Cheese? Yes. Chocolates? Of course. But wine? Not much is known about Swiss wines and there is a good reason for this. Despite being flanked by three major wine-producing nations — France, Italy and Germany — it produces very little wine.
This is not surprising in a country where the land is steep and the weather, in many parts at least, much too cold. But our ignorance of Swiss wines is also a result of the law of supply and demand.
Switzerland imports most of its wine and exports only a little over one per cent of it. The unfavourable balance of vinotrade is unlikely to change given the consumption levels. It is estimated that the average Swiss person quaffs about four times more wine than his American counterpart.
A few days in and around Zurich is hardly the right way to acquaint oneself with Swiss wines. Although there are vineyards on the shores of Lake Zurich, the principal wine-making regions — some with precipitous terraces and monorails to transport the grapes — are not close by.
So I did the next best thing. Ordered a glass of Swiss wine (all right, sometimes two) with a meal whenever it was available. Requesting the waiter to pick a Swiss wine off the wine card usually resulted in two kinds of reactions. The raised and inquiring eyebrow — that asked why you don’t prefer drinking something from France or Italy. And the inevitable — will you drink the Merlot?
No, I did not come to Switzerland to drink Merlot, the varietal that earned a bad reputation thanks to the film “Sideways” in which the alcoholic male lead declaims before a double date, “If anyone orders Merlot, I am leaving. I am not drinking any f$#@*?g Merlot.” (Incidentally, this remark provoked a cinematic response in the documentary “Merlove”, which, as the name suggests, is a celebration of the grape)
The varietals I am looking for are not available by the glass in most places. But I do manage to lay my hands on an easy and undemanding a Muller-Thurgau, a cross between Riesling and a table grape, which erupted with the feel of summertime.
The Swiss Pinot Noirs or Blauburgenders I could afford were very ordinary, and it wasn’t until the end of the trip that I could locate the two wines I was looking for. The native Humagne Rouge, which with its notes of dark chocolate and cherry felt very Swiss, and that sleek blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay they call Dole, a soft red wine with the soul of a white.