Immediate thoughts of Switzerland include chocolate, cheese, watches and, of course, banking. Wine production is not a topic readily associated with this small, but significant, country where high quality and precision are extremely important. However, this is changing as recognition of Swiss wine quality increases.
There are six main wine growing regions in Switzerland across an area of enormous diversity and contrasts. Fifty eight percent of total vineyards are dedicated to red varieties, of which Pinot Noir is now the dominant planted variety, and 42% designated for white, with Chasselas remaining the major variety. Total vineyards cover 15,000 hectares although this area was double the size in pre-Phylloxera days. One of the most interesting features of Swiss wine production is the high number of indigenous varieties that are cultivated – names such as Amigne, Arvine, Heida and Cornalin, which are not varieties that easily spring to mind, are amongst more than 40 native varieties that can be found.
Of the regions it is the French-speaking Valais in the west which is most well-known, producing over one third of the nation’s total wine production. It is through this region that the Rhone river flows, having begun its journey to the sea from the Gotthard Massif. Flowing westward the steep slopes accommodate some of the highest vineyards in Europe. High altitudes mean high levels of sunshine and a dry climate. The latter is mitigated by the channeling of mountain water to irrigate vines – not an easy task as many of the vines grow on slopes of 60-70%. Some 700 wineries exist in Valais, including that of Jean-René Germanier.
Fourth generation winemaker for Jean-René Germanier is Gilles Besse, who also happens to be the president of Swiss Wine Promotion. Gilles’ innate flair, inquisitive mind and attention to detail are totally in keeping with the best of Swiss precision resulting in top quality wines of real interest. I was lucky enough to meet Gilles in Hong Kong earlier this year and he kindly guided me through a tasting of some of the Jean-René Germanier portfolio. (Gilles stands on the left of the photo below, Raymond Paccot of Domaine La Colombe in the middle and Damien Fleury from The Swiss Wine Store in Hong Kong on the right.)
Arvine, although more frequently known now as Petite Arvine, is a rare white indigenous variety. It is a variety that seems happiest in its native environment as France’s Michel Chapoutier and Italy’s Angelo Gaja have been unsuccessful in their attempts to grow it – both are renowned winemakers with the the resources to push the envelope so would not have given up easily. Jean-René Germanier Petite Arvine 2012 displayed attractive white floral notes and minerality with delicate citrus elements. The palate was gently savoury with a weighty, slightly oily character but showed amazing juiciness and intense acidity which gave the wine a good length.
Reminiscent of a top white Burgundy was the second Arvine to be tasted – Arvine, Cépage Blanc du Valais, Réserve 2010. Only 10 barrels of this delicious wine were produced. The aromas included a savoury, nuttiness and gentle oak from barrel fermentation, whilst plenty of ripe fruit was also evident. The fabulous palate included hints of mango with layered savoury and mineral characters giving a good structure but overall an abundance of freshness.
Swiss innovation and precision are beautifully exhibited on the labels of the white wines made from the Amigne grape produced in the village of Vétroz in Valais. With different sugar levels produced in different vintages plus differing levels of residual sugars in the final wines, producers have invented a system of “Abeilles” or bees on the label – one bee denotes a dry wine, two bees an off-dry wine (with 9-25 grams per litre of residual sugar) and three bees denotes a sweeter style (with more than 25 g/L residual sugar). This approach began with the 2005 vintage and each producer pays 20 cents per bottle to incorporate the bee label designation on their bottle. The labels are simple, elegant and above all effective in communicating the sweetness level of the wine.
The Amigne de Vétroz 2013 which Gilles Besses showed me from the Jean-René Germanier portfolio displayed two bees and he advised that it had 12 g/L of residual sugar placing it in the off-dry category. Gently honeyed on the nose the wine was rich and full-bodied but with an intense citrus core giving it length and also structure for ageing.
Also made from 100% Amigne was the Mitis Réserve 2011 which is produced every year from very late harvested berries of Amigne. The 2011 was picked in mid December. Although the grapes are frozen at night they are picked during the daytime when they have defrosted so in this respect the wines are made differently to ice-wine. The wines spend up to two years in new French barriques which have been toasted to a high level. Neither the 14.5% alcohol, nor the 100 g/L residual sugar were obvious in the final wine – dried apricot and marmalade aromas mingled, whilst the palate displayed wonderful creme brulée characters and a delicious citrus acidity.
Prior to tasting the Mitis Réserve 2011, I enjoyed my debut tasting of the red grape variety Cornalin – this is another semi-indigenous variety having had its origins in north-eastern Italy on the border of Switzerland. Bright crimson in colour, the wine displayed enticing aromas of lifted spice and black fruit. The fruit undergoes 10 days of cold maceration at 10 oC which will encourage development of that fragrant nose. A palate of fleshy, chewy black fruit and spice resulted in a very satisfying wine.
Syrah is a variety that is not readily associated with Switzerland’s Valais but Gilles began producing Cayas, Syrah du Valais Réserve in 1995. Tasting the Réserve 2011 was reminiscent of a Côte Rôtie on the nose – an intense, rich nose including some earthy notes and spice but also slightly meaty, savoury hints. Concentrated and complex on the palate my tasting notes say little more than ‘elegant and fabulous’, which really sums the wine up.
Having just discovered that Switzerland’s relatively small population of 8.02 million are, surprisingly, the sixth largest export market for Champagne (the UK is the biggest), I believe that the Swiss certainly have plenty to celebrate! Santé!