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Wine is often referred to as Switzerland’s best-kept secret, since viticulture is flourishing, quality and standards are high, annual production regularly hits 200 million bottles, but – in the usual Swiss way – many wines don’t get beyond the borders of their canton (just one percent goes for export).
Even the simplest restaurants and bars will have wine, both on a winelist (Weinkarte, carte des vins, carta dei vini) and – much more affordably – as Offene Wein, vin ouvert, vino aperto, a handful of house reds and whites chalked up on a board and sold by the decilitre. Standard measures are 1dl and 2dl, which come to you in glasses; and 3dl and 5dl, which come in a small carafe. Around Fr.3–6 per decilitre is normal.
Switzerland’s best-known wines come from the steeply terraced vineyards of the Valais. Of the whites, bright and floral Fendant is king, named for the ripeness of its golden Chasselas grapes, which, when pressed, se fendre, or split, rather than squish. Other Valais whites include fruity and alcoholic Johannisberg, sweeter Ermitage, and Malvoisie from the Pinot Gris grape (the late harvests, marked flétrie, or shrivelled, are particularly sought-after). Valais’s reds, led by Dôle, a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes, are equally respected. Bottles of 100 percent Pinot Noir have recently begun to make an appearance, but the connoisseur’s Valais red is a Humagne Rouge. Dôle blanche is one of Switzerland’s few rosé wines.
Until the mid-twentieth century, Vaud was Switzerland’s leading wine-growing canton, and the vineyards lining the Côte and Lavaux shores of Lake Geneva hold some of the most picturesque walks in the whole country. Chasselas is ubiquitous, and with their concentration on this one white grape to the exclusion of all others, Vaudois vignerons, particularly those at Dézaley, St Saphorin and Epesses, produce some of the best of all Swiss wines. In the Chablais region southeast of Montreux are the vineyards of Château d’Aigle, home to a wine museum, and Yvorne. Canton Geneva also has extensive Chasselas vines – the Genevois Perlan is more affordable than its Vaudois competitors – and low-priced Gamays have recently taken on imported French Beaujolais with some success.
Around Neuchâtel and Biel/Bienne, the combination of a plate of fresh lake fish and a bottle of local white is unbeatable; there are dozens of local producers, and each estate brings forth something different from the Chasselas grapes that still dominate. In the German-speaking north and east, though, Chasselas gives way to the Riesling-Sylvaner grape, perhaps best known on the “Gold Coast” of Lake Zürich’s eastern shore that basks in the afternoon sunshine. The Rhine shores at Schaffhausen are mostly given over to Pinot Noir, while only the warm southern Föhn wind allows Pinot Noir grapes to flourish in an area known as the Bündner Herrschaft in Graubünden, around Maienfeld and particularly Fläsch in St Gallen, and Liechtenstein. Ticino’s vine growing is dominated by Merlot, and almost every village has its own brand of Merlot del Ticino. The Sopraceneri region, north of Bellinzona, is less successful than the Sottoceneri, around Lugano and especially Mendrisio, but you’d have to struggle to find a truly bad specimen anywhere.
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