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When It Comes to Winegrowing, the Swiss Aren't Neutral

Helena Bachmann
Posted: December 26, 2000

In a country where conflicts and upheavals are virtually unknown, heads are rolling in a battle of wine quality vs. quantity. In Switzerland, a well-known enologist, Jean-Marc Amez-Droz, was recently ousted as head of a wine cooperative in Valais after co-op members rejected his suggestion to cut yields.

As in other wine regions of the world, dozens of Swiss growers understand that the trend of the future is to make fewer but better wines. But many other Swiss vintners -- especially in the country's two top wine regions, Valais and Vaud -- fear that lowering yields will reduce their profits in an unpredictable, ever-changing market.

Amez-Droz, who proposed lowering the yields from the government maximum of 1.4 kilograms of grapes per square meter (6.2 tons per acre) to 1.2 kilos per acre (5.3 tons per acre) to avoid over-production, said that the move is an essential step toward giving Swiss consumers the top-quality wines they want. "We have to change our way of thinking and focus on quality instead of quantity," he said. "We have to evolve, not live in the past."

Already, Swiss winemakers are struggling to keep pace with competitively priced bottlings from California, southern France and Australia. With the easing of trade barriers several years ago, inexpensive imported wines are taking a chunk out of the domestic market. For example, more than 14.6 million cases of Swiss wine were produced in the 1999/2000 vintage, but only 13.9 million cases were consumed, according to the country's Federal Office of Agriculture. In contrast, about 19.1 million cases of imported wine were consumed in the same period.

To increase quality and eliminate overproduction, the Vaud government recently issued new guidelines for cutting yields. Angry growers, however, went to court to stop the authorities from imposing the lower yields.

"Winemakers feel threatened by the changes and feel they must produce as much as possible to stay competitive, to make a living," said Frederic Rothen, head of the Swiss government's viticulture section. "Some are not ready to make sacrifices."

But Neil Ankers, secretary of Geneva's Winemakers Association, believes that focusing on quality rather than quantity can boost vintners' profits. "Reducing output may mean lower profits short-term, but as our wine's reputation grows, so will our prices," he said, echoing the argument advanced by many top-quality vintners around the world.

Geneva's winemakers are in the forefront of the movement to boost wine quality by decreasing yields; they have lowered their norm to 1.2 kilos per square meter (5.3 tons per acre). "We are not producing as much as we could, but we are producing better wines," Ankers said. "This is what Swiss consumers want and we are responding to that need."

Pierre Muller, a wine retailer in the village of Reverolle, in Vaud, said the trend is clear: "More and more people, especially the younger generation, want good Swiss wines. Unfortunately, most local wines are of poor quality, geared to mass consumption. But that trend is changing, and Swiss wine producers must keep up with it."

Switzerland's wines are virtually unknown outside the country's borders, as only 1 percent of the total production is exported. The Swiss tried to export these lower-quality wines in recent years, but with predictable results; in America, the wines never caught on and were viewed as poor values.

But Muller said that the move toward quality will boost Swiss wines' reputation abroad. "I sell to top hotels and top restaurants where foreigners can get to know and appreciate the best wines we have to offer," he said. "In the long run, it can only be a positive change for us."

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Read more about Swiss wines:

  • July 9, 1999
    Swiss Vintners Carve Wine Cellar Out of Glacier

  • June 3, 1998
    Swiss Vintners Fight New Labeling Law

  • Feb. 16, 1998
    Unfiltered, Unfined: A Tale of Two Countries

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