Swiss Army knives.
The Swiss fondue pot.
The Swiss Alps.
Perhaps the best train system in the world.
I’ve just named eight things for which Switzerland is known… without even a single mention of wine. No question: Wine is Switzerland’s best-kept secret.
One reason is that only 0.4% of the country’s land is planted to grapevines. Yet while that seems like a miniscule amount, it’s actually quite impressive from another perspective: In terms of its vineyards-to-surface-area ratio, Switzerland actually ranks 10th in the world.
As we mentioned last week, the Swiss drink virtually all of the wine that they make, which contributes to the country’s under-the-radar status on the global wine scene. Only a very small amount of it is exported, and almost all of that goes to a single country: Germany.
There are seven “wine regions” in Switzerland. Valais is the largest, accounting for about a third of the overall production. Others are:
* Vaud (25%)
* German-speaking Switzerland (19%)
* Geneva (10%)
* Ticino (7%)
* Three Lakes region, which covers Neuchâtel, Morat and Biel/Bienne (5%)
More than 200 grape varieties are grown in Switzerland, most of them hybrids developed over time with the goal of dealing with the country’s cold climate and long winters. But the most widely planted of all is a traditional vinifera variety, Pinot Noir, accounting for 29% of total production. Among white varieties, Chasselas is the most popular, representing 27% of the production.
You’ll probably recognize about half of the other most popular varieties: Gamay, Merlot, Humagne Rouge, Arvine, Sauvignon Blanc, Gamaret, Garanoir and Pinot Gris.
According to the Swiss Wine website, Chasselas is “a very old native Swiss grape variety that originated on the shores of Lake Geneva.” It’s known for its lightness, relatively low alcohol and minerality. Most Swiss chill it down for a refreshing quaff, or open a bottle when enjoying a fondue dinner.
Speaking of fondue, we learned an important, if not obvious, lesson about wine-and-cheese pairing when we visited Switzerland.
One evening, we asked our host what kind of wine paired best with Swiss cheese. After a brief pause, he answered in a more polite manner than the question deserved:
“What kind of Swiss cheese?”
In Switzerland, Swiss cheese is not the white cheese with holes in it that we slice thin for topping a burger or adding to a sandwich. There, as in all cheese-producing countries, there are many varieties from which to choose, and it’s a matter of matching the cheese variety to the wine variety.
Before we had a chance to show our total embarrassment, we were whisked off to a cheese shop where we enjoyed samples of some phenomenal Appenzeller (pungent, robust and nutty), Gruyere (perfect for a grilled cheese sandwich or topping a bowl of French onion soup), and Raclette (which melts well and often is used for fondue).
The wines selected by our host to accompany these Swiss cheeses: an off-dry Riesling with the Appenzeller, Pinot Noir with the Gruyere, and Gamay with the Raclette.
The pairings were phenomenal, and underscored what we’ve always said about eating, drinking and travel: “When in Rome (or Zurich)…”
And unless things change, if you’d like to experience what Swiss wines taste like, you’re going to need to travel to Switzerland.