The Unexpected, Very Good Wines of Switzerland

Switzerland, land of cuckoo clocks and chocolate, produces some excellent wines
The Unexpected, Very Good Wines of Switzerland

Imagine a whole new world of wine, from a country you probably didn't think even grew grapes. Imagine not just a few kinds of wine, but scores of different whites, rosés, and reds, some based on old friends like pinot noir and chardonnay, but many of them made from varietals you've likely never heard of — grapes with names like chasselas, petite arvine, amigne, humagne rouge, cornalin, and diolinoir. Imagine that the best of the whites are crisp and lively, but also complex, with an attractive mineral edge; and that the reds are either delicate and floral or earthy and full without being inky or thick; and that the rosés are so subtle that they're not even called rosé (meaning pink), but oeil de perdrix, eye of the partridge, for their pale ambiguous iridescence.

You have just imagined Switzerland, land of cuckoo clocks, chocolate, cheese with holes in it, snowy Alps — and a fair quotient of really, really good wine.

Why aren't Swiss wines better known? First of all, because while they exist in surprising variety, there aren't a whole lot of bottles produced. The country's total yield is just over 1 million hectoliters (a hectoliter is 100 liters, a little more than 26 gallons) annually. The U.S., by way of comparison, produces something like 20 million, and Italy, the world's largest wine producer, turns out more than twice that. On the other hand, Switzerland boasts the eighth largest per capita wine consumption of any country in the world (38.14 liters in 2009, compared to America's measly 8.96). Small amount of wine + big thirst = Why should we let anybody else have any of the stuff?

But there's another problem: Unfortunately, when the Swiss do let a little of their better stuff escape their borders, it tends to be pretty expensive — not expensive for its ultimate quality in most cases, but expensive for wine made from grapes nobody's heard of, in the capital of cuckoo clocks. Prices are high not just because production is small and indigenous demand is high. The wines tend to be expensive to produce, because vineyard plots are small and often steep, so labor is arduous and must be done by hand — and Swiss agricultural workers are probably the highest paid in Europe.