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Swiss Open Wine Cellar Days 2014

[ Note: This article was authored for and originally published by our friends at Girlfriend Guide to Zürich ]

Spring beckons! In Switzerland, that triggers not only tulips and Alpine bellflowers to open invitingly, but also the large variety of the nation’s wineries. During regional ‘Open Cellar’ holidays, wineries typically closed to the public throw their cellar doors wide open for visitors to tour, sample… and buy!

Whether surprisingly close to Zürich or a weekend excursion to another beautiful canton, don’t miss out on one of these:

Offene Weinkeller Deutschschweiz, 1 and 3 May 2014. No lame work excuse for Zürich-area residents to miss the celebration, it’s always held on the 1 May Labor Day holiday. Wineries throughout German-speaking Switzerland open for tastings, often with local food. Grab a train to Meilen or Stäfa (Zürich’s vineyard hubs), Schaffhausen or Fläsch (in Graubünden) and explore! Some wineries repeat on 3 May, so you don’t have to choose only one place to visit.

Uncorked Tip: Jump the S6 or S7 from Stadelhofen to Uetikon, then walk up the hill to see Erich Meier. There’s a fantastic tasting room with a great selection. But go early – this one is popular!

Cantine Aperte, Canton Ticino, 24-25 May 2014. Who can think of a more idyllic setting for wine tasting than the hills above Lake Lugano? Over 50 ‘cantine’ in Ticino offer their selection of Merlot wines, both red and white, as well as blends using international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Uncorked Tip: Near Lugano, visit Weinstoff winery, where friendly dynamic owner Ralph Schädler leads you through his wines, recently lauded in Schweizer Illustrierte. Head to Bosco Luganese, get off at the ‘Chiesa’ bus stop and walk 100m to the ‘Acienda Vitivincola Theiler’ townhouse to find them. Shuttles available.

Tage der offenen Weinkeller im Wallis, 29, 30, 31 May 2014. This Ascension Day weekend, head south to the ‘California of Switzerland’ with almost guaranteed sunshine, thanks to their position in this large valley—and sunshine means ripe, fruity wines. Try some unexpected Swiss wines including bold Syrah, local quaffer Humagne Rouge, and the full-bodied white wine called Heida.

Uncorked Tip: Visit the quaint village of Salgesch, where wineries Gregor Kuonen and Adrian Mathier (only 500m apart) offer surprisingly full-bodied fruity reds. Try the Cabernet Sauvignon at Adrian Mathier (yes, it is a pleasant surprise)!

Vaudoise Open Cellar Days, 7-8 June 2014. Don’t forget lovely canton Vaud, whose lucky vines wake up daily to stunning Mont Blanc and Lake Geneva views. Choose from over 300 cellars to visit for only 15.- chf (includes shuttles). Expect white wines made from the local Chasselas grape, but named by the producing village: Aigle, Epesses, St. Saphorin and more. See if you can tell flavor changes between the difference in ‘terroir’, or soils, between various villages!

Uncorked Tip: With limited time, the Aigle Cloisters district offers 15 open wineries. Should your taste buds need a break, visit the castle in Aigle for a cultural diversion at no additional cost.


Why expats don't like Swiss wine... at first 

Most Zürich and Switzerland newcomers seek immediate immersion in their new home culture—language, hiking, skiing and of course, food and wine. But after a first wild guess off the local restaurant menu or COOP shelves at a perplexing yet authentic-sounding Swiss Epesses, Féchy or Bündner Pinot Noir, expats’ faces cloud over faster than an ill-timed Jungfraujoch visit: "It’s nothing like the wine back home."  Yes, you’d best believe it: Swiss wine mirrors the uniqueness of the country, cantons and culture itself. 

But here’s the oddity: the gusto with which expats rapidly dismiss all Swiss wine (“Well, I won’t drink that again!”) is rivaled only by the enthusiasm of foreign wine snobs praising it.  So what gives? The reasons are simple, and expats can quickly learn to appreciate Swiss wine… under the right circumstances.

White wines: when Swiss neutrality meets stinky cheese

The view from Zürich slightly obscures Switzerland's larger wine landscape, as 75% of grapes grow in two Swiss-French cantons: the Vaud--Uncorked's homepage photo, where impossibly steep vineyards enjoy gorgeous Lake Geneva views--and the Valais, a lovely long Alpine valley between the Jungfrau peak and Zermatt. Both cantons' main white grape remains virtually unknown worldwide--named Chasselas in Vaud and, just to confuse you, Fendant in Valais. Flavor-wise its main stock in trade is... neutrality. That's right, no fruity flavors like popular international grapes Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. But Chasselas/Fendant and diligent Swiss winemakers excel with "background" flavors which beginners describe as "dry"--aftertastes of stoniness, earthiness, or minerality like sucking on a rock (yum!). These vary based on individual vineyard locations. And wine critics love individuality.

You'll win half the battle appreciating Chasselas/Fendant simply by understanding it's supposed to taste that way. The other half involves food. Expats should begin with Valais Fendant: labels clearly say 'Fendant' and the style is relatively richer in flavor. Chasselas is trickier, labeled with Vaud village names in roughly decreasing order of richness: Yvorne, Aigle, St-Saphorin, Epesses, Féchy, Mont-Sur-Rolle. They're all Chasselas. Minerally wines improve with food and seemingly any Chasselas/Fendant pairs gloriously with classic Swiss cheese fondue: minerality cuts through the heavy cheese, cleansing the palate. Or avoid the hassle of melting cheese and try it with mild Gruyére.

Red wines: find the sunshine, find the red wine

Expats accustomed to bold Australian Shiraz, California Cabernets and Argentinean Malbecs often find Switzerland's #1 red grape--light, cherry-ish Pinot Noir--roundly disappointing. While Switzerland's stock exchange competes admirably against those giant countries, its landlocked continental location provides a disadvantage for grapevines: less sunshine. Big, fruity red wine grapes need lots of hot, sunny days. Lighter red wine grapes like Pinot Noir--noted for "finesse" over power--develop better in cooler locations. But most expats aren't looking to quaff finesse. Within its incredible diversity, Switzerland does produce bolder, fruity, quaffable reds. You just need to find the sunshine.

In wine circles, the sun-strewn Valais valley, sandwiched between imposing walls of Alps, is sometimes called the "California of Switzerland". You'll be pleasantly surprised to find Syrah (same grape as Shiraz), Merlot, Cabernet Franc, richer Pinot Noirs, and local specialty Humagne Rouge. Check out oak-aged versions that increase richness even more: look for 'Barrique' or 'Élevé en fûts de chêne' on the label. Don't expect the intensity to match that of Australia, California or Argentina, but it's a wine wonder that they grow here at all and a nice counterpoint to lighter Pinot Noirs.

COOPs, boutiques and other wine-shopping guidelines

Swiss farmland remains a charming memory of yesteryear for many expats more familiar with factory farms. While mosaics of small vineyard plots look picture-postcard perfect, individual farmers would struggle with capital requirements--presses, hoses, tanks, barrels, etc.--for making wine themselves. Instead they sell grapes to a local cooperative winemaking facility, which then produces many wines and styles under one brand name. Swiss wineries therefore tend to be very large--the cooperatives--or relatively small "boutiques".

COOP (the supermarket) is Switzerland's largest wine seller, but a boutique winery's yearly production wouldn't fill COOP's supply chain for a month. COOP's wine selection and cooperative wineries' quality is remarkably good-we're big fans--but expats used to "discovering" wines on endless store shelves will need to work a bit harder. The best wines and wine values in Switzerland reside in boutique wineries, not on shelves. But boutiques don't gear up for tourism like places in California or Australia, and language often compounds the difficulties. But try your new language skills and call or email to arrange a visit, oftentimes you'll receive a private tour and tasting with a very friendly winemaker.

There's another solution to begin discovering boutique Swiss wines. Plan to visit the Zürich Expovina wine boats exhibition in early November or Expovina Primavera in the spring; both feature lots of smaller Swiss distributors and producers where you can try--and buy!

That hopefully clears a few initial mysteries, please leave a comment and let us know when you've found some great boutique producers!

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