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Viticulture in Switzerland

They’re rated by wine connoisseurs and awarded prizes at international competitions: and yet Swiss wines remain virtually unknown outside Switzerland. No wonder, as the comparatively small-scale production makes them rarities which – before they even find their way onto the global market – are eagerly consumed in their home country. Seeking out these rare wines is always worthwhile. Diminutive Switzerland produces high-quality, speciality wines and, increasingly, is regarded as an interesting competitor even for not-so-Swiss varieties such as Syrah. Pinot noir dominates the red grape varieties, and Fendants (extracted from the Chasselas grape) the white varieties.
Red and white grape varieties are found in equal quantities in Switzerland.

Grape-derived products from Switzerland's wine regions

Red and white grape varieties are roughly evenly distributed in Swiss viticulture. A little over half of Swiss vineyards are planted with red grapes. The most widespread variety is the voluptuously fruity Pinot noir. Vintners from the canton of Schaffhausen proudly describe their vineyards as “Blauburgunderland” (Pinot noir country). Here, 80% of vineyards are devoted to the Cépage Noble. The second most widely-grown variety in Switzerland is Gamay. In the canton of Ticino, the smooth Merlot has the upper hand.
Among white wines, Chasselas is the most highly regarded. The canton of Vaud is home to the biggest concentration of white grapes. Here, the vineyards yield light Fendants that are typical of the terroir. The superb, elegantly fruity Chasselas wines are most highly prized as an aperitif wine. Chasselas is rivalled in the popularity stakes by the Müller-Thurgau, a fresh white wine with an elegantly fruity aroma which takes it name from the Swiss winegrowing pioneer and is most prevalent in German-speaking Switzerland.
Although well-known specialities, Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and others, along with a few varieties indigenous to Valais and Eastern Switzerland, are grown only in very limited quantities. Since appellations contrôlées were introduced, viticulture in Switzerland has been subject to strict legal regulations and the quality of the wines has increased considerably over recent years. Valais was the trailblazer: in 1990, it became Switzerland's first wine region to introduce a quality system. The Swiss Ordinance stipulates three grades for vine-based products: Category I: Only quality wines from controlled origin make it into this category. Wines of this grade bear the AOC label. A few products, such as wines from the famous estates of Dézaley and Calamin, also have the honour of being permitted to display the “Grand Cru” label. The quality label is followed by disclosure of the origin. The category is subject to strict conditions, including the permitted grape varieties, cultivation methods and maximum yield. This is the only category in which you will find Spätlese, Auslese, ice wines and protected names such as the famous rosé wine Œil de Perdrix from two major wine regions of Switzerland: the cantons of Valais and Neuchâtel. Category II: Vins de pays fall under this group. Declaration of origin is mandatory. Stipulations with regard to must weight and maximum yields also apply in this category. Category III: Products of this grade are table wines with no designation of origin. Table wines are subject to rules on minimum must weight.
Switzerland is one of the oldest wine-growing regions in Europe.

History of viticulture in Switzerland

The Romans also spread viticulture in Switzerland. This is evidenced by vine knives found by archaeologists on estates in western Switzerland and in the towns of Nyon and Martigny. South of the Alps, in the canton of Ticino, as well as in western Switzerland, however, vines were most likely planted even before Roman colonization. In Saint-Blaise on Lake Neuchâtel, grape seeds from the Neolithic period (3000-1800 BC) were discovered. This makes Switzerland one of the oldest wine-growing regions in Europe.
As in most other European regions, monks acted as wine pioneers. From the 6th century onwards, Cistercians increasingly cultivated wine in what is now the canton of Vaud and played a major role in its spread on Swiss territory. In particular, the foundation of the monastery of Dézalay represents a milestone in the history of viticulture in Switzerland. Dézelay is not only one of the first wineries in Switzerland, but has been able to maintain its excellent reputation until today. Because from there come the highest quality appellations.
 
An indication of the increasing cultivation is the evidence found by historians of cultivation in the Rhine Valley of Chur and on Lake Constance, which can be dated to the middle of the 8th century. Cistercian monks from the monastery of Hautcrêt Palézieux also played a pioneering role in 1142, and are credited with taking advantage of the geographic peculiarities and creating the first wine terrace in Switzerland. Since the foundation of the Confederation of the cantons of Schwyz, Unterwalden and Uri in 1291, wine production flourished and reached a peak, especially in the 18th century.

Geography in Switzerland

The mountain massifs of the Alps, their foothills and deep, green valleys characterize the geological makeup. Here are the most mountainous wine-growing areas in Europe. This makes the conditions for wine cultivation all the more difficult. Cultivation on steep slopes is a great challenge. This is one reason for the relatively small total vineyard area. And yet: No other country with such a small cultivation area as Switzerland can boast such a diverse winegrowing sector.

Vineyards are concentrated in the river valleys of the Rhône, Rhine and Po and on the shores of the numerous lakes. Vine terraces situated on glacial moraines with impressive slopes line many lake shores. The altitude is also remarkable. The spectacular vineyard of the Valais village of Vesperterminen has become famous. It is planted with vines up to a height of 1,100 meters. The Valais wine-growing area located on the southern side of the Alps is the most sunny.

Winegrowing regions in Switzerland

Winegrowing in Switzerland covers eight main regions: Valais, Vaud, Lake Geneva, Ticino, German-speaking Switzerland (Basel/Aargau), the Three Lakes Region, Eastern Switzerland and Zurich. Valais: At 5,070 hectares, Valais accounts for the bulk of Swiss wine production. The terroir is distinctive for its wide variety of soil types and its elevations along the Rhône. The often steep vineyards are planted mainly with Pinot noir, Chasselas, and Gamay. The specialities include indigenous grape varieties such as Petite Arvine, Heida, Amigne, Cornalin, Humagne, and Syrah. The red wine blend Dôle is also popular.Vaud: At 3,800 hectares, Vaud is the second largest wine region in Switzerland. Chasselas is the variety of preference here, but red varieties can also be found on the imposing slopes by Lake Geneva. Elegant and quaffable red wines are made from Pinot noir and Gamay.Geneva: Lake Geneva is Switzerland's third-largest region for winegrowing. Here, some 1,300 hectares are planted with red and white grapes. Fruity red wine Gamay plays the lead role, followed by Pinot noir. In the white range, top billing goes to light Chasselas, aged in a steel tank. The delicious wines produced by Geneva’s vintners include Sauvignon blanc, Viognier and new Swiss variety Gamaret.Ticino: Merlot takes up almost all of the 1,000 hectares of vineyards in Ticino. Rightly so: the sumptuous wine with its soft tannins and fruity character is right at home here, far from the Grand Cru Bordeaux estates. It is more than a match for the premium Bordeaux wines. Blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are also growing in popularity, as are white wines from Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay.Basel/Aargau: This wine region in German-speaking Switzerland covers around 500 hectares. Its signature varieties include Pinot noir and zesty-fresh Müller-Thurgau (Riesling x Silvaner). White specialities such as Chardonnay, Pinot gris, Sauvignon blanc and Traminer are also typical of the region.Three Lakes Region: Despite covering just 1,000 or so hectares, this wine region around Lakes Neuchâtel, Murten and Biel is largely responsible for the high esteem in which Swiss winegrowing is held. Chasselas is the star player. Neuchâtel Non Filtré is deservedly regarded as a Swiss trademark. Rosé Œil de Perdrix is another big name, and the region produces some very decent Pinot noirs.Eastern Switzerland: Eastern Swiss cantons Schaffhausen and Graubünden in particular have much to offer. The mild climate of the Rhine valley allows the grapes to mature. Top billing here goes to Pinot noir, which is often aged in barriques. White wines from Müller-Thurgau, Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay grapes are more of a supporting cast.Zurich: The 600-plus hectares on the shores of Lake Zurich and in the Limmat valley are home to a surprising variety of grapes for such a small area. Ten grape varieties are vinified as AOC wines. These include reds such as Pinot noir along with white wines, chief among them Müller-Thurgau.

Vineyard area and viticulture production volume in Switzerland:

14,793 hectares, roughly 1.3 million hl/year (as of 2015).

Swiss's top wine regions

Vintners and estates in Switzerland