Banking on Swiss Wines
Even with Swiss National Day celebrations just behind us (1st August), it isn’t easy to find Swiss wine in Hong Kong. Swiss cheese, chocolate and art, yes, but finding Swiss wine in Hong Kong is about as easy as finding a chatty Swiss banker.
One of the reasons Swiss wines are so rare on our markets is that few Swiss winemakers come here to flog it. The Swiss wine industry barely keeps up with local demand, so has no imperative to export. Until recently, Swiss producers benefitted from protectionist measures that have now been abolished, so we are beginning to see more Swiss wine export activity with a few bottles landing on our shelves, which is excellent as they produce lovely wines. Like their watches and cheeses, these aren’t wines for bargain-hunters. Swiss wines are expensive to produce and – as you might imagine – meticulously crafted.
Most of Switzerland’s vineyards are planted on slopes facing the sunny south and situated along bodies of water such as the upper Rhone Valley and the northern shores of Lake Geneva. Not surprisingly, the vineyards are predominately planted in the French-speaking areas of the country, especially concentrated in Valais, Geneva, Vaud and Neuchâtel cantons or provinces. In fact, the French cantons comprise 16 per cent of Switzerland’s land area, but are home to 80 per cent of its vineyards. These are some of the world’s steepest vineyards, with slopes as steep as 90 per cent and many have ‘’tablars’’ or terraces cut to facilitate production. Many of Switzerland’s vines are grown on slopes so steep that they require specially designed crémallière or monorail systems to haul the harvested grapes up the slopes.
Wine styles vary considerably in Switzerland, which is not surprising given the cultural influences of the Italian-, German- and French-speaking populace. Switzerland’s cool climate means white wines predominate, though their medium-bodied red wines are gaining international cachet. The main white grape variety grown in Switzerland is called Chasselas, which makes a minerally, crisp white wine with citrusy and almond undertones. When Chasselas is grown in the Valais, it can also be labelled as Fendant. The northeast produces fine riesling and sylvaner that matches superbly with delicate fish dishes or fine quality Swiss cheeses, such as appenzell, tilsit, mutschli or pretty fleurettes carved from tête de moine. Red wines are mostly made from Pinot Noir or Gamay, varieties that excel in cooler climates, or a blend of the two dominated by Pinot Noir and labelled Dôle. Merlot is grown in Ticino, which is a southern wine region in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. Not surprisingly, much of the region’s merlot is light and fruity like northern Italy’s, but some are dense, weighty and sufficiently serious to rival Bordeaux models.
A few years back, Switzerland startled the world by unearthing Neolithic heaps of fossilized grape pips, evidence of local wine production dating some 5,000 years ago. Switzerland’s early winemaking heritage manifests itself in an array of indigenous varieties unique to their precipitous hills: amigne, petite arvine, humagne blanc, rèze and the aristocratic cornalin du valais. Unlike much of Europe, Swiss wines are typically labelled by variety, so are easy to understand – and mostly easy to pronounce.