Switzerlands best kept secret

September 2020

Switzerland, that landlocked country in central Europe, is famous for its mountains, its cheese and its watches – the entire country runs like a Swiss watch. The trains, the busses, all the public services seem to click with practiced precision. But there is another Switzerland, one of intensive agriculture, producing some of the world’s finest wines. Never heard of them? That’s because most of them never leave home – less than 2% is exported; to try them, you may have to go to the source.

Swiss wines that occasionally find their way to our LCBO shelves include red Dole and white Fendant. Both are solid but uninspiring, worth trying but not near the top of my quality/value list, as their high cost of production makes them non-competitive with better, lower-cost wines from elsewhere. Dole tends to be heavy and soft, lacking distinction, made as a blend primarily of Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes.

The best vineyards are clustered in the south of the country, along the north shore of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva). There they cling to the mountain slopes, with the lake providing a stabilizing microclimate. Land is expensive and costs are high, so only the most determined and highly competitive vignerons maintain their livelihood.

A variety of white grapes is grown, principally Riesling and Chasselas, making attractive light wines that run from dry and crisp to gently sweet. The best reds are Pinot Noir, from a unique clone known as Servagnin.

Our story begins in 1395 when Philippe the Hardy, Duke of Burgundy, for his love of Pinot Noir, forbade the growing of Gamay grapes from Beaujolais in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. His daughter, Marie de Bourgogne, married Amédée VIII, Duke of Savoy. In 1420 – exactly 600 years ago! – Marie, pregnant with her ninth child, was in despair. Plague was virulent at the time, having already stolen five of her eight children. Seeking refuge, she travelled to Morges, in Switzerland, where she was welcomed and her child safely born. In gratitude, Marie gave twelve rootstocks of finest Burgundian Pinot Noir to the community. The provenance of these vines has been carefully guarded through the centuries to this day: only wine made from descendants of those original vines may today be called Servagnin.

The little town of Morges has owned vineyards since 1547 – now there’s an idea for our City Council! Domaine de la Ville de Morges stands out in the highly competitive Swiss marketplace, returning tidy profits to its owners, the citizens of Morges. My one-time colleague, Larry French, now resident in Morges, introduced us to manager Marc Vicari, who generously offered us a comprehensive tasting of their range of wines. We were able to taste their basic Pinot Noir alongside their more prestigious Servagnin. The elegance and breeding of the Servagnin showed in the refined, complex nose and clean, long finish. Suitably impressed, we bought some to carry home, knowing it would not be available at our local LCBO. We also were delighted by their white Chasselas. In most of the world, this is considered a bulk grape, providing cheap but serviceable wine for branded blends, but the Swiss have mastered the knack of turning Chasselas into brilliant golden wines, rich with sophisticated, exotic flavours. At nearby Domaine de Marcelin, manager Olivier Chabloz emphasized the longevity of their Chasselas, serving us a bottle from their 2000 vintage – nineteen years old, crisp and fresh as the day it was bottled, enriched by complex aromas from long bottle ageing.

The bottles we carried home will help us relive those memories, but we just may have to return someday for more!

© Paul Inksetter 2020

Follow Paul Inksetter’s wine writing on his blog, www.winewicket.com
© Paul Inksetter 2016

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