In the world of wine, Swiss vineyards are rarely uttered in the same breath as those of Bordeaux, France or Napa, California, despite much of the Swiss wine region sharing a similar climate and the same fertile soil as these famous regions. The Swiss also have a proud winemaking culture dating back to the Romans. The Swiss people love their wine and Switzerland ranks among the top 10 countries in the world for per capita wine consumption.
Why, then, are Swiss wines so rarely discussed in global wine circles?
Essentially because Switzerland has an exporting problem.
Currently, only 2% of wine harvested and bottled in Switzerland is moved abroad, and most of those vintages head north, to Germany or Austria. The rest is consumed domestically, where the population is less concerned with the branded marketing, name recognition or history that helps the most popular wines travel far and wide.
Now, one company that recently changed its name is also angling to change the dynamics of the Swiss wine market. Chateau Constellation, a winemaker formerly known as Giroud Vins from the Valais region, or “canton”, has undergone a branding change that it hopes will help it tap into an ever-expanding international market. Specifically, President Charles Albert Fumeaux said that the “chateau” delineation, a name based on the original and impressive architecture of the original Giroud winery, will help achieve the company’s goal since wines with called “chateau” sell better on the export market.
The name change did not come without a fight, though. The cantonal chemist of Valais at first refused to recognize the new name, arguing that the “chateau” demarcation was inaccurate and illegal. Traditionally, a chateau wine uses grapes from vineyards situated in a very specific geographic area. Chateau Constellation employs a staff of nearly 100 and uses grapes from 300 different vineyards in the Swiss wine region. Ultimately, a federal judge ruled in the company’s favor after Chateau Constellation asserted that their name was a brand and not the wine type. In mid-September, the decision was handed down and the transition to Chateau Constellation will be fully effective Jan. 1, 2015.
Even with the courthouse victory, Chateau Constellation faces an uphill climb. After catering almost entirely to the Swiss domestic population for so long, the winery will now have to solicit new business from abroad. Luckily, the company has the innovative Dominique Giroud, who build Giroud Vins from scratch into a small empire over the past two decades, backing this new expansion. Moreover, the Swiss domestic market is saturated with wine. Not only do the Swiss consume most of the domestic product, but the country is also a larger importer of beaujolais than the United States. And the export market is ripe for a new player. Today, 91 million hectoliters of wine are exported each year, nearly double the rate of the 1980s. That number represents 38% of the worldwide wine consumption.
While Swiss wineries still play second fiddle to neighbors France and Italy, not to mention the booming Napa Valley in the United States, the landmark court ruling to allow Chateau Constellation a new name may help close that gap. The new company, led by Giroud and Fumeaux, hopes to finally show the world what the Swiss are capable of when it comes to wine.