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Why Swiss Wines Continue To Impress

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Tom Mullen
Although only a miniscule percentage of Swiss wine is exported - due to constant domestic demand as well as high labor and production costs - the industry operates with the precise efficiency of a Rolex watch, often providing impeccable quality.

In this Alpine country one sixteenth the size of Texas, or about twice the size of Wales, 250 grape varieties grow on one fifth of one percent of the planet's vineyards, which cover about 37,000 acres (15,000 hectares). Visitors have little difficulty navigating the wine scene because literature is often printed in French, German, Italian and English.
 

Swiss wine promotion is ramping up

Switzerland appears to be ramping up wine promotion. Perusing the Swiss Wine Journalshows an annual grand prize for Swiss wine, where the vintages from 500 producers are evaluated by a panel of 170 judges. There are also international wine festivals that include the World of Pinots, the World of Merlot and Blends, and the World of Chasselas. A Swiss Wine Fair will also he held this September in the town of Sierre in the canton of Valais.

In April, Swiss World of Wine Expo 2018 was held on the Bluche campus of Les Roches, a hospitality college located in the mountains east of Lake Geneva (they also have campuses in Marbella, Spain; Shanghai, China, and Chicago in the U.S.). This third year of the event, organized by students from a campus wine club, formed a microcosm of the Helvetian viticultural universe, and showcased wines and producers from across the country. Hundreds attended the event, which lasted sunny afternoon hours in a large hall overlooking stunning valley views. The school is located in the Canton of Valais, or 'valley.' This forms the flow path for the upper Rhone River, which originates at a glacier in the east end of the Valais, flows down valley to Lake Geneva, then onward past Lyon in France to the Mediterranean. The campus also includes an excellent restaurant—Tacot—operated by students and including a list with Swiss and international wines. These include French Puligny-Montrachet, Italian Barolo, Portuguese Dão and Napa Cabernet.

 

Six Swiss wine regions

Their dominant grapes and approximate areas are listed below, in order of size. Approximately 57% of the grapes grown are red.

Valais [12,043 acres; 4,874 hectares] Whites: Chasselas, Sylvaner, Petite Arvine; Reds: Pinot Noir, Gamay, Syrah, Cornalin, Humagne Rouge
Vaud [9,326 acres; 3,774 hectares] White: Chasselas; Reds: Pinot Noir, Gamay
German Switzerland [6,514 acres; 2,636 hectares] Whites: Müller-Thurgau, Chardonnay; Reds: Pinot Noir, Merlot
Geneva [3,484 acres; 1,410 hectares] Whites: Chasselas, Chardonnay; Reds: Gamay, Pinot Noir, Gamaret
Ticino [2,777; 1,124 hectares Whites: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc; Reds: Merlot, Gamaret
Three Lakes [2,486 acres; 1,006 hectares] Whites: Chasselas, Pinot Gris; Reds: Pinot Noir, Gamaret [There are an additional two websites for this region]

 

Paolo Basso Swiss wine ambassador

One individual traveling around the country to promote Swiss wines is Paolo Basso, titled World's Best Sommelier in 2013. Originally from the Piedmont region of Italy, he now lives and produces wines in Lugano in the southern canton of Ticino. Having spent years living and studying in Lugano myself, I asked Basso about Ticinese wine, which is predominantly Merlot, and the future of wines from that region. He summarized changes as due to mobility and inquisitiveness.

"There's a lot of curiosity with the younger generation of producers. They are very open minded, perhaps because of the ease of travel nowadays. Some of their parents did not travel. So it's their habit to taste other wines, to visit other regions and to make comparisons. They come home and ask, 'Why should we not do other things here?' Then they try different grapes and techniques."

Basso himself produces innovative wines in Ticino (named after his daughter, Chiara), including white Merlot (which has also been produced for years by Guido Brivio) and a red that, unusual for the region, includes Merlot blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

A few Swiss wines to consider sampling are listed below. Most are succulent and balanced, while a distinct few—to match Swiss vistas—are also wildly gorgeous. For the Ticino, keep your eyes on two already established and excellent winemakers—Brivio and Basso. For the Valais, Yann Combyproduces excellent value wines, while the Pinot Noir and Syrah coming from Dr. Patrick Regamey and Histoire D'Enfer are exceptional. Thierry Constantin's quality and price match are impressive, and his Cornalin and Syrah will pair well with food. Although not listed below, Albert Mathier and Sons are producing some interesting orange wine in amphorae that will improve as it ages.

 

A few Swiss wines to consider sampling are listed below

 

The wines listed below are 'value-evaluated' (which relates overall quality to local price per bottle) as ‘superlative,’ ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ based on my own proprietary Vino Value algorithm that matches subjective input (taste) to local bottle prices. Only wines of good quality and price value are listed; descriptors do not address quality directly, but instead highlight good to exceptional price values. These scorings are relative to the prices of similar wines in the country. Retail prices are shown in Swiss Francs - CHF.

 

Gialdi Brivio Vini. 2016 Bianco Rovere di Merlot (white Merlot). CHF 32. [Superlative Value ♫♫♫ ]

Clean, buttery, round, fresh and robust with a slight taste of lime. Brivio's wines are all supple, balanced, clean and smooth. Since I first tasted them seven years ago, the quality remains consistent. His winery, located in the town of Mendrisio near Lugano, is worth visiting to see ancient holes punched into adjacent mountain rock that allows cool air to enter cellars.

Gialdi Brivio Vini. 2015 Sassi Grossi Merlot. CHF 48. [Good Value ♫ ]

This is a beauty on the nose, and gives a heft of pepper and taste of cherries exploding in the mouth. Only recently released. These grapes come from the north of the Ticino Canton in southern Switzerland and have more minerals, power and tannins than those from clay soils to the south, which typically provide more finesse and elegance.

Gialdi Brivio Vini. 2015 Biasca Premium Merlot. CHF 19. [Excellent Value ♫♫ ]

This 100% Merlot spends years in oak barrels and is gentle in the mouth, fruity and well rounded. Like all of Brivio's wines this is supple, balanced and stays consistent in quality over separate vintages.

Yann Comby. 2016 Sélection Prestige Humagne Rouge. (red) CHF 18. [Superlative Value ♫♫♫ ]

From the Valais wine region southeast of Lake Geneva, this includes a taste of wild raspberries—providing a fruit rodeo in the mouth. Combining quality with price, most of Comby's wines are of superlative value.

Yann Comby. 2016 Sélection Prestige Diolinoir. (red) CHF 18. [Superlative Value ♫♫♫ ]

The nose includes dense berries, while in the mouth tastes include tar and black fruit. A serious, heavy wine. The Diolinoir grape (pronounced JOLIE-nwaar) was created almost 50 years ago when Pinot Noir was crossed with Rouge de Diolly. It is used by several winemakers in the Valais.

Thierry Constantin. 2017 Petit Arvine. (white) CHF 25. [Excellent Value ♫♫ ]

This includes buckets of white fruit on the nose and is round and aromatic, similar to a Pinot Gris. Constantin's wines are all balanced, precise and laden with brilliant, often intense fruit.

Thierry Constantin. 2015 L'Odaslisque Syrah. CHF 28. [Excellent Value ♫♫ ]

This wine spends two years in oak, is very fresh on the nose for a Syrah, and includes scents of violets and florals. The taste includes cocoa and lavender, licorice and cherries.

Thierry Constantin. 2016 Le Païen / Der Heida. (white) CHF 28. [Good Value ♫ ]

Full round and floral on the nose, massively so. In the mouth it has a streaming taste of precise, tropical fruits.

Histoire D'Enfer. 2014 L'Enfer du Calcaire Pinot Noir. CHF 56 [Superlative Value ♫♫♫ ]

This biodynamic winery produces stunning, low yield wines. Even at this relatively hefty price, the wine is still of superlative value when the quality is considered. The nose is supple and elegant, and the wine is balanced, smoky and deliciously smooth in the mouth.

Histoire D'Enfer. 2015 L'Enfer de La Roche Humagne Rouge. CHF 46 [Good Value ♫ ]

This is airy and floral on the nose, and light in the mouth. Similar to an elegant Pinot Noir. The producer, Dr. Patrick Regamey, learned his craft by working with wine in Tuscany, Burgundy and Spain.

Histoire D'Enfer. 2016 Reserve Humagne Blanche. CHF 28. [Excellent Value ♫♫ ]

Brilliant nose, full of minerality. Supposedly a 'wine for pregnancy' according to winemaker and owner Patrick Regamey, because it is rich in iron (and so may be appropriate to mothers after delivery).

Domaine Jean-René Germanier. Cayas Réserve Syrah du Valais. CHF 42. [Good Value ♫ ]

Brilliant violets and blackberries on the nose, light like a Pinot Noir in the mouth, yet still peppery and meaty.

Cave du Domaine Au Pré de La Fontaine. Diolinoir. (red) CHF 16. [Superlative Value ♫♫♫ ]

This includes cayenne and black pepper on the nose. Although the wine is both light and elegant to taste, it also includes spice.

Domaine de Montmollin. 2017 Auvernier Blanc Non Filtré. (white) CHF 12. [Excellent Value ♫♫ ]

This wine is a full and loose mouthful of citric fruits.

Renaissance Wines. 2015 Heida. (white) CHF 30. [Good Value ♫ ]

In the mouth this tastes of white fruit and bananas. Uplifting and easy drinking. Produced by Paul-André Dubosson.

Caves du Paradís Síerre. 2016 Humagne Rouge. CHF 19.50. [Excellent Value ♫♫ ]

This includes red fruit and florals on the nose. Olivier Roten ferments this in Inox tanks.

Paolo Basso Wine. 2016 Il Bianco di Chiara. (white Merlot) CHF 29.50. [Superlative Value ♫♫♫ ]

Round, supple, mature, and contained and constrained in the mouth. Refreshing.

Paolo Basso Wine. 2013 Il Rosso di Chiara Merlot. CHF 39.50 [Excellent Value ♫♫ ]

A structured and rich Merlot that should be emulated by more southern Swiss Ticinese winemakers to bring attention to their region. Unusually so for a region dominated by Merlot, this blend also includes Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

Le Petit Château. 2017 Les Cepages Freiburger. CHF 24.0 

A fruity and rounded mouthful of acidic white wine with the taste of apricots and even a little salt. Fabrice Simonet and his brother biodynamically grow Freiburger grapes, which apparently only exist on a few dozen acres in the world. These originated in southern Germany and are also known as Freisamer,.

 

One organizer of the event—sommelier and instructor Vincenzo Aiosi—showed me a bottle of wine prepared by his students (in collaboration with Cave St-Michel) after they tended grapes and fermented juice. This 2014 Johannisberg Elegant white wine is made from Sylvaner grapes (known as Johannisberg in Switzerland). Graduates might want to pop a cork with prospective employers to demonstrate their competitive, wine savvy edge—gained while studying at a gorgeous locale in the Alps.

 

Swiss World of Wine Expo 2018 was held in April on the Bluche campus of Les Roches.

 

About the author

Tom Mullen is a Forbes contributor and the author of The Winemakers' Cooking Companion. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram or at the Vino Voices blog.