This article first appeared in Trink Magazine — Issue 2, 14/12/2020
Every guide to Swiss wine begins with the same simple premise: There are six wine regions in Switzerland. That means one of them, Deutschschweiz, is forever miscast as a single entity, even though it encompasses nineteen cantons and covers two-thirds of the nation’s surface area.
Meanwhile, four of the other official regions are single cantons — Geneva, Vaud, Valais, and Ticino — each with its own story to tell; the sixth — the Three Lakes region — is geographically contiguous, linguistically mixed and, while quite small, celebrated for its diversity.
Why, I ask, is there so little deference shown the nineteen and so much attention to detail lavished on the rest?
A case in point is the canton of Zürich, the largest wine growing region in Deutschschweiz. It boasts five distinct sub-regions (Zürichsee, Limmattal, Zürcher Unterland, Winterthurer Weinland, and Zürcher Weinland), each loaded with traditions and peculiarities that are diminished by generalizations.
Zürcher Unterland, for instance, is the only sub-region with vineyards north of the Rhine — an exclave of sorts cut off from the rest of the canton by the river and surrounded everywhere else by international and cantonal borders.
This irregular appendage is far enough north to benefit from the same Vosges rain shadow that keeps Alsace dry and sunny, and it’s just south of the Black Forest, which also tends to mitigate some of the harsher elements of its latitude.
Local characteristics are also at play, as, for instance, in the riverside village of Eglisau.
My acquaintance with Eglisau began as many do — out of necessity.
Since the Middle Ages Eglisau has been a crossroads for travelers to and from Germany. Today it is home to two important north-south links: the A4 Motorway and Swiss Rail’s Rhine crossing built in 1896. I found myself there one day during harvest, waiting for a connection that regrettably came too soon. From my perch on the left bank of the river I could see the vineyard activity on the other side and vowed to get to know the village’s wines at the next opportunity.
The next summer I returned for a comprehensive tasting of Räuschlings from around Zürich, including those from Eglisau natives Urs Pircher and Mathias Bechtel.
Written references to Eglisau as a settlement began in 892 A.D., but given that there were earlier Roman settlements nearby — including Zürich (Turicum, 90 A.D.) — it’s likely this prime spot on the Rhine was already well known for viticulture. It’s even more likely considering vinifera varieties were thriving in Burgundy and the Mosel by the second century.
Despite its tiny size (15.5 hectares) and scale (one cooperative and three independent producers), Eglisau packs a heavyweight punch. It’s located on the Swiss Plateau atop calcium-rich lacustrine and marine deposits overlain with sand and alluvial gravel. Some of the highest grade aggregate stone in the world comes from nearby gravel pits.
Eglisau’s vineyards rise from the Rhine’s right bank to 470 meters. The incline varies, but at its steepest it’s around 50% with a direct southern exposure.
The main vineyard, Stadtberg, is divided into two. The steep Hinterer Stadtberg is closest to the river and overhangs its slow-moving waters. Behind it is a forested hill that shields the vines from cold northern winds, while warmer circulating air from the river protects it from frost. A small parcel known as Oberriet is located slightly upstream, with an eastern perimeter that forms the border with canton Schaffhausen.
The Vorder Stadtberg lies to the west and is roughly one-third the size of Hinterer, or 3.5 hectares. The two are divided by a torrent and a wooded combe that funnels cooler air to the low spots near the river. Vorder is considerably less steep and nicely positioned between the lower and upper halves of the village as it steps up from the river’s edge. Finally, there are four small parcels above Vorder Stadtberg known as Im Wiler.
Of the 15.5 hectares, 10.75 are devoted to Pinot Noir, 1.5 to Müller-Thurgau, .33 to Räuschling, and 2.9 to other, mostly hybrid, varieties.
The Hand of Man
Lest you think nature alone created this vineyard tableau, man was heavily involved in its evolution as well. The 1950s ushered in an era of agricultural renewal, akin to Germany’s Flurbereinigung, with a federal initiative to “ameliorate” many of Switzerland’s underperforming assets, including some vineyards considered derelict.
In Eglisau, this meant the reconstruction of Stadtberg to improve its output and to accommodate mechanized labor. The vineyard was completely replanted with phylloxera resistance in mind and the rows reconfigured from vertical to horizontal. Smaller parcels were consolidated into larger ones with an emphasis on efficiency.
Even more impactful was the construction of a joint German-Swiss hydro power plant in 1920, which brought both a desired source of dependable energy to the region and the unintended consequence of improving the mesoclimate of the village and its vineyards.
In order to regulate the river’s flow and the amount of electricity it produced, the water level behind the dam was raised by eight meters. What was once a rapidly flowing river became a lake of sorts with an almost imperceptible flow. The “lake effect” raised the temperature in this rather narrow corridor and increased the reflected light on the vines. As a result, the seasonal cycle of the vine was advanced and the threat of late spring frosts negated.
For more than 50 years, the Pircher family name has been synonymous with Eglisau and the Stadtberg. It was Urs Pircher who cemented the reputation of Stadtberg as one of Switzerland’s grand crus. He is a charter member of the prestigious Mémoire des Vins Suisses and his Pinot Noir “Stadtberg” is his winery’s worthy representative.
What’s not so well known is that Pircher is also an able and willing mentor — just ask Mathias Bechtel.
Bechtel, 36, came to Eglisau in 2007 with a degree in hand from Changins, the famed enology and viticulture school in Vaud. Although born in Graubünden, he was discouraged by the limited opportunities there. After some searching, he landed in the Pircher family cellars and during his seven years there rose to cellar master. All the while, he dabbled in his own small projects until the opportunity came in 2014 to lease a small cellar and parcel of vines in Eglisau.
He was off and running.
In 2017, he doubled-down by leasing a winery and vineyards from owners who were anticipating retirement. The lease included a parcel of land in the village, near Vorder, where he built his dream winery just in time for the 2019 harvest.
The accolades came quickly and often. His 2015 Pinot Noir won a Grand Gold in the 2017 edition of the Mondial des Pinots. Vinum magazine named him their “Discovery of the Year” in 2015 and Gault-Millau named him Swiss “Rookie of the Year” in 2019.
Today Bechtel farms 3.6 hectares in Hinterer and has recently planted 1.8 hectares in Vorder. The new parcel contains Räuschling, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Riesling. The latter two are unusual for the area and, he notes, are bets on climate change.
As part of his commitment to responsible farming, he is assisting the village and commune in the renovation of Vorder. The entire vineyard is again being reorganized, with 10% of its surface area dedicated to native plant species and habitat for beneficial insects. The goal is to limit and eventually ban all synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
For now, he continues to supplement his production with several varieties from nearby growers.
While I love Pircher’s wines for their pioneering exploration of Eglisau’s terroir, they are considerably more technical in execution and presentation than Bechtel’s. Missing in many Swiss wines is the alluring element of texture as an expression of great terroir. Many winemakers speak of the connection, but not everyone can tease it out. It seems Bechtel can and when he is able to source from his own vineyards I expect him to show us.
His stated goal — to express everything variety and site have to offer — might seem trite but with Bechtel there is a sense of inevitability to his vision.
It appears that Bechtel is also influenced by his association with Junge Schweiz Neue Winzer, a collegial think tank/tasting and support group of some of Switzerland’s most innovative and outward-looking young winemakers.
Case in point is Bechtel’s entirely unorthodox Räuschling. It bears no resemblance to the autochthonous variety’s typical austere style, which may have contributed to its near demise. Instead, Bechtel’s is fat and juicy with a touch of sawdust aroma from time spent in acacia puncheons. I expect the new wood character will be less of a feature as things move along, but right now it adds an intriguing note to an otherwise exotic, spicy Räuschling that sets new boundaries for the variety.
Bechtel’s two cuvées of Sauvignon Blanc are unusual for Switzerland in that they actually have body and texture. The tank-fermented version is as good as it gets if you like black currant leaf, mandarin, and floral notes that segue into passion fruit and peach with air.
His barrique-fermented, lees-influenced example is called “Fumé”, and it reminds me of Robert Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc of yesteryear.
Then there are three Pinot Noirs. The easy-drinking, juicy, smashed raspberry exuberance of the Blauburgunder is dedicated to the Swiss clone, Mariafeld. The straight Pinot is from another Swiss clone, 2/45, which gives more spice and structure — enough to support the wood frame it carries.
Finally, the Bechtus is a wine destined to compete with Switzerland’s finest. It comes from the steepest parts of Hinterer in a parcel that achieves extra ripeness. With cuvées like this, too much of a good thing is always a risk, so it may be that it excels in cooler years. We’ll have to wait and see, which is part of the fun when watching new talent.
Missing from my tasting was his Chardonnay, which is reputed to be among the finest in Switzerland, and, of course, his Riesling, which I imagine would be excellent and right at home in Eglisau am Rhein.
To some it may seem Eglisau is limited in its offerings, and perhaps it is in a strict numbers sense, but the balance is perfect. There’s a venerable, quality-minded tactician at one end of the village and a young, anything-is-possible upstart at the other. Between them is a magnificent landscape and vineyard that has yet to be fully interpreted. I promise, it has a lot more to say.