Swiss Wine

Switzerland may not be the most famous of wine-producing nations, but this small, mountainous country in western Europe has been making wine for more than two thousand years. Swiss wine's lack of fame is not due to any lack of quality or quantity, but because it is produced mostly for (and consumed happily by) the Swiss themselves.

Things are gradually changing however; the world beyond the Alps is now discovering the high quality of much Swiss Pinot Noir, and white wines made from the national flagship grape, Chasselas. Top-end vineyards can be found in almost every corner of the country, but the vast majority are located in the dramatic, alpine Valais and around Lake Geneva in La Cote and Lavaux.

Spiez, the Thunersee and the Bernese Alps

Entirely landlocked, Switzerland finds itself sandwiched between Germany, Italy, Austria and France – to the north, south, east and west respectively. Its culture is clearly influenced by each of these neighbors, most obviously in its languages (German, French and Italian are all official national languages here) but also in its wines.

The Germanic wine influence is demonstrated by a preference for varietal winemaking and crisp, refreshing wine styles, and is most prevalent in the German-speaking north between Zurich and the Rhine. French influences are felt throughout the country, but most keenly in the French-speaking south-west, in Geneva, Vaud and Valais.

The nation's favorite grape varieties – Chasselas (often labeled "Fendant" in numerous cantons throughout the country), Pinot Noir, Gamay and Merlot – are all of French origin.

Switzerland's core vine-growing districts are located around its edges, leaving the centre largely vineyard-free. The majority are located in the south-west around the northern side of Lake Geneva (Geneva and Vaud) and along the upper stretches of the Rh?ne River in the Valais.

There are also significant vineyard areas in the west (Neuchatel is known for its whites and oeil-de-perdrix rosés), the south (where Italian-speaking Ticino produces its, often synonymous wine, Merlot), the east (where Graubunden is often associated with Pinot Noir) and scattered around Zurich in the north (with the cantons of Aargau, Schaffhausen and the Zurcher Weinland itself).

Covering just under 41,500 square km (16,000 square miles), Switzerland is about one-tenth the size of California, and roughly the same size as Australia's Riverina region. Geographically, it is divided into three distinct areas, which cross the country diagonally in three uneven bands.

Along its north-western edge run the Jura Mountains (across which lies the French Jura), whose foothills provide the stunning scenery of La C?te. The middle band, between Lake Geneva and Lake Constance, is formed by the Central Plateau. This is home to the majority of Swiss population and industry, across the cities of Zurich, Lucerne, Bern, Lausanne and Geneva.

The widest band, which dominates the country's southern half, is also the most geographically dramatic. It is covered by the Alps mountains, which account for 60 percent of the country's total surface area.

Mountains, terraces and steep slopes are a key feature of Swiss vineyards. They hint at history, hard work and tradition, and contribute an air of rustic charm to the national wine industry.

Alongside an already high standard of living, these aspects also make Swiss wines some of the world's most expensive. Such sites are inaccessible to tractors and other vineyard machinery, so most work is done by hand, substantially increasing production costs.

This has its advantages, however; when grapes are harvested by hand, there is an obvious incentive to favor quality over quantity.

Chasselas is Switzerland's key white-wine grape, although it is gradually ceding ground to more popular 'international' varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc - a common story in wine regions almost everywhere. Its name changes from region to region, but even with this split identity it still manages to account for one-third of the country's vineyard area.

It is known as Gutedel in German-speaking northeast, and more often in the southwest (even in other German-speaking regions) as "Fendant". "Dorin" or "Perlan" are also synonyms.

Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer are also used in Swiss vineyards – a reminder of their proximity to Alsace and Germany. Rather appropriately, Müller-Thurgau is the preferred grape in Thurgau, the birthplace of its creator Dr Hermann Müller.

Red wines now outnumber whites in Switzerland (about 60:40) which may come as a surprise to many. Pinot Noir – or Blauburgunder to a few wineries in the north – is the most widely produced and planted variety in the country (28 percent of wines) with Chasselas representing just over a quarter (26 percent) of all wines.

Next most popular in the red category is Pinot Noir's cousin Gamay, which is used here (as everywhere) to produce light, fruit-driven, 'everyday' wines. The pair are often blended together, particularly in the western regions, to produce "D?le" wines.

Also significant among Swiss red wine grapes is Merlot, which has proved remarkably successful in Ticino since it was introduced there in the early 20th century. Syrah has also done well here, even if only in the warmest parts of the central Valais.

Based solely on the strong vinous reputation of its neighbors, Switzerland should be the perfect all-round location for viniculture. But its dramatic topography and alpine climate change everything.

Alpine peaks soar here, to more than 4000m (13,000ft) and very few vineyards lie below 400m (1300ft). The climate is cool overall, but varies dramatically from place to place. Valais, for example, enjoys high summer temperatures (reaching 935°C/5°F) and abundant sunshine.

The climate in Ticino, however, combines frequent storms and high rainfall with some of the country's highest average temperatures.

Wine has been made in Switzerland for more than 2,000 years. As in France, the spread of viticulture here during the Middle Ages was largely driven by monasteries. The wines then generally lacked flavor and body, so even domestic sales were affected by imports from the warmer regions further south – notably the Rh?ne Valley.

The phylloxera outbreak of the 1860s hit Switzerland particularly hard and by the early 20th Century the country's productive vineyard area had halved. With increasing competition from other wine regions at that time, there was little incentive for Swiss vignerons to re-establish their plantings.

Today, the Swiss wine industry looks more promising, with nearly 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of vineyards producing roughly 100 million liters of increasingly marketable wine each vintage. The total surface area under vine actually saw a small but consistent decrease between 2005 and 2010, but with new investment and a French-style appellation system developed during the 1980s and in force since the 1990s, the country is once again regaining momentum in the international wine world.

The government body in charge of the Swiss appellation system, the OIC, has a separate title for each of the country's three official languages: "Organisme Intercantonal de Certification" in French, 'Interkantonale Zertifizierungsstelle" in German and "Organismo Intercantonale di Certificazione" in Italian.

Like France's INAO, the OIC is responsible for delineating the official Swiss wine regions, and creating wine quality guidelines and laws. With classic Swiss precision, the OIC's yield restrictions are given in kilograms per square meter.

However, the sometimes fragmented federal accent on Swiss governance does spill over into wine legislation with cantonal bodies overseeing generic, canton-based labelling (the Valais, for example, has only one appellation: Valais) while allowing producers to place municiple - even cadastral - titles on the label (Vétroz, to continue the Valais example, is effectively a sub-appellation of Valais) where appropriate.

The OIC is reportedly in talks to bring appellation labelling into line with European standards even though the country remains steadfastly outside the European Union itself.

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Most Popular Swiss Wine

Based on search frequency, updated monthly
Wine Name
Avg Price
Weingut Daniel & Marta Gantenbein Pinot Noir, Graubunden, Switzerland Pinot Noir 805th 92 $187
Weingut Daniel & Marta Gantenbein Chardonnay, Graubunden, Switzerland Chardonnay 1,924th 93 $335
Thomas Studach Pinot Noir, Malanser, Switzerland Pinot Noir 4,712th 91 $92
Weingut Donatsch Malanser Pinot Noir Unique, Graubunden, Switzerland Pinot Noir 5,406th 93 $134
Zanini Castello Luigi Rosso del Ticino, Switzerland Bordeaux Blend Red 5,440th 94 $152
Vinattieri Ticinesi Merlot, Ticino, Switzerland Merlot 6,263rd 92 $139
Whisky Castle Castle Hill Doublewood Single Malt Whisky, Switzerland Whisky - Whiskey Malt 7,573rd $120
Gialdi Merlot Sassi Grossi, Ticino, Switzerland Merlot 7,898th 92 $55
Weingut Donatsch Malanser Chardonnay Unique, Graubunden, Switzerland Chardonnay 8,031st 94 $138
Domaine de la Rochette Pinot Noir Les Rissieux, Neuchatel, Switzerland Pinot Noir 8,172nd 95 $503
Santis Malt - Swiss Highlander Appenzeller Single Malt Whisky, Switzerland Whisky - Whiskey Malt 8,473rd $93
Henri Badoux Aigle Les Murailles, Vaud, Switzerland Chasselas 9,349th 88 $26
Weingut Daniel & Marta Gantenbein Riesling, Graubunden, Switzerland Riesling 10,569th 92 $161
Robert Gilliard Dole des Monts, Valais, Switzerland Gamay - Pinot Noir 12,235th 87 $21
Jean-Rene Germanier Syrah du Valais Cayas Reserve, Valais, Switzerland Syrah 12,413th 91 $52
Thomas Studach Chardonnay, Malanser, Switzerland Chardonnay 14,226th 90 $109
Feldschlosschen Original Lager Beer, Switzerland Beer 14,469th $3
Weingut Donatsch Malanser Pinot Noir Passion, Graubunden, Switzerland Pinot Noir 14,724th 92 $56
Luc Massy Chemin de Fer Dezaley Grand Cru, Vaud, Switzerland Chasselas 16,346th 90 $38
Etter Zuger Kirsch Eau-de Vie, Switzerland Eau-de-Vie 16,346th 92 $75
Weingut zur Sonne-Obrecht 'Monolith' Pinot Noir, Graubunden, Switzerland Pinot Noir 18,166th 91 $60
Morand 'Williamine' Eau-de-Vie, Valais, Switzerland Eau-de-Vie 18,291st $53
Appenzeller Alpenbitter, Switzerland Bitters 19,084th $25
Brivio Merlot Bianco Rovere, Ticino, Switzerland Merlot 19,347th 87 $34
Louis Bovard 'Medinette' Dezaley Grand Cru, Vaud, Switzerland Chasselas 20,444th 90 $34
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To see how Wine-Searcher uses average pricing and professional wine critic scores on this page, please see Average Wine Prices and Wine Scores. To find out about popularity, please see Wine Ranks.
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