By Franz Scheurer
Switzerland’s most important wine growing areas lies on the right side of the Rhone River, starting in the Canton of Wallis (Valais). A sheltered valley surrounded by alpine peaks opens up to steep vineyards along Lake Geneva [in the Canton of Wadtland (Vaud)] and eventually changes into a gentle hilly landscape in the Canton of Geneva. The grapes grow on south-facing terraces with minimum irrigation in a climate that is sunny and dry, something akin to a cross between Spain and the Provence. Significant plantings start at Visp and Sierre and are most prolific around Sion, the capital of the Wallis. Around the town of Visperterminen you will find Europe’s highest vineyards, at more than 1000m a/s. The Wallis is commonly divided into two parts, upper and lower Wallis. The most important wine-growing areas in the upper Wallis are Salquenen/Salgesch, Sierra and St. Léonard and in the lower Wallis: Vétroz, Ardon, Leytron, Chamoson, Sallon and Fully.
Most of the wines are white. “Fendant” (from the Chasselas grape) leads the market in volume. (Chasselas is readily identified by its young copper-coloured shoots, long tendrils and golden grape clusters). It can be sold without specifying origin but most of the better wines do. Sylvaner also sold as Johannisberg or Petit or Gros Rhin closely follows Fendant in volume. These wines are mostly dry, aromatic and full-bodied, although there are some impressive late-picked ones available as well.
Away from the mainstream there are a number of regional specialty wines, recognised by the trade as the undiscovered potential of Swiss viniculture.
Arvine would be the first to come to mind. Arvine is a name derived from Latin, meaning “pale yellow.” It is known for its complex aromas and a slightly salty aftertaste. Generally a dry white wine with a portion of the grapes picked late. Humagne (Latin for “strong grape”) delivers a lively, stimulating wine, which used to be given to young mothers as a tonic for speedy recovery after giving birth. This variety needs a sheltered, sunny position; rewards with an inconsistent and exceptionally low yield and ripens late. All good reasons for its steady decline in favour of more profitable varieties. Amigne, a related grape, mainly grown around Vétroz, (there are only about 100 vines of this variety left in the world) is a little hardier but extremely low yielding. It is made into a very popular dessert wine; luscious and velvety, with quite a bit of residual sugar but enough acid for successful ageing, alas it is just about impossible to obtain.
There are some even rarer varieties grown in the upper Wallis which in days of old would be picked early and made into a high acid, thirst-quenching style, mainly drunk by the labourers in the vineyards after a hard day’s work. The finest of these is Heida, perhaps a relative of the Savagnin, the grape of the “Vin jaune” or of the Traminer. Himbertscha (Himbeere is the German word for raspberry) has nothing to do with raspberries, but means “trellised’ in the local dialect. And then there is the Lafnetscha a cousin of the Blanchier variety from the Savoy area of France. All of these result in clean, high acid wines that benefit greatly from bottle age.
In the lower Wallis you will find Marsanne, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Aligoté, Chardonnay, Chenin, Pinot Blanc and Muscat. The Gewürztraminer, the Riesling and the Muscat are very similar in style to wines grown in the Alsace. The others have an unmistakable “Swiss” touch, a combination of terroir and malolactic fermentation, which gives them a certain amount of effervescence. They are best consumed young.
The reds of the area are made from mainly Pinot Noir and Gamay. The most popular red is called “Dôle”, which must be 85% Pinot Noir and 15% Gamay. Gamay is also sold as a single variety wine and tends to have superb fruit and great colour at a relatively low level of alcohol. There are also Humagne Rouge, (which is a clone of the Oriou grape from the Aosta valley in neighbouring Italy), and small holdings of Shiraz and Nebbiolo.
Further downstream, along Lake Geneva, you’ll find one of the most picturesque parts of an already chocolate box country. The Lavaux and La Côte wine areas are breathtakingly beautiful and are best explored on foot. Narrow streets crisscross the mountainsides and the villages mostly feature one-way traffic. Famous Swiss wines derive their names from these medieval places; St. Saphorin, Epesses, Vilette, Aigle, Dézaley, and Riex to name just a few. The main cities are Montreux and Vevey to the north and Lausanne to the south.
Switzerland produces around 118 million litres of wine from Vinifera grapes, divided between 65 million litres of white and 53 million litres of red. There is also a small amount of wine made from indigenous species of grapes. During the 1990’s Switzerland ranked 14th in Europe and 21st globally in terms of total land surface dedicated to the cultivation of vines. Swiss whites are amongst the freshest, most youthful wines in the world and deserve a spot in the limelight. They are rarely exported, as they don’t travel very well and there is not enough to meet local demand. So if you visit Switzerland, don’t forget them in your search for watches, chocolate and cheese.
Other important wine producing regions of Switzerland include the Canton of Ticino at the foot of the Alps, bordering Italy, and the Lakes region in the Canton of Berne.