by The Wine Guys, Tom Maruqardt and Patrick Darr
Images of Switzerland conjure up craggy, snow-capped mountains, bustling high-tech cities, and inaccessible alpine meadows dotted with grazing cows. Notions of Swiss wine don’t cross our minds. So, recently we were surprised to learn that, contrary to popular opinion, Switzerland sports a lively and world-class wine industry. The bad news is that almost none of their exquisite -- albeit small wine production -- escapes its borders. Only about one percent of Swiss wines are currently exported. However, efforts by some Swiss wine producers have resulted in Swiss wines in some markets outside of Switzerland.
A recent meeting with Tom Cox of importer and wholesaler Siema Wines provided an introduction to a pair of Swiss wine producers and a sample tasting of their products.
Wine has been produced in Switzerland since Roman times. Most Swiss wine production takes place its southern and western borders abutting wine producing regions in France and Italy, with the majority of wines produced from pinot noir and the native white grape chasselas. A plethora of other grape varieties are established as well, with gamay and merlot ranking third and fourth in acreage.
Two of the main regions housing producers of export quality wine are Ticino in Italian-speaking southeast Switzerland and Neuchatel in eastern Switzerland. In Tecino, merlot is king and thrives due to its location on the south side of the Alps, an area that benefits from a Mediterranean-influenced climate and moderate temperatures.
On a virtual program with David Delea, we tasted three iterations of his Ticino merlot: a sparkling white wine, a white merlot and a somewhat Beaujolais-like red merlot, all of which we thoroughly enjoyed.
The Delea Charme Spumonte ($23) is a non-vintage sparkling wine made from a blend of merlot, pinot noir and chardonnay. The nose is reminiscent of a fine champagne while the flavor profile is more like a complex prosecco.
White merlot is primarily known in the U.S. as an inexpensive, slightly sweet competitor to white zinfandel. In Ticino, it is gaining popularity as a dry, light and refreshing quaffer.
The 2018 Delea Chair Di Luna White Merlot ($20) presents beautiful peach and citrus fruit elements in an unoaked, uncomplicated style. It would be great for spring and summer sipping. The 2018 Delea Marengo Merlot ($21) is another unoaked version of this versatile grape and offers bright cherry fruit. It would be great with appetizers featuring cured meats and cheeses. Delea has used corks made from sugarcane for the last five years. He said they are more consistent than cork seals, do not suffer from TCA contamination, produce fresher wine and are cheaper than cork.
We also met virtually with Henri Grosjean from Chateau D’Auvernier by Lake Neuchatel in the Neuchatel wine growing region of western Switzerland. Here, pinot noir and chasselas dominate the wine scene with pinot noir playing the starring role. The French Burgundy wine growing region is only about 130 miles due west and the similarities of some of the Neuchatel pinot noirs are striking. In fact, Grosjean told us that Neuchatel is referred to as “small Burgundy” and commented that their wines emphasize “soil and grapes, not vinification” -- a refrain often heard in Burgundy as well. Grosjean is also an advocate of corks made from sugarcane. The 2019 Chateau D’Auvernier Neuchatel Blanc Non-Filtered ($24) is entirely chasselas (also called fendant and neuchatel) and presents a viscous, round, and mineral-driven white wine with ripe peach notes. This unoaked wine will accompany the less heavy style of food in the spring and summer.
We enjoyed the 2018 Chateau Auvernier Pinot Noir Neuchatel ($30), an unoaked, complex red wine with bright cherry fruit, a whiff of violets and faint echoes of the freshness and styling of beaujolais. Give this very nice wine a slight chill for ideal service.
The 2018 Chateau Auvernier Pinot Noir Eleve En Barrique Neuchatel ($40) is a dead ringer for a very good red burgundy. Aged in oak, this offering curiously comes in a Bordeaux-style bottle to differentiate it from other Neuchatel pinot noirs. It has deep, ripe and wild cherry notes with a hint of gaminess, in a very complex presentation that already is drinking beautifully. Try some now and age a few bottles for five-plus years.
We also discovered a pair of Swiss wines made from indigenous grapes that we want to pass along.
Chateau Constellation produces wines in the Valais region of Switzerland, which hugs the mountainous region north of Lake Geneva. We were impressed with two of their wines. The 2019 Chateau Constellation Fendant Valais ($22) is a pleasant easy drinking wine that features peach and pineapple notes in a lower acid package. It would be perfect for spring and summer sipping with or without food.
We had never heard or experienced the humagne red grape, grown on only about 300 acres in Switzerland. The 2019 Chateau Constellation Humagne Rouge Valais ($30) presents a very smooth expression of meaty plums and cherries in a very appealing package. Try this with bolder meat driven casual foods.
Castello Nipozzano Vecchie Viti 2015 ($20). Generous blackberry aromas waft from this sangiovese-based Tuscan wine. Rich and ripe blackberry flavors and soft tannins. Very quaffable wine for your next Italian dinner and a good value.
Alma de Cattleya Sauvignon Blanc 2020 ($22). Last year winemaker Bibiana Gonzalez Rave was spared the fires that devasted her Sonoma vineyards in 2017. This tasty sauvignon blanc from the 2020 vintage from exhibits more ripe fruit – melon and grapefruit – than many we have tasted from this region. Good texture and finish.
Be Human Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($17). A reasonable value from Washington state, this blend of cabernet sauvignon, malbec and petit verdot is medium bodied with dark fruit flavors and a hint of coffee.
Corvo Nero d’Avola 2018 ($10). Always one of the best values from Sicily, this delicious wine – blended with a little merlot – has a ruby-red color and copious ripe fruit flavors of cherries and plums.