‘What wines should a patriotic citizen of Switzerland pour on the first of August?’, a reader of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung asked the wine editor. On the Swiss National Day, celebrating the founding of the Confederation in 1291, he wanted to uncork the right bottles. The editor refrained from too specific a recommendation, so as not to be confronted with offended wine-makers asking why their wines were not mentioned. After praising Swiss wine in general, he shared his plans for the evening: a zippy sparkling wine from Ticino as an aperitif, for starters a Petite Arvine from Wallis, to accompany the ubiquitous grilled meat (grilling is a national obsession in Switzerland) an oak-barreled Pinot Noir from Schaffhausen and for pudding a sweet wine from the Vaudois. I wouldn’t have minded to join, wine-wise at least.
I must confess, the same question troubled me, a tourist in this beautiful country, too. As Switzerland is a confederation and the National Day is celebrated rather locally, the only national item being the speech by the president, a local wine would be best, I thought. The good news was that we would arrive in Graubünden that afternoon, home to the Bündner Herrschaft where they make an excellent Pinot Noir; the bad news that all shops would be closed. (Already at the French-Swiss border we had been informed that on August 1 ‘la Suisse est fermée’.) The all-Swiss Coop supermarket came to my rescue: here I found Selection 1291, a Vallaisian Dôle for the bargain price of about 8 Euro’s, with the story of the oath printed on the bottle.
Selection 1291, Dôle AOC Valais, 2014, 12,7%vol., ca. € 8
Agreeable wine, good value for money. Roundness is typical for Dôle (Pinot Noir/Gamay).
Are there any parts of life not covered by How-to manuals apart from being born and start breathing, though many of us got a little help with these tasks too? Type ‘How to’ and Google provides one with a few search options: ‘how to tie a tie’, ‘how to delete facebook’ and the slightly worrying ‘how to train your dragon 2′ (something must have gone wrong the first time). Let’s be honest: these are by no means easy tasks. But visiting a vineyard? I could do that without help, couldn’t I? The Huffington Post does not agree and I must say, I have made a faux pas or two myself.
Thinking winemakers are everywhere as welcoming as in Alsace, I once headed out in rural Chianti to one of the star winemakers, via small, sometimes hardly gravelled roads, only to be chased from the premises once I got there. Didn’t I know they had a shop in Montepulciano? That’s where I should go. I didn’t. That was not what I wanted.
Last June, visiting the Bündner Herrschaft, a small region of quality wines in Switzerland, I thought I’d do it more carefully. Though I had a few names in mind, I asked the hotel manager if she could recommend a winemaker where I could taste and buy wine. “On such short notice?” she exclaimed. No way. Did I really think winemakers had time to receive me? They have work to do. Maybe in winter, when the vineyard needed less attention. But even then. And of course they would charge me.
When it dawned on her that I was interested in buying wine too, not in huge quantities maybe but surely more than one or two bottles, her entrepreneurship got the better of her. Why not taste the open bottles of their house wine, for sale in the winemaker’s shop just opposite the hotel? In the hotel’s kitchen, right away? Why not indeed, I liked their sparkling wine. And of course she allowed me to leave any boxes for the day in a cool place so I could do some more sightseeing.
A vineyard is not a vineyard is not a vineyard is not a vineyard.
Paying a short visit to Merlot country last March, we spent two fabulous days among flowering camellia’s at the lake, walking to an almost deserted village in a steep valley surrounded by snow-white mountains. At dinner, in a simple but okay restaurant, we drank a local Merlot – what else? – that did remind us of that other well-known Merlot terroir: Bordeaux. Fruity, smooth, spicy, with a touch of vanilla and a long aftertaste, this Symphonia Barrique is the first wine of Chiericati in Bellinzona, Ticino, Switzerland. And like so much other wine makers in this country, their main business is a different one, although in this case not so very different: they import and sell Swiss, French and Italian wines since 1950. Only in 1986 they have started vinifying their own, from grapes of neighbouring farmers.
Ticino wasn’t always planted with Merlot. In fact, it is just over a century that Alderige Fantuzzi, who was to help the Ticinese to improve their wine production, concluded that Merlot had the best potential. Before that the American (hybrid?) grape Isabella was most popular, though one wonders why. Yes, high yields, good resistance against heat, mildew and phylloxera but poor wines with the foxy flavours that go with Vitis Labrusca types. I have even read it made people sick, but haven’t found how, or how bad. Sick and tired enough to replant almost the entire Canton with Merlot. It paid off. It took some time, of course, but now, one is told, Swiss Merlot can compete with the great wines of the earth. That is a bit much for most Swiss Merlot, maybe, but for this Symphonia Barrique I could agree. Competing is not winning, necessarily.