A Swiss Wine Primer

A Political Overview

Switzerland is a federation of 26 cantons, each with a high degree of autonomy, under a decentralized, federal government located in Bern. Its three main cultural and linguistic groups—German, French and Italian—are thus assured that no one group can dominate the national legislature and that local issues are resolved on a local basis. This system has obviously worked well for generations but it can have its drawbacks, especially when a complex and nuanced commercial enterprise is at stake. Wine is just such an enterprise.

The somewhat odd and asymmetrical balance of Swiss wine appellations (AOC’s) is an example of the peculiar results possible from this form of government. The state, otherwise known as the Confederation, is most active in matters of foreign policy, money supply, import/export, national security and defense. In most other areas, including the wine industry, the concept of subsidiarity applies: nothing that can be done at a lower political level should be done at a higher political level. Subsidiarity places power in the hands of the people at the communal level which then flows upward to the cantonal level should the commune defer or prove inadequate for the task at hand. Frequent ballot initiatives and referendums triggered by citizen-based petitions are a way of life—very rewarding at times and frustrating at others. It is precisely this decentralized form of government that inspires some quirky and potentially damaging wine related outcomes—such as two cantons with different AOC strategies—Valais, the largest region, has only one AOC; while Neuchâtel, a much smaller region, claims a ponderous twenty-four. In this case autonomy is served at the expense of sound judgment. Results like these can debase the notion of terroir and specificity and ultimately undermine the “uniqueness” of place so important to the hierarchy and marketing of wine.

Not coincidentally, the lack of a cohesive strategy between the cantons frequently leads to squandered opportunities in foreign markets. It’s anecdotal but often repeated that winemakers from one region shun the wines from another in a provincial display of shortsightedness. This lack of cooperation works against mutually beneficial goals and policies thus limiting the marketing clout of government trade initiatives and commercial associations.

This is not to say that the federal government is passive and aloof. In 1992 it instituted much needed AOC legislation designed to facilitate the transition from a quantity to a quality-based model after the French system. Unfortunately, it may have left too much discretion in the hands of the cantons when it could have guided a merit-based, terroir-driven process for AOC certification.

In areas of research the federal government does take a leading role. Institutions such as Agroscope Changins-Wädenswil are furthering research in areas of commercial wine production, organics, clonal diversity and the development of fungus resistant hybrids suited to the Swiss climate. The ubiquitous Wädenswil cloneof pinot noir is perhaps the most famous creation to come from this government sponsored research. It is an early ripening form of the cultivar, the one most commonly found in Switzerland and the preferred clone for many of the early plantings in Oregon and other cool climate sites. It is an immensely important contribution to the cool climate repertoire of grapes.

There is also some recent evidence that the federal government is getting even more involved in the affairs of wine. Federal legislation intended to safeguard consumers from illegally blended or mislabeled wine has recently passed, usurping cantonal authority in the process, and putting an end to some dubious local customs and outright fraud by standardizing truth in labeling across the country. What’s in the bottle should now be clearly stated on the label.

Privately, trade organizations such as Swiss Wine Promotion are working to boost the image of Swiss wine at home and abroad by bringing together different cantonal factions into a single, cohesive body with shared common interests.

Change does seem to be on the way.

The Vignobles

Switzerland is divided into six distinct wine regions: Geneva, Vaud, Valais and the Three Lakes comprise the French-speaking part or SuisseRomande; the German-speaking part, Deutschschweiz, is considered a broad single entity that includes 17 cantons; and the Italian-speaking part is represented by the single canton of Ticino.

Geologically, the Swiss vineyards are as diverse as they are dramatic. The forces of continental collision (Africa and Eurasia) two million years ago give Switzerland and its alpine region much of its current look. Subsequent ice ages, one as recent as 10,000 years ago, have left an indelible mark as well. Through massive uplifting caused by colliding continental plates an array of rock formations, now exposed to the surface, create the Alps distinctive folds and its unique terroir. Clay and sand-based alluvial soils are found near rivers. Morainic soils (small stones and gravel) are found in and around lakes, in valleys and wherever else glaciers flowed and retreated. Marl, molasse, sandstone and complex layers of conglomerate and metamorphic rock—especially shale, limestone, granite and crystalline rock—are commonly found at or near the surface of many vineyards. In short, the Swiss terroir is complex and an invaluable ally in the pursuit of quality wine.

Within all of this complexity lies a single unifying characteristic: elevation. Virtually all of the nation’s vineyards are to be found within a range of 400-1100 meters above sea level. Elevation in this range, at such northerly latitudes, and within a continental climate zone does require some compensations.

Vine diversity is one such compensation. Most vineyards are planted with a mix of cultivars which results in an array of wines from a single winery. This diversity is a form of crop insurance against the misfortune of one or more cultivars in a given season. Well conceived vineyards will have early ripening cultivars mixed in with later ripening ones and disease resistant hybrids mixed with the classics.

The Swiss vignobles share other common characteristics to help mitigate the disadvantages of its climate. Most successful wine areas are located near the mediating influence of lakes and rivers; some with the stone-faced terraces that trap and release heat throughout the day; others with the beneficial foehn winds that warm cooler areas and dry the rainy ones; almost all are exposed to the south or south-west sun and when coupled with light and/or heat reflective soils are greatly enhanced. Most terroirs have a combination of these mitigating influences which when taken together make grape cultivation a possibility.

Legend

What follows is a synopsis of each region, a visual guide to each of the 85 AOC’s with other lieu dits, terroirs and geographical areas of importance included. The legend below includes four categories: The Main Regions listed in the yellow box  are not meant to signify an AOC but refer to one of the six wine areas; Vaud and German Switzerland are expanded to allow for greater specificity. AOC’s are shown in the green, blue and pink boxes unless marked with an asterisk. An area marked with an asterisk is not an AOC but is an area of importance and perhaps a candidate for future AOC recognition.

Maps are courtesy of winecity.ch.

Format Key

The Six Wine Zones of Switzerland

Vineyard area: 14,793 hectares (2015 OFAG Statistics)
Percentage of white grapes by cultivar:
Chasselas 61%
Müller-Thurgau 7%
Chardonnay 6%
Others 26%
Percentage of red grapes by cultivar:
Pinot Noir 49%
Gamay 16%
Merlot 13%
Others 22%
Yield: 850,451 hl


Geneva

Vineyard area: 1,424 hectares—Yield: 77,433 hl
Mandement (Rive Droite): 834 hectares—Entre Arve at Rhône: 327 hectares—Entre Arve et Lac (Rive Gauche): 263 hectares

Predominant cultivars: chasselas 22%, chardonnay 7.5%, gamay 25%, pinot noir 11%
Specialty cultivars: gamaret, garanoir, cabernet franc, merlot, mondeuse, syrah, sauvignon blanc, altesse, sylvaner, pinot blanc, pinot gris, aligoté, muscat, viognier

The Shortlist:


Geneva is my new hometown and one of the first things I discovered is that it’s very much a wine town. Of course, its public face will always be private banks and watchmakers but bubbling just below the surface is an innovative wine scene that deftly blends urban hipness with a solid respect for tradition.

Geneva enjoys a reputation for pioneering and mainstreaming all things organic and biodynamic in the Swiss wine industry. It’s no surprise then that the number of “natural” and low-intervention winemakers is significant and growing. And the Genevois are not shy about proclaiming their individuality in other ways. There are no fewer than 23 AOC’s within the canton, which is clearly too many. In my opinion nothing can be gained from slicing and dicing the Geneva terroir to such a fine mince. Market confusion and a true lack of identity are at risk. What’s left are many confusing brands with no guarantee of pedigree.

That said, soils run the gamut from sand and clay-based alluvials to stony, morainic deposits on gently sloping hills. The climate is mild with slightly below the Swiss average for rainfall and slightly above for temperature. The lake effect provides a moderation of extremes.

Chasselas is the dominant white grape but there are more and more interesting white blends featuring all the international stars.

On the red side, there are endless riffs on gamay and gamay-based blends, sophisticated Bordeaux-type blends, savory mondeuse, impressive gamarets, highly scented pinot noir and syrah, and crazy experimentation (see: Paul-Henri Soler profile on these pages) with native, hybrid and international grapes.

 

Mandement

Arve et Rhone

 

 

Arve Lac


Vaud

Vineyard area: 3,863 hectares— Yield: 218,026 hl
La Côte: 2000 hectares—Lavaux: 760 hectares—Chablais: 590 hectares—Bonvillars: 190 hectares—Côtes de l’Orbe: 170 hectares—Vully (VD): 153 hectares—Calamin:16 hectares—Dézaley: 54 hectares

Predominant cultivars: chasselas 61%, pinot noir 13% and gamay 10.5%.
Specialty cultivars:

The Shortlist: Blaise Duboux, Cave de Derrey Jeu, Domaine de la Ville de Morges, Domaine des Faverges, Domaine Henri Cruchon, Domaine La Colombe, Domaine Louis Bovard, Domaine Mermetus, Domaine Pierre Fonjallaz, La Maison du Moulin, Luc Massy.


Chasselas, chasselas, chasselas . . . chasselas is Boss of canton Vaud with a lavish World Headquarters in Lavaux and corporate offices in Calamin and Dézaley. It grows in every nook and cranny and despite some over-cropped plonk the best examples are more than ready for prime time. In fact, they can be straight-up great.

First some house-keeping. There are at least a couple of things that make Vaud a little different from other regions. First, it is the only canton to use the village name on the label instead of the grape (see the flow chart below for a list of village names, note: Dézaley and Calamin are the only village AOC’s). Next is the annoying, albeit traditional, presence of the 700ml bottle. Crazy and a headache because a second bottling run is required for export. So much for quaint traditions.

Vaud boasts six distinct vignobles over a fairly large swath of land. To take nothing away from the three AOC’s to the north of the canton the real heart-and-soul and the reputation of the region rests in La Côte, Lavaux and Chablais. Each is distinct in its own way.

La Côte

In one sense La Côte is an extension of Geneva’s Right Bank. West of Nyon the slopes are gentle before becoming more prevalent, inching closer to the lake shore and climbing the steeper slopes north of the Autoroute, as they approach Rolle. Here the moderating influence of the lake is greater than in Geneva and the sun’s reflection from its waters is a welcome boost. The soils are more moraine-based with clay and stony debris.

Geologically La Côte and Lavaux are two sides of the same coin. La Côte, an ancient lateral moraine, lies to the west of Lausanne upon the Molasse Basin of central Switzerland. This relatively undisturbed basin is the former bottom of the Paratethys Ocean—part of a vast ocean network that covered what is now Europe during the Oligocene Epoch. The sedimentary deposits left behind are notable for their varying amounts and types of limestone. It encompasses roughly thirty percent of the Swiss landscape between the Jura and the Alps and provides the great majority of Switzerland’s plantable land.

The chasselas from this area tends toward freshness and a primary fruit quality. I find less of a mineral component and more herbaceous-scented fruit. I liken chasselas from La Côte to good quality grüner veltliner from Austria.

Lavaux

Lavaux is the crown jewel for a few reasons. It boasts the only two village AOC’s in Vaud. It is perfectly situated in relation to the sun and the lake and manages to coax the most out of each with its stone-wall terraces and nearly sheer slope. Its conglomerate rock base is the perfect medium for deep root penetration and mineral-rich uptake. It is home to many generations-old family vignerons who know and respect their place on its slopes. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and therefore it is beautiful beyond comprehension.

Lavaux, located just east of Lausanne, is centered upon the rather more irregular, and later-formed, pre-alpine bedrock. This narrow band follows the contour of the Alps and is marked by numerous thrust faults and tectonic upheaval. Close to its surface and in some cases breaking through—as at Dézaley—it’s all conglomerate rock, the kind known locally as poudingue.

And just for spice, both areas have weathered the bull-dozing effects of advancing and retreating glaciers—most notably, the nearly kilometer thick Rhone Glacier which gouged Lake Geneva from beneath its mass while sculpting La Côte’s soft contours and Lavaux’s terraced free fall. The legacy of this on-again, off-again glaciation is a confusing jumble of soils that change in profile from one parcel to the next with limestone, in one form or another, the constant among them. Fortunately, the locally dominant chasselas thrives in all of them.

The chasselas from Lavaux is more nervy, mineral-streaked and full of savory flavor. They almost always finish their malo-lactic fermentation so umami notes of miso and soy sauce are frequently present. Most will develop complexity and nuance with some age.

Chablais

Chablais also displays dizzying terraced vineyards but without the lake’s contribution of reflected light. Rocky soils are the rule with a higher limestone content and subsequent alkalinity.

The chasselas from this area is more reductive with matchstick and pierre à fusil notes. Fruit takes a back seat. Wines from Yvorne in particular can be worthy of lengthy aging.

For the whole of the canton red wines are mostly gamay and pinot noir blends but there is also some merlot and a lovely, nearly extinct, heritage clone of gamay called petite Robert. This Lavaux specialty is a wine worth looking for because it offers saturated berry flavors in an easy to approach style. I love it.

The northern AOC’s include Bonvillars, Côtes de l’Orbe and Vully. The Côtes de l’Orbe is located just south of Lac Neuchâtel where chasselas and pinot noir dominate in sand and limestone soils.

Bonvillars is located just south of the Neuchâtel AOC and west of the lake. Its is situated on clay and limestone soils and its main grape is pinot noir.

Vully

Vully to put it bluntly is not very sexy. It’s situation between Lac Neuchâtel and Lac Morat is a virtual no man’s land known more for its Gâteau du Vully and neolithic pile dwellings than for fine wine. A lonely bus that runs every hour on the hour is the only public transportation through its mostly empty corridor. It’s cultural and linguistic divisions (röstigraben)—yes the language flip-flops from French to German and back without warning—are reinforced by its split AOC—Vully in Vaud to the southwest and Vully in Fribourg to the northeast. Each has its own coterie of hyper-local followers but neither offers a comprehensive plan nor a progressive image. The political boundaries only add to the confusion: this was recently rectified—in early 2016 Bas-Vully and Haut-Vully morphed into the single commune of Mont-Vully. All in all eight villages comprise the newly named commune with an aggregate population of 3,518 people.

Change has come at an opportune time as a new identity is being forged. First, in 2012, the two halves of appellation Vully merged to form a single, inter-cantonal appellation. Then, in 2013, a charter of quality for the freiburger (pinot gris x sylvaner) and traminer (gewürztraminer) varieties was established. This far-reaching charter contains standards that far exceed those imposed by the AOC in the areas of yield (850g/m² versus 1.1 kg/m²) and oechsle at harvest (87° versus 65°). It also includes some remediation of local customs: allowable residual sugar is capped at 8g/l (a repudiation of the Alsatian model as well as its own past); outright bans on chaptalization and other manipulations; and a required six months rest in neutral vessels before wine aged in barrel can be bottled.

The northeastern half of Vully (FR) occupies a narrow strip of land, barely 300 meters at its widest, wedged between Mount Vully and Lac Morat. The vineyards slope from north to south—steeply at the top (terroir de pente) and more gently nearer the lake (terroir de fond). The predominate soil base is molasse, a relatively porous sandstone, that is the perfect catalyst for freshness and fine aromatics in white wine. The specialty varieties are planted up-slope—pinot gris, traminer, chardonnay, gamaret, malbec and pinot noir—while down below chasselas enjoys a low stress environment in the deeper, water-retentive soils. The southwest reaches of the appellation in Vaud are influenced by deeper, clay-based, alluvial soils. Mount Vully and its slopes are only a rumor here as the landscape is more open and notably flat or rolling. Again chasselas does well here.

 

Fianl Vaud

New Cote

Lavaux Best

 

 

 

 


Neuchâtel, Fribourg and Jura

Vineyard area: 737 hectares— Yield: 36,283 hl
Neuchâtel: 599 hectares—Vully (FR)-Cheyres: 138 hectares

Predominant cultivars:
Specialty cultivars: gamaret, garanoir, pinot gris, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc

The Shortlist: Domaine de la Maison Carrée, Domaine de la Rochette, Cru de l’Hôpital, Domaine du Vieux Moulin, Château d’Auvernier, Jean-Christophe Porret


Neuchâtel is an unassuming, bucolic wonderland pinned against the Jura mountains to the west and the lake that bears its name to the east. It is low rise to Vaud’s high rise and a peaceful respite from Geneva’s exuberance. The sum total makes for great pinot noir. Its red wine AOC designation used to be reserved for pinot noir but has now been stretched to include gamaret, merlot and others.

Soils are calcareous up-slope and morainic (clay and gravel) from glacial activity closer to the lake. Although there are a few two many AOC’s, twenty-four in fact, there are several worthy of note, especially Auvernier and Hauterive where pinot noir thrives.

For my money Vully is the next most interesting area with its grey marl soils and the rare traminer variety from Cru de l’Hôpital. It is admirably restrained with floral aromatics and a pleasing dryness. Since 2012 the two Vullys (Vaud and Fribourg) have joined to form a single, intercantonal AOC.

While the AOC Bielersee is strictly within the Bern AOC it is most often included in the description of The Three Lakes district. I will include it in the German part.

 

Neuchatel

 


Valais

Vineyard area: 4,907 hectares—Yield: 327,836 hl

Predominant cultivars: chasselas 19%, sylvaner 5%, pinot noir 32%, gamay 12.5%
Specialty cultivars: petite arvine, savagnin, amigne, humagne blanche, syrah, cornalin, humagne rouge, merlot

The Shortlist: Domaine de Beudon, Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, Valentina Andrei, Domaine Cornulus, Histoire d’Enfer, Simon Maye, Denis & Catherine Mercier, Domaines Rouvinez, Domaine des Muses, Didier Joris


Sierre best

Valais Chart

 

 


Swiss German Area

Vineyard area: 2,841 hectares—Yield: 145,866 hl
West—Aargau: 391 hectares—Bern-Bielersee & Thunersee: 290 hectares/Center—Zürich: 610 hectares—Schaffhausen: 482 hectares—Others: 227 hectares/East—Thurgau: 257 hectares—St. Gallen: 216 hectares—Graubünden: 422 hectares

Predominant cultivars: müller-thurgau 16.5%, pinot noir 60%,
Specialty cultivars: räuschling, completer, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, pinot blanc

The Shortlist: Thomas Litwan, Annatina Pelizzatti, Christian Hermann, Georg Fromm, Martha & Daniel Gantenbein, Wegelin Weinbau Scadenagut, Weingut Donatsch, Weingut Adank, Weingut Nadine Saxer, Weingut Pircher, Weingut Wolfer, Winzerkeller Strasser.


 

FF West G

Central new

 

FF East G

 

Schaffhausen

The main grape growing region in the canton of Schaffhausen is located west of the city in the triangle-shaped valley known as Klettgau. Schaffhausen stands at its easternmost point; at its western extreme is the German city of Klettgau; and at its northern apex is the Swiss wine village of Schleitheim (see satellite image below). As recently as 450,000 years ago the Rhine River flowed through the Klettgau Valley before meandering to its current location several kilometers east. The river has left an indelible imprint: rich, alluvial soils that support mixed agriculture—vegetables, grains, fruit orchards and the ocassional randomly placed stand of wild plum trees.

The Klettgau is otherwise surrounded by forests including the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) to the north. The increasingly important concept of biodiversity has a paradigm here.

As mentioned, Klettgau bottom land soils are alluvial and rich—the product of river flows and ancient glacial activity. They are extensively farmed.

The hillsides were formed, as much of Switzerland is, by the movement of continental plates and subsequent uplifting of various strata. A variety of rock substrates including numerous calcareous marls and sandstones comprise much of the local geology and are a common feature in many of the Swiss vignobles.

More importantly, Klettgau is the beneficiary of an unusual meteorological phenomenon. Incoming weather fronts seem to split as they pass over the valley sending rain to the margins. It results in some of the lowest rainfall in Switzerland—400-700 mm per year on average versus 1200 mm everywhere else nearby.

Klettgau summers are sunny and warm and the vines are stress free even in periods of relative drought due to the water retaining capacity of the prevailing limestone sub-soils. By Swiss standards the vineyards of Klettgau are gently to moderately sloping and are relatively easy to work. This is truly a blessed area and virtually untapped as a leading source for pinot noir.

Graubünden—Bündner Herrschaft

This scenic north-south valley runs from the town of Sargans to the doorstep of the Chur Valley. The gathering upper Rhine River bisects its entire length. It’s vineyards are protected by two prominent mountain ranges—the Rätikon to the east and the Glarus Alps to the west. It is the warmest region among the German-speaking cantons and falls roughly in the upper third of the nation in annual rainfall. Despite its relatively modest size it represents the largest contiguous vineyard area in Deutschschweiz.

Its distinctive soils were formed over time by the physical and chemical weathering of mountain walls that loom above the vines. Broken rock, crushed stone and other debris have collected to form talus cones or scree, a common feature of mountain landscapes. Beneath a layer of clay, 25-50 centimeters deep, lay several meters of chalky limestone and crumbly limestone layers. This is an ideal soil-type for deep root penetration and the pinot varieties that flourish here.

Each village—there are four of them—has its own growing conditions but a similar geography. The upper slope, or halde, is planted to the white varieties, while the flatter terrain, or feld, closer to the Rhine is planted to pinot noir and in some cases old-vine chardonnay.

Grape cultivation here dates back at least a thousand years. Pinot noir, which covers 80% of the total 432 planted hectares, dates from 1632 and the first references to the native cultivar, completer—with a mere 2 hectares extant—date from 1312. The other main cultivars are sauvignon blanc (9 hectares), pinot gris (10 hectares), pinot blanc (11 hectares), and chardonnay (15 hectares). This is clearly pinot noir country.

 


Ticino

Vineyard area: 1,127 hectares—Yield: 45,007 hl

Predominant cultivars: chardonnay 4.5%, merlot 84%
Specialty cultivars: bondola, gamaret, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc

The Shortlist: Adriano Kaufmann, Brivio Vini, Cantina Kopp von der Crone Visini, Chiodi Vini, Christian Zündel, Gialdi Vini, Tamborini Carlo Eredi, Vini Rovio Ronco, Enrico Trapletti.


The American film “Sideways” could not have been made in Ticino where merlot reigns supreme. Its a little bit of the Mediterranean in the mountains. Ticino lies south of the alpine peaks thus enjoying more sun, warmer temperatures and significantly more rainfall. This is a verdant, almost tropical part of Switzerland given its annual 2100 hours of sunshine and 1800 millimeters of rain. Both averages are among the highest in the nation.

The northern half, or Sopraceneri, enjoys granite influenced soils that are quite acid. It is here, along with merlot, that most of the indigenous grape Bondola is planted. The wines from the north tend to be a bit more rustic in style with a meaty savoriness.

South of Monte Ceneri lies Sottoceneri where merlot of great finesse is made from the alkaline-limestone soils of the region. It is from this area where Ticino gets its reputation for world-class merlot.