Switzerland is known for chocolate, watches and tourism; the white equilateral cross that marks the instantly recognizable Swiss flag does not typicall rouse thoughts of wine. Chandra Kurt, reveals the vinous dimensions of this small country, offering particular focus to the often-overlooked indigenous grape variety: petite arvine.
Originally introduced by the Romans, approximately 15,000 hectares of grapevines are cultivated throughout Switzerland. To put this figure into context, the total area under vine in Switzerland is around half that of Champagne and 0.2 percent of the global area.
In addition to a host of international varieties, Switzerland also boasts an extraordinary diversity of indigenous grape species that are rarely found outside Swiss borders. Most of these varieties are cultivated in the Valais, a region of striking contrasts; it manifests a climate that supports glaciers and palm trees, as well as saffron and cheese. With almost 5,200 hectares of vineyard in the Valais, the region produces about one-third of Switzerland’s total wine output. A series of more than 50 different indigenous grapes—such as petite arvine, heida, humagne rouge (also known as cornalin) and humagne blanche—complement the production of international varieties. Among the indigenous varieties, petite arvine, often simply acalled arvine, is the most popular.
There are some 154 hectares of petite arvine planted throughout Switzerland, mainly on Valais soils Many Swiss natives refer to the grape as ‘the queen of the Valais’ and consider it a perfect ambassador for the region. However, despite the historical roots of this aromatic grape variety, its penchant for producing high quality and distinctive wines is only a relatively recent realization. Arvine was first coined under the name arvena in Sion – the capital of the Valais—in 1602. Dr. Jose Vouillamoz at the University of Neuchatel has conducted DNA analyses into the origins of the varietal. He explains: The name could be derived from the old Latin ‘arvena’, meaning “just arrived” – a name that was possibly given to this variety as its introduction or birth.
Winegrowers know that petite arvine demands a lot of affection. Madeleine Gay, from Provins Valais (winner of the 'Swiss Winemaker of the Year' title in both 2008 and 2013) confirms as much:
"Petite arvine is like a diva, she needs so much attention-- more than many other grapes. Hot summer days followed by fresh nights [are the best growing conditions]". The grapes are small and compactwith a delicate skin that is ery sensitive to enviornmental influences. It is also difficult to find the best ate for harvest. [If the grapes are harvested] too early, you miht risk aggressive acidity and [if harvested] too late, the sugar content rises too high. With petite arvine, you can produce terrific sweet wines." During the vinification process, the grape exhibits its delicate character; the wine is not suited to filtration and usually closes up instantly after bottling.