A new wave of vignerons is gathering strength in Swiss wineries. They are young, eclectic, and often organic or biodynamic in their work. Most are keenly focused on sustainability and trying disease-resistant grapes.
Thirty of them, who go by JSNW (Junge Schweiz Neue Winzer, or Young Switzerland New Vignerons), offer a snapshot of this generation, all under age 40. The association was created in 2010 in Zurich to put “sharing” in boldface: of experience and ideas, but most of all of their wines and feedback, at regular meetups. The group has expanded to include vignerons from the French- and Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland. It is not a quality label, but almost an extension of the Swiss apprenticeship system. It’s post-mentoring: learning through exchanges with equals.
Some members are rising stars, others already in the firmament. Anne-Claire Schott in Twann, on Lake Bienne, and Fabrice Simonet (of Le Petit Chateau) in nearby Môtier, on Lake Murten, have become Swiss wine media darlings. Both are biodynamic wineries. Schott is known for her artistic, often daring approach to winemaking; her wines, an evolving range that spans from classic Pinot Noir to the natural wines she refers to as “flavors of the landscape,” are particularly popular with vegan and vegetarian restaurants. Helena Hebing, who works with her, comes from the world of theater and dance; she holds an oenology degree and manages the JSNW.
Fabrice and brother Stéphane Simonet have a reputation for savvy marketing, including creating a successful top-line gastronomy wine called “Initial” that sells for CHF97 a bottle at the cellar door and is aimed at restaurants. Sandrine Caloz in Miège, over the language frontier in Valais, is only 32, yet she was named the 2019 Organic Swiss Winemaker of the Year by BioSuisse.
JSNW business models vary considerably. Janine Witzig, 29, is near the town of Schaffhausen, a stone’s throw from the spectacular Rhine falls, both strong tourist attractions. Weingut Lindetröpfli relies almost entirely on private customers. It doesn’t work with distributors and sells to very few restaurants.
One Saturday a month the entire family pitches in to host an event, which has proven a very creative, popular way of cementing ties. Regular buyers are invited to join the harvest or pre-bottling tastings with paired foods at popular monthly winery events hosted by the family. Customers can pre-order the wines they like, so prices can be kept relatively low — and customers return at delivery time, strengthening ties. For special future products, a kind of crowd-sourcing option is used to raise funds.
Recently, over a glass of Räuschling (passion fruit notes that quickly gave way to citrus; delightful acidity), Witzig told me that it can be difficult to make changes. When she and French oenologist husband Teddy Miesi took over after training in Geneva under highly respected organic winemaker Sarah Meylan, customers begged her not to change the longtime Lake Zurich specialty Räuschling. The winery is in a 600-year-old house, steeped in Witzig family and village history.
Her parents had already begun to plant disease-resistant grapes and a hyper-local grape, Pinorico, as well as Kerner, none of them common in Switzerland. Witzig likes blending — she just won a top prize for a blended white at the annual Swiss wine awards — and the new grapes offer good possibilities. “We realized that you can’t just change a product that’s been the same for 30 years. We need to keep our roots and then add. I’m finding that we evolve with our clients and that I learn so much from them. I’m recharged by them.”
“We need to keep our roots, then add.”
Romain Cipolla’s situation is almost the inverse. He, too, is young (32) and quickly making a name for himself. But he works his organic vineyards alone. He grew up without a winemaking family behind him and came into it after tasting wines with school friends. Challenges don’t stop him. “I’ve never known any other way,” he grins while surveying the handwork he’s put in to keep weeds and green cover under control on his wild, steep slopes in Sankt German. His vines in nearby Raron are at 900 meters above sea level.
He is from Fribourg, a bilingual canton, but his mother tongue is French. When he decided to make his own wine, he listened to a mentor who suggested that he could find very good vines for less money in the German-speaking part of canton Valais. It meant Cipolla had to learn the region’s German dialect. “I love working in another language, in another culture,” he notes.
We initially met when I attended an open house where his mother served the wines. The Fendant, I noted, was crisp and mineral, the Heida had striking green apple notes, the Sauvignon Blanc is sharply aromatic. These are clearly mountain wines. The new, unoaked Syrah feels like a wonder of the Upper Rhone valley, and I tell Cipolla I would like to see it aged a bit. “I would love to leave it for five years and see how it does, but I don’t yet have that choice. I have to get my wines out young,” he explains. Experimenting with disease-resistant grapes brought him to Diolinoir; his is one of the best that I have tasted.
Roman Rutishauser, 37, took on a well-established winery in Thal, canton St. Gallen, after training in New Zealand. Climb to the top of the vine-covered hill and Lake Constance spreads out below you, Austria off to your right, Germany to the left. The vines were planted by his gardener grandfather as a hobby; his father made them a business. Rutishauser, who worked as a chef for three years before turning to wine, sees this as an incentive to build on a solid base. “I think young ones shouldn’t change everything. But I do go a bit more for freshness, maybe I’m easier on the [cultured] yeast.”
It is paying off — he is one of Gault Millau’s 2021 picks for Switzerland’s top vignerons. His wines are carried by a firm in nearby St. Gallen that specializes in high-quality wines, and half his business is with restaurants, including the best in the region.
Pinot Noir is at the heart of what he does, with five wines from these grapes. Shifting to organic has not been easy, given the problems caused by humidity he must contend with. “I would like to, but I would need to replant.” He points out that his parents had already planted 10% of the vineyard with PIWI grapes. He replaced 2,000 of his Gewürztraminer vines with Preor in 2019. He now has 40 grape varieties planted on what is surely one of the prettiest vineyards in Switzerland.
The new generation is making its mark, bringing to Swiss wine an appreciation of local and regional roots while placing it in a larger context. New ideas and technologies, and a pointed focus on sustainability are the hallmarks, enriched by world travels and training abroad, and an openness to crossing language and cultural lines within the country.