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Switzerland is perfect. Anyone from there will tell you as much, especially while you’re in their country. The location, the history, the currency, the scenery, the skiing, the houses, the transit, the hotels and the roads are all perfect, and the Swiss take the time to patiently explain this any time we stop the car to take photos—which happens a lot here.
To a large extent, the Swiss are right about Switzerland. The country boasts some of the prettiest landscapes in the world, some of the most scenic and well-kept roads (the San Bernardino Pass and the gorgeous twisting highways through Davos en route to Austria), as well as some of the most well-preserved medieval towns in Europe.
The Swiss and Their Unique Tastes
Because this is Switzerland and the Swiss we’re talking about, they also claim to have perfect wine. You may never have heard that before and there’s a simple reason: the Swiss think their wine is so good that they don’t share it. According to the international wine nerds at Jancis Robinson, only 2% of Swiss wine is exported. What ferments in Switzerland stays in Switzerland.
The country is also relatively small, so no single region is more than 300 km away from Basel. In a week, you can tour most of the country and gulp down gallons of wine, and you should.
Switzerland is also distinctly regional, with the dominant language groups separated only by the odd mountain range. For any oenophiles out there, that’s great news: different palates and wine-growing approaches are only a few hours’ drive from each other. There’s the Italian influence in the south, the German inspiration in the north and east, and the French impact in the west. The Swiss love sweet reds, especially in the German and Italian areas, though the French areas in the west produce the bulk of Swiss wine in, arguably, the most breath-taking wine region.
Wine, Wine and More Wine
Which brings us to the best place to start a wine tour of Switzerland. Along the northern shore of Lake Geneva, east of Lausanne, wine-growers have defied gravity for over 1,000 years at the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces. In 2007, UNESCO deemed the Terraces a world heritage site. Lavaux is one of many producers in the area, with many others spanning a 30 km-long, train-served area along Lake Geneva that encapsulates the best of Switzerland in one neat bundle: mountains reflecting on still waters, manicured landscapes, regular and reliable public transportation, and Michelin-starred restaurants.
Despite the reliable transportation network, Switzerland is really best experienced by car, which offers certain advantages on a wine tour. While your driving days are likely to end early after tastings, a car allows you to link wine regions and take your time puttering around the mountains. With your own wheels, a detour through the Rhône Valley (with more vertical vineyards and more sweet reds) toward the Italian-speaking region of Ticino is strongly recommended. Take the long road back via the stunning San Bernardino Pass, picturesque Lucerne and hip Zurich. The roads are slow and winding and, for the short time we were in the country, we stopped hundreds of times to take photos of idyllic trains, meandering cows, the endless sky, or the latest in an infinite series of quaint mountain villages. There’s always a spot for a picnic—and you can bring your own bottle of wine to boot.
Alsace: Where Everyone Who Travels to Switzerland Goes
If you begin to find the Swiss wine a little too sweet (and the country a little too expensive), the Alsace wine region of France is a mere 20-minute train ride (40-minute drive) from Basel. Known more for its white wines than its reds, Alsace lives and breathes wine tourism: it has an officially mapped-out wine route for tourists that has been operating for 60 years, and many of its small towns are linked by hiking or cycling trails. (Remember, though, that Switzerland isn’t in the Eurozone, so crossing into France requires a currency exchange to buy that cheap, cheap wine.)
Most vineyards in Switzerland offer tours and tastings—with information on their websites in French, English, German or Italian—and local tourist information centres (most of which speak English or French) will connect you with your preferred winery. Wine tours generally run March through November, but the best months are in summer when you can hike or cycle between vineyards. You’ll find dozens of organized tours, or can go rogue and walk/cycle/drive yourself from grape to grape.