Switzerland may be known as the land of watches and cuckoo clocks, but it also has another speciality: wine. Wine has been made in Switzerland for more than 2,000 years. As in France, the spread of viticulture here during the Middle Ages was largely driven by monasteries.
Switzerland now has an extensive range of grape varieties, among which the most widespread is Chasselas (called Fendant in Valais). The Swiss are the only nation that makes use of all its qualities: from this one grape variety, they produce a wonderful diversity of delicate white wines.
The canton of Thurgau is well known for its orchards and strawberries, but it also has a rich history of viticulture. There are several vineyards along the shores of Lake Constance, but many can also be found scattered between the castles on the hills and in valleys of the Canton. Developed in Germany by Prof. Müller (from Thurgau), the like-named early maturing white grape variety is one of the principal white grapes cultivated in German-speaking Switzerland. Oddly, Müller-Thurgau is known only as such outside of Switzerland, where it is locally referred to simply as Riesling with Sylvaner grape.
The canton of Valais is probably best known for the Matterhorn and ski resorts such as Zermatt and Verbier. However it also enjoys high summer temperatures and sunshine, giving it an almost Mediterranean climate – quite an achievement for a landlocked country this far from the sea. The wines made here include Vin des glaciers, a wine made above all from the Rèze grape. The wine is usually aged for 10-15 years in larch barrels, but the casks are never completely emptied. Every year, new wine is added. Every bottle contains traces of wine that could date back over a century.
For those who think of Switzerland as a white wine producer, it may be surprising to find that the country now has more red-variety plantings than white. Switzerland produces an excellent Pinot Noir, which can be found in all the wine-producing regions of Switzerland, and the Merlot from Ticino is considered a fair rival to any from the Bordeaux region.
An enjoyable way of discovering Switzerland's wine consists of its wine trails. The Crans-Montana Wallis path runs for about five miles from Siders (Sierre) to Salgesch, through the vineyards and the lovely landscapes of the Rhone valley. Visit the Wine Museum at the Castle Villa in Siders (Sierre).
In the Chablais region, a path starts in Yvorne, running through the villages of Aigle and Ollon and ending in Bex. In Aigle there is a Wine Museum in the old Castle. An evening with dinner at the Grand Hotel du Lac in Vevey is a must.
Biel is known for its watchmaking, but you can also discover the old tradition of winegrowing in this beautiful region. From Le Landeron, you can travel through 18 traditional wine-villages to Vaumarcus in Neuchatel.
Wine Museum: Castle Villa, Rue Ste-Catherine 4, Sierre, Tel: +41 (0) 274563525 www.museevalaisanduvin.ch
Aigle Wine Museum: Château d'Aigle, 1860 Aigle Tel: +41 (0)24 466 21 30 www.aigle-tourisme.ch
Grand Hotel du Lac: Rue d'Italie 1, 1800 Vevey, Switzerland, Tel: +41 (0) 21 925 06 06, www.hoteldulac-vevey.ch