Get to Know Swiss Wine

WITH ROB NELLIS

SOMMELIER

 

Despite making wine for millennia, few people outside of Switzerland know anything about Swiss wines. This is, in large part, due to the fact that only 2% of domestic production is exported. Those wines that do leave the country are generally quite pricey. Add to that a penchant for using autochthonous and indigenous varietals and most people are loath to take a risk buying ultra-premium wine they know nothing about. But there has been a ton of work put into revitalizing the industry and producers are aggressively looking to expand their export markets.

Switzerland’s wine regions are mostly in the west and south, in the Cantons of Geneva, Neuchâtel, Ticino, Vaud and Valais. Of the 15,000 hectares under vine, 58% are planted to red and 42% to white, while 40% of all plantings are in Valais. Valais, considered to be the most important region for the production of fine wines, has long been recognized as the centre of the Swiss wine Renaissance and the go-to region for international wine enthusiasts looking for the best examples of terroir and style. It boasts 5 Grand Cru appellations, the finest areas in Switzerland for viticulture: Conthey, Saint-Leonard, Saglesch, Fully and Vétroz. The Aosta Valley is directly across the Alps to the south and west, while the Savoie region of France lies to the west. All 3 have several autochthonous varietals in common, representing a collection of some of the most intriguing aromatic wines found nowhere else on the planet.

Valais sits on the Rhône mountains, but the Alps intersect, making it a very exciting geological area. There is a wealth of different soil and mineral elements in every vineyard. Its collection of limestone, gravel and schist rivals regions like Mosel, but with iron and other minerals in abundance. Vines are planted on southern slopes to get as much sun exposure as possible. Large vineyard stones and pebbles absorb and reflect daytime heat to moderate huge diurnal drops in temperature in the evenings. Valais is known for its dramatic mountainscapes, with vineyards ranging in elevation from 1500 to 5000 ft, on steep (42 degree) inclines. Inaccessible to machine, they must be painstakingly hand-harvested while workers are tethered to the sides of the mountains.

The number one planted varietal is Pinot Noir (also known regionally as Blauburgunder or Clevener); the white grape Chasselas (Fendant in the Valais) ranks second. There are plenty of Gamay Noir plantings (the blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay is locally known as Dole, their own version of Passetoutgrains) as well as its hybrid Gamaret. You will also find Cornalin, Humagne Rouge, Diolinoir and Syrah in red grapes, and the autochthonous Amigne and Petite Arvine, Ermitage (Marsanne), Sylvaner and some international varieties like Chardonnay in whites.

Most vineyards are the epitome of cool climate growing, with screamingly-high acid levels, so chaptalisation is widely used, particularly by bulk producers, to increase alcohol levels. The new breed of fine wine producer eschews chaptalization and utilizes clonal selection, careful site analysis to plant the right varietals, canopy management to increase sun exposure and long hang times to ensure full phenolic ripeness. Despite the strong heritage of French-style winemaking, there are influences from Germany and Italy as well.

Valais is also the epicentre for Swiss food, home to the Raclette AOC, where the nation’s signature cheese and its dishes originated. The semi-firm cow’s milk cheese is heated and scraped, while slowly melting, onto boiled potatoes, bread, pickles, onions, leeks, air dried meats and anything else you want covered in a blanket of cheesy goodness! Pair that with a zesty Fendant or Petite Arvine from a quality producer and you have a true sensory experience! Buyers + Cellars is proud to present the iconic wines of Jean-René Germanier, located in the hamlet of Balavaud (legendary for its Pinot Noir), in the Grand Cru commune of Vétroz. These wines are internationally recognized as flagships for the region and we are ecstatic to secure an allocation to allow Ontario consumers to be among the first, internationally, to enjoy the finest wines crafted in Switzerland.

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