Long overshadowed by the famed wines of its neighbors, Switzerland might just count its delicious pinot noirs and lesser-known gamarets among its best-kept secrets.
About an hour’s drive to the north of Geneva lies the fairy-tale villages of the Jura Mountains, nicknamed Watch Valley. There, amid the lush slopes of the range, sit the ateliers of the world’s finest timepiece makers—Patek Philippe, Rolex, and Breitling, among others. But what few travelers know is that these mountains are also the seat of the equally distinguished, but much less prominent, Swiss wine industry.
There are various reasons Swiss wine is so little known outside the country—for one, it costs more to farm on such craggy hillsides, which drives the prices higher than for similar French or Italian vintages. Mostly, though, it’s the Swiss thirst for homegrown tipples that has kept Alpine wines out of American cellars: Last year, fewer than 600,000 gallons were exported, or just two percent of the country’s annual output.
But given the quality, and appeal, of both the wines and the vineyards in the neighboring cantons of Vaud and Neuchâtel, it’s only a matter of time before word gets out. Both areas are dotted with villages such as Auvernier and Mont-sur-Rolle, their ancient streets lined with gingerbread cottages. In Vaud, where 600 producers offer a variety of wines, the patchwork of microclimates is warmed by winds from the Rhône Valley, while the vintages from Neuchâtel’s 75 wineries are more consistent, with heavy limestone deposits in the soil adding a reliably crisp, mineral kick. Most visitors would recognize several of the grape varieties—pinot noir is popular here—but the local favorites, namely chasselas and gamaret, are hardly known, much less tasted, across the Swiss border.
The first, chasselas, is a white made from the namesake grape, a vigorous plant with juicy, voluptuous fruit. Elsewhere, it’s sniffily dismissed as a table grape. In Switzerland, though, there is a centuries-long tradition of turning chasselas into a delicate, ethereal wine that pairs well with the fondue that’s so popular in the area or with freshwater fish from nearby Lake Geneva. Low in alcohol and with a light natural carbonation, it’s also considered the perfect aperitif, an Alpine answer to prosecco. Domaine de la MaisonCarrée, run by Christine and Jean-Denis Perrochet, the sixth-generation winemaker in his family, makes a particularly impressive chasselas.
Then there’s gamaret, a rising star among reds. A cross between the gamay grape, a longtime Swiss staple, and Germany’s little-known Reichensteiner, it was developed in the 1970s by a laboratory in Vaud and was intended to beef up the flavor profile of gamay or pinot noir in blends. Rarely cultivated outside Switzerland, this hardy grape also has ideal conditions in Vaud and Neuchâtel. At Domaine Nicolas Ruedin—which offers samples in its tasting room, dug into the limestone bedrock—winemaker Nicolas Ruedin notes that gamaret ages well, too, with a richness that he likens to a classic Bordeaux.
Given all the precision and the care that these winemakers take with their small-batch vintages, it seems appropriate that their most appreciative customers may be their neighbors, the finicky artisans of Watch Valley. Piaget also maintains workshops in the area, and CEO Philippe Léopold-Metzger, who is passionate about serving Swiss wine at every event he hosts, sees a parallel between the two local luxury industries: Both are all about time. “Drink a wine from 1982 and you’re going to remember what happened in that year,” he says. “A watch measures time, while the wine is a memory of time.”.