Switzerland's wine regions and varieties with José Vouillamoz
What are Switzerland’s wine regions and how are they each different? One of the world’s leading ampelographers Dr José Vouillamoz describes the indigenous Swiss varieties of grapes as well as the traditional and new grape varieties being produced in Switzerland today.
In this fascinating interview, José takes us on a whirlwind tour of Switzerland’s wine regions from the Alps to the lakes and everywhere in between. I also ask him about his vision of the future of wine varieties, learn about the art of DNA profiling a grape, and find out what his desert island wine is. And, typical of a Swiss man, he teaches me a few new words in my own language…
Switzerland’s wine regions & Swiss grape varieties with Dr José Vouillamoz
Amanda Barnes: Jose, you just released your book on the history and grape varieties of Switzerland. Can you give us a brief history of Switzerland in terms of grape growing?
José Vouillamoz: Switzerland is a treasure trove for ampelographers. Before going through history I need to give some numbers of the actual situation. We grow officially more than 250 grape varieties on a mere 15,000 hectares. It’s huge! It’s probably a world record. It’s really a lot! Out of these more than 250, I have counted 80 that are called indigenous, and out of this 80, 59 of them are crossings. Recent crossings obtained in research stations. Only 21 are really, what I call, heritage grape varieties. And these heritage grape varieties cover 6% of the country. For me these numbers, okay it’s a lot of numbers, but I think it’s a bit shocking because what represents your own history, your heritage, your identity… I mean when I say ‘your’ I speak about Switzerland, it’s only 6% of what you produce! For me, it’s not enough.
Why do you think that is?
Oh well, that that’s historically related. That’s what we used to cultivate before the mid 19th century. We had introduced ancient varieties like Pinot, like Savagnin, like Muscat, but we used to cultivate our own varieties. At the turn of the 19th/ 20th century, like every other region, we had to struggle with phylloxera that was attacking the roots of European varieties.
When people had to replant their vineyards onto American rootstocks they had to make a decision, do we continue cultivating what their father, grandfather, great-grandfather was cultivating? Or do we choose something that is easier to sell, easier to cultivate, more resistant to disease and more productive?
That’s what they did. So they replaced almost everything that was indigenous with easier varieties and we have the result more than 100 years later.
But Switzerland has a very, very long history in terms of viticulture. Of course we know that the Romans have introduced some vines in some places. They may have introduced some varieties, but we have no evidence. We do have evidence that before the Romans, the Celts were cultivating vineyards in Switzerland, especially in Valais. And it dates back to 800 BC. And since 800 BC until today we have had a continuous cultivation of wine in Switzerland, in Valais and different regions. So we have a long history – we are not in new wine country. Why people do not know us is another question!
And why do you think that many people don’t know about the Swiss wine?
Because we only export approximately 1% of what we produce. We are good wine drinkers and what we produce is not enough for us! Roughly, the numbers fluctuate, but roughly 40% of what we drink is Swiss and 60% is imported. Which means we need to import wine in order to satisfy all the consumption.
The corollary of it is that we don’t have enough to export. And when you export 1%, sometimes not even the best, it’s not a good way to make yourself known abroad. So when you go abroad, first of all you must find someone who knows where Switzerland is, and then many people are astonished to know that we grow wine.
We make very, very good wines. I’m not saying this because I’m Swiss, I promise, but really we make world-class wines, but they are very difficult to find. We’re trying to increase the exports, especially in terms of image to show the world that Swiss wine is good and also to convince Swiss people that they are good!
Could you explain to us Switzerland’s wine regions in terms of terroir as such, and what varieties work best?
So Switzerland geologically and from a climate point of view is very, very diverse. It was difficult to categorize the different types of wines and we ended up with identifying six different regions with their own speciality, their own geography. We would say their own ‘terroir’. But within each region it is extremely diverse.
The most important [Swiss wine region] in terms of surface is Valais, in the middle of the Alps. Valais is an internal valley of the Alps, with a continental climate, it’s a lateral valley. And it has been isolated geographically from many other regions. We represent historically a region in the Alps, who used to live in autarky, and we have developed our own breeds of wheat for example, our own breeds of cows. And also, we did not develop, but they developed by themselves, our own grape varieties.
Out of these 21 heritage varieties that I have in my book, 14 of them come from the Valais. The most praised and famous is Arvine, or Petite Arvine. Which is an aromatic, powerful white with a high acidity that is capable of making world-class wine either as dry or sweet.
In red wines, we have Cornalin, I call it ‘Rouge du Pays’, it is the historical name. It’s very difficult to make but when it’s well done, it’s fantastic.
Then in Vaud, of course, it’s the temple of Chasselas and in this region they don’t even mention the grape variety, it’s too easy. Everybody knows it’s just Chasselas. So they mentioned the appellations either the village names or the appellation, like Dezaley or Calamin, which are the two Grand Cru.
Then, in Geneva, they do not have any particular variety, so they had to import some of them. They are very good at Aligote, which comes from Bourgogne, Burgundy, and they have developed a lot of Gamaret which is a recent crossing obtained in the Swiss federal research station Agroscope.
Then if you go to Neuchâtel they have a long tradition of Pinot. They are very close to Burgundy in terms of geography, and they were the first to introduce Pinot in Switzerland, together with Vaud, from different regions. And one of the very old Pinot was selected in Neuchâtel and still today we call it Cortaillod. It’s the name of the village, it’s the selection that they took from Burgundy. So I would say for the Neuchâtel mostly Pinot and of course Chasselas that is everywhere.
In the German part of Switzerland it’s very diverse. You have a huge number of varieties. Some people go to recent hybrids because there is a tendency for organic, biodynamic vineyards and they don’t like to use chemicals, so they have PIWI – ‘pilzwiderstandsfähig rebsorten‘, which means grape varieties that are resistant to fungal diseases. So there are a lot of people who are into this, which is good for the environment but for me personally, is not always satisfying wine.
They also have traditional varieties like Räuschling which is cultivated around the lake Zurich, especially in Meilen. And then if you go further south, you go to Graubünden which is a very famous wine region. Pinot is excellent, it’s one of the best places for Pinot, you have Neuchâtel and Graubünden.
And they have local variety that I love very much which is called Completer. It’s extremely rare, only four hectares total in Switzerland, and in the world. And mostly grown in Graubünde. It’s a white wine, that is very high in acidity, but has a full body, complex nose. It’s a wine that smells like a sweet wine but it’s dry, and super acidic. I love it!
And in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, they used to grow a local variety called Bondola, which I like very much. It’s red, it’s a rustic red, with the nice tannins, chewy tannins, not so complex but it goes very well with food, with salami. But it has been completely replaced after phylloxera by Merlot. And Ticino has become the region for Merlot in Switzerland. And they want to compete with Saint-Emilion and Bordeaux…
Thank you, that was impressive! Before my next question, can you define the difference for us between a native variety and an international variety?
Or the categories that you would give? I have made different categories for the Swiss grape varieties in my book. The first one is indigenous, these are the varieties that are native, that were born on the site. Either we have evidence that they were born there, for example, if I can find the parents through DNA profiling, if I can show that variety C was born from parents A and B, and parents A and B are from Switzerland, then C is Swiss. It is the same as for people.
Even if A and B, say A’s French B’s Italian, and they met in Switzerland, would it still be considered an indigenous variety?
We have to. Indigenous from the Latin etymology means born on the site, so we kind of apply the American law. I mean if you are born on American soil, you’re American. So it’s the same.
Then you have traditional varieties, and the ones I call traditional are the ones that were cultivated before 1900. I chose this date because it’s more or less the date when phylloxera came to Switzerland and when we had to replace all the vines with other varieties. So the traditional ones were introduced a long time ago. If you think of Pinot it was present in Vaud and Neuchâtel already in the 17th century. We know it’s not from there, we know it’s from northeastern France.
We have in Valais, we have a grape called Heida, which is the local name of Savagnin Blanc or Traminer for the german-speaking. We know it does not come from here but it was here since a long time ago. The first document speaking about Heida is 1540… So many centuries of presence, so these ones I call traditional.
And the other ones that were introduced after 1900, I call them allogenous. So these are the three categories and we can use these categories in many different countries.
Can you repeat the third category?
Allogenous, it’s the opposite of indigenous.
A new word for me. Can an indigenous variety simultaneously be created in two countries? Or is every crossing very unique?
Every crossing is unique. Just like us, every grape variety has two parents and if two parents have several children none of them is identical. Even identical twins are not 100% identical genetically speaking, and if you know some of them they have different characters as well. So it’s the same for grapes. The two parents having crossed at different times, at different places, will produce different children. That’s for sure.
What are your thoughts in terms of whether wine regions like Switzerland, which has two hundred and fifty varieties, should be pushing its indigenous varieties or should be adapting to the market with allogenous varieties?
Personally, I would be more in favour of pushing forward the indigenous varieties, the heritage varieties. For a simple reason: we are the only ones to have them, they had centuries to adapt to the terroir, and we don’t have any competitor.
It doesn’t mean that you must plant any indigenous variety anywhere, because all the terroir conditions are not suitable for all these varieties, but we should put the accent on this.
Yet the producers are free people in a free country and they can try anything they want… But I think we are losing the message and we are confusing the consumers by having such a diversity. And instead of wanting to produce everything, you can just focus on what you know how to do well. That would be my message.
When was the heyday of diversity in Switzerland?
In my book I have a map of what was cultivated in Switzerland before 1850 which gives a nice picture of what was generally cultivated, and I have only 27 varieties. Some traditional like Pinot and Heida, and many indigenous.
150 or 160 years later, the picture has changed completely. So I would say that the heyday of transition started in the early 90s. For a simple reason, when they opened the borders for imports. Swiss producers were horrified to start to see so many foreign wines on the market, and to compete with them they were much cheaper. They were not used to that.
So they thought, ‘we need to do something’, so some of them said ‘oh we need to try to plant Chardonnay, we need to try to plant some weird stuff, some obscure stuff’. They introduced hybrids, they have introduced Tannat, Mourvedre, and other stuff. We tried everything. Some others said, ‘oh let’s go back to the roots’ and planted the indigenous varieties, and these ones have continued. The other ones I don’t know if they will last so long.
So it’s a political decision that triggered the diversity that we have today, and I think in 50 or 100 years from now we will have different schools: one school that I would call ‘old school’, to which I would obviously belong, will grow the old indigenous heritage varieties, and that’s what I will continue to drink until my death.
The other school, which is a tendency in many different countries will be the most healthy producers for the environment and the people, and they will grow organically, biodynamically, varieties that do not require chemicals and these will be hybrids crossings (and kind of PIWI).
But it will be two different worlds, two different markets, and there will be a market and consumers for both of them.
Interesting! Great, now my last question is the hardest – what is your desert island grape? If you could only drink one grape variety for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Ok, one grape variety and I must drink it everyday… Completer. Oooo – nice. You’ll have to take all 4 hectares with you! Yes, with all 4 hectares I can have enough bottles for an island…
About Amanda Barnes, Wine Writer
Amanda Barnes is an award-winning wine journalist and expert in South American wines and regions. Based in Mendoza, Argentina, since 2009 she is a regular correspondent, critic and writer for international wine publications including Decanter, The Drinks Business, The Tasting Panel, SevenFifty and Vivino, and is the South American contributing author of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book.
A multi-media journalist, Amanda works in print and digital communication and is experienced in writing, editing and video broadcasts. Her creative work has been awarded by Born Digital Wine Awards, Millesima Blog Awards, Great Wine Capitals Best Of and Young Wine Writer of the Year. She was also awarded a fellowship for the Wine Writers Symposium 2017, a scholarship for the Wine Bloggers Conference 2016 and the The Peter Hampson Memorial Prize for her outstanding results in the WSET Diploma.
Amanda has led masterclasses and hosted tastings internationally that range from wine dinners for private collectors through to a series of masterclasses at VINEXPO, Bordeaux. Amanda has been a critic and panel taster for international wine competitions in England, South Africa, Austria, Chile and Argentina, and is a taster for the Decanter World Wine Awards and International Wine and Spirits Challenge.