Switzerland – a beautiful country with wonderful wine

Vineyards in Valais, overlooking the Rhône Valley – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Switzerland is famous for many things; banks, mountains, lakes, cheese, chocolate and, erroneously – courtesy of Orson Wells – cuckoo clocks. Not many people, in Britain anyway, seem to associate this Alpine country with wine.

Swiss wine is a bit of a mystery because almost none of it is exported. The Swiss are a thirsty lot and they drink 98% of their own wine and still import two thirds of what they consume. So it is hardly surprising that so little Swiss wine leaves the country. Astonishingly Switzerland has a mere 0.2% of the world’s wine growing area. With just 15,000 hectares of vines in the whole country, it’s half the size of France’s Burgundy region – itself far from being a large producer.

Despite this lack of an international reputation, Swiss wines are really exciting and deserve our attention. It is a beautiful country with some of the most stunning scenery in Europe. Swiss food is hearty and delicious and in its simplicity and honesty shows how agrarian Switzerland has always been. The cheeses, such as Emmental and Gruyère are far finer than the versions that we generally buy in our supermarkets and seem to genuinely reflect their origins. Of course a meal of fondue or raclette takes eating cheese to another, more exciting level. The peasant roots of Swiss cuisine also show in that other famous and satisfying dish, rösti. Not all Swiss food is heavy though, around Lac Léman perch fillets from the lake are a delicious speciality and are perfect with a glass or two of the local wine. 

Perch fillets from Lac Léman, a popular local speciality – photo by Quentin Sadler.

When in Switzerland I am always struck by the high quality of all the produce, including the wine, of which the country produces a plethora of styles. White wine is dominant, as you might imagine from the cool climate, but the reds can be astonishingly good too. Chasselas is the most famous and important white grape within Switzerland – and yet few non Swiss wine drinkers would ever give it a moment’s thought. Of course there is also plenty of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer as well as the indigenous white grapes of Petite Arvine, Humagne Blanc, Heida and Réze. Pinot Noir and Gamay are the most widely encountered black grapes, while Merlot and Syrah are also highly prized. Indigenous black grapes include Humagne Rouge, Cornalin, Gamaret, Diolinoir and Garanoir. 

Strangely the principal grape variety of Ticino – the Italian speaking part of Switzerland – is Merlot, where unusually it is used to make both red and white wines.

I have travelled extensively in the French speaking areas in recent years and thought I would share some of these exciting wines with you as they are very versatile with food and would be really exciting to see on restaurant wine lists.

Wine map of Switzerland – click for a larger view. Do not use without permission.

The Regions – Vaud

La Suisse paddle steamer, one of the small fleet of pre First World War steamers that criss-cross Lac Léman – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Vaud is probably Switzerland’s most famous wine region. This is where you find Lausanne and Montreux and one of the most iconic landscapes in Europe. At its heart is the steeply terraced vineyards of Lavaux on the north shore of Lac Léman – Lake Geneva to us Brits.

The key grape here is Chasselas, which is taken very seriously in Switzerland despite being little-loved anywhere else. It seems to be common practice to put the better wines through Malolactic Conversion, which softens the acidity and gives a pleasing creamy quality and mouthfeel that makes them a perfect partner to cheese. Lucky that, as in one form or another they eat a great deal of cheese in Switzerland.

The dominant black grape is Pinot Noir, which is used to great effect in Chablais and around Lake Neuchâtel to make very fruity reds, finer, more structured reds and some excellent rosés, labelled as Oeil-de-Perdrix.

Vaud: Lavaux 

Vineyards of Dézaley and Epesses with Lac Léman – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Lavaux is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with stunning vineyards cascading down the slopes and terraces to the shore of Lac Léman. There are six appellations, or ‘Crus’: Lutry, Villette, Epesses, Saint-Saphorin, Chardonne and Montreux-Vevey. In addition Dézaley and Calamin are both classified as Grand Cru, which means the grapes must contain higher sugar than normal at harvest. This ensures the wines will be richer and rounder.

Dézaley vineyard sign from Lac Léman – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The chalky limestone soils should suit Chardonnay perfectly, but around here the speciality is Chasselas. In fact it accounts for 80% of production and if no other grape is mentioned on the label of a Lavaux white, then it’s made from 100% Chasselas.

The vineyards are steep, so everything must be done by hand and it’s backbreaking work. Marcel Dubois, who makes wine near Epesses, famously said: ‘We are condemned to make expensive wine so we might as well make it good wine’. And it seems to me that the Swiss have taken that concept of quality to heart.

Lavaux from the deck of La Suisse paddle steamer, one of the small fleet of pre First World War steamers that criss-cross the lake – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The wines made here benefit from what the locals call the ‘three suns’, there is direct sunshine, reflected sunshine from the surface of the lake and the light and heat reflected off the stone walls that define the vineyards. All of this makes the Chasselas from here richer, more structured and more intense than other areas.

Recommended producers:

Domaine Louis Bovard

Domaine Louis Bovard and Lac Léman – photo courtesy of Domaine Louis Bovard.

Louis-Philippe Bovard is the 10th generation of the family to farm their 18-hectare estate in Cully near Epesses. He grows many different grapes, but Chasselas is his main focus.

His Médinette Dézaley Grand Cru has a very delicate weight, but a solid core of concentrated fruit and a long, stony mineral finish.

Luc Massy

Luc Massy’s vineyards above Lac Léman – photo courtesy of Luc Massy.

Luc is one of the region’s famous producers and farms breathtakingly beautiful vineyards in Epesses, Clos du Boux, Saint-Saphorin, Dézaley-Marsens and Dézaley – all the greatest sites of Lavaux.

The real speciality here is the legendary Dézaley Chemin de Fer. Late in the nineteenth century, the railway line was put through and some of the land in Dézaley had to be sacrificed to make way for progress. Little parcels of land were left at the bottom of the slope around the railway lines and Luc’s grandfather acquired the rights to plant on them. The wine is a magnificent, mineral and complex white wine with that touch of creaminess and generosity that sets Swiss Chasselas apart.

Vaud: La Côte

The magical Château de Vufflens just up the slope from Morges on La Côte – photo by Quentin Sadler.

This Vaud sub-region curves around the north western shore of Lac Léman from the outskirts of Lausanne to the edge of Geneva. The vineyards slope – La Côte means slope – down towards the lake shore on the foothills of the Jura Mountains. It’s a big, productive area that makes some terrifically drinkable wines.

Chasselas from here tends to be lighter, fresher and more quaffable than their counterparts in Lavaux, although the Grand Cru sites of Féchy, Morges and Mont-sur-Rolle produce more concentrated and fine examples. Pinot Noir and Gamay are used to make similarly attractive, fruity red wines.

Recommended producers:

Domaine de Maison Blanche

Domaine de Maison Blanche on La Côte – photo courtesy of Domaine de Maison Blanche.

This fabulous 10 hectare estate looks down on the lake from Mont-sur-Rolle, just to the north of Rolle itself. The Maison Blanche dates from the thirteenth century and has belonged to current owners the de Mestral family since 1528.

I have always enjoyed their Chasselas, especially their Mont-sur-Rolle Grand Cru, which is a fine, creamy, floral scented delight. They also make some delicious traditional method sparkling Chasselas.

Vaud: Chablais

The Château d’Aigle – photo courtesy of Mondial du Chasselas.

The southernmost part of Vaud, with vineyards concentrated between the River Rhône and the Alps, the best being on the slopes to the east. The landscape might not be as dramatic as its neighbours to the north and south, but the area can claim to be home to some very fine wines. Of the five Chablais ‘Crus’, Yvorne and Aigle are perhaps the most well known – especially for the whites made from Chasselas. Aigle is dear to my heart as most years I spend a few days at the beautiful Château d’Aigle judging Chasselas wines in the Mondial du Chasselas competition.

Recommended producers:


Clos du Rocher is one of the great estates of Chablais – photo by Quentin Sadler.

This large company owns some amazing vineyards and produces a large range of very well made wine. The pinnacle of what they do is probably the Clos du Rocher Grand Cru Chasselas in Yvonne, a wine I love.

I have been fortunate enough to taste every vintage of Clos du Rocher back to the 1982. All were still fresh and lively, although the older examples had developed a more golden colour, dried fruit and mushroom character. What’s more every vintage since 1990 was sealed with screwcap.

Bernard Cavé Vins, Aigle

The concrete egg shaped fermentation tanks at Bernard Cavé Vins, he calls them amphoras – photo by Quentin Sadler.

All the wines are superb, notably the exquisite Clos du Crosex Grillé Cuvée des Immortels Reserve Aigle Grand Cru. Fermented in concrete eggs, this is textured, round and silky too. In the unlikely event that you tire of his Chasselas, his Marsanne – called Ermitage locally –  is stunningly rich and downright delicious.

Badoux Vins, Aigle

View of Aigle and its vineyards from the ramparts of the Château d’Aigle – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Founded in 1908, Badoux produces a wide range of thoroughly reliable wines. Their most emblematic label is their Aigle Les Murailles, named after the stone walls that support the incredibly steep vineyards of Aigle. The excellent white is a pure and mineral Chasselas with a touch of richness, while the red is a bright, fruity Pinot Noir that has been aged on the lees from Gamaret, a local speciality grape that is a cross of Gamay and Reichensteiner.

The Regions – Neuchâtel

The beautiful lakeside village of Auvernier in Neuchâtel – photo by Quentin Sadler.

This small region sits on a south-east facing slope between the Jura Mountains and the shores of Lakes Neuchâtel and Bienne. It acts like a sun trap and has very poor soils, so can produce beautifully ripe wines.

Recommended producers:

Château d’Auvernier

Château d’Auvernier has been the main winery here since 1603 – photo by Quentin Sadler.

This winery has been in the pretty lakeside village of Auvernier since 1603 and makes a range of really good wines. My favourites would be their elegant and concentrated Neuchâtel Blanc, made from Chasselas, the Pinot Noir and their Oeil-de-Perdrix Pinot Rosé.

The Regions – Valais

The beautiful vineyards of Valais, near Sierre – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The Canton of Valais  is south and east of Lac Léman. The River Rhône flows through here before emptying into Lac Léman and the best vineyards, Grand Crus like Fully, Vétroz, Sion and Sierre, line the bank of the river on incredibly steep slopes that are kept workable by dry stone walls. To get to those owned by Robert Gilliard at Sion, for instance, I was driven up into the mountains to the entrance of a short, narrow tunnel. At the other end of this I found myself on one of the terraces, or ‘tablars’, formed by the stone walls that I had looked up to on the way. Some of them are 20 metres high and I was told they are the highest dry stone walls in the world. 

The views to the south were breathtaking and I could not get enough of them. In the past the grapes had to be taken to the winery through the tunnel, then in the twentieth century a cable car system was adopted. Nowadays a lot of the work is done by helicopter, which gets the grapes to the winery while they are still in perfect condition. These dramatic south facing slopes are warm and dry in the growing season, but always tempered by the fresh, Alpine air – Switzerland’s highest peaks are in the Valais with some of the vineyards near Visp being well over 1000 metres above sea level.

Chasselas is still an important grape in these parts, but locally they call it Fendant – pronounced Fon-dohn – from the French ‘fendre’ meaning to split – as the grape skin easily splits when ripe.

Another important white grape here, perhaps the real speciality, is Petite Arvine. It isn’t grown in many other places, even in Switzerland, except Italy’s tiny Valle d’Aosta region which borders Valais to the south. At its best Petite Arvine has something of the freshness and vivaciousness of Grüner Veltliner and Albariño about it, but often with more salinity, so giving tension, and fruit (especially grapefruit), moderate acidity and a silky quality to the texture.

Valais is also home to the most famous Swiss wine of all – Dôle. This is always a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay and can also include some other black grapes to add complexity. Usually red, Dôle Blanche is an intriguing and very high quality rosé made from the same blend.

Recommended producers:

Provins, Sion

Provins are Switzerland’s largest producer and everything I have tasted from them has been superbly made. My favourite though is their subtly oaked Petite Arvine Maître de Chais – it’s classy, with lots of citrus fruit, a fleshy, creamy texture and a feeling of purity about it, like a mountain stream.

Cave Philippe & Véronyc Mettaz, Fully 

This small estate farms just 8 hectares but makes a wide range from the many grape varieties of Valais. Theirs was the first Petite Arvine that I ever tasted and I was hooked.

Robert Gilliard, Sion

Robert Gilliard’s dramatic Clos de la Cochetta vineyard contains some of the highest dry stone walls in the world – photo courtesy of Robert Gilliard.

This estate boasts some of the most beautiful and dramatic vineyards that I have ever seen. They truly take your breathe away clinging as they do to almost perpendicular slopes kept in place by terrifyingly high stone walls of up to 20 metres.

Their Clos de Cochetta Fendant is vibrant, lightly textured, elegant and classy, as is their focussed and pure Clos de Cochetta Petite Arvine.

Just along the terraces is the neighbouring vineyard of Clos de Mont from which they craft a fine, unoaked example of Diolinoir which is a cross between Robin Noir (aka Rouge de Diolly) and Pinot Noir.

The stunning view from Robert Gilliard’s Clos de la Cochetta – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Domaine Jean-René Germanier, Vétroz

A family estate since 1896 and now managed by the third and fourth generation – Jean-René Germanier and his nephew, Gilles Besse. Gilles was originally a jazz saxophonist, but is also a trained wine maker.

Germanier farm sustainably and produce a range of beautifully made, elegant wines, amongst which is their Cayas Syrah. This spicy, yet precise and mineral wine is possibly the best Syrah in the country and made within sight of the Rhône river.

Their Grand Cru Petite Arvine and Fendant Balavaud Grand Cru are equally exciting and impressive, while their Dôle Balavaud is one of the classics of its type.

Every time I have visited Switzerland I have come away with a very positive view of the wine. The dedication, heroism even, needed to tend and harvest the vines in this mountainous landscape is incredible to see. The passion the winemakers show in crafting these raw materials into beautifully made wines that are full of character and interest is always an education. I believe these wines deserve wider recognition and think it would be very exciting to see Swiss wines on restaurant wine lists.

Many of the wines mentioned here are available in the UK from Alpine Wines – www.alpinewines.co.uk. 

Owned and run by Swiss born Joelle Nebbe-Mornod, Alpine Wines are the leading Swiss wine importers and distributors in the UK.

My Visit to Ticino – Italian speaking Switzerland

Not too long ago I told you all about my wine experiences in the French speaking parts of Switzerland. I loved touring around Lake Geneva and Valais and thought the wines were terrific and well worth seeking out if you get the chance.

However, my Swiss experiences were not restricted to the French speaking parts of that beautiful country. The little group of wine writers and educators that I was with then went on to Ticino, the small Italian speaking park of Switzerland – remember to click on all the links.

Wine map of Switzerland, click for a larger view.

Wine map of Switzerland, click for a larger view.

What a trip it was, four changes of train had taken our little group – with very different levels of comfort and mixed availability of seats and luggage space – from Sierre in French speaking Valais, over to Ticino.

We eventually arrived in Lugano with enough time for lunch and a chance to pull ourselves together before heading off for our first visit in this very different part of the country.

Being culturally Italian, wine has of course been made in Ticino since before Roman times, but it was the planting of Merlot from 1906 onwards that transformed the quality of the region’s wines and the grape now accounts for well over 80% of the vineyards. To a large degree the whole concept of quality wine here is synonymous with Merlot. The grape was considered perfect for the region because, although Ticino is sunny with some aspects of a Mediterranean climate – palm trees thrive here – it can also be very rainy, and Merlot copes pretty well with those conditions. Before 1906 the region used a wide spread of grapes similar to those found in Piemonte as well as the local speciality Bondola which is enjoying something of a modest renaissance.

In addition to vitis vinifera, American grape varieties and hybrids are grown here – principally Isabella / Albany Surprise – for the production of grappa.

Ticino Map QS watermarked

Wine map of Ticino, click for a larger view.

There are two sub-regions of Ticino, Sopraceneri in the north – it means above Monte Ceneri and is where Bondola can be found – and Sottoceneri, below or south of Monte Ceneri. This southern part straddles Lake Lugano and spreads down to the Italian border.

Most growers and producers in this region are very small indeed, but Gialdi Brivio, is one of the few large winemakers. However, they own no vineyards and so act as a negociant. Some 400 growers bring their grapes to them and their viticultural team are also active in managing these vineyards. The vineyards are often steep and hard to work and so somewhat amazingly the average cost of a kilo of grapes here is CHF4.50 (roughly £3.20 / €4.20) – pretty much the same as in Champagne.


Gialdi Brivio’s warehouse and winery at the foot of Monte Generoso.

Gialdi Vini was founded in 1953 and makes wines from grapes grown in Sopraceneri, while Brivio Vini was created by Guido Brivio in the late 1980s and specialises in wines from the Sottoceneri. His family has a background in the wine and spirits industry, but his dream was always to make high quality wine. The two companies merged in 2001 and now share winery, cellaring, bottling and distribution premises in Mendrisio, which is 3 km south of Lake Lugano and 3 km north of the Italian border. They also act as an importer and distributer for many Italian wines in Switzerland. Guido was our host for the afternoon as well as later at dinner and he was charming, welcoming, knowledgeable and justly proud of what they do and the region in which they operate.

Something that I had never encountered before, was that because they make almost all their wines from Merlot, whether they are red, white or rosé, they have spare grape skins which they can add to the fermenting must to increase the colour of their reds. Conversely, in order to accentuate the freshness of their white wines, which are almost all made from 100% Merlot, they mostly stop them from going through malolactic fermentation and filter them through charcoal to ensure there is no residual colour.

For two of their top red wines – Gialdi’s Trentasei Merlot and Brivio’s Platinum Merlot – they concentrate the sugars in the grapes by drying them using large fans for about 3 weeks in their cool, dry cellar conditions. This reduces the water content of the grapes by around 50% and a proportion of these dried grapes are added to normally ripe grapes, so making the whole wine more rich and concentrated.

One of the vents in the cellars.

One of the vents in the cellars.

One amazing aspect of the place is the cellars and how they are cooled. Most of their red wines are aged in a series of ten little stone cellars, called grotti, which are built into the base of Monte Generoso which is behind the winery. When it rains the water drains through the mountain into Lake Como. This draining water forces fresh, cool air through fissures in the rock causing a sort of natural air conditioning which keeps the cellars at a constant 11˚C. They have installed vents to channel the air into the cellars and the amount of cool air pouring through is astonishing – it truly is astounding what nature can do. According to Guido this cool temperature ensures that any sediment falls to the bottom of the casks quite quickly and this fast stabilisation means they lose less of the wine to absorption by the barrels, which is usually 2 litres per month.

Guido Brivio.

Guido Brivio.

This enthralling tour of the winery and cellars was followed by a comprehensive tasting of their wines. It was an impressive lineup of mostly Merlots, including 2 whites and 1 rosé. The quality was high and I particularly rated the 2013 Contrada Bianco di Merlot which is unoaked and because there is no Malolactic Fermentation has just enough acidity to be fresh and lively. Of the reds my favourites were the supple 2011 Sassi Grossi Merlot from Gialdi and the silky 2011 Riflessi d’Epoca Merlot from Brivio with its cedary oak and fine grain tannins.

Guido Brivio are also involved in the Swiss Premium Wine project in which four producers – counting Gialdi and Brivio separately – blend a cuvée called Quatromano, another 100% Merlot, which consists of 25% from each of the different winemakers. The other two contributors are Tamborini and Delea, both of whom I visited the following day.

All in all it was fascinating introduction to Ticino that was then made all the better by Guido taking our group to a local restaurant for dinner. The place is called Grotto Bundi and, like the cellars, is built into the mountainside. However over 80 years the place has evolved into a complex series of rooms on several floors and an attractive outside area, on what is now a pedestrianised road, with wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. Guido had planned a traditional feast of polenta accompanied by lots of different casserole dishes, beef, pork, lamb, sausage – which was most people’s favourite – mushrooms, the list goes on. It was all delicious and washed down with copious amounts of Gialdi Brivio wine it was an evocative and joyful taste of Ticino culture.

Ueli Kopp and Barbara von der Crone.

Ueli Kopp and Barbara von der Crone.

Other visits were to the boutique estate of Cantina Kopp Von der Crone Visini. It’s run by the delightful Ueli Kopp and Barbara von der Crone whose passion and commitment shows in everything they do. Their red wines are superb, especially the Balin blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Arinarnoa (a crossing between Merlot and Petit Verdot).

Some of the vineyards at Azienda Mondò.

Some of the vineyards at Azienda Mondò.

Antonio Girardi and Giorgio Rossi of Azienda Mondò.

Antonio Girardi and Giorgio Rossi of Azienda Mondò.

Azienda Mondò is another boutique winery that farms 6 hectares speed over 30 parcels of hillside to produce some superb wines. I was particularly taken with their Bondola, which is a local grape which is only just clinging on to life as it is thin skinned and can rot quite easily. There are only 11 hectares – all in northern Ticino – and almost exclusively grown by the small producers, so almost none is seen on the market. Mondò have about 10% of it and their Rosato di Bondola del Nonu Mario is superb with the local salami.

By contrast, Cantina Tamborini is the local giant producer that owns 23 hectares, but they also buy a large amount of grapes from contract growers. In effect they operate as an estate and a negotiant and craft some very good wines. Their single vineyard San Zeno Costamagna Merlot Riserva is particularly impressive and I have shown it in tastings since – it tastes a bit spicy, rather like a good Carmenère.

Ticino vineyards, these south facing vines are the most southerly in Switzerland, Italy is a short walk away. These vineyards belong to Tenuta Montalbano, a co-op that is the biggest wine producer in Ticino. It has 380 associated members and also owns this 22 hectare estate which is the largest single block of vines in Switzerland.

Ticino vineyards, these south facing vines are the most southerly in Switzerland, Italy is a short walk away. These vineyards belong to Tenuta Montalbano, a co-op that is the biggest wine producer in Ticino. It has 380 associated members and also owns this 22 hectare estate which is the largest single block of vines in Switzerland.

Another view of Tenuta Montalbano.

Another view of Tenuta Montalbano.

All in all I found Ticino fascinating. It is a very beautiful place full of wonderful scenery and great Italian food – as long as you like polenta. The people are charming and the wines are very good and well worth trying, especially as they make so many different styles from, in the main, a single grape variety.

They are quite hard to get outside of Switzerland, but grab some of you can. Alpine Wines sell some wines from Ticino in the UK and as usual the US is well served by wine shippers bringing in more unusual wines including Swiss ones.