Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

If I told you there was a country that was home to the headwaters of both the Rhône and the Rhine rivers, one that shared latitudinal coordinates with Burgundy, was bordered by Italy, France and Germany, the greatest wine producing countries on the planet, you’d think that country would make some pretty exceptional wine.

And yet, when was the last time you had a bottle of Swiss wine?

Yes, it would seem that Switzerland has many factors to suggest that it should be a premier winemaking nation. And the truth is better wines are coming out of the tiny, but climatologically diverse, country with each and every vintage. But unless you have been to the Swiss Alps for a ski sojourn, took a trip to visit your money in Zurich, or are an international diplomat with regular stops in Geneva, you may have never sampled the wines of Switzerland.

There is a long history of winemaking in the region that now sits within Switzerland’s borders. There is evidence of ceramic wine vessels dating to the second century BC. And having been in Switzerland, I have seen beautiful terraced vineyards hugging the hills, basking in sunshine along the northern shore of Lac Leman, as the Swiss refer to Lake Geneva, between Geneva and Montreaux. And we all know that part of the Swiss DNA is an ability to create and market high end products for the privileged.

So why don’t we get any wines from Switzerland?

The answer it seems is that the Swiss drink their wines. That’s right, while production has skyrocketed in the last twenty years with more and more vineyards being planted to grape varieties that, though obscure to us, are perfectly tailored for the topography and terroir of the Swiss wine regions, about 98 percent of the wines never make it out of the country. Just 2 percent of Switzerland’s 200 million or so bottles are exported and the majority of those go to Germany.

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There are three key wine regions in Switzerland, all concentrated near the borders with other countries. In the west is the Valais. Here French is the language of the region and majority of the red wines made are called Dôle, which is a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes. Fendant, a white wine made from the Chasselas grape is also popular.

In the south, near the Italian border, not far from the Dolomites, Merlot is favored. This area, called Ticino, has a Mediterranean climate. We all have seen photos from Lake Como and the nearby Lake Lugano (which is actually in Switzerland) that look like they were taken on the French Riviera. That is the topography we are talking about, even though the area is hundreds of miles from the nearest sea. Just about every village in Ticino has its own version of a Merlot-based wine that is generally light in character and made to drink young.

The Swiss German border to the east is where many of Switzerland’s best red wines come from. The Blauburgunder is what the Swiss in this region call Pinot Noir and there are a number of producers who are creating exceptional wines from the grape. Vineyards here are clustered along the Swiss side of the Rhine River which serves as the border between much of eastern and northern Switzerland and Germany. It is not surprising that grapes that are better known as German, Sylvaner for instance, thrive on the hillsides in this area.

For most of the last couple of centuries Swiss wines were the products of local vintners who grew grapes, made wines and shared them with their neighbors in their villages. There were few laws that regulated the Swiss wine industry and no system like the French appellation contrôlee to legislate quality wine production. But in the late 1990s, a system was put in place to recognize the “place of origin” of a particular wine, much like our American Viticulural Area system. This was the beginning a new age for wines in Switzerland.

The wine industry in Switzerland today is really a collection of individual proprietors as opposed to being controlled by mass producers. This bodes well for the future as quality is the goal rather than marketing.

While finding Swiss wines may be difficult here, perhaps the best suggestion is to take a trip to the home of the wines. Walk into a chic Geneva wine bar, check into a rustic mountain hostel or even book a first class ticket on the famed Glacier Express train from Zermatt to St. Moritz. All will have pours of the local flavor.

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