SUISSE news Fall 2018 / August 2018
This is The Secret Attraction of Swiss Wine
To enjoy a full range of Swiss wines, you need to visit the country. This is because less than two percent of Swiss wine is exported, while the rest is purchased internally. Reasons for low exportation include limited production as well as high costs associated with labor fees and the challenge of harvesting small plots on steep mountainsides. Additionally, the strong Swiss currency raises real prices in foreign markets.
Years ago I visited Cave Emery in the Valais canton, the largest wine production region of Switzerland. This is located in the southwest portion of the country. While we nibbled cheese and drank Diolinoir Réserve in his cellar, owner Louis-Bernard Emery summarized difficulties with Swiss wine exportation “Mass production? You can forget it. We have niche products. Very little quantity, but very selective people. We could export it, but not at a very low price.”
This exclusivity remains, but is now regarded as an asset to lure wine lovers to the Alps. Considering the natural beauty, geographical diversity, excellent food and ample sports amenities that include golf and skiing, the prospect of visiting Switzerland is hardly formidable. Added to those attractions now is a range of excellent wines that grows in diversity and quality each year.
“Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese wines are exposed throughout the world,” said Vincenzo Aiosi when we recently spoke by telephone. Aiosi is a sommelier with 20 years of experience who instructs at the renowned Les Roches hospitality school in Bluche, in the Valais. “But Switzerland is just a small producer with 1.1 million hectoliters [29 million gallons] a year. So if someone comes to Switzerland as a guest—to enjoy the countryside, rivers and mountains, the fondue and raclette food—they can also enjoy wine that they cannot have in their own country. That’s why I am passionate about wine here.”
Originally from the Italian isle of Sicily, Aiosi worked as a restaurant director in Geneva before instructing others about wine. “The Valais is the largest wine producing region in Switzerland, having 5,000 hectares [12,300 acres] of vines, while all of Switzerland has a little less than 15,000 hectares [37,000 acres],” he added.
Swiss franc coins show a relaxed, wreathed and gowned woman holding a spear and shield. This is Helvetia, symbol of the Swiss Confederation and derived from the name of an Iron Age Celtic tribe that dominated this mountainous land before Roman General Julius Caesar defeated them in 58 BCE. In their time, both groups boosted the presence of Swiss wine: Helvetians loved it enough to offer it to their dead, while Romans introduced clay amphorae vats to age and store their fermented juice.
Today some 240 grape varieties are grown in Switzerland, although just four (Pinot Noir, Chasselas, Gamay and Merlot) constitute almost three-fourths of the harvest.
Vines above Martigny in the Valais (Credit: Shutterstock)
Within the major wine producing regions of the country (Valais, Vaud, Three Lakes, German-Swiss, Geneva and Ticino) the Pinot Noir grape is most grown, though Merlot is predominant in the southern canton of Ticino. “The Ticino is the sunniest region, but also has the most rain,” Aiosi explained. “They have only 1,000 hectares [2,500 acres], most of it Merlot.”
After Pinot Noir, the second most prominent grape grown in Switzerland is Chasselas, a white grape known as Fendant in the Valais. “It’s refreshing, light bodied and has a pale color,” Aiosi continued. "It has both minerality and acidity. The Valais is very sunny, so the grape is more velvety on the palate.”
Another lesser-known white grape is Petit Arvine, found only in the Swiss Valais and also Valle d’Aosta of Italy. “This grape variety has a different, particular, style of wine,” Aiosi said. "Very fruity and floral, tastes of passion fruit and rhubarb. Known for its minerality—a little bit of salt. They also make a late harvest wine that expresses honey and dried fruit.”
Most Valais vineyards grow on terraced slopes surrounded by stone walls that re-radiate warmth to vines at night. Yet steep slopes mean difficult access. Consider the highest vines of the Valais, within Visper Valley. Here buds butt against elements at a chilly altitude of 1,150 meters [3,770 feet]. "At this height it is very difficult to grow," Aiosi explained. "Steep slopes, difficult to reach. Some locals have their own funiculars [tramways] to get to vineyards."
Aiosi also echoed the challenges of harvesting small, steep plots and the resultant impact on the price of wine. “Near Geneva it is flatter. They can use machines to harvest. Here, vineyards are very small parcels. Most local people have a little vineyard, and sell grapes to cooperatives. The challenge is the location on slopes, where they cannot be reached by truck. You must walk. Labor costs are high, and spraying is done by helicopters. To see that is fantastic."
Switzerland’s renown for guest hospitality attracts a determined breed of employees to its hotels and resorts. “We have high levels of motivated, passionate people coming here,” Aiosi said. Switzerland also recently established a license for sommeliers, known as a brevet federal, and provided the first diplomas in 2015 to students who attended (and passed) a year and a half long course. The composition of students attracted to the country's hospitality business as well as sommelier schools differs from that of past decades.
The Valais, Switzerland (Credit: Tom Mullen)
"Before—the Italians, French and Germans were interested," Aiosi said. "Today we have what we call ‘New, New World’ people from India, Asia and Russia. They are very interested in vineyards and hotels. It’s a new and future trend, to have wine knowledge,” he added. "I teach every day and see a lot of young, interested students. My target is to help kids who are passionate to know more about wine."
Drawing on experience from his work in different regions of Switzerland (as well as wine experience from working in Germany, Italy, the U.K. and Latvia) Aiosi selected a few Swiss wines to represent a range of grape types, wine regions and prices. The first three are available in the U.S.
He also reiterated that to gain a full experience of Swiss wines, you will need to book your flight.
Tom Mullen is a Forbes contributor, a business consultant, and the author of The Winemakers' Cooking Companion.