Swiss Wine Regions

Charming Pinot Noir

Image of a glass of Pinot noirAlthough sometimes called the "queen of grapes, Pinot noir is not one of the superstars of wine, not yet at least, but it certainly has a cult following. Its subtle and mysterious nature appeals to the individualist and its versatile qualities gratify the onephile.

One could think this Burgundy grape is a criminal on the run in Switzerland, given all the names it goes by here. In the cantons of Geneva, Vaud and Neuchâtel it may be called Cortaillod or Salvagnin noir. In Ticino it's sometimes Pinot nero, and in the German-speaking areas; Blauburgunder and Klevner (or Clevner). Generally though it's Pinot noir in most of Switzerland and Blauburgunder in the German-speaking areas.

In the German-speaking region of Switzerland (where I live) there are organizations dedicated to the Blaubergunder, including small groups of vintners that are focusing their love and attentions just on this grape. No other grape is so malleable and open to the vintner's craft and alchemy of the cellar.

In Switzerland Pinot noir accounts for 30% of the wine grapes, but accounts for hardly 1% worldwide. The vine is temperamental. Pinot noir is a red grape that matures early and therefore does well in colder climates, but because it buds early it is susceptible to spring frosts. Having said that, it survived the "bad winter of '56" in Switzerland.

Robert Balzer, that venerable wine and food writer of the Los Angeles Times, often said (sometimes more that once in an evening), that to know what Pinot noir should smell like, "go to the garden and cut a fresh rose. Put in it in a vase overnight without water. In the morning smell the rose. That is what a Pinot noir should smell like."

The Pinot noir grape produces an elegant wine, but with backbone. It shows finesse and structure and is much more approachable than some Cabernet Sauvignon wines can be. Its seduction is gentle. It is more charming than entertaining, and that makes for good company.

The Wine Grapes of Switzerland

Chénin blanc

The versatile “Pinot de la Loire” produces some fine wine in Valais. Like the Chasselas, it provides a neutral canvas for the winemaker’s art and terroir. Originating in the Loire valley of France, it has no relation or similarity to Pinot blanc.

Vieux Muscat du Pays

A very old small berry Valais grape, difficult to cultivate. It is an aromatic specialty limited almost exclusively to Valais. Some clone or mutation of the Muscat is grown on almost every continent.

Humagne Blanche

Only planted in Valais today, Humagne blanche* is another of the very old Swiss grapes, probably brought in by the Romans. Having a high iron content, and supposedly health-giving properties, this wine was decreed a “health wine” (Krankenwein) for centuries. The old written documents in which this wine is referred to as vinum hum-anum date from the 12th and 14th Centuries. It’s also called Kinderbettenwein or baby crib wine. I’ll bet those kids didn’t have much to cry about.

*no relation to the Humagne Rouge

Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart.

Ecclesiastes

Swiss Alps, cows, wine bottle and large clock face in Bern, Switzerland

Fine Swiss Wine

Discover Switzerland’s odd grapes, small producers, and eclectic tastes