With 15,000 hectares of vineyards, Switzerland weighs less than 2% of the French vineyard: a postage stamp stuck on the wine world map… It produces, on average, 100 million liters of indigenous wines and exports only 1%. Because the national market “sponges up” the local production.

The Swiss – over 15 years old, but including tourists – remain, over the years, among the largest consumers of wine in the world, with a little over 36 liters per capita. Only Portugal (56 l.), France (49.5 l.) and Italy (43 l.) are ahead of the Swiss.

This means that Swiss wine production only covers less than 40% of the market’s “needs”… Under these conditions, there is no need to export wine! If you want to discover the nuggets of the Swiss vineyard, you have to go there…

Swiss landscape

Swiss vineyard of Lavaux Photo : Alissa De Leva

In Switzerland, the wine world is very competitive and eager for recognition: Swiss wines are present in international competitions, such as the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, and very well rewarded, and compete in local competitions – cantonal selections -, national competitions – the Grand Prix du Vin Suisse – that Vinea, the kingpin of Montreal, organizes, as well as international competitions, Swiss wines are well represented at the Mondial des Pinots and the Mondial du Merlot, while the federation of international competitions, Vinofed, has its headquarters in Sierre, in the heart of the Valais, and has just hosted the Mondial du Chasselas, celebrating the main white grape variety grown in Switzerland…

Switzerland and its 250 grape varieties

It’s difficult to get to grips with Swiss wines if you don’t know them! In the heart of the Old Continent, the country is not part of the European Union. It has therefore not adopted the Community legislation. Its “appellations d’origine contrôlée” (AOC) are very liberal and depend on the cantons. Almost 90% of the wines are classified as AOC. Each canton has its own system of geographical distribution, from “grand cru” to “1er grand cru”, different from one region to another…

More than 250 grape varieties are officially listed on a little less than 15,000 ha, where red dominates over white: Pinot Noir is in the lead, with 3,875 ha, ahead of Chasselas, 3,605 ha, Merlot, 1,202 ha, which has just passed Gamay, 1,145 ha. Apart from Chasselas, which is unique to Switzerland – an ancient orphan grape variety for which DNA research has not identified any known relatives… – the others are international, such as Pinot, king of neighboring Burgundy to the west, Merlot, imported from Bordeaux, and Gamay, originating from Beaujolais, also neighboring to the west. In white, chardonnay (400 ha) and sauvignon blanc (200 ha) are successful, while in red, behind the pinot-merlot-gamay trio, stand out varieties developed in the 1970s at the Changins research institute, gamaret and garanoir, unique to Switzerland. As are the grape varieties resistant to cryptogamic diseases of the vine, and requiring little treatment, Divico and Divona, next to the achievements of a genius of natural crossing of varieties, Valentin Blattner, who works on the fringe of the Swiss scientific world…

A geography torn apart by the Alps

One must also get used to the Swiss geography. 15,000 hectares is, after all, only the surface area of Alsace, the French side of the Rhine, which stretches in one piece from Mulhouse to Strasbourg… Except that in Switzerland, these 15,000 ha are spread over the four corners of the country, in the watersheds of the European rivers that are the Rhine (canton of Grisons), the Rhone (from its glacier in Valais to Geneva, passing through Vaud), and, south of the Alps, the Ticino, which flows into the Italian Po.

Vineyard in Switzerland

The Dézaley is both classified as a Grand Cru, mostly Chasselas, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as is the Lavaux region, between Lausanne and Vevey, on the shores of Lake Geneva. (photo Pierre Thomas)

The lakes play a role of climate regulators: Lake Geneva, lakes of Neuchâtel, Biel and Murten – which gave its name to the region known as the Three Lakes -, Lake Zurich, Lake Lucerne, where Lucerne is experiencing an astonishing wine-growing boom, Lake Constance… The furrows of the rivers that flow into these lakes are also micro-climates favorable to the vine, cultivated undoubtedly by the Romans, and then relaunched in the Middle Ages almost everywhere by monks, who came from Burgundy or from Germany.

Saillon Vineyards in Le Valais

Saillon vineyard in the Valais (swisswine.ch)

The special place of Valais

With one third of the vineyards, the canton of Valais holds a special place in the small world of Swiss wine. In this upper Rhone Valley, known as a continental steppe (like Napa Valley on the west coast of the United States or certain Spanish regions at the foot of the Pyrenees), international grape varieties such as Syrah and Cabernet Franc thrive, alongside a collection of Alpine varieties (often with relatives in the Italian Aosta Valley), such as, in white, petite arvine, humagne blanche, rèze or completer (a rare grape variety from the area around Chur, in the Grisons, which celebrates its 700th anniversary this October! ), and in red, the cornalin, the red humagne or the diolinoir.

A young and dynamic vineyard…

The Swiss vineyard is very dynamic. The domains are small, between 2 and 10 ha. The school of Changins, which trains engineers and oenologists, is renowned – it welcomes daughters and sons of famous French producers! -It ensures a know-how in all Switzerland. The children of the winegrowers of the Swiss revival, which dates back some thirty years, have all been “to see elsewhere”, in France, but also in California, Australia, South Africa or Chile…

Livre 111 vins suisses à ne pas manquervin suisse, La Suisse, pépite(s) méconnue(s)


And a guide to explore it!

Impossible, in a chronicle like this one, to paint the picture of such a rich landscape… The German publisher emons: ordered me a book in its collection “111 places” (more than 400 titles published). In this case, it is “111 Swiss wines not to be missed”. Through a selection of 33 wines from Valais, 22 from Vaud, 13 from the Three Lakes, 10 from Ticino, 10 from Geneva, 7 from Graubünden, 5 from Zurich, etc., I tried to stick as closely as possible to the Swiss wine reality. I comment on wines from 27 white and 24 red grape varieties. I have deliberately emphasized the importance of describing estates where the next generation of winemakers, often women, have already taken on their responsibilities, and where the emphasis is on organic and biodynamic cultivation, which is constantly progressing, and on the originality of the approaches, the famous “story telling”, which wine lovers today are so fond of. A 240-page book to be discovered. Available on Amazon.

Pierre Thomas is a Swiss journalist, born in Lausanne, where he lives. After a general career (parliamentary correspondent in Berne, editor-in-chief), he specialized in wines. Taster in many national and international competitions, including more than twenty editions of the Concours mondial de Bruxelles, he writes reports, columns and books. His archives can be consulted online: www.thomasvino.ch.