In praise of Swiss Sylvaner


I recently hosted a small tasting of what I think of as mainstream and traditional styles of Swiss wine.  I wanted the tasting to have focus, so I limited myself to white wines from the French-speaking Cantons, in particular Sylvaner and Chasselas wines – or Johannisberg and Fendant as they are respectively known in Valais.  In the past I have defended Swiss wines against those who say they offer poor value for money, but now I am not so sure.  Perhaps to an extent I was a victim of the positive effects a good holiday can have on wine appreciation.  Now I will just agree with everyone else.

The 6 Chasselas wines we tried varied from “so flat and tasteless I’d really rather not bother” to “quite decent” (* to ***), but the prices varied from £10-16, and in that range you should hope for better.  Most wines were bought in Switzerland last year, mainly at the local Co-op supermarket, but a couple came from Nick Dobson Wines. Just for the record, here are the Chasselas wines we tried, with ratings and approximate or estimated Swiss retail prices converted to Sterling.  If you want to buy any of these from Nick Dobson Wines, they will be significantly more expensive.

Fendant, AOC Valais,Vins de Chavaliers, 2010, 11.5%, £11.50 *
Fendant, Sept Dizains, AOC Valais, Badoux, 2011, 12.0%, £10 ***
Aigle les Murailles, AOC Chablais, Badoux, 2011, 12.5%, £16 ***
Chasselas, Epesses, AOC Lavaux, Dizerens, 2011, 12.0%, £15.50 **
Chasselas, St-Saphorin, AOC Lavaux, Dizerens, 2011, 12.0%, £15.50 **
Chasselas de Satigny, AOC Genève, Domaine des Abeilles d’Or, 2011, 11.5%, £8.50 **

But I don’t want to focus on the negatives of the tasting.  The big eye-opener for me was how characterful the two Sylvaners were, how different they were from each other, and how much better they were than the Chasselas varietals.  See also how much more alcohol the Sylvaner wines have – 13.5% versus 11.5% for the two varietals of Vins de Chavaliers.  Neither Chasselas nor Sylvaner has a particularly good reputation, but at this tasting it was the only the Chasselas that conformed to stereotype.

Johannisberg, Hurlevent, AOC Valais, Les Fils de Charles Favre, 2011, 13.2%, £13.00 
Intense, fresh, vaguely citric and floral on the nose. Medium low acid, with some residual sugar.  Orange  on the palate, and some apricot. Gentle sweet flavours.  Full bodied and viscous. Excellent length. Finishes sweet and fruity.  Drink now.  ****

Johannisberg, AOC Valais, Vins de Chavaliers, 2011, 13.5%, £12.70
Intense and pungent. Cats pee and blackcurrant. Very much like a ripe Sauvignon Blanc with little fruit, but with no grassy and herbal notes either. Medium low acid and dry. Intense, as nose. Full bodied – can feel the alcohol in the mouth without it being hot. Excellent length. Bitter, slightly astringent finish. Refreshing.  Drink now.  ****

After the wine tasting bit, we continued to drink with Swiss cheeses from The Cheese Hamlet: Classic and 1er Cru Gruyère, Appenzeller, Raclette and Emmental.  For me, the Gruyères were the Sylvaners of the cheese world, while the others were more Chasselas cheeses.  So next time I want a Swiss wine and cheese evening, it will be Johannisberg and Gruyère. (Update after further cheese eating: Actually the Emmental is pretty good too.)

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

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