Brief Historical Perspective
The earliest evidence of grapes in Switzerland dates from between 3000 BC and 1800 BC. Grape seeds were found in settlements around the area that is today Lake Neuchâtel, but it is not known if the grape vines were wild or somehow cultivated. It is also unclear how these early inhabitants used the grapes, and if they knew how to ferment the juice.
What is known is that the first hearty Roman settlers who made their way over the mountains and into Helvetia around 100 BC brought with them grape vines to plant. These grapes had a sole purpose – they were used to make wine. Growing grapes was the only way to have a supply of wine at that time, and so the Romans were the first recorded group of people to formally introduce wine-making in Switzerland. The first region the Romans brought wine to was the Wallis area in southwestern Switzerland. Subsequently, the Romans planted vines throughout Helvetia. Among the early grape varieties that were for sure introduced were Amigne, Arvine, and Rèze – all of which are still present today in the Wallis area.
Even though grapes were present in many locations all over Helvetia, it wasn’t until the middle ages that grape growing became more sophisticated. The Cistercian monks were already successful in producing wine in the Burgundy region of France when they brought their knowledge to the mountains of Helvetia. The monks began looking at regional climates, studying different soils, and learning about different grape varieties. They discovered the best places to grow vines successfully in this mountainous terrain.
The wine that was produced then had nothing in common with the wines of today. To improve the taste, spices, honey, and various other ingredients were added to the wine – a practice that was common throughout Europe.
International trade during the 17th century greatly affected the vine growing strategy. An increase in inexpensive and ‘better’ wines from France’s Rhone region forced Helvetian vine growers to search for more favorable conditions. Growers expanded to the north and began planting vineyards in the warmer climates away from the Alps.
By the late 19th century, vine growing and wine making was quite popular throughout Switzerland. In 1880 there were roughly 33,000 hectares of vines (that’s about twice the size of California’s Napa Valley). Around the same time, diseases from North America infested European vines and nearly wiped out all of the grapes. The phylloxera and two devastating fungi dramatically decreased the vine growing area to about 12,000 hectares. Switzerland’s production has barely recovered from this period.
New settlements replaced the rotted out vineyards with increased industrialization, and many of these new settlements expanded into today’s larger Swiss cities. Increased inexpensive wines were imported into Switzerland placing even more pressure on wine producers. To confront this competition, wine producers chose a strategy of increasing quantity instead of quality. The image of Swiss wines went downhill from there – and have struggled ever since to recover.
Today, Switzerland has about 15,000 hectares of vines with an annual production of 116 million liters. More and more of today’s Swiss wine producers care more about quality rather than quantity. A fact supported by the government program which encourages growers to uproot the common grape varieties and replace them with more interesting and indigenous varieties. Map number one shows that grapes are grown everywhere in Switzerland – in fact, there is only one Canton which does not grow vines (Oberwalden). And even if the statistics don’t show it, it is possible that a Helvetian grows vines somewhere in Switzerland.