"For a tiny country like Switzerland, the sheer variety of grapes grown is certainly unusual"
Picture: (c) Sue Style
We are very excited about our new book on Swiss wine. We've asked Sue Style, author of The Landscape of Swiss Wine, to answer a few questions for us.
Bergli: How did you get the idea for The Landscape of Swiss Wine?
Sue Style: Bergli took on my book A Taste of Switzerland, originally published in 1992 in the UK, and thanks to them it remained in print till just a couple of years ago. Together with Richard Harvell, we explored the idea of doing a complete revamp of the book, which takes a romp through the (many) good things to eat and drink in Switzerland, from cheese to chocolate, bread to sausages, Schnapps to wine. But whichever way we looked at it, it seemed like we would be covering the same ground all over again, albeit updated. Both Richard and I agreed it would be more exciting to embark on a completely new project. By then I’d begun to do more writing about wine, in addition to my usual work on food and travel. Besides, I’d become aware that there had been some dramatic and exciting changes on the Swiss wine scene since I wrote A Taste of Switzerland, which meant there was a great story to tell.
How long did all the research take?
I’d say around two years full-on, but I’d been mulling over the idea of a book for some time before that and writing articles on Swiss wines and wine travel in Switzerland (occasional pieces for the UK wine magazine Decanter and for the FT online magazine How To Spend It) before embarking in earnest on the book project.
Did you visit all the wineries in the book?
Of the 50 wineries featured in the book, starting in the Valais and working all the way round in a clockwise direction and finishing up in Ticino, I missed out on just two, though I was already familiar with their wines from tasting them at events put on by the elite winemakers’ association Mémoire des Vins Suisses, at the annual Grand Prix du Vin Suisse competition and other events around the country.
How did you choose the wineries?
If you follow the Swiss wine scene, the same names crop up regularly – they get noticed by Parker’s Wine Advocate reviewers, or they win prizes at the Grand Prix du Vin Suisse or the Decanter World Wine Awards, or they belong to Mémoire des Vins Suisses. The hardest part for me was to make a selection that would give a sense of both the quality and the variety of Swiss wines available, with a good cross-section from the different regions.
Swiss wines must be as varied as the Swiss, considering that the country is made up of four different language groups. Is there something that makes Swiss wines uniquely Swiss?
For a tiny country like Switzerland, the sheer variety of grapes grown is certainly unusual and a big draw for anyone interested in wine. From Chasselas, the country’s signature grape, to uniquely Swiss varieties like Petite Arvine, Cornalin, Completer or Räuschling, as well as internationally renowned and locally interpreted grapes like Pinot Noir and Merlot, there’s loads to discover. Another thing that distinguishes Swiss operations is the size of the wineries: Small is beautiful here, and wines fall into the boutique category – small-scale and hand-crafted. And then there are the often spectacularly sited vineyards – which of course provided the inspiration for the title, designed to convey the extraordinary landscapes in which the vines grow. If you’ve ever taken the Glacier Express and gazed out the window of the train from Brig to Zermatt or travelled along the shores of Lake Geneva, you’ll have marvelled at the vineyards, planted on terraces on near-vertical slopes and lined by kilometres of drystone walls.
What wine would you recommend to someone who is new to Switzerland and wants to try a typical Swiss wine?
There’s nothing more typical than Chasselas (known in the Valais as Fendant). This all-Swiss grape variety – its original homeland is the Lake Geneva region – is the perfect embodiment of Swissness in vinous terms: shy, self-effacing, often understated, it never elbows itself forward, preferring to perform quietly to the best of its ability. Always described as a remarkable reflector of terroir, it gives the credit to where it is grown (the specific site is often marked on the label) as well as to the winemaker prepared to devote time and trouble to working with it, rather than beating its own chest about any inherent brilliance of its own. In short, a very Swiss grape – but also a grape for our time. It can be simple and thirst-quenching, designed to be drunk young; or it can be complex and timelessly elegant. When you tire of grapes that shout louder – I’m thinking Gewurztraminer, Viognier or those body-built, over-oaked Chardonnays that gave rise to the Anything But Chardonnay (ABC) movement – Chasselas comes as a blessed relief. Besides, it seldom contains more than 12.5% alcohol so you can drink more of it.
What would you recommend to someone who already knows a lot about wine, but is new to Swiss wines?
What sets Swiss wines apart – and makes tracking them down and tasting them so much fun – is their use of little-known grape varieties, some of them found exclusively in Switzerland. Give your jaded tastebuds a treat with such delights as Petite Arvine or Humagne Blanc from the Valais, Räuschling from around Lake Zurich or even the vanishingly rare Completer from Graubünden. And there are some wonderful surprises (and surprisingly good value) to be found in cool-climate Pinot Noirs from the northern cantons like Aargau, Zurich, Thurgau and even right here on Bergli’s doorstep in Basel-Land.
What was the most surprising thing for you when writing this book?
The accessibility of the winemakers and their willingness to share and talk about their wines. All the wineries I included can be visited – just remember they have work to do in the vineyards and the cellar, so to be sure to find someone there to attend you, it’s best to make an appointment. There may be a fancy-schmancy tasting room, or you may be received in the cellar amongst the steel tanks, barrels and hosepipes with the tasting glasses set on top of an upturned barrel, but the welcome is the same. There’s seldom a charge made, but the quid pro quo is that you will buy some wine. Another nice surprise was to find that many of the younger generation of winemakers are now following their parents at the domaine, having completed their studies at Changins (the Swiss oenology and viticulture school) and travelled abroad (France, California, Australia or New Zealand are the favoured destinations) to learn about winemaking practices elsewhere.
What's your current favourite Swiss wine?
I have a weakness for Petite Arvine, the thrilling white variety from the Valais whose wines vary from lipsmackingly dry with gorgeous grapefruit tones and a characteristic salty finish to lusciously sweet and highly concentrated, made from late-harvested grapes.
Thank you for the interview, Sue!
Did you know: The Landscape of Swiss Wine is available at our online shop and of course at book stores. You can also find Sue Style's book Cheese on our website. Check out her food blog here: https://suestyle.com.