Why Swiss wine is one of the country’s best kept secrets

When foreigners think of amazing Swiss specialities, chocolate and cheese likely come to mind. Swiss wine? Not so much. But that could be about to change.

Why Swiss wine is one of the country's best kept secrets
Sandrine Caloz is one of Switzerland's top organic wine producers. Photo: AFP

The global reputation of Switzerland's winemakers may be set for a boost, backed by a new export promotion strategy that aims to see Swiss labels on menus at the world's top restaurants. 

In some ways, the Swiss Winegrowers' Festival (Fête des Vignerons), which opens on Thursday, mirrors the country's appellations: both could be considered extraordinary, yet both are hardly known outside Switzerland.

Read also: 15 things you didn't know about Switzerland's famous Fête des Vignerons

The festival, hosted in the country's winemaking Lavaux region, is recognised on UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage. 

First held in 1797, the festival has taken place roughly every quarter century since. 

Switzerland's Unesco-recognized Lavaux wine region. Photo: AFP

The main event, expected to draw 20,000 per night through to August 11th, is a theatrical performance dramatising a year in the life of a vineyard, from pruning to harvest.

Ahead of this year's edition, industry experts agreed that the time had come for Swiss wine to spread its vines.

Unique grapes

Damien Leclerc, sales director at Lavinia, a prominent wine shop in central Geneva, agreed that Swiss labels were “little known to the general (international) public.”

But the French national told AFP that “insiders (and) professionals” appreciate that, despite the small output, Switzerland produces unique grapes and wines of extremely high quality.  

Rehearsals for the Fête des Vignerons which opens on Thursday. Photo: AFP

“We have excellent grape varieties that really only exist here,” Leclerc said, citing, among other examples, the Completer, a grape from the eastern canton of Graubünden used to produce rich, full-bodied white wines. 

Leclerc, also a sommelier, argued that for Swiss wine to thrive abroad it needed to emphasise “exclusivity”, especially because it cannot compete with the production scale of its neighbouring wine behemoths, France and Italy. 

In 2018, the total area in Switzerland devoted to wine production amounted to less than 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres), compared to nearly 800,000 hectares in France. 

One percent exported

Many of Switzerland's top vineyards are in Lavaux — also a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and rest on stunning terraced hillsides between Lausanne and Montreux, overlooking the banks of Lake Geneva, with the Alps in view across the water. 

Monica Tomba, manager at the Lavaux Vinorama visitors centre, said that after absorbing the breathtaking views and sampling the local offerings, foreign tourists — especially from Asia — voice regret that they cannot buy Swiss wines after returning to their home countries.

Read also: 19 mildly interesting facts about Swiss wine

In fact, only one percent of wine produced in Switzerland is exported, according to the Swiss Observatory for the Wine Market (OSMV), a market research group.

Swiss winemakers have historically been reluctant to export in part to avoid price wars with producers from other countries that churn out bottles on far larger scales.

Because many Swiss vineyards are on sloping terrain, much of the labour needs to be done by hand, an added expense in a country with already high labour costs.

Local winemakers – including small, family-run businesses – believed that competing internationally would require them to lower their prices, which is not economically viable, Tomba told AFP.

'Flagship' brands

But a new export strategy spearheaded by Swiss Wine Promotion (SWP), an industry lobby group, sees domestic winemakers disregarding the low end of the market and emphasising premium products for consumption abroad. 

“We are no longer going to try to sell a Fendant… or a cheap wine,” said SWP president Jean-Marc Amez-Droz, referring to a Chasselas that is one of Switzerland's best-known brands. 

Instead, SWP wants to focus on “niche products,” he told AFP. 

Read also: Zurich's world's best sommelier admits: 'I used to think wine stank'

Amez-Droz noted that Swiss exporters have recently had more success promoting bottles at prices above 30 Swiss francs (€27), while five-franc bottles are dismissed as “too expensive” for their quality. 

Michael Ganne, director of the Geneva-based Baghera wine auction house, agreed that the export strategy should aim to create buzz around a dozen “flagship winemakers”. 

For now, there are still not many Swiss labels present on the menus of top global restaurants.

But Sandrine Caloz, a 30-year-old already considered one of the country's top organic wine producers, is among those setting a new trend. 

Swiss winemaker Sandrine Caloz in Miège recently. Photo: AFP

Caloz, whose vineyard is in southern Valais canton, told AFP that she had begun exporting to the United States after being approached by the New York-based Rosenthal Wine Merchant group. 

“The fact that bottles of our wine can now be found in expensive restaurants in Manhattan gives us credibility, including in the minds of Swiss clients,” she said. 

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What is Switzerland’s ‘one franc vineyards’ scheme – and is it legit?

When news broke of vineyards being offered in the southwest of Switzerland for one franc, many asked if it was too good to be true. Here's what you need to know about the scheme (and how much a vineyard will actually cost you).

What is Switzerland's 'one franc vineyards' scheme - and is it legit?

Earlier in Spring, news broke of a new scheme where Swiss vineyards were available for just one franc. 

As with similar stories offering one franc plots of land or houses, the news spread far and wide – which of course was the point – while some eventually became disappointed. 

READ MORE: Gambarogno: The latest Swiss village to sell houses for one franc

While it’s likely to cost you a good deal more than one franc, if owning a Swiss vineyard (or at least part of it) is on your bucket list, you now have an opportunity to do so. 

Why are Swiss vineyards going cheap?

With nearly 5,000 hectares of vineyards and 60 different grape varieties, Valais is Switzerland’s largest wine-growing region.

Unfortunately, 20 percent of the canton’s vines are abandoned and municipalities must uproot them because they can’t find people willing to cultivate them.

A case in point is the community of Savièse, nestled in a picturesque Alpine valley. About 120 plots — four to five hectares — of  its vineyards were abandoned by their owners and therefore not harvested last year, as the commune can’t find people to do the work.

This is a serious case of neglect because “when a vine is not pruned, there is a period of one year to uproot it. Otherwise, there is a risk of spreading disease”, according to Savièse’s mayor, Sylvain Dumoulin.

“There are some vines where we need to do this now, and I fear the number will increase in the future”, he added.

How much does a plot cost?

In order to protect its winemaking traditions in general and abandoned plots in particular, the municipality has launched a new vines-saving project which includes a “stock exchange” of sorts for the sale and purchase of abandoned parcels.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to drink wine like a Swiss

Dumoulin didn’t reveal the cost of a plot of vineyard, as it depends on its location, condition and other factors.

Unfortunately, while you may have seen articles reporting that parcels are being sold for “a symbolic one franc”, this is more than likely a marketing ploy to attract attention than a realistic price.

Savièse’s vineyards. Screenshot, Saviè

“The main long-term objective is to encourage the grouping of plots and thus the rationalisation of the exploitation of these parcels”, Dumoulin told The Local.

He added that currently the project is “exclusively accessible for people who already own vineyards. But from July it will be open to anyone with an interest in purchasing vineyard areas”.

From then on, “anyone can download the application to find plots of vines for sale and to make their owner a price proposal”. 

The app, called “Vignoble Savièse” can be purchased in Apple or Google stores.

One example of such a gimmick was the Ticino town of Gambarogno, located on the shores of Lake Maggiore, which offered houses for one franc.

‘Impossible’: Why Switzerland’s one franc homes are too good to be true

As The Local reported, “the news – along with pictures of the Ticino countryside and the lake itself – spread across the globe, with people inside and outside of Switzerland letting themselves dream”. 

However, the “rustic houses with the view of the lake” turned out to be nothing more than ruins, with no roofs, windows, electricity or running water, situated in remote locations — about an hour’s walk from the nearest village.