James Joyce once said that Swiss white wine tasted like electricity. He was right.
The dynamic quality of Swiss wine on the palate can be traced to its acidity, which is mouth-watering and vibrant. The main grape variety is Chasselas. Grown throughout the country, Chasselas is an extremely site-specific grape, meaning that it takes on the characteristics of rhe area where it is produced. In the Valais region it is known as Fendant, and its crisp acidity makes it the perfect match for cheese-based regional dishes such as Raclette or Fondue. Chasselas from this region tends to be short-lived, and is best consumed within a year of bottling.
Around Lake Geneva, Chasselas reaches its zenith of complexity. Regions such as St. Saphorin and Dezaley can produce rich, layered whites capable of long-term aging. At a visit to Bovard in 1995, I was able to taste a verticle of Dezaley going to back to 1978; the wines were remarkably well-preserved and fresh. On my recent trip, I was served a 1997 St. Saphorin that was rich, full-bodied and spicy, with extraordinary flavors of melon and Meyer lemon that reverberated on the long finish. Try finding a 13 year-old California Chardonnay in that kind of shape.
If you’re travelling in Switzerland, some of the more obscure native varieties can be delightful. One is Amigne de Vetroz, produced in both regular and sweet versions , and Petite Arvine, which is made by both Rouvinez and Bonvin. It’s not all white wine, however. More and more Syrah is being planted in the Valais region, although it is less concentrated than its U.S. and Rhone Valley counterparts. Visitors to Ticino, in the southern part of the country, can taste some better-than-average Merlot.
Touring wineries can be a memorable experience, particularly since many are small, non commerical and family-run. One such operation is Vignoble Cousin (www.vignoblecousin.ch, in French), where a passionate young winemaker is turning out luscious Pinot Blanc and full-flavored Pinot Noir. No visitor to Lake Geneva should miss the new Lavaux Vinorama (www.lavaux-vinorama.com), which offers the opportunity to taste 200 regional wines preserved in high-tech Enomatic machines.
Swiss wines distributed in the U.S. include Gilliard (Fendant Les Murettes), Chateau D’Auvernier (try their oeil de perdrix, or rosé made from Pinot Noir), J. & P. Testuz and Henri Badoux (don’t miss his excellent Aigle des Murailles).