It must rank as one of the great questions: what is the point of a Toblerone? With its cumbersome size and mouth ulcer-inducing triangular prisms, I have concluded that it could only have been designed as an instrument with which to torture passengers stranded at Geneva airport. Synonymous with Switzerland, it is such a shame that the shelves at duty free are not instead showcasing the country’s beguiling mountain wines, the wonder of which remains a mystery to most of us.
Ask almost anyone if they fancy a glass of Petite Arvine, Heida or Humagne Rouge and you can expect a baffled response. It is hardly surprising, because Swiss wines remain a jealously guarded secret: for every 100 bottles produced, fewer than two will make it out of the country. Playing host to around 250 grape varieties, many of them indigenous to its vertiginous vineyards, the Swiss manage to quaff almost every drop they produce. And who can blame them?
Granted, it took me a while to fall for the charms of Switzerland’s wines. Early experiences of Fendant (the Valais name for Chasselas) were uninspiring, thanks to its lack of acidity, and Dôle (a native blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay) never seemed greater than the sum of its more illustrious parts. Then I met the eminent grape geneticist, Dr José Vouillamoz, the leading authority on Swiss wine grapes, who guided me across the mountains to a new world of decidedly Old-World varieties.
Though Switzerland has around 15,000 hectares under vine, it consists of a complex patchwork of impractical elevated plots, the nurturing of which requires a head for heights to rival that of Heidi. And the prices are just as steep. Switzerland is infamously, eye-poppingly, wallet-droppingly expensive, and its wines are no different.
It is all relative, I suppose. Given that a simple bowl of soup will set you back at least a tenner, then a glass of wine – usually a rather meagre 1dl (that’s 100ml), carefully measured with Swiss precision – starts to look quite reasonable. Order something more substantial to eat, like a steak for example, and you’ll need the whole bottle just to help you get over the shock of the bill.
Pinot Noir, the country’s most planted grape, and Chardonnay thrive in Switzerland’s cold, sunny climes, producing top-end wines to rival Burgundy, and Merlot can be excellent in Ticino, on the Italian border. But it is the incredible indigenous varieties that really ring my cowbell.
Humagne Rouge might sound like a 1980s tribute band, but it is actually a rather lovely, faintly rustic, tannic red, also known as Cornalin d’Aoste. The finest examples exude a lovely, perfumed cherry character and can age for decades.
Then there’s Heida, also known as Païen… which is actually Savagnin, of Jura fame. I do hope you’re keeping up because it is a fabulous grape that produces complex, herbal wines that often offer a mountain stream of minerality.
Look really hard and you might find Rèze, another white that’s vanishingly rare, planted on fewer than two hectares of the Valais region, having fallen victim first to phylloxera and then the whims of fashion. It offers a lovely tangy, green-apple zing and Dr Vouillamoz has done extensive work on its DNA. Let’s hope they can resurrect it.
The hills are alive with Petite Arvine
Thankfully, there’s no shortage of my favourite Swiss variety, as the hills are alive with Petite Arvine. Rich, mouth-filling and textured, it is also as fresh as the daintiest meadow daisy, making it a fantastic pairing partner for that lavish, cheese-fuelled, Swiss comfort food cuisine.
With so little wine exported, and such demand in the domestic market, it is genuinely difficult to find – or indeed afford – these wines, but should you have the chance, I guarantee you will be enchanted. Switzerland can keep its swanky watches and triangular chocolates; its real treasure is its wines.
What David has been drinking…
- Maison Bruno Paillard ‘Assemblage’ 2012 Extra Brut Champagne (£67 at Hedonism Wines). From its beautifully designed label by French artist, Claude Viallat, depicting a furrow, to its rich concentration, balance and satisfying saline depth, this blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, aged more than eight years, is a masterpiece.
- Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 (£30 at Laithwaites or Harvey Nichols). The more I taste the wines of Australia’s Margaret River, the more obsessed I become with their wild-fruited, easy drinking charm. Cabernet is king there and it is easy to see why. Packed with complexity, it is also fresh and approachable.
- Santa Tresa, Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2018 (£11.50 at The Wine Society). From an organic pioneer, Stefano Girelli, who has done much to revitalise Sicilian wine, a lovely wintery, but never heavy blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato that’s lustrous with crunchy red fruit, silk and spice.