Switzerland’s wines are unknown worldwide but it’s well-worth uncorking the Swiss wine world, including their 40 indigenous, rare grape varieties.
Swiss wines don’t have a strong international reputation because most Swiss wines are kept for internal consumption. But more than 200 types of vine are grown in Switzerland and of these no fewer than 40 are ancient, indigenous rarities, which are found barely anywhere else in the world.
Anyone who wishes to enjoy the range of top Swiss wines cannot avoid visiting Switzerland as only 1–2% of Swiss wines are exported. Small Swiss vineyards and steep hillside locations complicate and limit production, therefore, the focus is on quality rather than quantity – a fact born out by a variety of awards. Here you can learn about the top Swiss wines you should try and the best Swiss wine regions to visit.
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The wines of German-speaking Switzerland
The wines of German-speaking Switzerland on a small scale distinguish themselves in the same way as Swiss wines do in general: the prevailing soil types – in the Jura Arch chalky, in the Mittelland predominantly rich in molasses and slate, in the Bündner Herrschaft, scree – produce wines of exceptional variety.
Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder) and Riesling-Silvaner (also known as Müller-Thurgau) are the main – but by no means the only – varieties produced in German-speaking Switzerland. Räuschling (Zurich), Completer (Grisons), both of which are autochtonous specialities, as well as internationally known varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon blanc and a good 10 more varieties are vinified for wine lovers which is why connoisseurs associate the following expression with German-speaking Switzerland: great things come in small packages.
Valais: the biggest Swiss wine producer
The sun almost turns the Valais into a Mediterranean country. The vineyards run continuously along south-facing hillsides from the wine-growing villages of Fully and Chamoson in the Lower Valais, in Conthey and Sion in the Central Valais and all the way to Salgesch in the Upper Valais. The smaller vineyards on the left-hand shores are distributed between Lake Geneva, Martigny, Riddes and Siders. In the Upper Valais several vineyards extend deep into the side valleys. It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that the highest vineyard in Europe is tended in the Upper Valais at an altitude of 1,150m above sea level in a place called Visperterminen.
The Valais is the biggest wine-producing canton with several hundred vineyards there producing just over two fifths of Swiss wine. The wines in the Valais are made from approximately 50 types of grapes, some of which, such as Petite Arvine, Amigne, Humagne blanc and Humagne rouge and Cornalin, are very ancient and barely known outside the area. The most common varieties however are Chasselas (pressed into Fendant) and Pinot noir. Syrah vines, which thrive wonderfully on the Rhone slopes gain importance every year. This is where the biggest variety of top Swiss wines is pressed.
Vaud’s wine regions
Lake Geneva nestles between the Savoy region and canton of Vaud like a giant croissant. The hillsides on the Swiss side are not only exceptionally beautiful and sun-drenched but are also perfect locations for vineyards. These are divided into four regions: ‘La Côte’ on the western side of Lake Geneva, Féchy and Mont-sur-Rolle in its centre, and appellations such as Vinzel, Perroy and Aubonne on either side.
The Lavaux region, which extends from Lausanne to Vevey and Montreux, includes the best-known wine-growing area of the canton: the impressively located Dézaley situated between Epesse and St Saphorin on steep, terraced slopes above the lake. The vineyards of Villeneuve at the eastern end of the lake form the beginning of the Chablais, which stretches all the way to Yvorne and Aigle and to the vineyards around Bex.
The Bonvillars, Côtes de l’Orbe and Vully appellations around Lake Neuchâtel belong to northern Vaud.
Vaud is the second-biggest wine-growing region of Switzerland. It is mainly known for its fruity and fresh white wines made from Chasselas grapes. Their subtle and varied aromas reflect the different soil types of the area. The red wines made from Gamay and Pinot noir grapes represent roughtly a quarter of production. The strong points of Vaud wines are tradition as well as individuality. The wine-growers are ambitious and show that in terms of diversity and quality they are up there with Switzerland’s best.
Geneva’s innovative wines
Innovative wine-growers and gifted chefs have established Geneva’s reputation as Switzerland’s culinary capital. At the same time Geneva is synonymous with internationality and a high standard of living. Geneva is not quite as well known as a wine-growing region in spite of the fact that it is the third-biggest wine-growing area of Switzerland.
The three wine-growing areas of the region are Mandement on the right bank of the River Rhôhne, Entre Arve et Rhône and Entre Arve et Lac. Mandement is the largest area and with vineyards from Satigny to Peissy probably the best-known. In addition to Chasselas, a great variety of white wines, ranging from Chardonnay, Riesling-Sylvaner (Müller-Thurgau), Pinot blanc, Aligoté via Sauvignon blanc and Pinot gris through to Gewurztraminer and Viognier, are cultivated in this innovative and uncompromising setting.
Red varieties raised here in addition to Pinot noir and Gamay include Gamaret, Merlot and Cabernet franc among others. Gamay wines, which were practically invented here and delight the palate with a surprisingly fruity density, generate a buzz time and time again. It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that more than half of Swiss organic wines are produced in this creative environment.
Ticino: the Merlot wine region
Thanks to its location south of the Alps, the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino benefits from a sunny, almost Mediterranean climate. The Italian-speaking southern tip of Switzerland isn’t simply an extension of Lombardy but an independent land which is home to assertive and unconventional people – and wines with the same qualities.
The northern part, called Sopraceneri, extends from Bellinzona to Lake Maggiore as well as partly into the mountain valleys at the foot of the Alps. The main wine-growing places of the Sottoceneri in the south are Chiasso, Lugano and Mendrisio, as well as the vineyards of Castel San Pietro and Morbio.
Almost 90 percent of the wine-growing area of the Ticino is stocked with Merlot which originally hails from Bordeaux. Several of the outstandingly pressed wines from the best locations need not shy away from comparison with their French relatives. The Merlot Bianco, an elegant white wine which is constantly growing in popularity is also made from the Merlot variety.
Other grape varieties account for just under a fifth of total production: Bondola, Pinot noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet franc for red wines, and Chardonnay, Chasselas, Sauvignon and Sémillon for whites.
Three Lakes regions: Neuchâtel wines
Lakes Neuchâtel, Murten and Biel are the calm poles of the Three Lakes region and part of ‘Watch Valley’, home of precision watches. Roughly two thirds of wine production in this region is located by Lake Neuchâtel. The other wines of the Three Lakes region are produced around Lake Biel in the canton of Bern and on Mont Vully close to Lake Murten, which is shared between the cantons of Fribourg and Vaud.
The massive first chain of the Jura drops down to Lakes Biel and Neuchâtel, steep at the top but sloping more gently towards the bottom. The south-facing location is perfect for vines, mainly Chasselas and Pinot noir, but also other varieties which were introduced to Switzerland just a few years ago but are being grown ever more successfully. These include Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay, Gamaret and Garanoir.
This is also where the famous Neuchâtel rosé, the fruity and delicate ‘Œil-de-Perdrix’, is pressed. The area on the boundary between German- and French-speaking Switzerland combines the cultural influences and reflects the range of wines: from clear simplicity through to effervescent joie de vivre.