When most people think of the things Switzerland is known for, chocolate and the Alps tend to spring to mind. What most American wine drinkers are unaware of though is Switzerland is where some truly astounding wines are produced.
Even heavy wine enthusiasts are taken aback by this fascinating fact, for you never see them on the shelves of wine stores in the states. Not even in the little wine shops that deliberately seek out rarer breeds of wines than the mainstream offerings on supermarket shelves. That’s because only a tiny percentage of Switzerland’s wines are exported, and all of those exports go right to Germany.
The rest of it stays locked in Switzerland. As a wealthy nation, they have no need for export though as demand starts to soar, it might only be a matter of time before it relents. Now that wine has become in such high-demand worldwide with travelers roaming the globe at a faster pace, Switzerland’s wine secrets are being revealed and those who have had the pleasure of trying them are pushing for ways to find them in America.
Whereas everyone knows the treasures of French and Italian wines, few have had the utter delight of sampling wines from Switzerland. The country known for neutrality is certainly tight-lipped about its wines, and likely for good reason. With such limited production and such beautiful flavors, perhaps the real reason few outside of Switzerland have had the chance to taste these wines is because the Swiss want to keep it all to themselves. And really, who could blame them?
When you find a good, rare wine, you surely don’t want everyone snapping every last bit up. But perhaps a little coaxing will encourage Switzerland to keep making wine, lots more of it. One of the most notable wine regions in Switzerland, called Lavaux, sits along the northern banks of stunning Lake Geneva and is protected by UNESCO. Many more wine regions exist though, and among them, perhaps the most fascinating of them all are Neuchâtel and Ticino.
In Northwestern Switzerland, Neuchâtel is largely known for a soft-hued, rather impeccable rosé called Oeil-de-Perdix Rosé. It’s made with Pinot Noir grapes from vines that have been growing in this canton for centuries. Perhaps you’ve seen the name on bottles elsewhere but it wasn’t Swiss wine. That is the direct result of Neuchâtel not protecting this esteemed name in its desire to squirrel away its immaculate wines for itself. You’d hide them away too once you get a taste of that purely delicate flavor those Pinot Noir grapes that thrive here impart on the rosé.
Ideally, the best way to partake in the wines of the Neuchâtel canton, you could plan a visit in October for the Fête des Vendanges, a lovely three-day festival commemorating the grape harvest. But if you’re unable to get away, perhaps stalking the elusive wines of Switzerland from home is in your best interest.
Red wines are the dominant force in the vineyards of Neuchâtel. Pinot Noir and Chasselas are by far the ones that take up the biggest chunk of the market though there are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris varietals growing here too. With calcareous soils from ancient times, Neuchâtel is similar to Château Chalon that sits just west, located in the French Jura. Miles apart, they share a distinction for honing in on quality, restricting appellation title use for poor vintages.
On the opposite end of the country, things are very different in the wine world. Switzerland isn’t all that large of a country in the first place, but going from Neuchâtel to Ticino is like going from night to day in the blink of an eye. In Ticino, the close proximity just north of Milan in neighboring Italy has a heavy influence. So much so, that in this canton, Italian is the dominant language.
Ticino has been producing wine since ancient Roman times. In more recent times though, since the early 1900s, Merlot grapes were planted here. In the calcareous soil, much like that of Neuchâtel’s soil, plus the temperatures that promote optimal ripening at these altitudes, it makes for a sublime place for these vines to grow.
The canton of Ticino is on the south side of the Swiss Alps, where the climate is affected by the Mediterranean Sea and enjoys sunny weather. Ticino can be further divided into two wine regions. In the north, there’s Sopraceneri and in the south, there’s Sottoceneri.
Nearly all of the vineyards in Ticino contain Merlot, producing wines that even rival famed Bordeaux. Interestingly, a variety called Merlot Bianco is also formed from the same varietal, producing an extraordinarily elegant white wine that is popular among the Swiss.
Merlot is a grape that loves the Bordeaux region, however it does quite well here in Italian-speaking Ticino. The wines here are phenomenal, a result of the mild climate and exposure on the sunny slopes. Even though Ticino is far from the sea, the climate is still affected by the Mediterranean, giving it a notable distinction from Switzerland’s other wine regions.
These two wine regions in Switzerland are incredibly different in terms of language and varietals grown. But they’re both the same when it comes to the calcareous soils and splendid wines that are produced with a keen eye for quality. Perhaps snagging a bottle from each region is in order to conduct a taste test for yourself.