Swiss Wines: Easy To Love, Hard To Find
Before going off to Switzerland this spring, I was fortunate to attend a dinner in New York held by the Swiss Wine Commission to show off modern viniculture from a country whose wines are so rarely written about—not from a lack of interest but from a lack of Swiss wines to write about.
As I learned over dinner at Nomad in New York with several Swiss vintners, the problem is that the Swiss pretty much drink every drop of wine they make, with only about two percent exported to the rest of the world. This was particularly disappointing because the wines I tasted that evening were of such high quality and varietal caliber. With a dish of foie gras was served a Provins Valais Petite Arvine 2015 from Valais, and Château d’Auvernier Chardonnay 2017 from Neuchâtel; with a mushroom dish two vintages (2013 and 2016) of Jean-René Germanier Balavaud Cayas Réserve Syrahs from Valais; with a beef and Swiss chard Angelo Delea Carato Merlot 2015 from Ticino and Valais Mundi Sa Electus Red Blend 2015, from Valais; with the cheese course of Sbrinz, Domaine La Colombe Petit Clos Chasselas La Cȏte 2017 from Vaud and Château d’Suvernier Chasselas 2018 from Neuchâtel; finally, a chocolate cake with Domaine La Colombe Pinot Noir 2017 from Vaud and Vini Delea La Bruna Grappa from Ticino.
These constituted more Swiss wines than I’ve tasted in the last five years. So when I arrived in Switzerland, I was eager to drink nothing but Swiss wines for the next ten days, mostly spent in Vaud. The region, sub-divided into eight smaller regions, encompasses 3,818 hectares of vineyards—a quarter of all wine-growing areas in the country—with more than 3,000 parcels that produce 39.62 million bottles annually, all overseen by the Vaudois Wine Office.
A beautiful tour of Lavaux
Tours of this beautiful, deeply sloping wine territory that winds on the Corniche Road along Lake Leman—a UNESCO World Heritage Site— are as popular with the locals on weekends as with Europeans and other travelers. Most of the wine-producing villages open their cellars to the public from Easter through October. My wife and I had a marvelous guide named Fabienne D’Alleves, who showed us through the small villages and vineyards and introduced us to Luc Massy, who with his sons Benjamin and Gregory, own Luc Massy Vins in the quiet village of Epesses-Lavaux. The estate dates back to a 17th century Clos du Boux farmhouse that originally sold wine in bulk. In 1995, Luc Massy brought the winery into modern focus, “marrying tradition with a 21st century viewpoint. Our responsibility is not to preserve a fixed world, but to make it live, to evolve it, to improve it even more, and above all to share it.” It is a modest-size winery, using only natural yeasts, and producing 9,700 liters per year.
If any Swiss varietal is due for an emergence in the world market it is white Chasselas (sometimes called Dorin in Vaud), of which I enjoyed many that week. Massy’s Clos de Boux Grand Cru (about $39 in the U.S., if you can find it) has a typically refreshing acidic edge, the minerality of the terroir , with no residual sugar and 12% alcohol.
Massy’s Chemin de Fer from the Dézaley region ($59), also made from Chasselas, is even more complex, because the vineyards get more sun and can stay longer in the vineyard before harvesting. Luc Massy said these wines have remarkable longevity. “We have bottles going back to 1968 and they are delicious,” said Luc Massy.
Crêt Bailly ($35) from Epesses is made from Gamay, the red grape best known for its eminence in Beaujolais. In Vaud it becomes a very graceful wine, with light to medium body, good fruit and acid, at 13% alcohol. Lighter in body but quite rounded and full of minerality is Sous Les Rocs ($36) from grapes in the region of Saint-Saphorin.
Try Swiss wines from the 6 regions in Swiss restaurants
The restaurants in Switzerland proudly list many Swiss wines on their menus. At Pavillon in Zurich’s Baur au Lac Hotel, my wife and I enjoyed a splendid dinner of dishes like lemony scallops with a Fläscher Sauvignon Blanc 2015 from Graubünden; rosemary-scented rabbit with a Domain Les Hutins Pinot Noir Premier Cru Barrique 2016 from Dardagny; and veal Metternich with a Guido Brivio Merlot Platinum 2012 from Ticino.
These only hinted at the variety of superb wines made in Switzerland, and I urged my Swiss hosts—begged, actually—to release more of them into the market. They deserve not just recognition for being good Swiss wines but for also being very good wines of any kind.
Next month, from July 18 to August 11, Vevey will host its legendary Fête des Vignerons, a month-long festival that dates back to the 1700s, with colorful processions, music written expressly for the event, and, in this century, art exhibitions with artists around the world showing their work (left). Young people play Bacchus and Ceres, wonderful puppets are carved and carried and a good amount of wine is consumed. The fact that the Fête is held only every twenty years or so makes this very special and never becomes repetitious.
About the autor
John Mariani is an author and journalist of 40 years standing, and an author of 15 books. He has been called by the Philadelphia Inquirer, “the most influential food-wine critic in the popular press” and is a three-time nominee for the James Beard Journalism Award. For 35 years he was Esquire Magazine’s food & travel correspondent and wine columnist for Bloomberg News for ten. His Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink was hailed as the "American Larousse Gastronomique” His next book, "America Eats Out" won the International Association of Cooking Professionals Award for Best Food Reference Book. His "How Italian Food Conquered the World" won the Gourmand World Cookbooks Award for the USA 2011, and the Italian Cuisine Worldwide Award 2012. He co-authored "Menu Design in America: 1850-1985" and wrote the food sections for the Encyclopedia of New York City. In 1994 the City of New Orleans conferred on him the title of Honorary Citizen and in 2003 he was given the Philadelphia Toque Award “for exceptional achievements in culinary writing and accomplishments.”