Switzerland may be a little known wine producing nation but it has been making wine for more than two thousand years. Swiss wine’s lack of fame is not due to any lack of quality or quantity, but because it is produced mostly for the Swiss themselves.
The Swiss consume nearly all the wine they make. In 2016, Swiss residents drank 89 million litres of domestic wine which made up only about a third of the total 235 million litres of wine they drank. They export only about 1% of their wine production and the majority of that goes mainly to Germany.
Things are gradually changing as the world is beginning to discover the high quality of Swiss Pinot Noir and white wines made from the locally grown Chasselas.
Switzerland possesses multi-cultural influence. The Germanic wine influence is demonstrated by a preference for varietal winemaking and crisp, refreshing wine styles, and is most prevalent in the German-speaking north between Zurich and the Rhine. French influences are felt mostly in the French-speaking south-west in Geneva, Vaud and Valais. Switzerland’s favourite grape varieties – Chasselas, sometimes referred to as “Fendant”, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Merlot are all of French origin.
Do to the terrain, Swiss wines are some of the world’s most expensive. Many vineyards are inaccessible to tractors and other vineyard machinery so most work is done by hand. This substantially increases production costs. This does have an advantage; when grapes are harvested by hand, there is an obvious incentive to favour quality over quantity.
The Chasselas white wine grape is gradually giving up production to more popular ‘international’ varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer are also grown in Swiss vineyards.
Red wines now outnumber whites in Switzerland. Pinot Noir, also known as Blauburgunder, is the most widely produced and planted variety in the country, making up almost 30% of wines produced. Chasselas represents just over a quarter of all wines.
The next most popular wine in the red category is Gamay. It is often blended with Pinot Noir to produce “Dôle” wines.
Also significant among Swiss red wine grapes is Merlot. Syrah has also done well here, even if only in the warmest parts of the country.
Wine has been produced in Switzerland for more than 2,000 years. As in France, the spread of viticulture during the Middle Ages was mainly driven by monasteries.
Today the Swiss wine industry has about 16,000 hectares of vineyards that produce about 100 million liters of wine each year.
The government body in charge of the Swiss appellation system, the OIC, has a separate title for each of the country’s three official languages: “Organisme Intercantonal de Certification” in French, ‘Interkantonale Zertifizierungsstelle” in German and “Organismo Intercantonale di Certificazione” in Italian. The OIC is responsible for delineating the official Swiss wine regions and creating wine quality guidelines and laws. The OIC is reportedly in talks to bring their labelling practices into line with European standards even though the country is not a member of the European Union.
I myself have never had the opportunity to try Swiss wine but I will keep an eye out for it whenever I cruise the aisles in the Vintages section of my local liquor store.