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Swiss Wines: Finally Starting to Appear in the U.S.

After a prolonged absence from writing, I'm finally finding time in my schedule, and hopefully will be making more regular updates going forward. The past few months have been rather busy. My sabbatical from wine writing can be attributed to my starting a new job, and to my indulgence of my other passion: skiing. My apologies to anyone who has been anxiously awaiting a new update.

A week ago, I had a new wine experience, which I always see as a source of excitement. While I have many favorite wines that I like to enjoy on a regular basis, my passion for fermented grape juice has always been guided by the motto, "Life is too short for one wine." I believe that this take on the classic phrase, "variety is the spice of life," is essential to remaining an energized and passionate wine enthusiast. As such, whenever I see one of the following types of wines, I always make a point to purchase and try it:

  • A wine from a country or region I have not explored before

  • A wine made from a grape varietal that I have not tried before

  • A wine made from a traditional grape varietal, but in a non-traditional geography (e.g., California Tempranillo)

About a week and a half ago, I finally had a chance to taste a wine from Switzerland. Enjoying a Swiss wine had been a wine "to-do" list item of mine for a long time, but due to the fact that only 2% of Swiss wine is exported outside of the country, it had been a challenge to obtain a bottle. However, recently, one of my favorite importers, Neil Rosenthal, began to import wines from Switzerland, adding wines from four Swiss producers to his already stunning portfolio of small production treasures from France and Italy. Rosenthal stated on his website that it "was a natural progression for [his company] to cross the high Alpine passes from the Valle d’Aosta in Italy to enter the world of the Valais in Switzerland," noting that he had long suspected that "there must be good wine being produced [in Switzerland]," due to the effort associated with "plant[ing] and maintain[ing] vineyards in that forbidding terrain..." 

Rosenthal's words were echoes of every myth I had heard about Swiss wines. They were extraordinary. They were classic examples of mountain viticulture. However, as I popped the cork on my first bottle of red wine from Switzerland, the 2009 Serge Roh Cave Les Ruinettes Pinot Noir Grand Cru de Vetroz, I realized that I actually knew very little about Swiss wines.

"That's interesting," said my friend Brad, as he examined the bottle, and we took our first sips of the Pinot Noir. "It says A.O.C. on the label. Do you know if the Swiss A.O.C. regulations are similar to the French?"

I smiled somewhat sheepishly, as I didn't know the answer. However, despite my mind's ignorance as to the wine's provenance, it was easy for my palate to determine that this was a delicious Pinot Noir. It possessed a vibrant purity of red cherry fruit, and an elegance that was reminiscent of a Gevrey-Chambertin, or a top-tier Oregon Pinot Noir. At $35 a bottle, it was certainly a wine I'd be revisiting, I told myself. Yet, my satisfaction with the wine only made me more curious to learn about the general wine culture in the country from which it hailed. The sense of mystery that surrounded Swiss wines, as well as their general lack of availability, had not only prevented me from trying Swiss wines, it had kept me from learning about them.

Map of Switzerland, with major wine cantons highlightedSince I tasted my first Swiss wine, I've come to learn that Switzerland's A.O.C. regulations are modeled after France's A.O.C. regulations, and that the the majority of the country's wines come from 3 major regions (called cantons in Switzerland): Valais, Vaud, and Geneva. These regions are in Western Switzerland, but wine is produced in Central and Eastern Switzerland as well. The most productive cantons in the latter parts of the country are Neuchatel and Ticino. Swiss wine cantons have subregions, and there are even designated Grand Cru villages, such as Vetroz, where the Serge Roh Cave Les Ruinettes Pinot Noir came from.

While Pinot Noir is one of Switzerland's most prominent red grapes, the country has several red and white grapes that are found predominantly, if not exclusively within its borders. Its most famous white grape is Chasselas, but white varietals such as Petit Arvine, Amigne, Humagne Blanc and Heida are also considered to be varietals that showcase Switzerland's true viticultural potential. Among red varietals, Cornalin and Humagne Rouge are said to be well worth exploring. The vast majority of these varietals are produced by the quartet of winemakers from the Valais that comprise Neil Rosenthal's Swiss portfolio. I intend to seek them out, and continue to expand the horizons of my wine appreciation. Swiss wines may still be difficult to find, but now that one of the country's best importers has added them to his portfolio, the search is much easier than it once was.

Do you know of any other great sources for Swiss wines?

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