Switzerland attracts millions of visitors each year, with an impressive 38.2 million overnight stays recorded in 2022 alone. Tourists flock there to sample and purchase its renowned luxury goods, from cheeses to chocolate and watches. During their stay, many may also be surprised to discover another premium product they’ve never encountered outside the country’s borders: Swiss wine.
Despite the fact that Switzerland is surrounded by heavyweight European producers like Italy, France, Germany, and Austria, visitors may be surprised to see parts of the Swiss landscape covered by sprawling vineyards. The reason? Though it produces over 26 million gallons of wine per year, less than 2 percent is marked for export. It’s a sharp contrast to the 77,000 tons of cheese and 118,000 tons of chocolate that leave every year.
With over 1,500 vineyards, Switzerland seemingly has ideal conditions to cement itself as a serious player in the wine industry. The people who know it love it, and the quality has increased exponentially over the last four decades — so why does so little Swiss wine leave the country?
The History of Swiss Wine
Switzerland has produced wines for centuries, though the quality has been historically unpredictable as it reckoned with the disastrous phylloxera outbreak of the 19th and 20th centuries. In order to increase vineyard productivity, Swiss viticulturists experimented with hybrid grape varieties, clonal selection, and fertilizers before the creation of the nation’s appellation system in 1986.
“There was a long period of time where producers just weren’t sure what to grow and how to grow it, so they were blending a lot of stuff together,” explains Daniel Hess, owner of Convivium Imports, a California-based importer that brings in wines and ciders from four Swiss producers. “In the 1980s, Switzerland kind of shifted gears and said, ‘We want to focus on quality. This is who we are. We make the best of everything.’”
Today, there are six winemaking regions across Switzerland — Geneva, Three Lakes, German Switzerland, Ticino, Vaud, and Valais — and over 60 controlled designations of origin. Each wine labeled with a controlled designation must be produced in a specific region and follow approved winemaking methods and yields. Furthermore, wineries must submit their products for a sensory and analytical test before they can enter the market. This increased regulation has not only boosted production in Switzerland, but drastically decreased the amount of wine produced annually.
Today, Swiss wineries barely produce enough to meet domestic demand, let alone the export market, though this is not unique to Switzerland. A number of other wine-producing regions have sufficient domestic demand to sustain winemakers — just look at Burgundy — yet consumers around the world are still able to find those bottles on shelves while Swiss wine remains elusive at best.
The Cost of Doing Business
From extreme challenges associated with exporting, to pushback from Swiss producers, and recognition on the American market, bringing Swiss wine into the United States can be an insurmountable feat.
“Switzerland is landlocked, so not only do you have the cost of exporting overseas, but there’s the additional cost of an internal European transfer.”
Cost is the first, if not greatest, obstacle to overcome, and begins with harvesting grapes and vineyard workers. “All workers that come in are paid extremely well,” says Brandon Austin, co-founder of Domaine Dardagny Inc., a direct-to-consumer wine club that exclusively imports from Switzerland. “They have full healthcare benefits, rights, housing — everything they need, right when they get here.” Given that many of Switzerland’s vineyards sprawl across steep mountainsides, they have to be hand-harvested, which only adds to the equation.
Consider, too, the sheer strength of the nation’s currency. The Swiss franc (CHF) ranks among the top-10 strongest in the world, with 1 CHF equivalent to roughly $1.12 at the time of writing. Then there’s the cost of simply getting products to the United States.
“Switzerland is landlocked, so not only do you have the cost of exporting overseas, but there’s the additional cost of an internal European transfer,” Hess explains. “[T]he product has to be trucked from Switzerland across the border to France — encountering a tariff cost — where it is then consolidated with French products and shipped here.”
The upshot is that only 307 Swiss wines are available in the United States, according to Wine-Searcher, a drop in the bucket compared to France’s 41,000 and Italy’s 24,000.
Is Anyone Even Interested in Exporting at All?
Not only is exporting Swiss wine expensive, many producers simply aren’t interested in selling their products internationally whether due to upsetting domestic partners or climate-related hesitancies.
“I can import a bottle of Pinot Noir that I think is marvelous here to the United States, but if it’s $300 and it’s from Switzerland and it’s sitting next to a similarly priced red from Burgundy, I don’t know how many people will reach for the Swiss Pinot.”
“Every producer has their own concerns, and some of them tell me directly, ‘I don’t make enough wine, and if I start carving some out for export, I’m going to have to disappoint some of my longstanding partners here in Switzerland,’” Hess says. “And if they do need to export, it’s much easier for them to export elsewhere in Europe where it can get put on a truck and there’s less cost.”
Other producers opt not to export because of environmental concerns. “I had some pushback from younger producers who straight-up told me they don’t feel comfortable with the carbon footprint,” Hess says. “[E]xporting to the other side of the planet where there is already so much wine just didn’t make sense to them. It’s a point I won’t argue against.”
Another hurdle many Swiss winemakers encounter is the lack of familiarity many foreign drinkers have with the nation’s leading varieties like Chasselas and Cornalin, which have to contend with more well-known grapes like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.
As for grapes produced in Switzerland that are well known — Pinot Noir, for example, accounts for 27 percent of Swiss red wine production — pricing the wines so they can compete against other regions is difficult, to say the least. “I can import a bottle of Pinot Noir that I think is marvelous here to the United States, but if it’s $300 and it’s from Switzerland and it’s sitting next to a similarly priced red from Burgundy, I don’t know how many people will reach for the Swiss Pinot,” Hess says.
Awareness Is on the Rise
Though getting a bottle to the United States is a feat in and of itself, once consumers are able to try some for themselves, a new world of educational opportunities awaits.
At Lavaux Wine Bar in the West Village, where Swiss wine is exclusively sold alongside light bites, the majority of non-Swiss patrons know absolutely nothing about the nation’s viticulture, according to general manager Christian Stemmer. “We are very famous for the cheese fondue, but when people come here, they also discover the wine,” he says. “They’re always very satisfied and surprised in a good way — I love it.”
A huge draw Swiss wine has is the country’s inherent small production, according to Austin and fellow co-founder Dylan Stine. Based on insights they encountered in this year’s Silicon Valley Bank report, they’ve identified a trend that indicates younger consumers favor smaller wine-producing countries and specialized grape varieties, which, in their opinion, makes it easier to increase interest in something new.
“We’ve [also] found that some consumers are growing a little bit of palate fatigue from the traditional varieties they may be used to,” Stine says. The same trend has been observed by Daniel Hess, who explains that he’s found a great deal of success in introducing American consumers to some of the more esoteric wines being produced in the Alpine country.
Through his experience importing, Hess has learned that people are willing to spend money on heavy hitters and “cult wines,” but that they’re also willing to take a risk on an unknown variety. “I first started hedging by bringing in some entry-level varieties like Gamay and Pinot Noir that some people may be interested in experimenting with, and now I can work more outside of those parameters,” he says.
Ultimately, each bottle is special because it reflects the national identity, which is to create goods of incredible quality. “This new generation of winemakers, their desire for excellence is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Hess says. “Their ability to work efficiently and precisely fits in perfectly with the Swiss way of life, all of which is all enhanced by their desire to be sustainable, holistic, and speak to who we are.”
Though Swiss winemakers have made massive strides to increase the quality of production, for now and into the foreseeable future, the best way to taste all of what Switzerland has to offer is by visiting the country directly.