Growing Grapes in Switzerland
Growing grapes successfully in Switzerland means growing grapes on a sloped environment – sometimes a rather steep slope. There are significant advantages to growing grapes on steep terrain, but also some disadvantages.
Many of the hills used to grow grapes have south-facing slopes, which offer a significant advantage to the vines. South-facing hillside vineyards are exposed to more of the day’s direct sunlight than vineyards in flat terrain. Increased sunlight help grapes to ripen quicker, which is especially important in an area with a relatively short growing period.
Hillside vineyards have another distinct advantage in lengthening the growing season. Air movements are similar to water movements; cold air is more dense than warm air. This means colder air slides down the hillside as warmer air moves upward. This air movement is important for grapes in higher altitudes because the warmer air creates a more favorable growing environment. This is especially true during the Spring months when budding on the vines occur earlier than vines in the flatland.
Another important advantage for hillside vineyards is water drainage. Roots on hillsides must grow deeper to reach their water supply. This water stress actually improves the quality of the grapes. An abundance of water inflates the grapes and diminishes the aromas. On the other hand, grapes that struggle for water are generally smaller and have more concentrated aromas.
Man has also figured out ways to help vines growing on steep hillsides. Handmade stone walls (or sometimes even natural rock walls) are common on hillside vineyards. The walls are heated by the long exposure to the sun, and reflect their heat back onto the vines. At night the warm stones and rocks become a sort of heater and keep the nearby vineyards warm and cozy.
Because of the diverse landscape and micro climates, certain grapes are left on the vine to become overripe, or even dried or frozen. These grapes are turned into sweet wines, but the wine grower is taking a huge risk of losing the entire harvest due to the moody fall and early winter weather. Sweet wines are produced in small quantities, and they are quite expensive.
Significant disadvantages are also created by planting grapes on steep hillsides. The lack of mechanization means the grapes must be tended to by hand. In a steep vineyard (think of areas around Lake Geneva, Wallis, or even in the Zürich area), working one hectare can require up to 1,400 hours of work during a single year. In comparison, a fully mechanized vineyard, such as some of the large Australian vineyards, may only require 70 hours annually to work a single hectare. Because of the high costs of labor and equipment in Switzerland, it is no wonder the average costs for Swiss wines are much higher than many of the ‘new world’ wines which are flooding the market.