Thursday, September 5, 2019

Swiss wine overview: the triumph of the house palate

Vineyards in Aigle in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Can you find the lizard?
Switzerland drinks a lot of wine -- fifth in the world per capita, behind Luxembourg, France, Italy and Portugal. And Switzerland produces only a third of what it consumes. Nonetheless until 20 years ago its market was heavily protected against imports, and it still has tariffs on EU wines because it's not a member of the EU.

This is a recipe for creating a house palate -- a group of wineries and winemakers that think what they're making is great, regardless of what outsiders think.

A house palate is possible anywhere. On one single day in Napa Valley I met three different winery owners who told me they had been to Bordeaux but the wines there aren't any good because they are thin and not powerful enough. But it's more likely to happen in countries where winemakers don't travel: Argentina a decade ago. South Africa shortly after apartheid. Bulgaria and Romania.

So what's Switzerland's excuse? Honestly, I'm not sure. It's a wealthy country and you can hop on a train and be in France, Italy or Germany in a few hours. Swiss consumers surely must appreciate their neighboring countries' wines. But the winemakers ...

I was in Switzerland to judge at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the world's largest wine competition. The competition was great again this year. Highlights from my panel were a strong flight of Vinho Verdes; a surprisingly good flight of red wines from Valencia, Spain; and the opportunity to taste wines from Macedonia, Morocco and Romania. It's a very well-run competition with a relatively low medal count and it deserves the respect it gets in Europe.

As part of the event, we toured some Swiss wineries. I was in a group of about 50 judges: winemakers, wine journalists, retail buyers. All wine experts. We went to a winery I won't name, and the owner/winemaker wanted to introduce us to "a wine you haven't seen before." It was Chasselas, but it was ... unfiltered! And thus a little cloudy. I was amused at first, but he spent more than 20 minutes telling this group of wine experts about what a great risk it is not to filter, and how filtering changes the wine and ... I walked outside and wandered in the rain for a bit, and when I came back in he was still talking about it. As for the wine itself, it tasted like nothing but at least it wasn't carbonated, which is something many Chasselas producers do. Nobody spent 20 minutes explaining that.

I took this photo in early May. In the lower right, those are vineyards. Chasselas good point: frost-resistant
There's no reason for me to run down Swiss wine on my US-based wine blog, especially after the country's tourism board shuttled me across the country to Ticino. But there's no reason for me to tout it either, though I had a number of very good wines in Switzerland. The country is a treasure trove of ancient grape varieties that yield really unique wines; some indigenous varieties are thought to be from the Roman era, if not before. The world's foremost wine grape geneticist, José Vouillamoz, is from Switzerland, and if you could spend a week drinking wines that he recommends, that would be a very good week indeed.

Without such a guide to exotica, though, on the French side of the country I drank a lot of Chasselas, which is the most boring grape in the world. And on the Italian side of the country, I drank a lot of Merlot, which has the tremendous advantage of not being Chasselas.

The most memorable wines I had were made from two indigenous grapes. Petite Arvine is a white grape with fine freshness and substance, noted for notes of grapefruit and sea salt. Bondola is an earthy, fruity, low alcohol, refreshing red wine that reminded me a bit of Barbera. But these wines were difficult to find among dozens of Chasselases to the west and Merlots to the east.

This is not to say that there aren't any good Merlots. On the contrary. Merlot is a great grape and while the Ticino area where it's grown is the hottest part of Switzerland, it's strikingly similar in climate to Bordeaux. I can totally see why local growers want to make Merlot and local consumers want to drink it. There's just too much of it!

Ezio De Bernardi, commercial director of Valsangiacomo winery, told me 85% of the 1000 hectares of grapes in Ticino are Merlot. They have so much Merlot that they make rosé out of it, which is OK, and white wine, which is less than OK. (I have added White Merlot to the list of wines I will never drink again unless I'm in prison and it's either that or toilet-fermented pruno.) Bondola, which was the main red grape of the region before phylloxera devastated growers, is barely hanging in there.

It's a one-hour train ride from Ticino to Milano. How is it possible that people think Merlot is their best option for white wine? It's a very low bar. If Petite Arvine is unsuitable, how about Pinot Gris, or Sauvignon Blanc, or Semillon, or really any white grape?

Despite all this bitching, I did have some fine Merlots. Red Merlots. And I want to give you the opportunity to buy them to try some fine Swiss Merlot, so I looked up all the ones I gave 90 points or more (there were a half-dozen) on Wine-Searcher. Here's what I got:

Agriloro "Genestrerio" La Prella Ticino Merlot 2016
An amphora-fermented, single-vineyard wine, this has a stony, mineral-driven character. It's quite elegant with restrained cherry fruit and a saline finish. And it's really incredible value outside the country: I found it for $13.74, cheaper than it is in Switzerland! One catch: It's only in Quebec. If you are also in Quebec, buy it here.

That's it! Everything else I really liked is only available in Switzerland. Swiss wineries don't need to export, and mostly they don't.

There are some Swiss wines that would succeed on the international market. If you see a Petite Arvine in a store, give it a try. I haven't tried these but you can sort through the list of what's available here. At under $30 these are well worth a shot.

Also, Swiss cheese is really good, they eat it at every meal, and it doesn't even have holes. That's just for export, apparently. I wonder if I can order a bag of cheese holes?

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Bob Rossi said...

Having recently spent 4 days in Switzerland, I enjoyed reading this, although I disagree with some things. Like this: "Chasselas, which is the most boring grape in the world" No, that's Pinot Grigio. We had a lot of Chasselas during our visit, most of which I really liked. We did also have Petite Arvine, Humagne Blanche, and Amin de Vetroz. I did prefer the whites to the reds, although we did have some good Cornalins. We were in the French-speaking area, so little, if any, Merlot. Which was fine by me.

piracer said...

"I drank a lot of Merlot, which has the tremendous advantage of not being Chasselas." LOL