The Wines of Switzerland

Swiss vineyards

Less than 2% of Swiss wine is exported, and what does get out is rare and expensive. A ceramic wine bottle was found in the Valais, in the tomb of a Celtic woman who lived in the 2nd century BC. In the 6th century, monks from Burgundy established a monastery at Aigle, Vaud, and began cultivating the vine with their customary dedication. Before the arrival of phylloxera in 1874, the country counted ~35,000ha of vines, compared to a mere ~15,000ha today. In 1990, the Valais set up an appellation system, and other cantons soon followed suit.

Today, owing to domestic tastes, more red than white wine is produced, and quality can be extremely high. The most important area is in the west, along Lake Geneva (cantons of Geneva and Vaud) and into the upper Rhône Valley (canton of the Valais). Other important areas include Lake Neuchâtel in the west, the Rhine valley in the north and northeast, and Ticino south of the Alps. Overall, the climate is fairly cool, but the Valais is relatively warm and dry, and Ticino warm and humid. Typically, the cool climate and rugged landscape restricts viticulture to small, favourable pockets, placing natural limits on production volumes and holding sizes. The most common grape varieties are Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder), Chasselas (Fendant, Gutedel), Gamay, and Merlot. Pinot Noir accounts for ~3/4 of plantings in the Germanic north and northeast, Chasselas for ~4/5 of plantings in Vaud, and Merlot for almost 9/10 of plantings in Ticino. Pinot Noir and Gamay are often blended to produce Dôle, which is a similar idea to Bourgogne Passetoutgrains. Oeil de Perdrix (‘Eye of the Partridge’), originally from the area of Neuchâtel, is a pale rosé made from Pinot Noir.

The Valais produces more than a third of Swiss wine. Owing to the Foehn wind, the climate is relatively warm and dry, with vineyards often on steep south-facing slopes with high sun exposure. Important grape varieties include Pinot Noir, Chasselas (Fendant du Valais), Gamay, and Syrah. The Valais is renowned for its late-harvest wines, as well as regional grape varieties such as Petite Arvine, Humagne Rouge, and Cornalin. In neighbouring Vaud, the climate is moderated by the lake, which also mirrors sunlight onto proximal vineyards. The region is dominated by Chasselas, which is highly reflective of terroir. Its most revered expressions are the Grand Crus of Dézaley and Calamin on the terraced slopes of Lavaux, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In Geneva, plantings are very diverse, including national favourites such as Gamay, Pinot Noir, and Chasselas; international varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris; modern hybrids such as Gamaret and Garanoir; and local varieties such as Altesse and Mondeuse.

Wine Ratings: The Pros and Cons

A wine rating is a summary of the appraisal of a wine by one or more critics, most notoriously Robert Parker, who assigns ‘Parker points’ on a scale of 0 to 100—although the lowest possible score is 50, scores of less than 70 are rare, and scores of less than 80 are uncommon. Since the 1970s, the practice of rating wines on a 100-point scale has proliferated. Other scales, including 0-to-20 and 0-to-5 (sometimes featuring stars in lieu of numbers), are also in use. Certain websites enable consumers to emulate critics by contributing to ‘community’ notes and scores. In competitions, wines are generally tasted blind by a panel of critics, usually alongside other wines from the same appellation or region. In theory, a rating is merely intended to supplement a tasting note; in practice, the tasting note—if it even exists—is often ignored or omitted, with the wine reduced to nothing more than a headline number.

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The Wines of Alsace

In the 1st century the Romans established the region of Alsace, then part of the province of Germania Superior, as a centre of viticulture. In more recent history, Alsace has at times been German and at other times French, but at all times, and above all, proudly Alsatian. Despite the centralizing tendency of the French Republic, the region still retains a strong and separate identity, with its own language, culture, cuisine, and wine tradition, which revolves around not French but Germanic grape varieties. Alsatian wines are, for the most part, single varietal white wines, with the most prized made from Riesling,

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On the Perception of Wine

Our sense of taste arises from specialized sensory cells in taste buds on the tongue, palate, soft palate, and in the throat. There are around 5,000 taste buds in the mouth, each with 50-100 sensory cells or chemoreceptors. These sensory cells are responsive to one of five groups of chemicals, with each chemical within a group interpreted as one of the five fundamental tastes: alkaloids as bitterness, sugars as sweetness, ionic salts as saltiness, acids as sourness, and amino acids as umami or savouriness. Although some parts

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Common Wine Faults & How to Detect Them

Cork taint

True cork taint is due to 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), formed when certain phenolic compounds react with chlorine-containing compounds used as disinfectants. This need not result from the cork, as TCA is also found in barrels and other winery equipment. If there is a high degree of cork taint, the wine smells musty (‘like wet cardboard’) and falls flat on the palate, without fruit or vibrancy. Some people are very sensitive to cork taint, others much less so.

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A Short History of Wine

Early foragers and farmers made wine from wild grapes or other fruits. According to archaeological evidence, by 6000BC grape wine was being made in the Caucasus, and by 3200BC domesticated grapes had become abundant in the entire Near East. In Mesopotamia, wine was imported from the cooler northern regions, and so came to be known as ‘liquor of the mountains’. In Egypt as in Mesopotamia, wine was for nobles and priests, and mostly reserved for religious or medicinal purposes. The Egyptians fermented grape juice in amphorae that they covered with cloth or leather lids and then sealed up with mud from the Nile. By biblical times, wine had acquired some less dignified uses.

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Food and Wine Matching

In many European wine regions, the wines and culinary traditions developed reciprocally such that the wines naturally pair with the regional fare. Many of these so-called ‘food wines’ can seem overly tart or tannic if drunk on their own, but come alive once paired with food, and, in particular, those foods that they co-evolved with. If you respect these time-honored pairings, you are much less likely to go wrong.

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“Penicillin cures, but wine makes people happy.”

—Alexander Fleming