'cuvon gravitaire' - a special tank for transporting grapes

After All: The ‘precision-engineered’ wines of Canton Vaud

Image credit: Vitali Vitaliev

We discover a thriving Swiss industry, all but unknown outside Switzerland

In one of my latest ‘View from Vitalia’ blogs (bit.ly/eandt-vitalia), I promised to tell you the story of a recent discovery of mine – that of Swiss wines and the technologies of their making. What better time to do so than in the run-up to Christmas and New Year when we start stocking up our wine cellars in preparation (mine lives on top of the fridge and is better known as the wine rack)?

‘Swiss wines’ is an unlikely combination for British (and most other) ears, let alone palates. No wonder: only 1 per cent of Swiss-made wine gets exported outside Switzerland. The wisely practical and self-respecting Swiss, having made their watches, chocolates and Swiss Army knives worn, eaten and coveted all over the world, still prefer to drink their wines themselves. And I don’t blame them.

Wine is an extremely image-driven product. Its popularity is closely linked to the general perception of the producing country. Indeed, it took enormous social changes in Bulgaria, Chile and South Africa for their wines to become successful on the competitive international market. But how about Switzerland’s persisting image of a ‘perfect country’, where everything works like a proverbial Omega clock and where the astounding 97.2 per cent of all trains (according to the latest statistics) depart and arrive on the dot? Are precision and punctuality always good for such a highly creative endeavour as wine-making?

Having visited several of the country’s wine-growing regions and drunk (sorry, tasted) dozens of locally made reds, whites and rosés, I can – firmly and responsibly – answer “yes” to that question. I have even come up with my own ‘oenological’ term for them – ‘precision wines’. By that I mean that most wines in Switzerland are not simply made, but rather ‘precision- engineered’ – grape-growing, harvesting, bottling and wine-making as such – subject to strict technological rules and procedures.

Take, for example, the Italian-speaking canton Ticino on the border with Italy. A frequent visitor to the canton, I’ve been a long-time admirer of the Ticino-made Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamaret and, particularly, the unique White Merlot! No, it’s not a typo: I mean the Merlo Bianco, an elegant white wine from the Merlot grape, which originally came to Ticino from the Bordeaux region of France and soon became the main variety there. The canton’s acid and limestone soils are great for cultivating all kinds of grapes, and its viticulture technology, traditionally combining Italian creativity with Swiss precision, is one of the best in Europe.

Here’s an amazing figure for you: with a population of just over 350,000, there are 3,869 vineyards in Ticino – a vineyard for every 100 people, including babies, children and those old enough to be past their drinking age (120 years and over), no less!

My latest foray into the wonderful world of Swiss wines was a couple of months ago, when I was invited to visit the canton of Vaud – the second-largest wine-producing region of Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva, known primarily for its fresh and fruity whites from the Chasselat grape and for its distinctive well-structured reds: Gamais and Pinot Noir.

Almost all vineyards in Vaud have a biodynamic approach, which means they use organic farming methods – compost as a fertiliser, no pesticides or insecticides etc, in both cultivating the grapes and processing the harvest. Some also use special soil supplements, following a vine-planting calendar which depends on strict astronomical configurations. That is where ‘precision’ comes into the picture... the grapes are harvested manually, then pressed gently (maximum pressure 2kg) with pneumatic wine-presses and naturally fermented, with the yeasts coming from the berries themselves. The result is that local wines are fresh-tasting and full-bodied.

On top of my tasting list was Les Freres Dutruy winery in the village of Founez. Started in 1918 by Gustave Dutruy, it has been in the same family ever since. Re-equipped in 1983 by Jean-Jacques Dutruy, the father of the present-day owners, the wine-producing estate, covering over 40 hectares, has always been open to technologies – old and new: from the well-tested methode champenoise to the pioneering  and environmentally friendly gravity-flow winemaking, when the harvest is transported to the presses in a tank resembling an alien mini-spacecraft and propelled by gravitational force, which allows the grapes to preserve their wholeness, or, in plain English, stops them from being prematurely squashed.  

We turned up at the Frères Dutruy winery 10 minutes early. From my many visits to Switzerland, I knew that arriving ahead of schedule was deemed as reprehensible (for people as well as trains) as being late. Until the exact time of our appointment, no one came out to meet us...

“Sorry, it’s chaos: the harvesting has just begun,” apologised Julien Dutruy.

The insides of the winery were far from chaotic, however: impeccable cleanliness, neat rows of wooden barrels and sparklingly polished fermentation vats.  

“Chaos and Switzerland are incompatible,” I was thinking while tasting Frères Dutruy’s spectacular Chasselat Cuvee Speciale and Rosé de Pinot Noir.

The brothers’ ‘precision winemaking’ seemed to work very well, for just like the country on whose soil they were produced, the wines were not simply good – they were perfect!

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