Switzerland is a mountainous country in Western Europe. Its landscape is dominated by lakes and mountains, while its people are tinged with the cultures of Germany, Italy, Austria and France, whose borders lie to the north, south, east and west respectively. Covering just under 16,000 square miles (41,500 square km), this relatively small country is about one-tenth the size of California and is comparable to Australia's expansive Riverina region. Its alpine southern-half is much more sparsely populated than the plateau to the north and west, where the majority of its eight million inhabitants live. During the 20th century the Swiss population changed from being predominantly rural to largely urban, a sign of modernization that is now being reflected in the nation's wine industry.
Switzerland is divided into three distinct areas: the Alps to the south; the Jura Mountains to the west; and the Central Plateau, marked out by the key cities of Zurich, Lucerne, Thun, Bern, Biel, Basel and Baden. The country's core vine-growing districts are mostly located around its periphery, with the majority along Lake Geneva and the upper Rhone Valley in the south-west (Valais, Vaud, Geneva), but also between Zurich and the upper Rhine in the north-east (Aargau, Schaffhausen, Thurgau, Zurcher Weinland, Zurichsee, Graubunden), and around the Italian lakes in the south (Ticino). In the west, just across the mountains from French Jura, is Neuchatel and the 'Three Lakes' – de Bienne, de Morat and de Neuchatel.
Given its latitude – which matches almost perfectly that of Burgundy – and the vinous reputation of its neighboring countries, Switzerland might seem a perfect all-round location for wine production. But the country's alpine topography changes things; very few areas of Switzerland lie below 1000ft (305m) and many of its peaks reach more than 13,000ft (4000m), leading to a typically cool, but highly varied climate. Valais, in the south-west, enjoys not only high summer temperatures (reaching 95F/35C) but also reliable high levels of sunshine, giving it an almost Mediterranean climate – quite an achievement for a landlocked country this far from the sea. By contrast, Italian-speaking Ticino has a highly unpredictable climate with frequent mountain storms and high rainfall, yet also an average summer temperature higher than in any other Swiss wine region.
Wine has been made in Switzerland for more than 2000 years; as in France, the spread of viticulture here during the Middle Ages was largely driven by monasteries. The wines then generally lacked flavor and body, so even domestic sales were affected by imports from the warmer regions further south – notably the Rhone Valley. The phylloxera outbreak of the 1860s hit Switzerland particularly hard and by the early 20th century the country's productive vineyard area had halved. With increasing competition from other wine regions at that time, there was little incentive for Swiss vignerons to re-establish their plantings.
Today, the Swiss wine industry looks more promising, with nearly 40,000 acres (16,000ha) of vineyards producing roughly 1.1 million hL of increasingly marketable wine each vintage. The total surface area under vine actually saw a small but consistent decrease between 2005 and 2010, but with new investment and a French-style appellation system developed during the 1980s and in force since the 1990s, the country is once again regaining momentum in the international wine world.
The OIC, the government body in charge of the Swiss appellation system, has three titles: Organisme Intercantonal de Certification in French, Organismo Intercantonale di Certificazione in Italian, and Interkantonale Zertifizierungsstelle in German. It is responsible for officially delineating Switzerland's viticultural areas and ensuring the quality of wines bearing the country's appellation titles. With Teutonic precision, yield restrictions are stipulated not by hectoliters per hectare, as in France, but by kilograms per square meter.
Chasselas is the key white grape of Switzerland, although it goes by several different names according to the region in which it is grown. With its homeland in the Valais, in total it accounts for nearly one-third of the country's vineyard area, although it is gradually ceding ground to more internationally popular varieties. It goes by the name Gutedel in German-speaking areas, and Fendant, Dorin and Perlan in the Valais, Vaud and Geneva. Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer are also grown in Swiss vineyards – a reminder of their proximity to Alsace and Germany – as are small quantities of Riesling, limited mostly to the sunny, schistous central Valais. The Riesling-Sylvaner crossing (Muller-Thurgau) is the preferred grape in the German-speaking north and east, particularly in Thurgau, the birthplace of its creator, Dr Hermann Muller. The globally popular French varieties Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Semillon are planted in several Swiss regions – their plantings a barometer of Swiss reactions to international wine consumer trends. (© Proprietary Content, Wine-Searcher)
For those who think of Switzerland as a white wine producer, it may be surprising to find that the country now has more red-variety plantings than white; in 2010 the ratio of red to white was 60:40. Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder) is the most widely planted red, followed by its frequent partner, Gamay, particularly in the western districts. Perhaps more surprisingly, Merlot has thrived in Ticino – generally a cool-climate region – since it was introduced there in the early 20th century, and even Syrah has proved successful, even if only in the central Valais.
With dramatic landscapes, a truly varied climate and the multiple influences of Italian, French and German culture on which to draw, Switzerland has a strong hand to play in the modern wine world.