Switzerland represents just 0.3% of the world’s wine grape cultivation area and global wine production. Barely 1% of that production is exported, and two-thirds of the wine consumed in the country is imported. Why, then, write, publish, or read a book about Swiss grapes? One good reason is that more than 250 different grape varieties are grown on its 15,000 hectares of vineyards, of which about onethird are indigenous, and another one-third are crossings (either spontaneous or from breeding programs). The latter include many PIWIs, that is, fungal-resistant varieties (see http://www.zukunft-weinbau.de/forschung/piwi-liste/). True, few of the varieties deemed to have Switzerland as their country of origin (e.g., by Robinson, Harding, and Vouillamoz, 2012) are grown to significant degrees in other countries. Yet, there is an increasing demand from wine growers in all wineproducing countries for more information on alternatives to those relatively few “international” varieties that dominate the current global mix.
That demand for more wine grape information is driven partly by the desire of current producers to differentiate their products by diversifying their vineyards or reducing their dependence on chemical inputs. That, in turn, is helped by producer awareness of the impact climate changes (higher temperatures, changes in precipitation, and more extreme weather events) are having on wine grape quality and vineyard yields. One adaptation is to switch to warmer-climate or more-resilient grape varieties. Another strategy is to re-locate to higher latitudes or increased elevation.
Part of the demand is driven as well by fledging producers in cooler countries, such as in northwest Europe, as they contemplate investing in a new local industry.
At the same time, the biotechnology revolution is providing plant breeders everywhere with new opportunities, which is increasing the interest in exploring and exploiting desired traits (e.g., fungal resistance) of little-known varieties.
A further reason for this book to be valued is because the origins of Switzerland’s native grapes are poorly (or mis-)understood. Some varieties were likely introduced by the Romans, others imported from Italy by Benedictine monks, and still others may have come from Egypt or Constantinople.
No one is better placed than Dr. José Vouillamoz to cut through this haze. A Swiss grape geneticist, he is one of the world’s leading authorities on the origin and parentage of grape varieties through DNA profiling, having trained with Carole Meredith at the University of California, Davis. In addition to co-authoring with Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding the award-winning book Wine Grapes, he has authored numerous scientific articles on grape varietal parentage.
The book starts with a brief five-page history of the grape varieties of Switzerland over the past two millennia. Then, for each of more than 50 native grape varieties, the book presents the main synonyms, history, family tree, etymology, planted area, regions of cultivation, and types of wines produced.
This slim volume is not the magnum opus provided, for example, by D’Agata (2014) for Italian native varieties. But it is sure to be the go-to text for both scholars and wine producers interested in Swiss varieties. Hopefully, it will inspire qualified people in other countries to produce similar books for their regions’ varieties. It is also an excellent companion for anyone contemplating a stroll through the country’s vineyards, not least because it has a color photo of a grape bunch for the reviewed varieties to aid identification of varieties before you reach the cellar door or auberge for a grand tasting experience.
University of Adelaide and Australian National University
$13.69 (Kindle) at amazon.com (also in French: Cépages Suisses: Histoires et Origines, Lausanne: Ed. Favre, 2017
In German: Schweizer Rebsorten: Ihre Geschichte und Ursprünge, Bern: Haupt Verlag, 2018)