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.)

Hotel veranda, bottle of wine

I cannot verify the quotation, but I understand that “Hotel veranda! Bottle of whisky! Telescope!” was Mark Twain’s recipe for exploring the alps.  I can recommend the spirit of the idea, if not the detail.  Here is an evening view of the Jungfrau we had from our hotel garden a couple of weeks ago while polishing off a bottle of Rieussec 1985 after dinner.

The wine was oxidised, and I should have immediately spotted it from the colour in the bottle.  But I accepted the wine in the hotel restaurant, and in the end I was pleased I did.  My wife enjoyed it more than me I think, but I too liked it.  I can best describe it as a sort of low alcohol tawny port with marmalade notes.  Not Sauternes as we know it, Jim, but still a nice drink.  It is amazing how wine faults can give interesting and pleasurable results even if the wine is not as intended.  The one big exception to that rule as far as I am concerned is corkiness.  The moment I detect, or believe I detect, the smallest amount of TCA in a wine, it is for me undrinkable.

But the big vinous event of the holiday was the discovery that I like Bordeaux after all – if the wine is good enough and nicely mature. Sadly, I also learned that the Bordeaux I really like is now generally well out of my price range. Here are the two wines that turned my head:

Château Cantemerle, Haut-Medoc, 1996
Medium tawny garnet. Intense, smooth and round Claret nose, with some pencil box. Medium acid. Medium low tannin – velvety. Excellent length. Aromatics are led by fruit.  Primarily blackcurrant, but also red fruits.  But behind the fruit there are plenty of other more savoury and complex notes, all nicely integrated.  Undergrowth even perhaps.  This is good now, but primary notes are still to the fore, and it might well improve further *****

Château La Mission Haut Brion, Graves,  1985
Medium to deep, beautiful garnet. Intense, soft, complexity that comes with maturity. Great bouquet. Violets, and dark fruit. Medium acid. Medium tannin, but not at all obtrusive. Sweet fruit. The violets and fruit nicely lift the more subtle and complex notes that dominate. Huge length, with a finish that fires on all cylinders, continuing to show the depth and intensity of the wine when it is in the mouth. For me the I would say the wine is at its peak, but there is absolutely no hurry ******  (The first time my top score has appeared on my blog.)


The other wines we had, all in the hotel restaurant, were considerably more modest.  They are all Swiss apart from the Burgundy, which was selected by a Swiss merchant.  Here I have given estimated UK retail prices to give you some idea of how the wines compare with more familiar ones.

Grand Vin Vaudois, AOC St Saphorin, Riem Daepp, 2006, £10.50
Medium pale greenish. Intense fresh and clean. Medium low acid.  Dry.  Wet wool and aniseed. Understated and good despite limited length.  Some caramel. Maybe a little over the hill ****

Vins des Chevaliers, Salgesh/Salquenen Valais Suisse, Dôle, AOC Valais, 2009, £11.00
Pale ruby garnet. Intense primary cherry Pinot fruit. Medium acid. Low tannin. Tad hot and thin.  Served a little too warm. Good length. Drink now ***

AOC Lavaux, Dézaley, Riem Daepp, 2010, £12.30
Pale greenish tinge. Intense stone fruit. Apricot Low acidity. Dry. Excellent length. Almond finish. Floral. Refreshing despite lack of acidity. Drink now ****

Côte de Nuits Villages, Riem Daepp, 1999, £11.50
Medium pale tawny garnet. Intense soft mature Burgundy. Touch of the farmyard. Caramel. Some vague red fruit. Medium high acid. Medium low tannin. As nose. Excellent length. Drink now. On its way out.  Remember I am still at heart a Burgundy man, so *****

I don’t want my blog to become a travel site, but I must say that if you want a comfortable hotel and a summer walking holiday in spectacular alpine scenery I can recommend the Hotel Wengener Hof.  I have been a bit coy about the prices we paid for the Bordeaux there.  I am sure you are capable of using Google to get market prices, but to see the prices charged by the hotel follow the link from this page.  If you are persuaded to try their Bordeaux list, just remember who told you about it and leave some for me the next time I visit.