The landlocked European country of Switzerland is more than just watches, army knives, banks, and world-class tennis stars: it produces wine and much extremely fine wine. The Swiss drink a great deal of wine, encompassing nearly all the wine they themselves produce and much more they import. Only two percent is exported, mainly to Germany, which is the reason the rest of the world knows very little about Swiss wine. The two major wine grapes are Pinot Noir, and the native white Chasselas, each of which accounts for about 30 percent of production. The reds Gamay and Merlot come next. Reds account for about sixty percent of Swiss production. Since Switzerland is not an EU member, they lack a quality appellation system. Instead, the local wine producing cantons each have their own labeling traditions.
The Geneva region, largely French-speaking, produces reds, whites, and rosés in still, sweet and sparkling formats. Two Swiss crossings—Gamaret and Garanoir—accompany Pinot Noir and Gamay for the reds and rosés. Merlot is also widely planted. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc also have a small representation. Crisp whites are made from the Swiss Chasselas, and the two Burgundy grapes Chardonnay and Aligoté, as well as Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Müller-Thurgau. Lake Geneva here moderates the climate, warming the region in winter and cooling it in summer. The land here is relatively flat for Switzerland.
North and east of Lake Geneva is the Vaud region, also French-speaking. Lake Geneva, which is part of the Rhône system, moderates the climate here as well. Chasselas is the key wine grape here in the Vaud, which unusually for Switzerland is a white wine specialist. Chasselas has many characters, because, like Riesling, it reflects subtle differences in growing conditions (terroir) more than most white grapes. The French influence is felt also, with increasing plantings of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Viognier. Reds are from the same grapes as Geneva.
North of the Vaud, still in French-speaking Switzerland, is Neuchatel, also called the Three Lakes region. Neuchatel is 55% red, almost all of it Pinot Noir. It also produces a range of whites, but Chasselas accounts for most of the white wine production. The region has been producing a pale rosé wine called Oeil de Perdrix, meaning “Eye of the Partridge,” for over 500 years.
Valais in the southwest is Switzerland’s largest producer, accounting for half of all Swiss wine. Most vineyards are situated at between 1500 to 2500 feet above sea level, but these are dwarfed by the Alps, which act to shelter the region from extreme weather. Vineyards here are nevertheless steep. Pinot Noir rules here, with Chasselas second. Valais also grows varieties seen nowhere else, like the red Diolinoir, Cornalin, and Humagne Rouge. It has numerous sub-regions and over one hundred appellations.
Ticino is in the Italian speaking portion of Switzerland. It is more southerly and hence warmer than the rest of Switzerland and produces almost exclusively Merlot.
The large area of German-speaking Switzerland in the north has, as can be expected, some similarities with Germany itself, especially Baden in southern Germany. Pinot Noir, called Blauburgunder, is the major grape, as it is in Baden. The minority whites are produced from
Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Kerner. The region includes the canton of Thurgau, where Doctor Hermann Müller, the creator of the Müller-Thurgau crossing, was born.