The Swiss like to poke fun at themselves. “You know what we say about the people from Valais? They’re ‘un peu chaud,’ a bit hot-headed,” is the sort of thing you might hear over a glass of Chasselas.
It’s half-joking, of course. “When we used to go out of the Valais, it was to Vaud,” the winemaker Olivier Roten says. “And we’d think, ‘What is this?’” It’s funny, not only because Roten is as urbane as any New Yorker, but also because playing up to your own stereotype is good sport. The Vaudois like to consider their mountain-girt cousins rather backward and insular; the Valaisans look down on their neighbors as decadent metropolitans.
Regardless, both regions make wine. For a long time, it was mostly consumed by the Swiss themselves, but as the secret gets out, more is being exported.
Two main regions
The two cantons, which are the equivalent of counties, of Vaud and Valais are contiguous, and contain almost all the vineyards of the south of Switzerland. Vaud hugs the northern banks of Lac Léman or Lake Geneva. It’s famous for its UNESCO Heritage-listed Lavaux vineyards, which fall precipitously to the blue waters below, and is also home to the cities of Vevey — where Nestlé is headquartered, Geneva — the United Nations, Lausanne, and the haut-bourgeois Montreux. It must be the most cosmopolitan stretch of water in the world.
Then, southeast of the lake, you have the Valais. This is classic Switzerland: geranium-bedecked stone-roofed chalets straggle up the valley between Toblerone-shaped peaks; in the cool autumn evenings the air smells of woodsmoke and rings with cowbells. It’s beguiling and slightly unreal, as if you’ve strayed through a time-space portal into a 1960s healthy-living ad.
It’s in these two regions that you find the vast majority of Switzerland’s national grape, and some would say its best-kept secret: Chasselas. Go to any event of any kind — birthday party, ambassadorial reception, wedding, or wake — and you’ll be offered Chasselas. This fresh, fruity, aromatic, easy-drinking white wine is the second most-planted grape variety hereafter Pinot Noir, and it’s grown throughout the south of the country. “It’s like mother’s milk to the Swiss,” one producer said.
“We can always count on Chasselas — it’s easy to grow, easy to make, and easy to sell,” André Fontannaz says. He’s the owner of Cave La Madeleine in the pretty Valaisan town of Vétroz, and he’s part of a wine dynasty. “Most people in Valais have friends, or friends of friends, or cousins who make wine,” his cousin Bernard Fontannaz says. The latter sells many millions of gallons of South African and Argentinian as well as Swiss wine under his Origin Wine label. He’s a native of Valais but lives in the U.K., and he reckons the Swiss are hamstrung by the fact they can sell everything they make within their borders. “We have a captive market, which creates a bit of complacency in the Swiss winemaking tradition.”
Wine is made in every corner of Switzerland. From Italian-speaking Ticino in the far south, to German-speaking Thurgau in the north, and Geneva in the west, the country is dotted with appellations and Grands Crus. The Swiss drink almost every drop of the 26 million gallons of wine they produce, and they import a further 41.6 million gallons. A minuscule amount of wine is exported, so Swiss winemakers have never had to bow to the demands of global wine fashion. Swiss wine-growing hasn’t become the monoculture that you find in — say — Napa.
“A Swiss wine tasting is a kaleidoscope of grapes you’ve barely — or never — heard of.”
In Switzerland, some 250 varieties, almost all of them indigenous, are grown. Yes, there is Merlot, the staple variety in Ticino, and Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Cabernet, but Chasselas, which is known as Fendant in Valais, accounts for a quarter of all production. And then there are the rest: the lusciously citrusy Petite Arvine, the blueberry-tinged, rustic-tannined Cornalin, also known as Humagne Rouge in certain valleys, Amine, and Plant Robert, a cousin of Gamay only found in the Valais. A Swiss wine tasting is a kaleidoscope of grapes you’ve barely — or never — heard of.
But that’s changing. “We don’t need to export but we want our wines to be better known,” André Fontannaz says. He’s not as outward-looking as his cousin Bernard, but his Amigne de Vetroz 2017 was given 94 points by Robert Parker, so he knows what he’s doing.
As a result of people like the Fontannaz clan and dynamic Seattle-based importer Laine Boswell, who is married to Olivier Roten, it’s getting easier to find Swiss wine in the outside world. There are 50 Swiss wines on the list at the posh London wine club 67 Pall Mall, and even more in its Verbier outpost; in the U.S., Switzerland has Boswell fighting in its corner.
Laine Boswell reckons the way to Americans’ hearts is to sell “the essence of my husband’s Alpine roots,” to which end Roten’s Avalanche label — a rather lovely collage of the Matterhorn, edelweiss, and the famous Helvetian cross — is a hymn to Swissness.
Switzerland is an old-fashioned country but its wines are modern: artisanal, cool-climate reds and whites made from ancient indigenous grapes, grown at altitude on vertiginous slopes, many on small plots that have been in the same family for generations. The cuckoo clock was never really a Swiss thing. But wine is in their blood.
3 Swiss wines to try:
Just to confuse things, Fendant is what they call Chasselas in Valais: it’s exactly the same grape. Very fresh nose with grapefruit, cooked pear, and orange blossom. Fine light-bodied palate, lots more fruit —peach and pear, tropical notes, orange zest, good brisk acidity, and very good length. Texture fine-grained, the acidity softening on the finish, but overall, a delicious, delicately-textured and persistent wine with power to hold its own with quite robust dishes.
Beguilingly light nose with dark fruit aromas, then a palate which is full and creamy with flavors of berries and briar; there are herbal notes too, which adds freshness. It’s all in a low key — the tannins are dry with grip, but delicate. Lovely dry, juicy finish.
From the famous, U.N. Heritage-listed Lavaux terraces on the north banks of Lac Léman, this superb —if pricey — Chasselas has a fine fresh floral nose with hints of orange flowers, brisk acidity on the palate, and really elegant fruit — orange blossom, jasmine, lapsang souchong, and essence of peach. If all that sounds a bit over-the-top for a light white wine, it’s meant to: It’s an accomplished wine that sings of the place it comes from.
Adam Lechmere visited Switzerland courtesy of Origin Wines.