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Sips with the Swiss

07 November 2014


ONE of the exciting things about wine - as I have said before - is that there is always something new to learn about it. This was brought home to me forcefully when I spent five days in Switzerland recently. We may not often think of the country of William Tell, cuckoo-clocks, and Toblerone in terms of wine, even though it has more than 15,000 hectares of vineyards.

The reasons for this are twofold: it drinks all but 1.5 per cent of its production itself; and the wines are expensive. The starting price on the shelves there is about £10 a bottle - and that with no duties on wine, and a VAT of only eight per cent.

The Swiss wine-world is full of wonders. Grape varieties are planted that are found nowhere else in the world, such as the Completei and the Rèze; and even here the total plantings in the country may still be in single figures of hectares. The country has the highest vineyard in Europe, at Visperterminen, more than 1100 metres above sea-level. This may not be surprising, but Switzerland also has the smallest vineyard in the world, la Vigne à Farinet, above the village of Saillon in the Upper Rhône valley. Even more surprisingly, this belongs to the Dalai Lama, and consists of just three vines. Each year, its production is blended with the best wines of the region to be auctioned off to benefit disadvantaged children.

The main white grape for quality wines is the Chasselas (known also variously as the Fendant, and the Perlant). Elsewhere, this is perceived as no more than a table grape, but in Switzerland, particularly in the vertiginous vineyards on the north shores of Lake Geneva and the Rhône valley, it produces stunningly elegant wines. For reds, it is the Pinot Noir that dominates, except in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, where it is the Merlot.

The trip included some surprising tastings. At the Fondation Pierre Arnaud, we were invited to taste a range of Swiss wines, comparing them to the surrealist art of Max Ernst, and primitive art from the New Hebrides. On another occasion, a perfumer led us through a tasting of prize-winning Pinot Noirs - not just from Switzerland, but also from Germany, Burgundy, and South Africa. My favourite three wines came from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, in South Africa, and two Swiss wines: the Sang Bleu les Evouettes 2012, from the Rhône valley, and the richly named Hohle Gasse grand cru Muttenz 2011, produced near Basle.

In Ticino, the atmosphere was very different from the French- and German-speaking parts of Switzerland which we visited, but this did not mean that they took their wines any less seriously. We were offered Merlots that they considered the equals of the finest Pomerols, and which they sold at similar prices, some of them at more than £100 a bottle. I felt that there were wines at a fraction of that price which were just as enjoyable.

Sadly, no Swiss wines are to be found in the British chains, but two websites that are worth a visit are www.fortheloveofwine.co.uk, and www.nickdobsonwines.co.uk.

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