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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.