The people of Switzerland have so much love for their wine that they only export a small portion of it. The question is whether this is by design or lack of demand from outside countries. The Swiss consume many imported wines from other countries, but they also drink most of their wine production.
Is this due to the high price tag? Sommelier ignorance? Or are the Swiss drinking all their wine?
Swiss Wines 101
Swiss wine is difficult to find, especially in America, where the dominant regions are Napa, Tuscany, and Boudreaux. As a result, Swiss wine is foreign to Americans and the rest of the world, including Europe. Only about 1% of Swiss wine is exported at all.
The Swiss take outstanding care of their vineyards, all 36,922 acres. Attention to detail isn’t cheap due to the high costs of Swiss labor and some of the highest elevations in Europe.
Wine in Switzerland is as diverse as its culture. Three distinct language areas can define Switzerland wines; the French, Italian, and German-speaking areas. Two different grapes can also sum up wine here; Pinot Noir, the principal Burgundian grape, and then more exclusive white grape to Switzerland; Chasselas.
Like most countries rich in wine culture, swiss wine dates back to the Roman Era, around 800-600 BC. It went through the middle ages, being spread by Christian Monks, and much like other countries, they struggled through Phylloxera in the early 1900s, where they resorted to crossing their vines with American rootstocks as a cure (‘Merica).
Still, this caused a decline in wine production until the mid-20th century. After this decline, Swiss wine has made considerable advancements in improving the quality of its wine and creating its own identity.
So what makes Swiss wine special? Therefore, Swiss wine is not in the EU; it goes by its own rules regarding wine laws. That is not to say they don’t abide by their own stringent wine rules. For instance, a significant step forward was disallowing the blending of imported wines into their own, which further created their own identity and a sense of their exceptional terroir.
Money & Wine
Swiss wines come with a heavy price tag. Switzerland is a costly place to do business, including producing wine. It doesn’t help that grapes are grown in high altitudes, and it takes a lot more hours to tend vines here than nearly anywhere else in the world. Another issue increasing the cost of Swiss wine is that more people want to drink Swiss wines than wine on the market.
Many winemakers practice chaptalization: adding sugar to an unfermented grape to increase the alcohol content. This practice was adopted to counteract the high acidity in the grapes due to the solid continental climates at such high altitudes.
This is how Swiss winemakers can coax concentrated, intense flavors from their grapes; some of their Pinot Noir varietals can be described as big and concentrated, which is unusual for this type of climate and grape.
Valais (Swiss Wine Region)
The largest wine region in Switzerland, Valais, is in the French section of Switzerland. The area takes up 12,500 acres of land situated on the slopes of the Upper Rhône Valley. It is a dry, sunny region that produces mostly Chasselas. Other grapes grown include Sylvaner, Marsanne, and Pinot Gris.
Chasselas is the most famous of Swiss white wines: Chasselas is what Shiraz has become to Australia, Malbec to Argentina, and Carménère to Chile; it has become notoriously Swiss if it has become notoriously Swiss, not historically so. This grape is now over a quarter of the country’s wine production.
It is an elegant grape with varied expressions from vineyard to vineyard. It is the Coors Light of Swiss wine in some vineyards due to its light and refreshing. However, it is complex in better vineyards with a depth of smoky minerality and raw earth. It can also express beautiful herbal and floral notes.
In Valais, a Chasselas wine is called Fendant (meaning “to split” in French because the grape breaks apart when squeezed). This is the region where the grape triumphs, with expressive fruit flavors and flintiness, finishing with an almond-like bitterness and a final crescendo into creaminess.
Valais is also famous for blending Burgundian varieties such as Pinot Noir with Gamay outside of Chasselas and white wine production to make the Swiss call the Dôle blend. These Swiss wines can have that Pinot funk with some earthiness and some flintiness. It is the red Fendant because it is a staple in the area and presents the same mineral flavors in both Swiss wines.
Vaud (Swiss Wines Region)
Still, in French Switzerland territory, Vaud is the second most important region in Switzerland. Although like in Valais, many of the same grapes are used, 70% of the wine production comes from the Chasselas grape, and they even have their blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay they call Salvagnin.
Here in the Vaud Canton terroir takes on a mind of its own between some of the different encompassing regions: Aigle, La Côte, Lavaux, Dézaley, Chablais and Yvorne. Then there are two Grand Cru Regions; Dézaley and Calamin. Again, La Côte is where the fruit flavors shine, while the minerality from the soils stands out in Aigle, Yvorne, and Calamin.
Dézaley manages to express both fruit and minerality in their wines. As a result, some very famous producers can purchase a wide range of high-quality Swiss wines.
Ticino (Swiss Wines Region)
The last two areas are less important regions concerning Swiss wine fame, which is very little, and they are the Italian and German Cantons.
The most exciting thing about the Canton of Ticino (the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland) is that it is dominated by up to 80% of the Bordeaux varietal Merlot. Here Merlot del Ticino is oak-aged and high quality but lighter than the French or Americans.
German Canton (Swiss Wines Region)
The German Canton offers a range of sweetness in their wines, from sweet and juicy to solid and concentrated. The most popular grapes here are Pinot Noir and Blauburgunder.
A noteworthy viticultural innovation from this region is the Müller-Thurgau grape. It was invented by crossing Riesling and Sylvaner. This white wine dominates the Canton.
Economics of Swiss Wines
Why aren’t there more Swiss wines in your local wine shop? It’s not about quality. There are many great wines from obscure wine regions that you will never experience.
The casual drinker may not be aware of Turkish wines or the French wine region of Jura, but both make exceptional wines. Often, it’s simply a matter of supply and demand, with the added layer of additional costs. Wines from regions that don’t have established routes for shipping wine are saddled with higher prices.
Often, unknown wine regions will be competing with Napa and Tuscany in cost. This is because wine buyers know they buy a well-known Priorat or Bordeaux for less money. This is the cycle that keeps the prices of Swiss wines artificially high.