The Wine Rivers of Switzerland: The Rhine

If the Alps are “The Water Tower of Europe”, as they’re sometimes known, then the Witenwasserenstock, a mountain peak in central Switzerland, is the spigot. Its pointy summit (header photo) is one of the few triple watersheds in Europe and a feeder for the alpine catchments of the Rhine, Rhône and Po basins.

There’s more.

Take a look farther east and you’ll find the source of the Inn River, an early tributary in the lengthy run of the Danube. That means water from Switzerland flows into the North, Adriatic, Black and Mediterranean Seas from just two isolated mountaintops in the central Alps.

Throw in a few of Switzerland’s other major rivers — the Aare, Reuss and Ticino, all sourced nearby — and a few of the lakes they pass through — Thun, Lucerne and Constance — and you begin to wonder how there’s any space left for vineyards.

Not to worry.

Not only is there space, there’s prime real estate available; and due to the nature of alpine valleys, the steep slopes you find there are pretty much useless for anything else.

Water Works

Full exposure to the sun is just one of the main benefits of south-facing slopes along rivers and lakes. The sun in this case is not just direct light but reflected light from the surface of the water and re-radiated heat from dry stone terraces. That’s what the Vaudois mean when they speak of the “Three Suns” in Lavaux. Indeed, without this additional energy viticulture might not be possible in the northern latitudes at such elevations.

Rivers and lakes are also beneficial when they mitigate some of the harsher elements of a continental climate. Water exchanges heat and moisture with the atmosphere, thus influencing temperature, wind and other meteorological parameters. When situated next to water on a properly exposed hillside, vineyards are less likely to suffer from frost events.

River valleys indirectly assist in ripening fruit late in the growing season when they act as funnels for warm foehn winds. Likewise, channeled winds can help to dry rain-soaked vines and even disrupt the life-cycle of certain pests. Wind can be a powerful antiseptic and river valleys can enhance their benefits.

The valleys of the Rhine are no exception. In fact, they are critical to viticulture in the eastern part of Switzerland.

The Upper Rhine (Vorderrhein)

I don’t blame wine drinkers for thinking of Germany and riesling when they think of the Rhine or of France and syrah when they think of the Rhône, but to know the full story of both rivers you need to start in Switzerland.

The Upper Rhine begins its circuitous trek innocently enough as a small torrent in the canton of Graubünden at Lake Toma (altitude 2344 meters). With nary a vine in sight, the nascent river cuts violently downward giving up almost 1800 meters of altitude in a mere seventy kilometers of travel. From there it takes almost 1200 kilometers, four countries, one principality, and numerous vineyard landscapes to reach the North Sea.

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Lake Toma: The Source of the Rhine (photo: ©Disentis Sedrun Tourismus SA.)
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The Upper Course of the Rhine (photo: ©Disentis Sedrun Tourismus SA.)

The Rhine doesn’t begin to resemble its mighty self until it reaches the tiny village of Ilanz (699 m) where it swells and begins one of the most scenic portions of its journey. In a last hurrah before civilization and vine cultivation begins, the river enters the thrilling Upper Rhine Gorge (not to be confused with the Middle Rhine Gorge near the Lorelei in Germany) for its last glimpse of alpine wilderness.

Within a few kilometers of leaving the gorge the Vorderrhein meets the Hinterrhein (lower Rhine) at Reichenau (599 m) to form the single channel we know as the Rhine River.

From here on it’s agriculture, industry and people — more than 50 million of them within its multi-national drainage basin.

The Churer Rheintal (Chur Rhine Valley) — Graubünden

Within a few kilometers of the confluence at Reichenau, the first vineyards appear in the left bank village of Felsberg. These postage stamp-sized parcels supply grapes to the von Tscharner family at Schloss Reichenau.

Gian-Battista von Tscharner, the owner, loves to tell anyone who listens how Schloss Reichenau is the first winery located on the long course of the Rhine. This interesting fact is one way to wrap your head around the sheer number of vineyards to come. Reichenau’s setting is as dramatic as any other on the river’s path and strategically important thanks to its history as a toll station for medieval travelers to and from Italy.

At Chur, reputed to be the oldest city in Switzerland, the river turns north toward the great vineyards of Bündner-Herrschaft. Not to be missed, however, are two handkerchief-sized parcels within the city limits. Lochert and Orphannage Wingert are literally urban vineyards completely surrounded by housing. These fairy tale, old-vine parcels are reserved for the top wines of Schloss Reichenau — two excellent Churer pinot noirs named for the aforementioned, Gian-Battista, and his son, Johan-Battista.

As the river flows past Chur, there are a few vineyards on its right bank in the villages of Trimmis and Zizers. This unpretentious slice of rural Switzerland is a bit under appreciated given the potential of its wines. In some ways the area can be likened to the Côte Chalonnaise, especially when compared to the Côte d’Or aspirations of its more famous neighbors Malans, Jenins, Maienfeld and Fläsch. It’s mostly an up and coming region with a few established wineries waiting to be discovered by outsiders and a few more waiting to be rehabilitated by the next generation. Good pinot noir and speciality varieties like merlot and sauvignon blanc are found here.

Bündner-Herrschaft

You might get an argument from a few producers in Aargau and some in Schaffhausen as to who makes the best pinot noir in Deutschschweiz, but to the international community and most informed observers it’s in the villages of Bündner-Herrschaft where the most famous wines are made.

These charming villages on the right bank of the Rhine are a mere two-hour drive from Zürich and a perfect weekend playground for wine lovers. Generations-old wineries stand next to sleek second homes for affluent Zürchers without any of the obvious excesses of Napa or Los Olivos. There are charming restaurants that specialize in the local cuisine and hard to find wines of the region. The nearby resort town of Bad Ragaz offers other amenities such as golf, thermal springs and a casino. Walks along the Rhine and visits to the vineyards are free of charge and the star attraction, world-class pinot noir, is everywhere.

The volume of pinot noir produced in all of Deutschschweiz is dwarfed by that of the German Rhineland, particularly in Baden, Pfalz, and the Rheingau, but 42% of Swiss-German vineyards are dedicated to the variety — a much higher percentage than in Germany. The concentration of pinot noir is even greater in the vineyards along the Swiss Rhine and up to 73% in Bündner-Herrschaft alone.

The pinots from this region deserve a place on the world stage but tiny quantities make even cursory distribution unlikely.

The Sankt Gallen Rheintal (St. Gallen Rhine Valley) — St. Gallen 

Upon leaving Bündner-Herrschaft the Rhine turns eastward into the Sankt Gallen Rheintal. The narrow entrance to the valley offers no clue as to the flat plain to come. Here the Rhine marks the border with Lichtenstein and later with Austria. As the valley widens and the Rhine assumes a northeasterly course a few suitable southern exposures are created on the slopes of the left bank. Nearly one fourth of St. Gallen’s vineyards are located in this valley, mostly in the villages of Widnau and Berneck. Two of the canton’s best wineries, Schmid Wetli and Tobias Weingut are located there.

Within a few kilometers of Berneck the Rhine splits in two with both branches draining into Lake Constance at different points. The straightened segment, engineered to increase the gradient and prevent flooding, is located entirely in Austria, while the much smaller Alter Rhein flows to the northwest and marks the actual border with Austria. Here you will find a distinct macroclimate influenced by the lake, similar to that of Thurgau’s south shore. The village of Thal is the center of this wine region, though it is considered part of the Sankt Gallen Rheintal.

The wines from this valley are somewhat old-fashioned and rarely seen in other parts of Switzerland. Pinot noir is the dominant red grape and müller-thurgau the dominant white, but disease resistant PIWIs and hybrids are plentiful. There is a brisk tourist trade in the summer months when much of the local wine is consumed in restaurants and taverns.

Thurgau

Canton Thurgau’s brief flirtation with the Rhine is via its passage through Lake Constance. The Swiss half of the lake is along the south shore which is mostly built-up to accommodate tourist traffic and may be a bit too valuable for vineyards. Most of Thurgau’s best vineyards are farther inland, along the parallel Thur River corridor. Schlossgut Bachtobel, Weingut Wolfer and Bio-Weingut Lenz are among Thurgau’s most famous producers located along the Thur.

Once through the upper lake, the Rhine emerges at Konstanz where it immediately enters a shallow lower lake known as the Untersee. Along this part of the lakeshore one finds a few gently rolling vineyards dominated by müller-thurgau. The tourist villages of Steckborn, Salenstein, and Ermatingen are well frequented during the summer months and the wine from these vineyards is mostly tourist fare.

A small finger of Thurgau is sandwiched along the Rhine’s left bank between the neighboring cantons of Zürich and Schaffhausen. This tiny area contains several vineyards in the villages of Basadingen and Schlattingen, although the wines from there are not particularly special.

The High Rhine — Schaffhausen, Zürich, Aargau and Basel-Landschaft

As the Rhine exits the Untersee near Stein am Rhein in canton Schaffhausen, the border with Germany is set back from the river far enough to allow some south-facing slopes on the right bank. This part of the Rhine, from Stein am Rhein to Basel, is known as the High Rhine. There are 32 hectares here on lighter sand and gravel soils. This is a high-potential area that has thus far underachieved.

Schaffhausen’s greatest vineyards are in the Klettgau villages of Hallau, Oberhallau, Trasadingen, Osterfingen and Gächlingen. Even though they are located several kilometers from the Rhine it is worth noting that the river once flowed through the valley before changing course hundreds of thousands of years ago. When it did, it assumed a meandering course to the south creating a series of hairpin turns that play tag with the borders of Schaffhausen and Zürich and render the border with Germany a constant moving target.

This area is one of the driest in eastern Switzerland with soils of Jurassic limestone that rise out of nowhere. Pinot noir is dominant here. Look for this area to excel in future vintages and for one of its stars, Markus Ruch, to shine the brightest.

Just before the final hairpin turn of the Rhine are the last of the Schaffhausen wine villages — Buchberg and Rüdlingen. Wines from this area are strictly local and not commonly found in other parts of Switzerland.

Zürich

While most of canton Zürich’s important vineyards are found along Lake Zürich and the Limmat River there are two Rhine River villages of note.

Oddly enough, one of them is within sight of the famous Rheinfall (the largest waterfall in Europe) just outside Schaffhausen. These uniquely positioned vineyards are located in the village of Laufen-Uhwiesen, home to the celebrated biodynamic producer Weingut Besson-Strasser. Even though the village is part of the Schaffhausen sprawl, it is situated in canton Zürich, shoe-horned between two bends in the river. The reflected light there is as intense as the throbbing energy from the falls.

The Besson-Strasser’s are best known for their different cuvées of pinot noir but their passion may lie with the local speciality, räuschling, and, most unexpectedly, malbec.

Farther on, past the villages of Buchberg and Rüdlingen, the Rhine straightens to begin its run to the west. First stop is the medieval village of Eglisau, considered one of the most beautiful in Switzerland, with centuries of winemaking tradition and some of the most photogenic vineyards anywhere. They literally run to the river’s edge where the reflected light is most intense.

Urs Pircher of Weingut Pircher is the undisputed star of the village. His pinots are among the best in Switzerland and easily among the most affordable. Not to be missed, however, are two excellent whites made from pinot gris and räuschling.

One of the most satisfying days of my professional life was spent on the sunny terrace of a local restaurant overlooking the river with a plate of rösti and veal sausage while sipping a Pircher räuschling. Magic.

The Pircher vineyards at Eglisau (photo: Weingut Pircher)

Aargau

Aargau’s vineyards are an enigma. Most of them are located some distance from the Rhine but one always has the sense a river is nearby. That’s because Aargau is a canton of rivers — the Rhine, Aare, Reuss and Limmat all run through it. The largest of the four based on rate of discharge is the Aare, so when it meets the Rhine near the villages of Döttingen and Klingnau, there is a particular macroclimate unlike other parts of the canton. I see Aargau as the Wild West of Swiss wine regions with huge potential when things get sorted out.

One of Switzerland’s greatest pinot noirs is from the Kloster Sion vineyard in Klingnau made by Weingut zum Sternen. The soils there are of the same blue clay as found in Pomerol and the microclimate is moderated by the confluence of several rivers and a reservoir nearby. This is one of the most powerful pinots of the region.

The rest of Aargau consists of discrete vineyards located in small isolated valleys which are not affected by nearby water. Highly perfumed and delicate pinots are the norm, including those from star winemaker, Tom Litwan.

Basel-Landschaft

In the neighboring canton of Basel-Landschaft there are a few excellent vineyards a short distance from the Rhine at Maisprach and Magden, but it’s at Muttenz — a suburb of Basel — where one finds the best vineyards.

Most prominent is the Wartenberg Hill whose lower half is festooned with vines for nearly 180 degrees of its lower circumference — much like the hill of Corton, which it resembles.

Weingut Jauslin is gaining attention for it single-vineyard “Hohle Gasse” pinot noir from the Wartenberg hillside.

The Hill of Wartenberg near the end of the Rhine’s Swiss run.
photo: https://www.lkwartebaerg.ch

I love that the vineyards of Muttenz are south-facing and look away from the river. It’s as if the vines are refusing a proper goodbye as the river leaves Switzerland. At least it leaves behind a legacy of wine and a lot of beauty.

Final thought: If it wasn’t for riesling would the Rhine be better known for pinot noir?

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