José Vouillamoz on Swiss Wine Grapes

Photograph of Dr. Jose Vouillamoz dressed in a black blazer, white shirt and white hat stands in front of massive terraced vineyards with trees and cliffs in the far distance
Photo credit: José Vouillamoz

I’ve read about as widely on Swiss wines as an Anglophone can: the relevant chapters of Jason Wilson’s delicious Godforsaken Grapes. The late Sue Style’s charming, informative Landscape of Swiss Wine. Ellen Wallace’s colorful Vineglorious. Dennis Lapuyade’s expert blog ArtisanSwiss. Stephan Reinhardt’s candid, convincing coverage in the Wine Advocate.

But it is Dr. José Vouillamoz’s Swiss Grapes: History and Origin that has done the most to help me wrap my head around the marvelously confounding world of Swiss wines. The English edition, published in 2019 (two years after the original French), is a startlingly accessible and appealingly personal exploration of the trove of heritage, crossing, and hybrid grapes this tiny wine country excels at. It swings wide a door to Swiss wines that Vouillamoz gladly holds open for all who show curiosity.

Vouillamoz is widely known for his groundbreaking work in grape genetics and for co-authoring (with Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW) the definitive reference Wine Grapes, published almost a decade ago. Despite advances in our understanding of a number of the varieties Wine Grapes covers, it is still held to be the last word on the subject. So what more could there be to say in a book that is a fraction of its size?

“Most of the people who bought Swiss Grapes would not have bought Wine Grapes,” Vouillamoz explains. “Wine Grapes is too expensive [$162 at last check] and too broad [1,368 varieties from around the globe] for many people.” (Vouillamoz concedes he’s not much of a salesman.) 

Vouillamoz also wanted this monograph to be more personal, including his own preferences for styles and producers, and to highlight his research methods, which are most definitely not just for genetics geeks. 

The book zippers together DNA and historical research in ways that bring the story of Swiss wines to life. It also gives Vouillamoz a welcome chance to uncrust the myths that have accrued to some of Switzerland’s most ancient varieties, such as Completer, Rèze, and Humagne. “I’m always skeptical about stories of a grape coming from very far away to make it more romantic,” he says. “As a scientist, I’m never satisfied with that kind of interpretation.” 

There is also a sense of urgency propelling Vouillamoz’s work. “My mother taught me that if your house is burning, the first thing you need to save, aside from your children, is your family photo albums,” he says. “You will never be able to replace them. The old indigenous varieties are like these albums. If you lose them, you will never find them again. Ever.” 

 “The old indigenous varieties are like family photo albums. If you lose them, you will never find them again. Ever.” 

Born and raised in the heart of Valais, Switzerland’s largest wine-producing region, Vouillamoz’s professional interests appear terroir-driven. Wine curious from an early age, while writing his doctoral thesis in botany on the classification of plants based on their DNA at the University of Lausanne, he found himself wondering how this organizational structure might be applied to wine grapes. He soon got the chance to find out. The Swiss government funded a year at U.C. Davis for him to learn to use DNA profiling techniques on grape varieties under pioneering grape geneticist Dr. Carole Meredith

“Even 20 years ago, I was not the first to use these techniques,” Vouillamoz notes. “But for Swiss grapes, this work led to unexpected discoveries — the ones you can read about in the book. These results, for local people, were quite a surprise.”

It turns out tiny Switzerland, a country few beyond its borders scarcely even associate with wine, is a perfect laboratory for this sort of research. “I counted 252 varieties cultivated on Switzerland’s 15,000 hectares” — the size equivalent of Alsace, which officially grows all of 10 varieties — “It’s just crazy.” 

“I counted 252 varieties cultivated on Switzerland’s 15,000 hectares” — the size equivalent of Alsace, which officially grows all of 10 varieties.

In the book, Vouillamoz turns his spotlight on the 80 varieties that can be considered Swiss in origin or by tradition. Of these, 59 are crossings or hybrids — quite a Swiss specialty, it turns out — and 21 are the “heritage” grapes that form the core of Swiss wine identity. 

He also pays special attention to grapes that are Swiss by adoption: those that immigrated to Switzerland and have taken root there, while being abandoned in their places of origin. Two examples are Rouge du Pays (better, if mistakenly, known as Cornalin) and Humagne Blanc. The former likely originated in Italy’s Aosta Valley but has disappeared there, while it is now what Vouillamoz calls the “emblematic” red grape of Valais. The latter probably originates in the French Pyrenees but has vanished there, taking root again in Valais instead. “It would have been confusing to my readers,” says Vouillamoz, “if these grapes were missing, because the Swiss consider them to be their own. They have been here for centuries and have become indigenous in terms of cultivation.” 

Vouillamoz excels at bringing human understanding to the hard evidence of DNA analysis:“You have the result, but then you have to ask: How is that possible?”This sets off his investigations: combing through historical records of commercial exchanges, charting languages spoken, relocation of ethnic groups, activities of monasteries and individual families to ground the theses DNA evidence presents.

The curious case of Gros Bourgogne brings his approach into focus. This rare white grape, also known as Plantscher, is now at home on a tiny plot in Upper Valais. “It has nothing to do with Burgundy,” Vouillamoz says. “Probably someone thought it looked like, I don’t know, Aligoté. I was able to demonstrate that it is the child of” — Hungarian flagship variety — “Furmint and the half brother of Hárslevelű. When I found it in 2009 or 2010, I had to double-check the result because I couldn’t believe it.” A few years later, Vouillamoz was visiting Tokaj, accompanied by a Hungarian journalist, with whom he shared this story. “The journalist said, ‘Wait. The place where you live in Valais, isn’t there a village called Massongex?’  He had read a book on the history of Tokaj populations that had migrated to that part of the country. I have goosebumps remembering this.”

As in most of Europe, Swiss viticulture was completely transformed in the late 19th century by phylloxera. When Swiss growers replaced their vines, they opted for more productive varieties. In the Italian-speaking Ticino region, for instance, the native Swiss grape Bondola predominated at the turn of the 19th century. “Merlot did not exist there until 1906,” Vouillamoz points out. “By the end of the 20th century, it covered 90% of the region’s red grape surfaces.” 

Switzerland’s trio of ancients — Rèze, Humagne Blanc, and Completer — can all be traced at least to the 14th century. Of these, precious few plantings remain. But among Switzerland’s oldest-vine treasures today are two parcels in Graubünden, one of ungrafted Completer tended by Giani Boner in Malans, the other a plot of Pinot Noir in Jenins. 

A third gem is a parcel of Rouge du Pays that Vouillamoz himself co-owns with two friends — “a tiny plot of 200 square meters with vines more than 100 years old, ungrafted, of course.” The vines, he says, are shaped like trees. “They are quite heterogeneous in terms of productivity and maturity of the berries,” he says. “We do crazy work because each bunch is cut into three or four parts at harvest, so we need to go into the middle to see if there are unripe berries to take out. It’s like hairdressing the grapes.” A good friend of Vouillamoz’s vinifies the wines, turning out just a hundred or so bottles a year.

Photograph of a gnarled old vine on a rocky outcropping at sunrise against the textured cloud sky
Photo credit José Vouillamoz

Vouillamoz sees Switzerland’s grape conservation efforts as “more advanced” than those of many other countries, noting that the Swiss started in the early ‘90s to be “good at identifying the importance of native varieties and being aware of the importance of clonal diversity within them.” Still, he sees plenty of room for improvement: “If you take all the grapes, all the natives — minus Chasselas — you only get to 4% of the country’s vineyards. It’s nothing. The old varieties cultivated by the ancient generations are unique; we are the only ones who have them and who have the know-how to cultivate them.” 

Taking Rouge du Pays again as an example, Vouillamoz notes that its diffidence in the vineyard caused growers to abandon it. “By the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, there were only five vineyards left. But three people still believed in the quality of this variety, so they went into the old vineyards, rescued some material, and selected the best clones. Now Rouge du Pays is the most revered red variety in the area.” 

Like the family albums, old varieties tell stories and point to possibilities.“One grape we abandon today could give the best Swiss wine someday. Who knows?” Vouillamoz says. He is determined to make sure we understand, at the very least, what we stand to lose.

As for the acceptance of Swiss varieties at home, he says the younger generation of growers is less interested in ancient varieties than they are in experimenting with natural wines and skin contact. He sees more hope among newcomers, who have no family connections to wine: “They may be more adventurous.”

On the dining scene, however, he sees a big change. “Michelin-three-star restaurants (there are just three in Switzerland) all have a good selection of these wines. Thirty years ago this would not have been the case. Today chefs understand that the quality has improved a lot and they are proud to have Swiss wines on the list.” 

Looking to the future, Vouillamoz hopes to see “more of what we already do best.” In his eyes, this means Arvine, Rouge du Pays, and “more obscure stuff like Diolle, Räuschling in the Zürich area, Humagne Blanc, and Rèze — wines that are really interesting at the table. These could become trendy in the future. And I will be here, defending them.”

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