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A Tale of Two Countries

  • Thursday 03 February 2000
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Per-Henrik Mansson, senior editor
This is a tale of two countries, the story of a winner and a loser. Austria is the winner. Switzerland is the loser. Except for that little detail, they have much in common.

Both are small, landlocked nations in the middle of Europe with some spectacular vineyard sites that can produce some wonderful wines. Both make just tiny amounts of their best wines. Both are dwarfs on the international fine-wine battlefield ruled by titans such as Bordeaux and California.

But the similarities pretty much stop there. In international wine circles, Austria today has cachet. Switzerland, on the other hand, has as much prestige as a homeless person crashing a party.

Ever had a great Swiss wine? If you don't live within an hour's drive of the Swiss vineyards your answer is probably no. Switzerland makes a multitude of interesting wines, some from varietals exclusively grown there, from 36,000 acres of vineyards that produce 14.3 million cases a year.

When it comes to wine, the Swiss are passionate

But the best wines are quickly snapped up during a fierce battle between loyal customers for the rarest gems. God save the winemaker who decides to export to Miami or San Francisco instead of keeping supplies for his neighbors or old clients. When it comes to wine, the Swiss are passionate. Switzerland is the sixth largest wine-drinking nation in the world, and its per capita consumption rate is five times higher than that of the United States. Winemakers tell me it can get pretty nasty down there in the cellars when a Swiss aficionado hears the words "sold out."

Now, what about Austria? Check out the Feb. 28 issue of Wine Spectator for the large number of wines rated classic (95-100 on the 100-point scale) and outstanding (90-94). The sheer quality of Austrian wines now entering the American and other leading foreign markets makes that country the new kid to watch on the fine-wine block.

The Austrians have espoused a so-called prestige-oriented strategy

Austria has understood the global fine-wine market and what drives international aficionados in the late 1990s. The Austrians have espoused a so-called prestige-oriented strategy: They make sure their most treasured gems get around to collectors, restaurants and retailers in Asia, Europe and the United States.

"I get the same amount of money for my wines in Austria as in the United States, but it's best for the prestige to be in America," says Austrian winemaker Alois Kracher, who makes many exceptionally great late-harvest wines that Wine Spectator has rated outstanding and classic (see the Feb. 28 issue). Kracher exports 20 percent of his wines to the United States.

Switzerland, a commitment to a sales-oriented policy

By comparison, the Swiss just don't get it (although several leading winemakers and trade professionals say they're slowly learning). Their mistake? A commitment to a sales-oriented policy.

You'd think the Swiss would want to show their best wines abroad, but no. They've shipped high-volume table wines that they couldn't completely sell in Switzerland--in other words, they are bringing you their "surplus" wines. This explains why you haven't heard much about late-harvest whites made from Marsanne or that delicious, native Swiss varietal, Petite Arvine. The best small estates don't bother to export their top wines. Instead, much of the exports consist of big wineries' oft-diluted whites made from Chasselas, a high-yield varietal of neutral character. These wines are simply no match for the opulent, oaky, less expensive New World Chardonnays.

Switzerland's failure and Austria's success is easy to see

The fallout of Switzerland's failure and Austria's success is easy to see. On the international wine market, Switzerland slumbers in a near-coma. Since nobody connects "prestige" to Switzerland's vinous efforts, the Swiss can't generate much interest in their wines. Had the Swiss not misread the global market, the world might actually have discovered that the country makes some spectacular wines.

Meanwhile, Austria has become a dynamo that mines its full potential. With missionary zeal, the Austrian winemakers have gone international with their prestige wines, holding tastings for aficionados and sending samples to journalists. Today Austria's prized Trockenbeerenauslesen, which are rare (300 cases made or so) and expensive ($90 or more for a half-bottle), sell like hotcakes from Tokyo to New York and Rome.

You can readily see the results of these nations opposite strategies if you leaf through Wine Spectator's most recent reports on the two nations (Feb. 28). The Austrian wines get a big spread in the magazine; the Swiss tasting gets merely a short notice in the Buying Guide. When asked to send us samples exported to the United States, the Austrians shipped over 320 different wines, many world-class blockbusters. The Swiss managed to gather 50 wines selling in the U.S. market, not a single one of which we rated outstanding. Yet it's not as if Austria exports more to the United States, since both countries ship 10,000 to 12,000 cases a year to America.

It is our policy to review only wines that are imported to America

I could never understand why the best Swiss wines weren't shipped to the United States. Only a few cases in America would probably be sufficient for us to write about them. (It's our policy to review only wines that are imported to America.)

It bothered me that consumers in America and elsewhere could not taste the wines from Swiss winemakers like Marie-Theres Chappaz, the 38-year-old star from the Valais region, whose white Ermitage (white Marsanne) and Petite Arvine (the white Swiss varietal) have become cult wines since she started her winery 10 years ago. But she didn't join the exporters' association and never tried to ship to America. She wasn't alone.

"Here in Switzerland we made a big mistake. We always wanted to sell in Switzerland," says Chappaz. "Now we're waking up, but we should have woken up earlier and tried to become known internationally. Now we have problems going abroad."

And this experience with the Swiss customers led, for many years, wineries like Provins to a policy that seemed strange. "We said that those wines we promote on the export markets must be available in big quantities," says Jean-Marc Amez-Droz, Provins' director. "We feared people would react like the Swiss; we feared we couldn't meet demand. Now we realize we can open new markets with high-quality, small-quantity wines. Before I was skeptical, but now we're changing our export policy."

This means more top Swiss wines are likely to show up in America and elsewhere, as the big wineries and the growers begin to seek out foreign customers. 

The Swiss winemakers are also spurred to action by the end of a policy of protectionism pursued by the Swiss government. By 2001, Switzerland will have abolished tariffs and most quotas that have so far prohibited non-Swiss wines from competing freely with Swiss wines. As foreign wines become more available and less costly, Swiss consumers are likely to switch, at least partially, from Swiss to French, U.S. and Australian table wines.

This future has forced many Swiss winemakers to go upscale, as they expect to lose market share to imports in a liberalized economy. Now the Swiss winemakers are showing increased interest in exporting, even attending seminars on the subject in large number.

Switzerland's tarnished reputation from all those simple table wines sent abroad in the past

But first they now need to work on building up Switzerland's tarnished reputation from all those simple table wines sent abroad in the past.

Even a highly successful cult figure such as Chappaz is willing to go outside the borders of her country now. "I could continue to live like this and make wines only for my Swiss clients," says Chappaz, who produces about 3,000 cases. "But I want to help my region become known internationally. It's a question of prestige. We want to show the world we make good wines."

It's a winning strategy, to judge from Austria's successes among consumers in the United States and other countries.

"My philosophy is: the best wines for the best people. These are people who are interested in wine, in great wine, but don't care what nation it comes from," says Kracher, the Austrian star winemaker. "And America is a good place to sell wine, because there are lots of wine freaks there. I could sell all my wines in Asia, but Asia has no power to create an image for us. America does with magazines like Wine Spectator. We get lots of feedback on our wines when we export them to the United States. When you sell your top wines in the United States, everyone in the world knows about them. And the prestige I gain there will help transport my name to the next generation. My son is 16 years old, and I want to give him a future."

Wise words that the Swiss should remember if Switzerland wants one day to become a winner, too.