Swiss Wine: The Grand Cru Confusion Explained

One of the most frustrating (and intriguing) things about researching Swiss wine is the diligence required to gather information across three languages and twenty-six, more-or-less autonomous cantons. The bottom-up system of Swiss government means that each canton retains broad powers to regulate its own affairs. From there, it only takes a little digging to discover that wine is the most recondite affair in Switzerland.

Ironically, conformity — usually a way of life here — is not even an afterthought when it comes to wine. Each canton (and sometimes a single commune) is free to improvise as long as it meets generous, federally-mandated minimum standards. (see: Charts I & II). One particularly frustrating example of non-conformity are the terms Grand Cru and Premier Grand Cru which appear quite frequently on bottles of wine from the canton of Vaud. What does it all mean? Does it actually mean anything?

Federal Minimum Brix and Maximum Yields (Charts I & II)

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Grand Cru in Vaud

The designation “Grand Cru” is familiar to most wine enthusiasts as the highest rank among the great vineyards of Burgundy. There, the Grand Gru AOC comes with its own cahier des charges which mandates more stringent production standards than for levels below it. The designation purports to represent the highest quality within its region. In Alsace the term Grand Cru also attaches to the land and with it a more strict cahier des charges than for lesser-rated neighbors. In other countries the term can be used misleadingly to denote a higher level of quality without a specific connection to terroir or more restrictive regulations. Sadly, the term is often used to inflate the market perception of ordinary wine.

In Vaud the term Grand Cru straddles the line. In reality, it’s a lofty moniker granted to any of the permitted varieties — dozens of them —  which meet the alarmingly low threshold set by the canton’s regulatory body. That threshold is three-fold: wine from a single vintage; 90% of which comes from a “lieu de production” (usually a village), or a “commune” with the remaining 10% sourced from anywhere within the same “region viticole“; and finally, minimum sugar levels at harvest that exceed the AOC baseline by 5º oeschle (1º-1.5º Brix). (see: Chart III). That’s it. Nothing more is required.

If you’re wondering about maximum permitted yields, you’re in for some frustration. One of the other quirks of Vaud law is the annual announcement of maximum permissible yields before each harvest. (see: Chart IV). Annoyingly, the standard is measured in liters per square meter (which makes it difficult to compare to more common metrics) but the important takeaway is that Grand Cru and AOC levels in Vaud are exactly the same. There is no distinction. Most quality-focused producers I know are derisive of this failure to require more stringent standards.

Bottom line: If the words Grand Cru do not appear on the label of a bottle of wine from Vaud, it’s probably best to avoid it. As it stands, the words Grand Cru are not much of a guarantee, either. Stick with quality, dedicated producers.

Canton Vaud AOC Minimum Brix (Chart III)

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Canton Vaud Maximum Yields (l/m²) in 2019 (Chart IV)

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Premier Grand Cru

The “Premier Grand Cru” (PGC) designation is unique to Vaud, and then only since 2011. It requires a more rigorous set of production standards but has a somewhat arbitrary component that involves the vetting of real estate. The vetting process, conducted by the Premier Grand Cru Commission, weighs the history and reputation of each candidate’s vineyard or parcel, its terroir, and the aging potential of the wines produced from it. The Commission authorizes use of the term only after the candidate’s submitted dossier is scrutinized and approved and a tasting of several vintages, including one that is at least ten years old, proves that the submission meets its criteria. Deference is given to properties with “Clos”, “Château”, “Abbaye”, or “Domaine” in the title as these are properties most likely to maintain historical records. Not coincidentally, most of these properties are owned by large, deep-pocketed wine companies with an interest and the means to advocate for their vineyards.

Today the designation applies to forty-one hectares spread between twenty-seven parcels and numerous producers, some with multiple holdings. This is up from twelve producers in 2011.

Other requirements for PGC status are that the grapes be 100% from the same terroir with a minimum planting density of 6,000 vines per hectare. These must be at least seven years old and farmed using production integrée, organic or similar protocols. They must be made from one of the approved varieties, hand harvested, with minimum levels of sugar at harvest, and maximum yields. (see: Chart V).

I generally find wines labelled with the PGC nomenclature to be of elevated quality, but they are much rarer, for obvious reasons, and unlikely to be familiar to most drinkers. This is actually a program with some teeth, but I fear it may be out of reach for many smaller producers without the time or the means to present a compelling case for the quality of their vineyards.

Canton Vaud Premier Grand Cru Minimum Brix & Maximum Yield (Chart V)

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Grand Cru in Valais

Valais is the only AOC permitted in this semi-isolated canton and it can apply to more than seventy varieties. Therefore, unlike Burgundy, a Grand Cru is not an AOC. It’s merely a designation that must appear on the label next to the name of the commune from which it comes.

In Valais the designation Grand Cru takes on a bit more gravitas than it does in Vaud. Minimum levels of sugar at harvest are established by cantonal authorities — here they exceed Vaud’s PGCs — while maximum yields are roughly the same. (see: Charts VII &VIII). As in Vaud, quality producers will routinely do better than the law mandates.

Where Valais really differs is in how the Grand Cru category is defined. Here the canton cedes authority to the communes (municipalities) to determine the best grapes for its particular terroir. Each commune must consider its history with each permitted grape, its particular terroir, and which varieties in which sites deliver the best quality. In this way the variety is matched to the land which gives each commune a potential point of difference from its peers.

The canton’s Grand Cru regulations place the emphasis on native and traditional varieties which is consistent with the overall push to increase diversity in the vineyards. (see: Chart VI). For example, Vétroz which contains 33 of the 40 hectares of Amigne in the world is uniquely positioned to claim the variety as its own. In gneiss-laden Fully, the steely, mineral side of Petite Arvine is beautifully expressed while Fully Gamay can approach those Beaujolais crus so dependent on granite for their perfume and intensity. Visperterminen has a leg up on warmer sites below when it comes to its old, high-elevation Savagnin vineyards. The versatile rubble from ancient landslides in Chamoson gives it a diversity of climats that range from the only Grand Cru Sylvaner vineyard to old-vines Syrah. Cornalin du Valais thrives as a Grand Cru in five cantons but none better than in Sierre with its schist and limestone.

List of Valais Communes and Their Grand Crus (Chart VI)
Chamoson: Sylvaner, Petite Arvine, Pinot Noir, Syrah
Savièse: Chasselas, Pinot Noir, Dôle
Visperterminen: Savagnin
Conthey: Chasselas, Savagnin, Pinot Noir, Cornalin du Valais
Fully: Petite Arvine, Marsanne, Gamay, Syrah
Leytron: Chasselas, Humagne Blanc, Humagne Rouge, Cornalin du Valais
Saillon: Petite Arvine, Syrah, Humagne Rouge, Cornalin du Valais
Salgesch: Gamay, Pinot Noir, Cornalin du Valais, Syrah
Sierre: Petite Arvine, Marsanne, Syrah, Cornalin du Valais
St-Léonard: Chasselas, Pinot Noir
Sion: Chasselas, Marsanne, Dôle, Syrah
Vétroz: Amigne, Chasselas, Gamay, Pinot Noir

 

On the flip side, as plantings of Grand Cru stalwarts Pinot Noir, Gamay and Chasselas diminish there will be more room for nearly extinct natives like Plantscher, Diolle, Completer, and others to assume their rightful places in the Valais hierarchy — and perhaps a future appearance on the roster of permitted varieties.

There are a few other house-keeping requirements for Grand Cru designation including a minimum vine age of eight years and a roster of permitted vine-training and trellising systems. In the cellar, assemblages are not allowed except for Grand Cru Dôle and some excellent sweet wines. Other than that the emphasis is on the terroir, which is where it should be.

Canton Valais AOC and Permitted Grand Cru Varieties Minimum Brix & Maximum Yield (Charts VII & VIII)

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