The phrase most heard by visitors to the Swiss canton of Valais is “I didn’t know there were so many vineyards”.
Swiss wine is something of an enigma. Few Europeans are aware of the scale of viticulture in the Alpine nation’s most important wine region, and why would they be? After all, finding a bottle in any other country is almost impossible.
The Swiss love their wine so much that they don’t let anyone take a look at it. Less than 3% of the wines produced in Valais are exported, which is very unusual for a territory so dedicated to viticulture.
swim in wine
Swiss wine had its big turning point in the 1990s. Until 1985, there was wild overproduction. So much so that the hectoliters of unsold wines, mainly Chasselas, were kept in state-owned swimming pools!
The problem was corrected by switching to AOC wines, which means there are rules to follow. Gradually, the quality rises, oenology courses open, oenologists arrive. The government stopped buying these basic wine literal pools and import liberalization came into effect. Foreign wines could be purchased in Switzerland.
But the problem of this decade is that Swiss wines can rarely be bought as foreign wines elsewhere.
So where is this all going?
Valais is the same size as the Bordeaux region of St Emilion. It’s about 5,000 hectares. On the wine side, it’s not that great.
Laurent Guidoux, commercial director of Domaine Mont d’Or, explained to Euronews the singular problem posed by the export of Swiss wine.
“99% of Swiss wine never leaves the country,” he says. “And the cost of production is too high to have attractive prices for supermarkets.”
Swiss wine production is not quite in the top 10 of European countries in terms of volume. It produces just over one million hectoliters. To give you some perspective, the 10th largest is Georgia with 1.8 million hl (hectoliters) and the largest is Italy with over 49 million hl. A hectolitre is a unit equivalent to 100 litres.
Wine tourism is big business and the Swiss are keen to show you their products. But what makes this a daunting task is the lack of a constant reminder from the market. You visit the first three: Italy, France and Spain, and learn about the terroir, the grape varieties and the food it pairs best with, then return home and find examples in your local supermarket. This is not the case with Swiss wine.
Nadine McCallion of Guy Anderson wines in the south of England offers perspective.
“Although we specialize in European wines (French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian), Swiss wines have never been on our radar, neither for us nor for our supermarket customers,” she told Euronews. .
“It’s one of those regions where it’s expensive to produce, so the wines are expensive and only produced in relatively small volumes and a strong domestic market (notably ski resorts) absorbs most of the wine. There is also a lack of knowledge among consumers – a vicious cycle of misunderstood varietals and misunderstood appellations due to cost and availability barriers.”
When asked if that could change, McCallion looks a short distance west for the possibility of exporting the salute. “Wines from the Jura are increasingly heard these days, so maybe other mountain wine regions have the opportunity to offer their products.”
Anyone who visits Valais and tastes wine at Mont d’Or or in the brand new wine city, Cellars of Sion, will see the high quality of the region’s wines. But winemakers like Guidoux have overheads that push the price beyond an easy sell.
McCallion has a point where varietals are concerned. Domaine Mont d’Or’s most famous grape is called Johannisberg, which is a confusing misnomer to begin with. Riesling lovers will associate the name with Schloss Johannisberg, where the owners of Domaine Mont d’Or went in the mid-19th century to bring back new grape varieties. And it’s not only with Riesling that they came back. Johannisberg in Valais is actually Sylvaner.
Add to that the fact that the most widely planted grape variety in Switzerland, Chasselas, goes by the name ‘Fendant’ in this region and you can be sure that all but the most educated drinkers will not know what they are drinking. get.
Rèze dates back to the beginning of the 14th century and produces a dry and very acidic wine. Lafnetscha is the local dialect way of saying “laff es nicht schon” (don’t drink too soon!). A particular favorite is the Petite Arvine. Its first recorded mention dates back to 1602 not far from Sion, and it is a real gift for a blind tasting because it has an undeniable saline finish. In total, 31 white and 24 red grape varieties are authorized in AOC Valais.
With so many grapes, there are fascinating pairing possibilities, and a real favorite is that of Jacques Bovier The Sitter in Zion. A jewel but cozy and bright dining room with impressionistic seascapes at either end. His risotto with pumpkin, 64° egg and raw cow’s milk cheese called La Boule de Belp is as intense and warm as a small dish.
Bovier matched that with a 2019 Hummagne Rouge from Rouvinez. A rustic and somewhat wild beast.
Stop your lunch
In addition to the noble art of soaking up, one of the best ways to discover Swiss wine is to go hiking. Numerous vineyards that overlook the valley floor are informative and picturesque.
If in doubt, you are probably seeing fields and terraces of Chasselas/Fendant, but the vintners often mark their rows and in some cases have made an effort to educate hikers as they cross the old bisses.
One of the ways to experience this terrain is the annual Marathon des Saveurs which takes place every fall. Its growing popularity has seen organizers switch from one course to two. The East road from Sion to Salgesch, and the West road from Sion to Chomason. To see images of the 2019 Marathon that took place along the East Road, click on the link below.
If you want to participate in this year’s event, registration is now to open. Whichever route you choose, you will see miles and miles of vineyards. It’s just a shame that almost everyone’s wine never leaves the country.