Please forgive the article title, it’s so cheesy and full of holes….OK, I’ll stop now, I promise!
Swiss wines aren’t well known outside their country – and sometimes even outside their own cantons – for a simple reason: production quantities are quite small (both in terms of overall volumes and the average amount made by each producer) and most is drunk by the Swiss themselves, leaving little available for export.
With vineyards that are mainly steep (and hence hard to work) and high labour costs, Swiss wines are never going to be cheap, but in the hands of a good producer the quality can be excellent. As you might imagine given the Alpine setting, the wines tend to be light and perfumed rather than big and bruising. Oak – especially new oak – seldom features as delicate flavours are better left to shine by themselves.
Another interesting feature of Swiss wines is the abundance of unusual grape varieties. Some – such as Chasselas – are made elsewhere, but in small quantities. Some – such as Gamaret and Garanoir – are locally conceived crosses which are suitable for the climate and terroir, and haven’t been commercially planted elsewhere.
The final category contains ancestral grapes which have virtually died out everywhere else. When diseases and pests wiped out a large proportion of European vines during different epidemics, remote locations on Swiss hillsides saved some of the grapes from extinction. Even when a few vines had survived elsewhere, the silver lining of the disasters was that vignerons got to start again with new varieties, so everything old was ripped up and vineyards replanted.
This summer I had the pleasure of tasting some fantastic Swiss wines courtesy of Alpine Wines who have an office in Yorkshire. As well as Switzerland they also specialise in Alpine wines from Austria, France, Germany and Italy.
Below are my notes on three rare varieties and one Swiss speciality with an Italian twist!
Chanton Weine AOC Wallis Gw࣭äss 2010 (11.5%, 2006 & 2011 are £31.20 at Alpine Wines)
Better known by its French name Gouais Blanc, Gwäss used to be widely cultivated across Europe as it was relatively easy to grow and produced bumper harvests. Due to its ubiquity it ended up being the father of many of the quality grapes which are still cultivated today: Chardonnay, Riesling, Blaufrankisch, Gamay Noir, Aligoté, Petit Meslier, Colombard, Auxerrois, Melon de Bourgogne plus many lesser known varieties.
The nose is predominantly citrus with a touch of stone fruit, and just the slightest hint of oxidation (to me anyway). On tasting, this Gouais proves to be a very lean, linear wine – it’s unoaked, dry with high acidity, and again citrus notes, perhaps with hints of honey. The closest approximation I can make is a dry, cool climate Chenin Blanc, or perhaps a Muscadet. The acidity means it would be a fantastic match for oysters, or salty nibbles, but I would be very interested to see how this develops further over the coming years.
Chanton Weine AOC Wallis Lafnetscha 2011 (12.3%, 2010 is £35.62 at Alpine Wines)
Lafnetscha is probably the rarest variety I have ever tasted. In the Valais there is a grand total of 1.29 hectares planted and Chanton have just 0.17 of that, or a tenth the size of Romanée Conti! Apparently the name comes from the local dialect for “don’t drink too young”, which gives you a hint that it can be fierce in its youth.
At five years this was still fairly acidic, but with plenty of fruit to go with it – zesty orange and lemon. Compared to the Gwäss it’s a little rounder in the mouth and has more texture, so could pair well with shellfish or a light salad.
Chanton Weine AOC Wallis Eyholzer Roter 2010 (11.5%, £32.54 at Alpine Wines)
Another rarity from Chanton, but this time a red wine, and one with synonyms in other mountainous territories – Hibou Noir in Savoie and Avanà in Piedmont (in the Susa Valley where it is slightly more widely planted). The spread across three countries makes more sense when you wind the clock back several centuries: from 1418 to 1713 Piedmont, Savoie and Valais were all part of the Duchy of Savoy.
It’s a lighter type of red, in the general style of Beaujolais Villages or Burgundy Pinot Noir. Chanton’s is unoaked – which I’d imagine is generally the case – so the fruit can shine through unabated. It’s mainly red fruit – cherry, strawberry and raspberry – and very fresh thanks to the crisp acidity. There’s a little bit of tannin but it’s in no way austere – such a moreish wine!
Cave de la Côte Gamar’One 2012 (14.0%, 2011 / 2013 is £32.64 / £32.45 at Alpine Wines)
Gamaret is a cross created specifically for the French speaking part of Switzerland, with its full sibling Garanoir used in the German-speaking part. They are both a cross between Gamay and Reichensteiner (a white variety found in cool climate countries such as Germany and England).
The Italian twist I alluded to before is the use of dried grapes to concentrate flavours and alcohol – the Amarone method – hence Gamaret becomes Gamar’One. It’s a powerful wine, but not like being beaten over the head as with some Amarones. Soft plum and black fruit burst out of the bottle, with a touch of residual sugar helping round out the palate. You owe it to yourself to give this a try!
Look out for part 2 which will feature some Swiss interpretations of better known grapes.