Swiss suggest you try their wine with a cheese fondue
April 10, 2003
Mountains, chocolate, cheese, watches, banks — that’s what most of us think of when we think of Switzerland. Certainly not wine.
It’s the French, Italians, Spanish and Germans who get credit for producing fine vintages. But the Swiss, too, have vineyards and produce some notable wines.
However, Switzerland is not a large country and its mountainous terrain limits its wine-growing areas to small patches.
Because production is limited, only about 1 percent of the wine produced is exported, so Swiss wines are not well noted outside the country. The thirsty Swiss — said to be among the highest per-capita wine consumers in the world — enjoy drinking the bulk of their wine.
Two of the most popular Swiss wines are Fendant, a light, dry and fruity white wine, and Dôle, a light, young red often compared to Beaujolais. Fendant is produced from the Chasselas grape, while Dôle comes from Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes.
Both are produced in the canton (a state of the Swiss confederation) of Valais, along the valley of the Rhone River where French is spoken. This area in southern Switzerland, which produces 40 percent of the country’s wine, is sheltered by the Alps to the north, and to the south it borders both France and Italy.
The Valais vineyards, the highest in Europe, are on steep terraced slopes, whose walls hold back the soil clinging to the mountainsides. Plentiful sunshine nourishes its grapes.
The Rhone flows west into the eastern end of Lake Geneva, and along the banks of this large lake are some of the country’s most prized vineyards. If you’ve ever driven along the autobahn that skirts the north side of the lake, you may have noticed all the slopes of vineyards above the sparkling water.
This is part of the canton of Vaud, another French-speaking region, with five different viticulture regions: Chablais, Lavaux, La Côte, Bonvillars and Vully. The Chablais region is not along the lake, but along the Rhone just east of the lake, while the Bonvillars and Vully regions are to the north along the shores of Lake Neuchatel.
Eighty percent of Vaud wine comes from the Chasselas grape, although the wines from this grape have different names in this canton, not “Fendant” as in Valais. They carry the names of the communes or the local name of the area where they are grown.
Christian and Maude Chappuis are vintners in the 700-year-old village of Epesses. This tiny burg in the Lavaux region between Lausanne and Montreux has 300 inhabitants and 27 wine cellars.
“This is the best known of the Swiss wine regions,” says Maude Chappuis. “We have the best soil for white wine.”
The Chappuises, who own about 3½ acres of vineyards, are the fifth generation of an area wine family whose roots date back to 1453.
Lavaux’s small vineyards, as with those in Valais, are anchored to the slopes by retaining walls that prevent the soil from slipping down the hillsides. It was back in the 12th century that Cistercian monks developed this growing technique here and began to construct these super-imposed terraces.
Grapes in the region profit from a microclimate produced by mild temperatures and the sun reflecting from the lake, as well as the warmth retained by the stone walls at night.
We visited the local Caveau des Vignerons (“vintners’ cellar”) in Epesses to taste some of the area specialties. The Lavaux villages, with narrow streets and ancient ivy-covered stone houses, feature these cellars where local vintners sell wine, as well as snacks (local cheese and sausage). We drank a 2001 Calamin from the Epesses vineyards, and sampled the town’s cheese, Etivaz, as well as some delicious sausage.
We also sipped a Dézaley, another one of Lavaux’s excellent white wines.
In most places, it’s common to drink red wine with cheese, but not in Switzerland where white wine, the predominant wine produced in the country, is even one of the ingredients in its national dish, fondue.
“Swiss wines go well with cheese,” says Maude Chappuis. “Fondue is very heavy. Our white wines are light and they aid digestion. Chasselas goes very well with Swiss cheese, such as Gruyère.”
Swiss wines are not cheap, costing an average of between 8 and 30 Swiss francs (about $5.75 and $21.50) per bottle, says Chappuis, although Lavaux wines are a bit more expensive because the grapes grow on steep slopes and have to be cultivated and harvested by hand.
The cost, plus the limited quantity, may explain why, when you order wine in a Swiss restaurant, you get a large thimble for a glass. The Swiss sell and drink their wine by the deciliter. A normal glass of wine, a ballon is a mere 1-deciliter. Of course, you can order more deciliters and get a larger glass.
The picturesque Lavaux region is popular with wine-tasting tourists. There are trails through the vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva that lead from village to village where you can stop at the town Caveau des Vignerons for refreshment.
You could start your journey in the town of Vevey with a ride on a funicular up the slopes to Mont-Pelerin where you begin to explore the pathways through the vineyards. You can even arrange a guided tour to learn more about the area wines and production.
La Côte vineyards lie between the cities of Lausanne and Geneva on more gentle slopes between peaceful villages, such as the village of Fechy. Here, too, the major grape is the Chasselas, but the wines it produces are fuller and bolder than those of neighboring Lavaux.
The vineyards south of Geneva form their own wine region. Again, most wine there comes from Chasselas grapes, but it is called Perlan. Just one-fifth of the Geneva vineyards, which date back to the time of the Roman conquest, are devoted to red wine, Gamay and Pinot Noir.
For more red wine, head to Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of southeast Switzerland, which borders Italy. It benefits from a mild Mediterranean climate and a higher than average amount of sunshine. Eighty percent of the wine produced there is the red wine Merlot.
In northeastern Switzerland, where German is spoken, there are vineyards south of the city of Schaffhausen, along the shores of Lake Constance and Lake Zurich, and along the Austrian border south of Lake Constance. In these regions the dominant grape is Müller-Thurgau, and the wine is called Riesling-Sylvaner.
This part of Switzerland also produces red wine, Blauburgunder (Pinot Noir), and rosé. A Swiss rosé of special note is Oeil de Perdrix. Swiss cuisine features lots of veal, and its rosé wines make a perfect accompaniment to this delicate meat.
In addition to the well-known grape varieties mentioned, Switzerland has an amazing 40 ancient indigenous rarities, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. Among the typical local wines that have not emigrated elsewhere are Petite Arvine, Amigne and Humagne.
After enjoying Swiss wine while in the country, I tried to find a few bottles back home in Germany. I visited several wine stores in the Stuttgart area. Only one had Swiss wine.
At Gallier in Degerloch, the store proprietor said she did not carry it because it is “very, very expensive.” She even said she had customers, who, before setting off on a holiday to Switzerland, stop by her store to buy wine to take with them.
Holger Lange at Charles’ vinothek in nearby Echterdingen had an impressive selection of Swiss wine, including a Dôle from Valais for 11.95 euro and a Valais Fendant for 15.90 euro, as well as many others, including some special and rare varieties.
“Swiss wine is a bit exotic here,” he said. Those who buy it are customers who have been on vacation in Switzerland, as well as wine connoisseurs. “The quality is very high,” said Lange. “I can recommend it.”
Leah Larkin is a journalist living near Stuttgart, Germany.
Learn more ...
¶ For more information on Swiss wine, go to www.swisswine.ch.
¶ For more information on the Lavaux region, visit www.montreux-vevey.com.
¶ For guided tours of Lavaux vineyards, contact Katia Jobin at the Office du Tourisme de Cully, Place de la Gare, Cully, Switzerland; (+41) (0) 21-7995454 or by e-mail at email@example.com
— Leah Larkin