Swiss wines have generated polite interest abroad over the years, but high costs and poor marketing have kept them off the international market. This might be about to change due to a glowing review in the influential Robert Parker Wine Advocate.
This is not the first time that Swiss wine has received the plaudits of internationally renowned critics. But as prominent expert Hugh Johnson pointed out 30 years ago, the evidence of its quality rarely gets beyond Swiss frontiers since most of it is consumed at origin.
In a 2008 seminal review, Financial Times wine critic Jancis Robinson applauded the rising quality of Swiss wines but deplored that “Swiss wine, like Swiss anything, is expensive”. It comes, she specifies, from “some of the world’s prettier and more inconvenient vineyards”.
As a result, Switzerland only exports between two per cent of its production, reduced to one per cent when the Swiss franc is strong, which is presently the case.
Now, because top Parker reviewer David Schildknecht has included four wines from Vaud, Valais and Ticino in his personal Best of 2012 collection and sung the praises of the Chasselas (the second most prevalent grape in Switzerland, after the Pinot Noir), Swiss winemakers believe that their time may have come.
The Wine Advocate, commonly abbreviated TWA, started by Robert Parker in 1978, is widely regarded as the most influential publication on wine in the world. Parker’s notations on a scale of 100 have opened or closed wine markets overnight.
Only five reviewers, including Parker, cover the entire planet, so it comes as little surprise that a country that drinks up most of its wine is rarely on the experts’ rounds.
The man who finally managed to woo Schildknecht to a tasting of rare Chasselas is American-trained José Vouillamoz, a grape geneticist from Valais and co-author of the ultimate guide to Wine Grapes.
Wine in Switzerland
Switzerland produces each year an average of 1.1 million hectolitres of wine, which used to be predominantly white, but is now about equally comprised of red and white.
Switzerland's wine-growing surface covers approximately 15,000 hectares (the size of Alsace). Three quarters of the surfaces are in the French-speaking area. The most important wine-producing cantons are: Valais (5,136 ha), Vaud (3,851 ha), Geneva (1,288 ha), Ticino (1,036 ha), Zurich (620 ha), Neuchâtel (600 ha).
Swiss consumption of their own wines has decreased from 42 per cent to 38 per cent in recent years.End of insertion
Not so expensive after all
Vouillamoz is an ardent believer that Swiss wines deserve to be better recognised. He explains that the extraordinary variety of wines with distinctive personalities on such a small territory is due to the presence of different soils (a result of the formation of the Alps and their glaciers) and climates (Atlantic, Mediterranean, Continental), as well as the hot-blowing Föhn wind that crosses the main wine-growing regions.
He admits, however, that the Parker recognition can create tricky situations. If producers are tempted to raise their prices unduly or export their better wines, they will neglect their local bases.
He mentions the case of Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, whose legendary organic wines from Fully in the Valais are so successful that she is obliged to set quotas on her sales.
“For comparable qualities, Swiss wines are still a bargain,” Vouillamoz affirms.
He becomes almost emotional when he describes how he introduced Schildknecht to an Arvine produced by Robert Taramarcaz at his Domaine des Muses. The American critic insisted on meeting him.
Quality instead of quantity
“I have had so many requests from abroad since being mentioned by Schildknecht,” Taramarcaz told swissinfo.ch. “It’s as if a spotlight was suddenly shining on Swiss wines.”
Asked whether recognition hadn’t come rather late, Taramarcaz expressed the opinion, shared by many other winemakers, that the quality of Swiss wines has improved immeasurably only in recent years.
Following several years of over-production and the impossibility to compete against cheaper foreign table wines, “We realised that the only way to survive was to aim for top quality, not quantity,” he pointed out.
Vineyards in Switzerland, Taramarcaz added, are generally family-run businesses, but younger generations tend to be professionally trained, sometimes abroad. Taramarcaz, who is only 34, spent four years in New Zealand and France to perfect his skills.
“To make our quality mountain wines, we need the traditional know-how of our forbearers, but we also need scientific knowledge. Many of us are engineers,” he said.
Swiss wines still unknown
Gilles Besse, another reputed Valais wine producer and oenologist, is president of Swiss Wine Promotion, an organisation that represents the cantonal wine offices. Like Taramarcaz, he is convinced that Swiss wines have reached an uncommon degree of excellence.
“But there is still no demand. People don’t even know that we exist,” he told swissinfo.ch.
Part of the problem is a lack of support from the government. And because most wine domains are small and difficult to exploit, there is little funding left for marketing.
For Besse, the Parker mention is therefore a heaven-sent. He points out however that Schildknecht hasn’t noted any of the wines. “We need a 93 for things to really start moving,” he said hopefully.
“Although it’s not in our Latin temperament, we must become more commercially aggressive,” Besse observed. A promotional campaign is currently being launched with Swiss airlines, with on-board tastings.
Ironically, he sees the greatest potential of growth coming from the German-speaking part of Switzerland: “We’re not even very well known in our own country!”
The four Swiss wines in David Schildnecht’s Best of 2012
Blaise Duboux and Pierre-Luc Leyvraz in Vaud, Robert Taramarcaz at Domaine des Muses in Valais and the Cantina Kopp von der Crone Visini in Ticino.End of insertion
Contacted for the purpose of this article, Schildknecht was more cautious in his appraisal of the situation of Swiss wines.
High local consumption keeps prices at levels that, in his opinion, remain uncompetitive for wine merchants abroad. Secondly, Swiss wines suffer from a lack of clear identity.
“Such a plethora of varieties are grown in such strikingly diverse Swiss micro-climates and are vinified in so many styles that only in rare instances … can one plausibly speak of readily recognisable stylistic types.”
Furthermore, Switzerland’s linguistic diversity contributes to the confusion, since the two most popular grapes are known under several names: “Pinot Noir may be referred to as Blauburgunder, Clevner, Blauer Spätburgunder or simply Spätburgunder,” whereas Chasselas in Valais becomes Fendant.
Lastly, Schildknecht is annoyed by the unmerited reputation of some Swiss wines, which he attributes to “partisanship on behalf of home-grown wines” - a phenomenon that is perhaps not reserved to Switzerland.
On the other hand, he admits that he has been “embarrassingly and inexcusably delinquent in publishing tasting notes or any extended report of Swiss wine”. He came in 2011.
But other matters may be on his mind: in an extraordinary twist of events, just as Swiss wines were “Parkerised” for the first time, The Wine Advocate has been sold to a trio of Singapore-based investors, with the effect that the guide’s imperial influence may wane.
High drama at TWA
The news hit the wine world like a bomb: in December 2012, 65-year-old Robert Parker sold a majority stake in The Wine Advocate to young investors in Singapore. The print edition will be phased out and only appear online by the end of the 2013. Lisa Perotti-Brown, TWA’s Singapore-based correspondent, was appointed editor-in-chief, instead of lead critic Antonio Galloni who resigned to start his own web venture. Galloni is now being sued by TWA for fraud and breach of contractual obligations.End of insertion
Women spearhead Swiss wine recognition
As women join the ranks of some of the best wine producers in Switzerland (Irene Grünenfelder, Marie-Thérèse Chappaz and Fabienne Cottagnoud amongst many others), women wine writers and emissaries are building up the international credentials of Swiss wines.
Zurich-based Chandra Kurt is a member of the British-based Circle of Wine Writers and a contributor to the renowned Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book. She says of Swiss wines: “A lot of producers don’t know how good they are.” She sings the praises of wines that come from a country surrounded by so many wine cultures, but that has its own style and as many as 40 indigenous grapes. She is currently working with US filmmaker Patricia Von Ah on a documentary on Swiss wines.
Ellen Wallace edits the Genevalunch.com news website, but is now dedicating more of her time to educating people about Swiss wines and writes a widely-read column, ‘Among the vines’. She is convinced that the potential for top quality wines is huge, but that Swiss wines need to become better known, whilst remaining a niche market because of the small quantities produced. “It’s reaching that tipping point,” she says.
Sierre-based Elisabeth Pasquier directs Vinea, a Swiss national association that organises national and international wine competitions, the popular September Vinea wine fair, and publishes a reference guide on Swiss wines.End of insertion
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