Most of Switzerland's small landmass may be covered by mountains, but it's still home to thousands of growers who have maintained a resolutely Swiss identity through the grape varieties that they cultivate, reports Jane Anson from a recent trip.
Schwierigkeita. The word means trouble, hassle, difficulty.
It pretty accurately sums up the challenges that most Swiss winemakers face in a country that is two-thirds Alps and yet still needs to use irrigation because even though the peaks are snow-capped year-round, the height of the mountains forms a protective barrier against rainfall.
Standing at the bottom of another hillside in the country’s largest wine region of the Valais hammers this home. Cut into neat terraces soaring away in front of you are a series of dry stone supporting walls. The first dates back to 1000AD, with the most recent from 1800.
‘It took a full 800 years to build these terraces slowly and painstakingly up that hill,’ say Dominique Rouvinez. ‘That’s how difficult it was to get everything in place.’
Directly in front of us is a hand-painted sign, aimed at wine tourists and put in place by the Rouvinez family at their Cellier de Cion tasting room (a joint venture between the Rouvinez-owned Bonvin and Varone Vins). It warns of steep drops, the need to wear strong walking boots and to be aware of the potential danger of falling over cliffs. This is quite clearly not your average winery visit.
But then nothing is average about Swiss wine. This is a place where 95% of wines are bottled as an AOC, making the focus on quality clear. And yet the Valais is made up of 22,000 smallholders working 80,000 plots of vines at an average of 1,100m in altitude on slopes that regularly reach gradients of 70% and where helicopters are routinely used to take the grapes off to the winery during harvest.
And all of those plots add up to just under 12,000 acres of vines – just a little less than the Saint Emilion appellation in Bordeaux that counts somewhere between 700 and 800 winemakers.
Most of the vines belong to locals who have inherited a few rows outside their kitchen windows, and who almost invariably earn their livelihoods from entirely different careers. The grapes from these so-called ‘Sunday winemakers’ are either sent to a local cooperative cellar or make their way to one of around 300 producers who are bottling wine across the Haut Valais (the absence of inheritance taxes helps keep this system possible).
Every year the famously careful Swiss functionaries painstakingly record who owns what, and who plants which grapes, recording up to 5,000 changes annually.
Even the grapes are unusual, with the plantings increasingly spread across indigenous varieties such as Petite Arvine (the local name for Arvine), Fendant (Chasselas), Heida, Cornalin, Humagne Rouge, along with Pinot Noir and Syrah.
All this makes a rather cheerful difference from the majority of the wine world. Just a few weeks ago Paul Hobbs suggested at the Masters of Wine conference in Spain that Argentina’s future lay with Cabernet Sauvignon, ‘the international benchmark for all the great reds of the world’.
If that’s the case, Swiss winemakers seem to say, the rest of the world can go whistle. There is a small but significant amount of Merlot here, but almost no Cabernet Sauvignon. This was a conscious choice. Local grapes were at 3% of the mix in 1990 and are at 40% today, following a push by the regional viticulture institute to rescue rare varieties and increase genetic diversity.
Even Alain Raynaud, the Bordelais consultant who I travelled to the Valais with, sees the value in Switzerland maintaining its point of difference through embracing its own varieties of grapes, although his suggestion is to meet the world half way through blends, as found in the Bonvin Cuvée 1858 bottling, and the excellent Stricto Senso from Varone Vins.
‘Even using the indigenous varieties,’ says Raynaud, ‘blending can bring out the best of the flavours, as can a small amount of barrel ageing, because traditionally the Swiss varieties are unoaked’.
This is not just a Bordeaux upstart coming in and waving oak barrels around. The Rouvinez family was the first to create a blended oaked wine in the 1980s with Le Tourmetin and its success not only revolutionised the area but gave the family the finances to now own over 100ha of vineyard (split across a number of small estates measuring from less than an acre to 15 hectares in size because, well, because this is Switzerland where precision is a given).
Perhaps this is the way to give Swiss wines a little higher visibility.
To date, beyond icons such as Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, Swiss wines are mainly famous for being impossible to find outside of the country’s borders, exporting something like 1% of production.
There is a desire to change that – it’s hard not to see the newly-introduced (since 2010) Grand Cru system, for example, as being aimed squarely at an international audience. And the quality of the wines that the Rouvinez family is making certainly deserves a wider audience.
But let’s hope they don’t go too far. The world needs more wine that is unashamedly and absolutely of itself.
Wine to Try
Varone Vins Stricto Sensu 2013
Just 3,000 bottles are made of this blend of Syrah, Cornalin and Humagne. Certainly suggests to me that indigenous Swiss grapes can work well in blends. It won a gold medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards and I can see why. Touches of liquorice and dried herbs, with black cherry and redcurrant fruits that are intense but delicate. Great freshness and the whole thing shows excellent grip and development in the glass. This has a long ageing of 24 months in barrel, and another 12 months in bottle. Waves of flavour just keep on coming, but nothing is shouting – a perfect example of a wine that asks you to sit still and listen. Great stuff. 94/100 points.
Charles Bonvin Cuvée 1858 Blanc AOC Valais 2013
Switzerland is best known for its white wine, and this is a great example of why (although it can be found in both red and white versions). This sees full oak barrel vinification and is a blend of Petit Arvine, Heida and Amigne. Beautiful citrus and apricot notes, great focus and sense of energy, and it exudes both structure and ageing potential. The Heida and Amigne give freshness to the rich saffron, quince and almost petrol-edged Petite Arvine. I would decant this for an hour or so, and get it in front of a plate of food. Alain Reynaud is consultant. 93/100.
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