Alpine appeal: 10 Swiss wines worth seeking out
Swiss wines may be little known beyond its borders, but Switzerland boasts a wealth of characterful viticultural areas and many native grapes. Robin Kick MW introduces three key varieties and recommends 10 excellent wines to try...
Few wine lovers are fully aware of the viticultural beauty of Switzerland. The country of Alpine peaks, countless lakes, velvet green pastures and even palm trees boasts some of the world’s most dramatic and breathtaking vineyard vistas.
The country’s wines are also little known: only about 1% of production is exported, as most bottles are consumed within Swiss borders. For an industry of mostly smaller domaines with modest volumes, high labour and land costs, along with a thirsty domestic clientele, exporting has never been easy. But the Swiss are proud of their own wines and rightly so; there are some beautiful and highly individual styles to discover, and not all will break or even fracture the bank.
Unlike other European countries, Switzerland is something of a mini United Nations, being home to German, French, Italian and Romansch-speaking nationals.
But its most important viticultural areas lie in Suisse Romande, Switzerland’s French- speaking hub, where 80% of the country’s wines are produced in its largest wine regions.
This intricate and diverse zone includes the regions of Valais, Vaud and Geneva. Within it are plantings of some of Switzerland’s most exciting varieties, including Chasselas, Petite Arvine and Heida/Païen. The varying styles that can be produced from these grapes create a cornucopia of personalities and experiences for wine lovers to enjoy.
The greatest indigenous white grape of Valais is Petite Arvine. Also simply known as Arvine, in historical texts it is mentioned as far back as 1602. Although Petite Arvine can be found in other Swiss regions, an impressive 99.5% of the country’s total plantings are located in Valais.
Petite Arvine’s wines hit a high note with pronounced acidity, a sleek mouth feel with notes of peach, citrus fruits, fennel seed and a saline touch. Because of these appealing attributes, it has an increasingly passionate following. But the Valais region is neither simple nor small, so its wines can vary significantly in style.
A highly mountainous area, Valais boasts a dramatic range of vineyard altitudes. Plantings along its valley floor range from 400m-500m above sea level, while its most elevated and ancient, 800-year-old south facing terraces can go as high as 1,100m, some at gradients up to 70°, even steeper than Côte-Rôtie in France’s Rhône valley.
Its most renowned vineyards include Combe d’Enfer in Fully, a steep and chiselled mountain-hollow, and the Petite Arvine grand cru vineyard in Chamoson. Both make taut, mineral and concentrated wines. Some exceptional examples of these unique vineyard plots are produced by Henri Valloton in Fully and Didier Joris in Chamoson.
Mike Favre of René Favre & Fils, another top producer in Chamoson, points out that winemaking also plays an important role in the final style of the wines. “The original Swiss style is to ferment and age Petite Arvine in stainless steel, keeping the purity of the fruit,” he explains. “But a number of years ago we were asked by our English importer if we could produce a white wine fermented in French barrels, like Burgundy. We decided to try it and our Petite Arvine became a totally different wine, but it turned out well. However, we only use our oldest vines from our grand cru Chamoson vineyard, because it has the concentration and minerality to balance out the oak,” he adds. Today, a number of other producers have followed suit.
However, dry wines are not Petite Arvine’s only success, it can also be used to make gorgeous late-harvest dessert wines – along the lines of Sauternes but generally showing more lift and energy than their Bordeaux counterparts. Anyone who has tasted one of Marie-Thérèse Chappaz’s mind-blowing Grain Noble bottlings will agree.
Providing some stiff competition for Switzerland’s starlet variety Petite Arvine is Heida, the same grape as Savagnin Blanc, the pride of France’s Jura region. Heida is a close competitor in terms of popularity, and though its wines tend to hit a lower octave, with slightly softer acidity and a rounder mouth feel, they can be notably vibrant.
While not indigenous to Valais, Heida has a long history here, dating at least as far back as 1586 in the high-altitude vineyards of the Visperterminen, a village in the upper Valais. As such, Valais is the only Swiss region allowed to call it by its ancient Swiss name, Heida (or Païen in French). But it can also be found in Vaud.
Wherever it is grown, high altitude is an important factor for Heida. Jean-Daniel Suardet of Château Maison Blanche, one of the few estates that grows the grape in Chablais, a sub-region of Vaud, explains: “Heida is a variety that needs altitude or cooler areas to grow successfully. Potential alcohol levels can rise very quickly while acidity plummets, so it must be watched vigilantly before harvest.”
This can be felt in some of Heida’s wines, which can embody a weightier, honeyed style with some bitterness on the finish. But this is a variety with incredible biodiversity, enabling it to wear many masks in terms of its flavour profile, texture and body. So there are many Heidas that have notable freshness and display notes such as pineapple, zesty ginger, citrus fruit and spice. Quite fitting for such a seductive wine. And like Petite Arvine, it can also make exemplary sweet wines.
For those looking for a leaner more chiselled version, talented winemaker Frédéric Dumoulin at Cave l’Orpailleur is worth seeking out as is Domaine du Chapitre owned by Provins, Switzerland’s largest wine producer who makes impressive quality wines from both its cooperative side and its own estates.
Though the name Chasselas features on a map of France’s Burgundy – as do the villages of Chardonnay and Gamay – research shows that the Chasselas grape (aka Fendant in Valais) does indeed have Helvetian roots.
Despite it being one of Switzerland’s greatest vinous treasures, it is also one of its most misunderstood, due to distinct variations in quality and style. Much of this variation has to do with winemaking, but differences in regions and clones have pronounced influences.
A traditional Swiss style tends to show riper fruit flavours of orchard fruits and citrus, with lowish acidity, pronounced spice, a dab of residual sugar and a gentle spritz. But recent vintages show that winemakers are starting to produce a different style as tastes evolve.
Some are picking earlier than before and even blocking the malolactic fermentation to maintain higher acidity levels. As Benjamin Massy of Domaine Luc Massy in Lavaux (another sub region of Vaud), explains: “Though we do carry out a complete malolactic fermentation, we really like wines that are fresh, dry and still with good delineation and minerality.” Flavours are more discreet, focusing more on citrus and almonds.
But the style can also change depending on topography, soil and climate. Emilienne Hutin of Domaine des Hutins, who produces one of Geneva’s top Chasselas from her family’s premier cru Bertholier vineyard, explains that in Geneva and la Côte (the largest sub-region of the Vaud), the hills are more rolling without the same drainage as Lavaux’s terraced vineyards or the dryness of Valais. “There is more humidity and our wines tend to be a little softer and more open from a young age,” she says.
Lavaux is Vaud’s most renown sub-region. An area of natural beauty, its terraced vineyards were classified as a UNESCO world Heritage site in 2007. Lavaux is also home to the only grand cru Chasselas vineyards, Dézaley and Calamin, respectively producing the country’s most powerful and age worthy Chasselas, and arguably its most mineral and lacy.
Chasselas also demonstrates extensive biodiversity. According to Dr José Vouillamoz, Switzerland’s renowned grape geneticist, more than 300 clones of one biotype alone have been discovered. At Louis Bovard’s Chasselas Conservatory in Rivaz, visitors can compare 19 of these clones, all grown on his estate, and taste five of the main ones planted in Vaud. The differences can be striking.
Originating in the Valle d’Aosta in northwest Italy, the red grape Cornalin has found a natural home in the Valais and is considered by some to be the region’s greatest red variety – even though it only accounts for 3% of plantings due to its challenging nature in the vineyard. Also known as Rouge du Pays, it has the ability to produce refined or structured wines with dark, liquorice-tinged fruit. Excellent producers to look for include Denis Mercier, Maurice Zufferey and JR Germanier, who produces one of the region’s most complex and powerful examples.
All in all, Switzerland has so much to offer wine lovers, particularly those who seek out the unique and the lesser known. With its diversity in indigenous varieties, climate, soil types, altitudes, viticulture and winemaking, passionate Swiss producers are able to create distinctive wines with true character and class. Hopefully more of these gems will be found on dining tables around the world.
After all, some of the world’s most enjoyable creations are Swiss, including chocolate, cheese and watches. Why not wine?
About the author
Robin Kick MW is a wine consultant, judge and educator now based in Switzerland. She formerly worked at Christie’s auction house in Los Angeles and for seven years as a buyer for Goedhuis & Co in London.
Kick’s picks: a taste of Switzerland
Les Fils de René Favre, Grande Année St-Pierre Chamoson Grand Cru Petite Arvine, Valais 2014 (92 points).
£20 at Ann et Vin, Bottle Apostle, Chez Vin Otley, Reserve Wines, Theatre of Wine. The Montrachet of Petite Arvine, produced from one of the greatest Swiss terroirs, Chamoson, which is a steep terraced single vineyard of schist and marble. Fermented in French oak and aged for 18 months, it is smooth and complex with peaches, sea salt and smoke. Drink 2019-2030 Alcohol 14%
ThierryConstantin,PetiteArvine, Valais 2017 (90 points). Not presently available in the UK. www.thierryconstantin.ch. Petite Arvine is reputed for its salinity and this complex wine embodies it perfectly. A smoky, gunflint nose leads to a tightly wound palate of nectarine, fennel seed and sea salt. Try with fresh oysters. Drink 2019-2028 Alc 14.5%
Provins, Maître de Chais Petite Arvine, Valais 2017 (89 points). £43.60 Alpine Wines and Hedonism Wines. A quintessential Petite Arvine: succulent and creamy core of sugarloaf pineapple, baking spice and gunflint. Perfectly pitched. Produced by the country’s largest wine company, known for its high quality and consistency. Drink 2019-2030 Alc 14%.
Château Maison Blanche, Yvorne Grand Cru Savagnin Blanc, Chablais, Vaud 2016 (91 points). £28 at Alpine Wines. Known for its excellent Chasselas, Château Maison Blanche also produces a moreish and complex Savagnin Blanc. Aromatic with gorgeous notes of truffle, yellow plums and spice. Only 1,500 bottles produced. Drink 2019-2028 Alc 13.5%
Domaine des Muses,Tradition Heida, 6 Valais 2017 (88 points). £38.80 (2015) Alpine Wines and Hedonism Wines. A fresh, lifted and elegantly styled Heida that opens up with notes of honeysuckle, sweet pear and a sprinkling of nutmeg. From one of the Valais’ most respected and consistent producers. Drink 2019-2022 Alc 13%
Les Frères Dubois, De La Tour Dézaley- Marsens Grand Cru, Lavaux 2017 (90 points) Not presently available in the UK. www.lfd.ch. Chasselas, vinified in large casks. Dézaley- Marsens is renowned for ageing beautifully, and this 2017 has a long life ahead: dense palate of fresh almonds, yuzu, and a chiselled mineral finish. Drink 2019-2030 Alc 12.5%
Henri Badoux , Aigle les Murailles, Chablais, Vaud 2017 (89 points). £27.60 at Alpine Wines. Chasselas. Embellished with one of the region’s iconic labels, Les Murailles is consistently a wine to seek out. A zesty 2017 with lemon peel, Poire Williams and baking spice. Drink 2019-2026 Alc 13%.
Luc Massy, Clos du Boux, Epesses Grand Cru, Lavaux 2017 (88 points). £27 (2016) Alpine Wines. Chasselas, produced from a 1.7ha single vineyard, the only ‘Clos’ in the Epesses area of Lavaux. Refined and smooth, it opens up with Jordan almonds and fresh pear before finishing on mineral undertones. Drink 2019-2024 Alc 12.5%
Jean-René Germanier, Réserve Cornalin de Champmarais, Valais 2014 (91 points). £67.94 Alpine Wines. One of the grandest and most ageworthy wines from the region, this single-parcel Cornalin is vinified and aged for 24 months in 400-litre barrels. Expansive and brooding with cherries, damson plums and vanilla. Drink 2020-2032 Alc 13%
Denis Mercier, Cornalin, Valais 2016 (89 points). Not presently available in the UK. www.mercier-vins.ch. A precise Cornalin with delicate notes of black cherries, currants and earthy spice. To keep the crunch of the fruit and add a bit of roundness, the Merciers age the wine for 12 months in mostly older French oak. Drink 2019-2027 Alc 13.5%
Retailers holding Swiss Wines in the UK
Alpine Wines, +44 20 3151 3454, www.alpinewines.co.uk, 25 wineries
Hedonism Wines, +44 20 7290 7871, www.hedonism.co.uk, 12 wineries
The Sampler, +44 20 7225 5091, www.thesampler.co.uk, 4 wineries