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 alpine Valais and around Lake Geneva in La Cote and Lavaux.
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, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Merlot – are all of French origin.
Switzerland's core vine-growing districts are located around its edges, leaving the centre is 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 Rhone River in the Valais. There are also significant vineyard areas in the west (Neuchatel), the south (Ticino), the east (Graubunden) and scattered around Zurich in the north (Aargau, Schaffhausen and the Zurcher Weinland).
Covering just under 16,000 square miles (41,500 square km), 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 Cote. The middle band, between Lake Geneva and Lake Constance, is formed by the Central Plateau. This is home to the majority of Swiss population, in 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% 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. They 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 north, and Fendant, Dorin or Perlan in the French-speaking south-west.
Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer are also used in Swiss wines vineyards – a reminder of their proximity to Alsace and Germany. Rather appropriately, Muller-Thurgau is the preferred grape in Thurgau, the birthplace of its creator Dr Hermann Muller.
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 planted red-wine variety. Next most popular 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 dôle 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 13,000ft (4000m) and very few vineyards lie below 1300ft (400m). The climate is cool overall, but varies dramatically from place to place. Valais, for example, enjoys high summer temperatures (reaching 95°F/35°C) and abundant sunshine. The climate in Ticino, however, combines frequent storms and high rainfall with the country's highest average temperatures.
Wine has been made in Switzerland for more than 2000 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 Rhone 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 40,000 acres (16,000ha) of vineyards producing roughly 1.1 million hL 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.