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

Chasselas

In contrast to its native France where it wasn’t too successful as a wine grape, the Chasselas shines in Switzerland. Basically neutral in character, it reflects the nuances of the terroirs where it’s grown. Chasselas may be one of the first grape varieties ever cultivated and is one of, if not the dominant wine grapes grown in Switzerland.

Johannisberg

Second in white wines of Valais (after Fendant). The name Johannisberg is only used in Valais; the rest of French-speaking Switzerland call it Gros Rhin. The grape used to make Johannisberg is the Grüner Sylvaner. The origin of the grape is not clear. On the one hand it strongly resembles the Roman Apianisien (loved by bees) grape, as described by Pliny the Elder in his “Historia naturalis”, on the other hand, its more likely birthplace is in Romanian Transylvania.

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

Burgundy for Kings, Champagne for Duchesses, and claret for Gentlemen

French Proverb

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