Swiss wine history & Swiss wines – interview with José Vouillamoz

By Brian Lemay 1 comment

Jose, you just released your book on the
history and grape varieties of Switzerland. Can you give us a brief history of Switzerland in terms of grape growing? Switzerland is a
treasure trove for ampelographers Before going through history I need to
give some numbers of the actual situation. We grow officially two hundred,
more than 250 grape varieties on a mere 15,000 hectares. It’s huge it’s probably a world record. It’s really a lot! Out of these more than
250, I have counted 80 that are called indigenous, and out of this 80, 59 of them
are crossings. Recent crossings obtained in research stations, and only 21 are really
what I call heritage grape varieties. And these heritage grape varieties cover six
percent of the country. For me these numbers, okay it’s a lot of numbers, but I
think it’s a bit shocking because what represents your own history, your heritage, your identity, I mean when I say you’re a speak about
Switzerland, it’s only 6% of what you produce. For me it’s not enough.
Why do you think that is?
Why it has become so? Oh well that that’s also a little bit historical, historically
related. That’s what we used to cultivate before the mid 19th century. We had
introduced ancient varieties like Pinot, like Sauvignon, like Muscat, but we used to cultivate our own varieties. At the turn of the 19th/
20th century, like every other region we had to struggle with phylloxera that was attacking the roots of European varieties. When people had to
replant their vineyards onto American root stocks they had to make a decision,
do we continue cultivating what their father, grandfather, great-grandfather was
cultivating? Or do we choose something that is easier to sell, easier to
cultivate, more resistant to disease and more productive? That’s what they did. So
they replaced almost everything that was indigenous with easier varieties and we
have the result more than 100 years later. But Switzerland has a very, very long
history in terms of viticulture. Of course we know that the Romans have
introduced some in some places the viticulture, may be introduced some
varieties, but we have no evidence, and we have evidence that before the Romans, the
Celts were cultivating vineyards in Switzerland, especially in Valais where
we are right now, with this this video, And it dates back to 800 BC. And since
800 BC until today we had a continuous growing of wine in Switzerland, Valais
and different regions. So we have a long history, we are not in new country. Why
people do not know us it’s another question!
And why do you think that many
people don’t know about the Swiss wine? Because we only export approximately 1%
of what we produce. We are good wine drinkers and what we produce is not
enough for us. Roughly, the numbers fluctuate, but
roughly 40% of what we drink is Swiss and 60% is
imported. Which means we need to import wine in order to satisfy all the
consumption. The corollary of it is that we don’t have enough to export. And when
you export 1%, sometimes not even the best, it’s not a good way to make
yourself known abroad. So when you go abroad, first of all you must find
someone who knows where Switzerland is, and then many people are astonished to
know that you grow wine there. You make wine in Swizerland? Amazing. Well yes we do, and we we make very, very good wines. I’m not saying this because I’m Swiss, I
promise, but really we make world-class wines, but they are very difficult to find and
we’re trying to increase the exports, especially in terms of image to show the
world that Swiss wine is good and also to convince Swiss people, that are not
sure that is good, that yes – other people says so! Excellent. Could you explain to us Switzerland as a grape growing country in terms
of its climate, its terroir as such, and what varieties work best here (in terms
of native varieties or otherwise)? So Switzerland geologically and from a
climate point of view is very, very diverse. It was difficult to categorize
the different types of wines and we ended up with identifying six different
regions with their own speciality, their own geography. We would say their own
terroir. But within each region it was extremely diverse. So the
most important in terms of surface is Valais, in the middle of the Alps. Then you have the german-speaking part of Switzerland.
All together it’s a big mix, you have Graubünden, you have Zurich, and so on. The second one in terms of area. Then close to Lake Leman we call it, it’s Geneva Lake, where they are mostly famous for the Chasselas. Then you have
Geneva, Ticino and last but not least, [Three Lakes]. These are the six different
regions and in all these regions they have their own specialities. In Valais,
because it’s the most important in terms of quantity: It’s an internal
valley of the Alps, with a continental climate, it’s a lateral valley. And it has
been isolated geographically from many other regions. We represent
historically that kind of region in the Alps, who used to live in autarky, and we
have developed our own breeds of wheat for example, our own breeds of cows. And
also, we did not develop, but they developed by themselves our
own varieties. And out of these 21 heritage varieties that I have in my book, 14 of
them come from the Valais. The most praised and famous is this one that we
are drinking right now, it’s Arvine, or Petite Arvine. Which is an aromatic, powerful
white with a high acidity that is capable of making world-class wine either as
dry or sweet. We have, in red, we have Cornalin, that is very famous I call it Rouge du Pays, it is the historical name. It’s very difficult to make but when it’s well
done, it’s fantastic. Then if we take the different regions, in Vaud of
course it’s the temple of Chasselas and in this region they don’t even
mention the grape variety, it’s too easy. Everybody knows it’s just Chasselas. So they mentioned the appellations either the village names or the
appellation, like Dezaley or Calamin, which are the two Grand Cru. Then, in Geneva, they do not have any
particular variety, so they had to import some of them. They are very good at
Aligote, which comes from Bourgogne, Burgundy, and they have developed a lot
of Gamaret which is a recent crossing obtained in the swiss federal research
station Agrascope. Then if you go to Neuchâtel they have a long tradition of
Pinot. They were they are very close to Burgundy in terms of geography, and
they were the first to introduce Pinot in Switzerland, together with Vaud, from
different regions. And one of the very old Pinot was selected in Neuchâtel and still today we call it Cortaillod. It’s the name of the village, it’s the selection that they took from Burgundy. So I would say for the
Neuchâtel mostly Pinot and of course Chasselas that is everywhere. In the
German part of Switzerland, I’m doing it clockwise… In the German part of Switzerland it’s very diverse. You have a huge number of varieties. Some people go to recent
hybrids because there is a tendency to have people with organic, biodynamic vineyards and they don’t like to put chemicals, so they have PIWI. Have you heard of PIWI? Ok we try to pronounce it… its ‘pilzwiderstandsfähig rebsorten’, which means grape varieties that are resistant to fungal diseases.
And they they call it PIWI, it’s the abbreviation, it’s much better. So there are
a lot of people who are in to this. Which is good for the environment and they
grow a lot of hybrids which, for me personally, is not always satisfying, some
of them are good but it can be difficult. They also have traditional varieties
like Räuschling which is cultivated around the lake Zurich,
especially in Meilen. And then if you go further south, you go to Graubünden which
is very famous wine region. Pinot is excellent, it’s one of the best place for
Pinot, you have Neuchâtel and Graubünden. And they have local variety that I love very much
which is called Completer. It’s extremely rare, only four hectares total
in Switzerland, and in the world. And mostly grown in Graubünde. It’s a white
wine, that is very high in acidity, but has a full body, complex nose. It’s a wine
that when you you taste it, when you smell it, you think ‘oh that’s a sweet
wine’, you taste it and ‘that’s dry’, and super acidic. I love it!
And then we finish the tour we go to Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of
Switzerland, where they used to grow a local variety called
Bondola, which I like very much. It’s red, it’s a rustic red, with the nice tannins,
chewy tannins, not so complex but it goes very well with food, with salami. But
it has been completely replaced after phylloxera by Merlot. And it has become, I
mean Ticino, has become the region for Merlot in Switzerland. And they want to,
or they have been wanting to, compete with Saint-Emilion and generally
Bordeaux region.
Thank you that was impressive! Before my next question,
can you define the difference for us between a native variety and an
international variety? Or what are the categories that you would give? Okay so
these categories could be applied to any wine region. I have made different
categories for the Swiss grape varieties. The first one is indigenous, these are
the varieties that are native, that were born on the site. Either we
have evidence that they were born there, for example, if I can find the parents
through DNA profiling, if I can show that variety C was born from
parents A and B, and parents A and B are from Switzerland, then C is Swiss. It is
the same as for people. Even if A and B, say A’s French B’s Italian, and they met
in Switzerland, would it still be considered an indigenous variety?
We have to. Indigenous from the Latin etymology means born on the site, so we kind of
apply the American law. I mean if you are born on American soil, you’re American.
So it’s the same. Then you have traditional varieties, and the ones I
call traditional are the ones that were cultivated before 1900.
I chose this date because it’s more or less the date when phylloxera came to
Switzerland and when we had to replace all the vines with with other varieties.
So the traditional ones were introduced a long time ago. If you think of Pinot it was present in Vaud and Neuchâtel already in the 17th
century. We know it’s not from there, we know it’s from northeastern France to be
to be general. We have in Valais, we have a grape called Heida, which is the local name of Savagnin Blanc or Traminer for the german-speaking.
We know it does not come from here but it was here since a long time ago. The first
document speaking about Heida is 1540… So many centuries of presence,
so these ones I call traditional. And the other ones that were introduced after
1900, I call them allogenous. So these are the three categories and we
can use these categories in many different countries. Can you repeat the
third category? Allogenous, it’s the opposite of indigenous. Fantastic, and a
quick question – in my mind an indigenous variety could simultaneously
happen in two countries? Would that be correct? Or is every crossing very unique? If we
had… I think you understand my question. At first I was hesitating, but then I
understand. Every crossing is unique. Just like us, every grape variety has two
parents and if two parents have several children none of them is identical. Even
identical twins are not 100% identical genetically speaking, and if you know
some of them they have different characters as well. So it’s the same for
grapes. The two parents having crossed at different times, at different places,
will produce different children. That’s for sure.
Perfect, so what is your
thoughts or what are your thoughts in terms of whether wine regions like
Switzerland, which has two hundred and fifty varieties, should be pushing its
indigenous varieties or should be adapting to the market with allogenous varieties? Personally I would be more in favour of
pushing forward the indigenous varieties, the heritage varieties. For a simple
reason: we are the only ones to have them, they had centuries to adapt to the
terroir, and we don’t have any competitor. So this is what I would put forward. It
doesn’t mean that you must plant any indigenous variety anywhere, because all
the terroir conditions are not suitable for all these varieties, but we
should put the accent on this. Yet the producers are free people in a free
country and they can try anything they want. They also very much like to be
different from the neighbour so ‘I will introduce this variety that is a bit
weird but I will be the only one to make it’. Ok, we have no experience – maybe
you will make a good wine, maybe not, and but even if you make a good wine how
will it compare to the same wine from another country? Even if it does,
how much will it sell compared to another country because Switzerland is a
is a very expensive country. So for me, I think we are losing the message and we
are confusing the consumers by having such a diversity. And instead of
wanting to produce everything, you can just focus on what you know how to do
well. That would be my message. Excellent, and when was the heyday for
diversity in Switzerland? And indeed, thinking on a global scale, in terms of
the number of different varieties? Was it just before phylloxera, or here have we seen a recovery? Or do you think it was far before that? Oh no
no no! Before phylloxera, in the book you were kindly mentioning before,
which is only in French by the way, Cepages Suisse Histoires et Origines.. I cannot say it in English.
For now! I hope to have a German translation and an English translation next year. In this book I have a map of what was cultivated in Switzerland
before 1850 which gives a nice picture of what was generally cultivated,
and I have only 27 varieties. Some traditional like Pinot, Sauvignan which is
Heida, and many, many indigenous. 150 or 160 years later, the picture has changed
completely completely. So I would say that the heyday of transition
started in the early 90s. For a simple reason, the protection that we used to
have in Switzerland, with the customs fell down, so they opened the borders for
imports. At first for reds only and then a few years later they allowed it for
white, because Switzerland was a white wine producing country. So producers were
horrified to start to see so many foreign wines on the market, and to
compete with them they were much cheaper. They were not used to that. So
they thought, ‘we need to do something’ so some of them said ‘oh we need to try to
plant Chardonnay, we need to try to plant some weird stuff, some obscure stuff’. They have introduced hybrids, they have introduced Tannat, Mourvedre, and stuff. We try everything. Some others said, ‘oh let’s go back to the
roots’ and we plant the indigenous varieties, and these ones have continued.
The other ones I don’t know if they will last so long. So it’s a
political decision that triggered the diversity that we have today, and I think
– that’s a bet – I think in 50 or 100 years from now we will have different schools:
one school that I would call ‘old school’, to which I would obviously belong, will
grow the old indigenous heritage varieties, and that’s what I will continue to drink
until my death. The other school, which is a tendency in many different countries
will be the most healthy producers for the environment and the people, and they
will grow organically, biodynamically, varieties that do not require chemicals and these will be hybrids crossings and at that kind of PIWI
I was talking about before. But it will be two different worlds, two different
markets, and there will be a market and consumers for both of them.
Interesting! Great, now my last question is the hardest –
what is your desert island grape? If you could only drink one grape variety
for the rest of your life? I know what Jancis’ would answer –
Ok, what would Jancis’ answer?
And how about yourself? Ok, one grape variety and I must drink it everyday…
Ok. Completer. Oooo – nice. You’ll have to take all 4 hectares with you! Yes, with all 4 hectares I can have enough bottles for an island…

1 Comment

Tasty Tales

Jan 1, 2018, 4:20 pm Reply

This is a great series of videos Amanda, happy to subscribe! Have you checked out some upcoming cool climate wineries in The Netherlands and Belgium yet? We shoot short videos about these wineries, you might like our channel 😉 Cheers!

Leave a Reply