Although winemaking has a long history in Switzerland, wine lovers barely know about Swiss Wine. What is the reason of this and why is Swiss Wine rarely available in international market?
First of all, Swiss people love consuming their own wines! According to latest reports, Swiss people consumed 2.6 million hectoliters in 2014 (35.1 liters per capita) and Swiss Wine constituted almost 40% of this number. These numbers show that Swiss people are proud of their own products and enjoy consuming them. However, this is not the only reason why export percentage of Swiss Wine is less than 2%. Here are some important points;
The first and very important factor is pricing. Swiss Wine is expensive just like many other Swiss products! The cost of wine production is higher compared to other wine growing regions. We are speaking about a country where the average salary per hour is around 20$. This means that; all machines/materials used in viticulture and winemaking and labor is more expensive and therefore have an effect on the end price of a wine bottle. This certainly prohibits Swiss Wine from competing in export markets.
Another key point is the trade structure in Switzerland. Although there are large wine producers in the country, majority of the vineyard owners hold less than 10 hectares. Some of them have other jobs to take care of. They produce 20 000 – 50 000 bottles per year in average. And most probably, their wine is consumed in their own villages. This is something that I really like about Switzerland. Let’s say you come from a small village in Aargau, the people of the village drink their own wine and enjoy it. Most of them have local wine festivals, tastings and regular events to get together. I personally find this tradition very valuable and because of this most of the producers do not feel the need to sell their wines out of their region.
Last week, I attended two different tastings to learn more about Swiss Wine. One was in Schaffhausen; ‘Schafuuser Wiiprob 2015’ and the other one in Zurich; Mémoire & Friends representing six different wine regions of the country; Valais, Vaud, Geneva, 3 Lakes – Neuchatel, Ticino and Swiss German part.
It was interesting to meet Swiss winemakers just before harvest. The majority seemed comfortable with the upcoming harvest and happy with the warm summer days that ripened the fruits. Another advantage of the warm weather was the grapes were protected from Kirchessigfliege (KEF) / or known as Drosophila suzukii. This Asian fruit fly has infected grapes in the last few years, not only in Switzerland but also in many wine-growing regions in Europe. Some of the grape growers lost more than half of their grapes. This year, however, it seems like this pest has not been active – but still nobody wants to say it out loud until the harvest starts.
The first wine tasting in Schaffhausen was a great opportunity to taste the wines of the region, and some award winning wineries such as Hedinger Weingut, Wein-Stamm, VOLG Weinkellereien, Aaagne Familie, GVS Weinkellerei and Weinkellerei Rahm… The queen of the grapes was indeed Blauburgunder (Pinot Noir) in Schaffhausen. There were also many Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Riesling-Sylvaner wine samples. By saying Riesling-Sylvaner, I mean Muller-Thurgau – the crossing of Riesling and Madeleine Royale-. Muller-Thurgau is known as Riesling-Sylvaner in Switzerland. I personally find this very confusing and believe that the majority of the consumers believe that this grape is either same with Riesling or a blend of Riesling and Sylvaner. Riesling is indeed a more popular variety and it makes it easier to sell Muller-Thurgau because of this misunderstanding. However, this situation wrongfully brings down the image of Riesling itself.
Let’s go back to the tasting. I had a chance to taste the wines of Aagne Winery and speak with the winemaker; Stefan Gysel Saxer. He shared his positive feelings about the upcoming harvest. He mentioned that the weather conditions have been nice for grape development and they are expecting an earlier harvest than the previous years. We also had a chat about the trend towards bio products in Switzerland. Swiss people are greatly interested in consuming healthier bio food and drinks. I asked Stefan Gysel Saxer’s opinion on how this trend would affect wine producers. The first thing he pointed out was that they are also interested but unfortunately the climate conditions in Switzerland are not favorable for bio production. The humidity, the cool weather conditions and rainfall make it difficult to produce organic wines. Although, the region seems to benefit from climate change, the instability in climate still remains a challenge. Stefan Gysel Saxer, also emphasized that vine growers hold very small parcels. One might produce bio wines but if the next vineyard uses chemical treatments, the results would not be realistic. Just after our conversation with Stefan Gysel Saxer, I another biodynamic winery in Aargau . I asked the challenges they face while producing biodynamic wine. They accepted that the climate conditions are not very easy to deal with. They might have to carry out few more treatments in the vineyards compared to other wine growing regions but still they have been following the biodynamic principals for years.
The following day, on Mémoire & Friends Tasting, the Kongresshaus was full with wine lovers and trade professionals in Zurich. I started my tasting with Chasselas grape, continued with Pinot Noir’s and lovely Merlot’s from Ticino. The first thing one notices in white wines is their low acidity. Unlike Germany or Austria, acidity is considered more as an evil in Switzerland. For this reason, especially Chasselas usually goes through malolactic fermentation where malic acid is converted to soft lactic acid. Many people think that wines made of Chasselas turns out like that by nature. However, it is more of a result of the production method of converting malic acid. This method is basically a tradition adopted by Swiss winemakers. However, I also met some young winemakers who are experimenting. For example they have blended Chasselas grapes that have gone through malolactic fermentation with other Chasselas grapes that have not. Interestingly, the majority of white wines that won medals were either produced without any malolactic fermentation or they were partially fermented.
In Kongresshaus, I also met a very interesting wine producer; Valentin Jakob Schiess from Vinigma Wines. He worked in international trade and winemaking for years and traveled all around the world; New Zealand, Argentina, Germany, Spain, South Africa. When he was back in Switzerland, he bought a parcel with Gamaret grapes instead of traditional varieties like Pinot Noir. He stated that, to make the best wine out of Gamaret, he decided to follow a different technique: Amarone and Ripasso method. I personally enjoyed his wines, especially Jeninser with wild berry aromas, full-bodied but yet elegant. He mentioned that he could not compete in Swiss Wine Competitions cause his wine doesn’t fit in any category and therefore he sent his wines to Decanter where he won a Silver Award with Jeninser. Mr. Schiess also stated that he would like to sell only 20% of his wines in Switzerland but he wants to export the rest to Asia, USA or other countries in Europe. It was a great pleasure to meet him and discover people who think out of the box and bring their enthusiasm on the table.
After the tastings and some visits around wineries and vineyards, I’ve seen that the effect of ‘tradition’ is still very crucial in Switzerland. I would have expected a more innovative technology in wineries and developed methods in vineyards. However, this situation seems to be changing slowly. There are flying-winemakers gaining international experience and bringing back their expertise. In several regions like Schaffhausen, younger generation seems to have the control and trying to combine the tradition with new trends. Overall, this beautiful mountainous country is full with small wine villages worth discovering. I will be following the changes in time with curiosity and enjoy their wines.