Switzerland’s distinctive topography shaped by the Alpine orogeny and the scouring influence of massive glaciers. In one sense, everything else in the book is derived in some way from these two formative influences. The authors point out that Switzerland is the only wine producing country in Europe to have been covered entirely by glaciers during the last glacial period, so many of its features are influenced by the ebb and flow of ice sheets.

 

 

While there is great diversity of soil types and underlying rock to be found, most of Switzerland’s vineyards share a few things in common: glacial moraines — both lateral and terminal; hillslopes formed from weathering rock, landslides or alluvial fans; the almost universal presence of rivers and lakes; and the climate phenomenon known as foehn winds. More often than not at least one of these characteristics is present but most often they occur in combination.

The book describes with words and drawings that glacial moraines are created from the deposition of unsorted debris transported, sometimes over long distances, by the flow of ice. Moraines are everywhere in Switzerland but they are put to best effect in wine-growing regions when located adjacent to rivers and lakes. Not coincidentally, it’s the gouging action of the glacier that creates both the moraine and the lake. The vineyards of La Côte in Vaud, Neuchâtel, Lac de Bienne, Zürich and Vully are all moraines located on south facing slopes above their respective lakes.

The other landform common to Swiss vineyards is the hillslope most often found at the foot of mountain ranges. These are formed in several ways. First, from the accumulation of weathering rock (colluvium or éboulis in French) that falls from mountains above the slope. Next, from landslides (glissement de terrain) such as at Yvorne or the Grand Cru vineyard of Calamin in Lavaux. And lastly, from alluvial fans (cônes de déjection) formed from the flow of water, and the debris it carries, from higher elevations such as at Chomoson in Valais. 

From these foundational basics the book explains how these forms influence the vineyard and how the underlying rock participates in the expression of terroir. There is also discussion of the relevant geological eras, topography, surface soils, climate and hydrology common to Swiss vineyards but, it’s in the regional booklets that the granular details emerge.

 

 

One of the book’s most useful contributions is its departure from the commonly accepted practice of dividing Switzerland’s wine regions along political boundaries. Instead, it organizes the Swiss vignobles into ten sub-regions based on climate, geology and other unifying factors.

The ten regions (each the subject of its own booklet) are: (1) Jura Nord, (2) Plateau Alémanique, (3) Lacs Périalpins, (4) Vallée du Rhin Alpin, (5) Tessin, (6) Valais, (7) Chablais, (8) Balcon Lémanique, (9) Genève, (10) Les Trois Lacs.

This is an entirely new way of describing Switzerland’s wine regions and, in my opinion, it’s a better way. The book treats minor wine areas with as much detail as the more famous regions which provides valuable perspective when grappling with the minutiae of Swiss wine.

The authors play no favorites. After all, to a geologist the rock in one area is as interesting as the rock in another. Or, at least, that’s the message the book conveys. Thus, the often overlooked upper-Rhine vineyards of Trimmis, Zizers, Igis and Untervaz get equal billing with the big four of Bündner-Herrschaft — Malans, Jenins, Maienfeld and Fläsch. The little discussed vineyards of the Wallensee and the piecemeal vineyards of St. Gallen are grouped with the other upper-Rhine vineyards in a cohesive, logical way.

The specific nature of the sub-regional booklets allows for a focused look at the history, trends, micro-climates, underlying rock and other peculiarities of each region in a way that may be ignored in more general works. The attention to detail is amazing.

My only quibble with the book is the suggested tasting program that is intended to highlight the differences in organoleptic qualities that are determined by terroir. Because the book is aimed at a knowledgeable audience, its suggestions seem a bit simplistic and I’m not sure are terribly illustrative. Nevertheless, for a beginning student the lessons may prove useful.

Overall, Roche et Vin is a remarkable work that, to my knowledge, is one of a kind. I am unaware of any other book that tackles the subject of geology in such a country-specific context. It is already a reference work that I return to often and find incredibly helpful in my continuing investigation of Swiss wine.

Finally, Switzerland has a reference work worthy of its emerging place in the world of wine.

To order, go to rocheetvin.ch for details. (available in French or German only.)

 

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