Category Archives: Switzerland

The Ultimate Swiss Wine Road Trip: Part 2

 

MatterhornHiking

Visit Switzerland for the wine, but don’t skip the Matterhorn. All images by Lauren Mowery.

In continuation from yesterday’s post, and a repost of my original article in USA Today

VALAIS

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Dramatic vineyards aren’t solely the domain of Vaud. Given Valais is home to the ski resorts of Verbier and Zermatt, it is logical that the highest grapes cultivated in the country reside here, too. Not to mention some of the most remote, difficult-to-pick locations, often planted to tiny plots of obscure grapes, the sight of which leave you wondering about the sanity of the growers. Petite Arvine, Cornalin, and Chasselas, known locally as Fendant, are prevalent.

Wine isn’t the only prized product in the alpine region. Warm and creamy, Raclette du Valais carries its own designation of origin. Legend has it a Valais vintner conceived the concept on a cold day when he melted a slice of raw milk mountain cheese over a wood fire. As though melted cheese needed inventing.

Wineries

Domaine de Muses in Sierre (tasting by appointment)

Robert Taramarcaz’s wines deserve attention based on the merit of the juice alone. However, it didn’t hurt that one of Robert Parker’s top reviewers, David Schildknecht, reported back with praise for the vigneron’s Petite Arvine. While definitely a highlight from his wide range of wines, local grapes Heida and Humagne Rouge, plus Syrah and Merlot, merit tasting.

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Rouvinez in Sierre (Monday-Saturday, no appointment)

As one of the region’s larger producers, Rouvinez also sports the sleekest tasting room. At the bar, visitors can sample wines sourced across the family’s multiple estates, while catching a price break on bottles: Rouvinez makes some of the best 14 Franc Fendant and Gamay in the valley.

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Jean-René Germanier in Vetroz (Friday, Saturday; or tasting by appointment)

Cornalin. You’ve never heard of it and won’t find your neighborhood retail shop stocking it next month, but this Swiss grape, in the hands of Jean-René Germanier and his nephew Gilles Besse, is worth tracking down. For those who doubt the mountainous country’s potential for full-bodied reds, this savory, plummy wine tastes even bigger than the 13.5% alcohol inside.

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Kellerei Chanton in Visp (Monday, Wednesday-Sunday; closed Tuesday)

In an era of vinous homogenization, the family behind Chanton pride themselves on preserving Switzerland’s diversity. No plot is too small, or too steep, no grape too obscure, for the chance to be turned into wine. Enthusiasts keeping scorecards on the number of varieties they’ve tasted, can add a dozen, like Gwass, Himbertscha, and Eyholzer Roter, in the tasting room.

Lodging

Alpes et Cetera If you don’t mind daily 25-minute drives, up and down hairpin-turn mountain roads, book this unique property. The young owners, both formerly in the architecture business, built eight cozy chalets, each decorated in a different theme highlighting an aspect of Valais culture.

Don’t Miss

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Dinner at Château de Villa in Sierre. You’ll want to follow the aroma of fire-roasted fromage as soon as you arrive, but spend an hour in the vinothèque, or wine tasting bar, first. The thorough retail and by-the-glass selection covers the most important producers to the scarcest grapes. Inside the restaurant, let veteran waiters guide you through the distinct Raclette of each Valais village. Yes, that means multiple plates of hot cheese for dinner. But you get potatoes, gherkins, and pickled onions, too.

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Zermatt. If you came as far as Valais, you’d be remiss not to spend two days hiking around the spectacular Matterhorn. Bed down at the cozy, upscale Cervo Hotel; their restaurant features a host of Swiss wines to accompany the contemporary country fare.

BÜNDNER HERRSCHAFT, GRAÜBUNDENGraubundenHotelWeissKreuzWindowViewIn this picturesque slice of the Rhine Valley, producers cultivate an overwhelming 45 grapes, although visitors should focus on just two – one an international star, the other a local oddity.

Pinot Noir (aka Blaüburgunder) producers refer to their enclave as Little Burgundy for good reason. They make nuanced, elegant, age-worthy wines that win international honors, but limited production that is domestically consumed, keeps this corner of fine wine country in relative obscurity. But you wouldn’t know it walking the quartet of towns Malans, Jenins, Maienfeld (Heidi’s home), and Fläsch; each one is stacked with cellars, the streets supplied with maps and arrows to assist wine tourists. In addition to great Pinot Noir, Completer, a white grape first referenced in 1321, provides further wine geek bait. A handful of producers like Dontasch saved it from extinction to produce dry, high acid expressions that can evolve in the bottle for decades. Approximately five acres are cultivated, making it one of the rarest fine wines in the world.

Wineries

Weingut Donatsch in Malans (Tavern open Wednesday-Sunday; closed Monday, Tuesday. Tours by appointment).

“Everything I’ve bottled has at one point, been in my hand” explained Martin, the effusive, English-speaking younger half of the Donatsch family father-son winemaking team. Their winery and wine tavern are located in the center of Malans; beneath the property and city streets, runs a labyrinth of tunnels still in use. His dad Thomas is a pioneer among Swiss vintners as the first to experiment with classic Burgundian winemaking methods, notably with wooden barrels he received from La Tâche as a gift. Both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are in high demand due to big points scored with critics, but their Completer is the true rare treasure for collectors.

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Obrecht in Jenins (tastings by appointment)

Fifth generation winemaker Christian Obrecht partners with his viticulturalist wife Francisca, at their small, biodynamic winery. Their main vineyards range in age from 35-55 years old, and he works primarily with old Swiss Pinot Noir clones because, as he explained, “Burgundy clones are too drinkable” for his taste. See if you agree.

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Weingut Fromm in Malans (tastings by appointment)

Perhaps better known internationally for their recently-sold properties in Marlborough and Tuscany, the family now focuses all their energy on their Swiss enterprise. Walter Fromm runs the show, focusing on Pinot Noir; the lineup includes a village-level wine, and four vineyard-specific bottlings to showcase the influence of soil.

Lodging

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Hotel Weiss Kreuz in Malans is a perfect base for exploring surrounding wine country. The boutique inn seamlessly blends old-world detail with chic style.

Can’t Miss

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Lunch on the terrace at Restaurant Alter Torkel overlooking the mountain-framed vineyards.

Book a half or full day wine country tour with Wine Tours Switzerland. Owner Gian Carlo Casparis speaks a handful of languages, is the only outfit in the region, and is well-connected.

 

 

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The Ultimate Swiss Wine Road Trip: Part 1

 

LavauxHillViewsofFrance

View of Lake Geneva from the Lavaux Vineyards. All images by Lauren Mowery.

First published in USA Today

Switzerland’s vineyards hide in plain sight. It seems impossible that tourists driving around the compact country wouldn’t notice the thousands upon thousands of green vines planted neatly across rows of stone terraces, yet Swiss winemakers report exactly that.

Perhaps the lack of alpine wine in travelers’ domestic markets coupled with their single-minded focus when visiting – whether it be to ski Zermatt, hike the Rhone glacier, or shop for watches – explains their failure to recognize how deeply Swiss wine culture is rooted. But the funny thing about finally noticing the obvious: once you do, you’ll see that object of your attention everywhere. And so it was during a recent trip to explore the wineries of Vaud, Valais, and Graub nden: vineyards were everywhere.

For a country few associate with fermented grapes, Switzerland has a long, rich history of cultivation analogous to its better known neighbors France and Germany. In fact, just as monks carefully planted, observed, and delineated the patchwork of venerated sites that now compose Burgundy, Lausanne’s bishops in the 12th century also ordered the architecture of vine parcels out of the wild terrain surrounding Lac Léman (Lake Geneva).


While vineyards are scattered across six regions, from Zurich to Geneva, and Neuchatel to Ticino, three cantons are particularly suitable for visitors due to their distinctiveness, the density and accessibility of the wineries, and quality of the wine.

Vaud, a French speaking canton in the southwest corner of the country, encompasses much of Lake Geneva and the UNESCO World Heritage site, the terraced vineyards of Lavaux. These stunning sites soar from the edge of the lake precipitously towards the firmament at inclines you’d believe only angels could harvest. Chasselas, a delicate white, and the best known Swiss grape outside of Switzerland, shines here.

Southeast of Vaud lies Switzerland’s warmest, most prolific growing area, Valais. The Rhone River cuts a wide, 100 km long swath of hospitable channel, allowing for valley floor and slopeside viticulture. Valais produces an enormous range of grapes (some argue too many). Several, like Petite Arvine, have the quality and charm potential for international markets, except for infinitesimal production levels. But trying a wine you’ve never had and will never see elsewhere is part of the area’s allure.

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Continuing northeast across two harrowing mountain passes leads to German-speaking Graubünden, and the source of the Rhine River. The premier wine region of Bündner Herrschaft earned the monikers Heidiland and Little Burgundy, for two obviously different reasons. Johanna Spyri set her tale of a little girl from the Alps not far from the country’s finest Pinot Noir vineyards. The Completer grape, an age-worthy rarity, is unique to the area.

Before you go, create a free account on SwissFineWine.ch. The multiple-language site aggregates hard to find data in one place, like information on grapes, regions, wineries, and wines. Users can track where they’ve been, where they want to go, along with the wines tasted with room to rate and comment. Contact information and maps are especially useful.

Here’s my guide to road tripping across Swiss wine country:

VAUD

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Fairytale scenery. Impossible vineyards. Alpine peaks and verdant pastures. Lake Geneva is trimmed in a landscape of contrasts that defines the clichéd term “indescribable beauty.” But there is nothing cliché about an 800-year old wine region of which few have heard.

Outsiders have heard of the Swiss Riviera, defined end-to-end by the elegant towns of Lausanne and Montreux. They descend in droves throughout the summer seeking incredible views balmy weather, and a lively music scene. Freddy Mercury spent enough time in Montreux to earn a permanent perch on the riverfront.

Another draw, the La Prairie anti-aging center lures moneyed clients in search of the fountain of youth. Perhaps they are in the right place, but looking in the wrong spot. “The secret to longevity is a bottle of Chasselas a day,” suggested local winemaker Simon Vogel. ”Or at least, that’s what my grandfather preached, and he lived to be 99.”

Wineries

Domaine Croix Duplex in Grandvaux (Monday-Saturday, no appointment)

Perched high in the village of Grandvaux, family-run Croix Duplex offers infinite views from their flower-ringed tasting terrace. The son, Simon Vogel, makes the wine, focusing on terroir-driven Chasselas. They are members of Clos, Domaines & Chateau, a 23-proudcer strong association that adheres to strict production guidelines and quality controls. In addition to Chasselas, they make vivid Pinot Noir, plus red grape novelties Gamaret and Garanoir.

Clos Du Boux in Epesses (tastings by appointment)

Grand Cru Chasselas specialists, the son of this respected family winery, Benjamin, has recently stepped in to play a leading role in its future. He will guide interested parties through a comparative tasting of the most important and distinct appellations of Lavaux, from St-Saphorin (often light, with finesse) to Dézaley (known for structure and complexity).

Domaine Henri Cruchon in Échichens (Monday-Saturday, no appointment)

“There are no bad varieties, only bad vignerons” declared Catherine, the plucky daughter of winemaker Raoul Cruchon. The well-traveled 28-year-old brought her experience abroad, home to the traditional region. She and her dad grow a range of local grapes using organic/biodynamic viticulture principles (in a vineyard with a view of Mont Blanc!), and experiment with unfiltered and low Sulphur wines. Try the Altesse (a grape known as Rousette in Savoie), for its honeyed aromas laced with apple and ginger spice, or the smoky, unfiltered Chasselas called Mont de Vaux.

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Cave de Rois in Villeneuve (tastings by appointment)

If Swiss Syrah could become a thing (so far, only the French can coax consumers into buying it), then Marco and François Grognuz, the father-and-son team behind Cave de Rois (King’s Cellar), will be those responsible. Working with tiny plots of land, they discovered that certain sites too hot for Chasselas, could bake Syrah into proper ripeness.

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Domaine de la Pierre Latine in Yvorne (tasting by appointment)

Owned by Philippe Gex, the vineyards sit high above the Rhône Valley adjacent to an ancient road used by the Romans to cross the Alps. Gex turns Grand Cru Chablais grapes (Chasselas), into a transparent, mineral-tinged wine that pairs brilliantly with Gruyere cheese. He makes perfumed Pinot Noir and Syrah, too. Andrea Scherz, the director of the Gstaad Palace, commissioned a 100th anniversary edition wine from Gex which proved so popular with guests, he continues producing it exclusively for the resort.

Lodging

Montreux and Lausanne both make excellent bases for exploring the region, although Montreux’s smaller size equates to less traffic and bustle.

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The Suisse Majestic Located in Montreux, the younger vibe, with commensurate price (slightly lower than nearby Grande Dames), plus killer views from terraced rooms, makes this an easy choice.

Gstaad Palace Technically in the canton of Bern, tack on an excursion to this century-old luxury property after visiting Pierre Latine, the last winery on the way up to the village. A recent renovation modernized the formerly classic rooms, most outfitted with balconies. For the ultimate escapist fantasy, plan a lunch outing to their rustic alpine pasture hut.

Don’t Miss

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A tour with Swiss Riviera Wine Tours. They handle the appointments and driving so you can relax. However, if you’re willing to part with a dear sum, schedule a ride across Lac Léman at sunset with company owner Nic in his restored vintage Riva. Viewing the terraces from the water is magic.

Lunch at Tout un Monde in Grandvaux. A new chef spins regional cuisine into polished dishes, accompanied by an all-local wine list. Book the three-course business lunch for the best value, and dine on the terrace.

Dinner at Auberge de l’Onde, housed in a historic 13th century building in charming St-Saphorin. Decorated sommelier Jérôme Aké Beda is a local celebrity; ask about his personal wine project.

Finally, for the wineries you miss, wine bar/retail shop Vinorama stocks over 260 Lavaux wines, many available for tasting.

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