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One of my German friends, whom I guide around Switzerland for three days, puts it in a nutshell: "Sometimes the mountains do get in the way!" Nevertheless, I want to make the impossible possible, show everything: a bit of landscape, mountains, people, wine regions and of course wine. Swiss wine, often defined as an "unknown entity", at least abroad. How often I hear the casual saying: "The Swiss prefer to drink their own wines". If that were true, Swiss wines would have to be good, very good in fact, because the Swiss are spoiled in culinary terms (which includes wine); they live, as it were, at the intersection of good cuisine and good wines (France, Italy). But it's not true that the Swiss don't like to give away their wines, they just haven't got used to thinking (and acting) globally yet. Perhaps the mountains stand in their way or it's the borders that, despite Schengen, have not yet been dismantled in their minds (and at customs). But the most likely thing - and I am convinced of this - is that people in Switzerland have not even registered how well they could do in the international wine concert if they were to really play along.

Switzerland: mountains and lakes - somewhere in between also vines (Photo: P. Züllig)

For us Swiss, this situation is not so unpleasant. You can (still) get good wine relatively cheaply. That could soon be different. Like this: One of the few winegrowers who already enjoy an international reputation offers his wines only in a few "select wine shops" and at prices that exceed even the Swiss price measure, because the wines (from a very few hectares) are traded worldwide. If this model were to become the norm, the Swiss would have to buy top-quality foreign wines in the future, because the local ones would become expensive and would be hard to find. The vineyards in Switzerland are limited (15,000 hectares - compared to France with 900,000 hectares or Germany with 100,000 hectares), and there is little room for cultivation because half of the country is already covered by the Alps (mountains), on which hardly any vines grow (and if they do, then only at the foot). Nevertheless, the Valais - a mountain canton - has by far the most vines (about 5,000 ha), and the wine region is also special in other ways, because the vineyards are distributed among about 22,000 small owners who cultivate (mostly as a sideline) an incredible variety of varieties. Only about 20 winegrowers own more than ten hectares of land, so on average a Valais winegrower has just 23 ares of vines, far too few to live on. You have to visit the Valais if you want to get serious about Swiss wine. But the Valais lies between the mountains.

Journey through Switzerland - arrived in Valais (Photo: P. Züllig)

So it's a long journey if you start in eastern Switzerland. Eastern Switzerland is also home to vines and excellent wines, scattered across almost all cantons and many municipalities. The Bündner Herrschaft (approx. 220 ha) - situated above the Rhine valley - is one of these small wine regions, perhaps the best known in German-speaking Switzerland, where - so they say - the best Pinot Noir in Switzerland is made and where Heidi once lived with Geißenpeter (in the imagination of the poet Johanna Spyri). For the last thirty years or so, the ambition has been to compete with Burgundy when it comes to Pinot Noir. A bit presumptuous - admittedly - but it is a real chance to be noticed in the wine world. The six different Pinot Noirs from the Herrschaft that we taste in the final tasting (including Gantenbein) are - as it were in the acid test - the best wines of the "Swiss selection".

But as I said, mountains (including the Gotthard) tower between the Grisons and the Valais. One of the world's most famous narrow-gauge railways, the Glacier Express, can certainly help to overcome them. It does take a good seven hours to reach the showpiece landmark, the Matterhorn in Zermatt, from the wine region around Chur. There are hardly any vines on the long journey through mountain valleys, over and through mountains (tunnels). It is not until Visp - where the road leaves the Rhône valley - that you can see the first (still) small vineyards in the Valais, mostly planted high up on the slopes, exactly where the sun's rays reach in the afternoon - for a few short hours - thus making their way between the mountain peaks.

The arena - bordered by rocks -% where Jürg Biber has his vines (Photo: P. Züllig)

The Valais wine region begins roughly in Brig (the canton's capital) and stretches down almost to Lake Geneva. Not quite, because before that you reach the second largest wine canton, Vaud. The transition is hard to make out, especially for strangers. The vineyards line up close together in small sections, fragmented by rocks and rock formations. Near Salgesch, on the German-French language border (also known as the "Röstigraben"), Jürg Biber's vines thrive, somewhat hidden but in a natural arena. The winemaker is a tinkerer, like many top winemakers, a perfectionist who knows exactly why he makes his wines this way and not another. We spend a long time with him in the vineyard, longer than we spend tasting the wines afterwards. And that's a good thing, because only when you explore the soil, climate, plant, growth, pruning, etc. in more detail can you understand what unfolds - and can unfold - in the glass. The vineyards are not large, which is typical for Valais, indeed for the whole of Switzerland. An unbelievable number of grape varieties grow on these small plots - with very different sites - from which an unbelievable number of different wines are pressed. Jürg Biber's six hectares of vines - for example - produce about 15 different wines, mostly red. We are in a wine region where it is no longer the masses that set the tone, but the fine handwriting; we are in a place where - one believes - growing vines cannot be worthwhile. And yet it is worth it, because the wines speak their own language, the language of nature, of Valais, of the winegrower and of tradition.

The Rhône Valley - Switzerland's largest wine-growing region (Photo: P. Züllig)

Now it's not too far to Lake Geneva. The valley widens, a different, somewhat more lush landscape welcomes us. There are steep slopes with vines here too, but they are much more flat and embedded in a much milder climate. Lavaux is a World Heritage Site and one of the most beautiful parts of Switzerland, wine Switzerland. It is dominated by Chasselas, the white grape variety that often causes trouble abroad, is hardly understood and certainly not loved. Up in Chexbres - on the balcony of Lake Geneva - lies Domaine Bovy. In the middle of the vines, a magnificent panorama opens up - blue sky above, greenish-deep water below, mountains lying slightly in a haze on the horizon and well-tended vineyards in between, in which individual houses or small groups of houses (best residential location!) squeeze in. Tradition is at home here: Chasselas is the main grape variety, which now rests in large old wooden barrels (2,500 to 5,000 litres) and slowly matures. This wine does not need new wood; they are convinced that they are making one of the best Saint-Saphorins here, a showpiece wine of Switzerland, slightly creamy, slightly nutty, with a lot of minerality and freshness. It seems to me that they make wine that suits the landscape: wide, soft, gentle and yet powerful and determined.

Lavaux on Lake Geneva - World Heritage Site (Photo: P. Züllig)

In Lausanne the language border is already far away, here we are in French-speaking Switzerland, in Welschland, as we say. Despite rapidly growing residential and industrial areas, the vines - no longer as dense as in Lavaux - stretch along the far flatter shore to Geneva. But we turn north, into the Three-Lakes Region, where four cantons meet, surrounded by Lake Neuchâtel, Lake Biel and Lake Murten. Here, too, Chasselas is traditionally grown, but red grape varieties, especially Pinot Noir, have long since taken hold. In recent years, the proportion of red wine has increased so much that today there are almost as many red wines as white wines. The trend is upwards, confirms winegrower Erich Andrej in Ligerz, whom we visit the next day. Ligerz is a showcase wine village on Lake Biel, it is only a short boat ride to Petersinsel (Rousseau Island). It is the third wine region we visit on our trip. Like Lavaux, it is also situated on a lake, but it is also very different: smaller, clearer, I would almost say more individual than the wine region on Lake Geneva. Once again we are on the language border, it passes close to the village. The Chasselas - which my German guests were still frowning at the day before - is now earning more approval, more goodwill, if I can judge it correctly, even more recognition. And again we are at a small winegrower who makes his own wine; and again we find a wide range of wines, including reds. Even the Malbec has ventured as far as Lake Biel, and it is doing quite well alongside its white competitors, who still have the upper hand in the vineyard.

Ligerz - pretty wine village on Lake Biel (Photo: P. Züllig)

It's time to return to eastern Switzerland. To a place where the "Swiss wine", Chasselas, is not grown, but Pinot Noir is. Geneva is about 140 kilometres away, as is the Zurich Oberland - where our journey began. At the final tasting with around 35 Swiss wines, the Ticino wine, the Merlot, must of course still be in the glass. We were very close to Ticino, but - as my guest said: "Sometimes the mountains do get in the way". There is no "Röstigraben" to Ticino, but rather a Polentaberg. I am also convinced that the best Swiss wines come from Malcantone (Ticino). Of all places, we left them out on our trip. And so it came as it had to come: the Ticino wines did not rise to the top (as is usually the case). The wines from the regions we visited and experienced are much more present, much more familiar and more expressive. Sometimes mountains not only have their wild and beautiful side, but also their good side. They point out natural boundaries to the all-too-hasty wine connoisseur in Switzerland. The Röstigraben and Polentaberg must first be overcome.


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