Perhaps this isn’t an obvious comparison to your wine-producing United States of America, but hear me out. Switzerland is new territory to most wine adventurers, and undiscovered Old World is something akin to El Dorado. As a nation, strong thirst and a stronger currency mean that Switzerland consumes more than twice as much wine as it can produce itself. The vast majority of wine production is consumed domestically, just like in the USA. But with an Old World sensibility, prized terroirs in populated areas of Switzerland mean that if you live in a pricey condo on the sunny bank of Lake Geneva, there might be two rows of Chasselas vines squeezed between you and the bakery next door.
Switzerland produces mostly white wines, and Chasselas is the most common variety. Similar in profile to Pinot Blanc, it renders a wine that is gently tailored to Swiss culinary sensibilities which could not possibly care less for the modern international wine expectations of power and points. Subtle and chiseled, Chasselas pairs with the specific refinement of Swiss cuisine that speaks to the elemental purity of high-quality ingredients rather than the alchemy of more rich or rustic cooking.
Finding myself in the so-called “Swiss Riviera” of eastern Lake Geneva in the AOC of Lavaux (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the sensibility of Old World wine history is unmistakable. The Dézalay vineyard is Grand Cru-classified and was originally built by Cistercian Monks in the middle ages with terraces that no one would dare build in any recent century. Its name is as boldly signposted as the hills of Hollywood or the vineyards of the Mosel or Côte-Rôtie. With time and good weather at a premium on my trip, I decided to explore the terroir itself and subsequently retreat to the best local shopkeeper to broaden my tasting horizons. I admit this approach made it easier to enjoy the terroir from the splendor of my hotel balcony, but on that day it beat knocking on cellar doors and I was thrilled with the results.
Both a 100% varietal Chasselas and Pinot Noir from the Dézaley Grand Cru proved to be quintessential expressions of terroir and quality. The Pinot Noir was a particular surprise to me as an un-French Old World rendering of the varietal. Rather than my previous Swiss experiences similar to German Spätburgunder which typically offer some light red cherry atop an iron fist of dandelion greens, this example was deep and ripe with fully developed aromatics and polish. These Grand Cru-classified wines that I’ve always been told can’t compete on the international market because of price ran only about 30 Swiss francs, which is basically one-to-one with the US dollar. A sum of 30 Swiss francs is also one-to-one with the price of a hamburger over there, so they clearly delivered a lot for the money. This justifiably leads me to believe that the Swiss just want to keep all of their wines for themselves. If there are two major takeaways here, that’s the first.
So you’re wondering why I taunt you with tales of wines you rarely see back home? My second takeaway is that I often experience wines at home the same way. Put boot to soil to experience a place and usually the local shopkeeper can do a lot to steer you to the finest wines. How about some Santa Cruz Mountains? We have tons of that and it’s fantastic. It’s okay to support the home team and be greedy about it.
- Adam Winkel