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Vinea Swiss: A Ffair to Remember

Posted: Monday, 01 October 2012 16:20

Vinea Swiss: A Ffair to Remember

October 01: The 19th edition of Vinea, the largest annual outdoor Swiss wine fair, was held in Sierre, the wine capital of the Canton of Valais, last month with the main street closed to traffic and 150 producers setting up their stands in the open tents and visitors coming from Switzerland and nearby countries to taste around 1200 wines, writes Subhash Arora who was invited to attended the Fair

The weather was cold and wet that Friday on August 31. It had been raining a day earlier. But that did not dampen the spirit of professionals and consumers who had planned months in advance to taste the latest vintages from various wine regions of Switzerland and buy wines on the spot.

A Fair with a Difference

Visiting the Show on both days, one thought of India but did not miss it, particularly looking at the sight which would be unfathomable in India. One could see kids on the shoulders of their fathers tasting wines, as well as young boys and girls standing in groups chatting with each other, either smoking cigarettes (not a great sight-but the freedom of spirit was evident) or holding the wine glass that had cost them 40 Swiss Francs to enter the show area. Both the restaurateurs and consumers were welcome to taste the complimentary wines.

The producers were generally pouring wines quite enthusiastically though I suspect my business card might have been a bit of a catalyst. The stalls were interspersed with several food stalls like raclette as a fast food, and with the restaurants and cafes on both side of the street doing roaring business. There was public water available to wash the glass.

Click For Large ViewSwiss wines are not very popular in India, primarily because of the higher costs, indigenous grape varieties that are unheard of and the small size of the producers. One of the exceptions was Rouvinez, a local producer that has a wide range of wines and who we visited after the show, courtesy Association Vinea.

Mondial des Pinots

One of the tents was set up to allow visitors to taste the award-winning wines from the 15th edition of Mondial des Pinots competition organised two weeks earlier by Association Vinea, the producers’ body that organised the Annual Fair too. It had also organised a special tasting for the journalists of 14 of the top Pinots from different parts of Switzerland and other countries so the difference of flavours in diverse regions could be explored by the visitors.

It was interesting to see the Best Sparkling Wine Award go to Conegliano based Carpené Malvolti sparkling wine made from Pinot Noir. Five Pinot Noirs won the Great Gold, including one French company, Gerard Bertrand. Their Aigle Royal Pinot Noir, IGP Haute Valle de l’Aude 2011 was adjudged the Best Pinot Noir of the competition.

Interestingly, both these wine companies are represented by the Mumbai-based Aspri Wines and Spirits in India.

Swiss Grapes

When you think of Switzerland, the images conjuring up in your mind immediately are those of precision luxury watches, sinfully delicious chocolates, cheese fondue and raclette (and the havenly banks, if you are a successful politician, of course!). The beautiful snow peaked mountains and rolling hills with cow herds grazing have become a benchmark of natural beauty for us in India. But if one looks closely, several of these hills, like the green and steep slopes around River Rhone are dotted with grapevines. Although Switzerland is a relatively small producer of wines with only around 15000 hA of vines, it has several unique indigenous varieties besides the international varieties with different local names.

There are about 160 grape varieties currently being cultivated for fermentation. Sauvignon Blanc (Heida Païen), Chardonnay, Marsanne (Ermitage), Muscat, Pinot Gris (Malvoisie), Mueller Thurgau, Sylvaner (Johannisberg) as white grapes, and Pinot Noir, Merlot, Gamay, and Syrah as the reds are well-known but it has several indigenous, interesting white varieties like Chasselas, Arvine (Petite Arvine), Amigne and Humagne Blanc. Humagne Rouge and Cornalin are a couple of red local varieties.

Hybrids and Crosses

But there are several hybrid varieties that would make your head go in circles. They are based on scientific experiments and include grapes like Gamaret ( a cross between Gamay Noir and Reichensteiner which is a cross between Mueller Thurgau and the cross between two varieties - Madeleine Angevine and Calabreser Froehlich!), Dole (cross between Pinot Noir and Gamay), Garanoir (Gamay and Reichensteiner) and Diolinoir (as expected - a cross of Pinot Noir). Even whites have a few such cross-breeds as Doral cross between Chasselas and Chardonnay. They are used all over Switzerland as varietals and in blends.

Pinot Noir, Gamay and Chasselas (known as Fondant in Valais where I visited) are the most popular grapes and boast two thirds of Swiss vines.

Vinea provided a great opportunity for the visitors to taste these grapes in the bottle, and of course, the opportunity to meet about 150 Swiss producers with about 1200 wines. Their tented stands ran the length of the main street in the heart of town, making it an open air wine bar for two days. Unlike several other bigger affairs one can place orders at the Fair, so the producers are really involved and motivated to showcase their products.

Wine Regions of Switzerland

Sierre, where Vinea is held every year, is the wine capital of the region of Valais, the biggest wine region. It has the highest surface area of around 5000 hA, followed by Vaud with slightly less than 4000 hA. Other regions in terms of surface planted are the German-speaking Switzerland (except Bern) – in the north-central part, Geneva, Ticino (the Italian speaking  region) and the Three Lakes Region in the West which includes Neuchatel. Total acreage is a miniscule 15,000 hA, still around 3 times that of the whole of India, if we consider only the wine grapes. 

The bulk of Swiss production is centered around the French speaking region (there are three distinct languages spoken in Swiss regions - French, German and Italian. English may not get you everywhere, except possibly in cities like Zurich, Geneva and Bern-certainly not in Sierre). Interestingly, Swiss is divided into 26 Cantons, 25 out of which produce at least some wine, indicating that wine is a part and parcel of Switzerland as well.

Every year, there is a foreign region as the guest of honour and a Swiss one. Last year it was Sicily; this year Rioja was the partner. Geneva, the third largest producing area was the domestic guest region. Vins de Genève conducted a workshop of 17 different wines to showcase their different blends.

Dare to Taste Swiss Wines

It was interesting to see a couple of Indian sommeliers now in Italy and Maldives on a study tour of the area, visiting the Fair so they could get a handle on the Swiss wines.  Though there are not too many takers for Swiss wines in India yet - partly because of the logistics problem - the small quantities that may be imported for the niche market may not be feasible to ship to India, and there is a better chance for their indigenous grapes like Chasselas, Petite Arvine and Humagne Rouge and Blanc. 

Certainly, it is worth adding Switzerland as a destination on to the discovery tour of other European countries and visit some of these wine regions with an eye to adding them to the portfolio. Importers who are more connoisseurs and knowledgeable about these wines or want to learnt more to add to their portfolio, would surely be very welcome.

The best way to learn about the Swiss wines and possibly add to the import portfolio is to visit Vinea 2013 in Sierre. Fast trains are available regularly to Sierre from Zurich, the only direct contact airport that connects Switzerland with India.

For a related earlier article visit: 

Swiss Wines: Beyond Watches and Chocolates

Subhash Arora



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