Fond of Fondue?

We paid a brief visit to a very good friend in Geneva recently and so, of course, we had to sample the national dishes, raclette and fondue. Both are cheese-based; raclette is a semi-hard cows’ milk cheese from the Alpine regions which, traditionally, was heated in front of a fire (now electric ‘toasters’ are more commonly used) and then the melted part scraped off and served on bread, like a sort of Welsh Rarebit.

For a fondue, the cheese is melted in a large pot, mixed with wine and garlic (or anything else, depending on local whim) and then you dip bread on a long-handled fork into the creamy, steaming pot.

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Here, rules seem to be less specific about exactly which cheeses to use (gruyere and emmental are said to be best, although the version we had included some delicious vacherin). Less traditionally, fondues can also be made with meat or chocolate mixtures in the pot – just don’t tell the Swiss!

Both raclette and fondue make simple, filling meals, best shared with friends. But, this is a Wine Blog, so the question inevitably arises: what should I drink with it? For me, white goes better than red with the creamy texture of the softened cheeses. And, as I always want to sample the local output, I chose a bottle made from the most widely planted variety in the region, Chasselas (also known sometimes as Fendant).

Fondue wine

From the Cave de l’Hôpital Epesses, in the close-by Lavaux region, this was fresh, crisp and a very drinkable match with the dishes.

There’s little point in searching for it (or many other Swiss wines) outside the region, as the Swiss export barely 2% of their entire production – a shame because the quality is usually quite high; a fact that was certainly a very pleasant surprise to our locally-based friend.

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Swiss Wine Triggers a Memory

Part of the beauty of enjoying wines is the memories it can trigger. A bottle a good friend of ours, who is currently working in Switzerland, brought back for us on one of her brief visits did just that. You very rarely find Swiss wine in the UK; production is small and almost none of it is exported – figures showing that more than 95% is consumed locally, so her gift was especially welcome.

Swiss PN

Cave St-Pierre’s Pinot Noir comes from the Valais region, home to some of the highest vineyards in Europe. Here, the steep, south-facing slopes overlook the infant River Rhône before it empties into Lake Geneva (Lac Leman to the locals) and provide ideal sites for vineyards, offering the vines excellent exposure to the sun and good drainage – both essential to full ripening of the fussy Pinot Noir grape.

And the result is delicious: a quite light-bodied red – more reminiscent of an Alsace Pinot Noir than one from Burgundy – but smooth and with lovely raspberry fruit, good balanced acidity and a long, dry, elegant finish.

In recent times, as tastes have moved in favour of red wines, Pinot Noir has taken over from the white variety Chasselas as the most widely planted in Switzerland, although Müller-Thurgau, Chardonnay, Silvaner and Pinots Gris and Blanc are still widely planted. Among red varieties, Gamay, Merlot (strangely also made into a white wine in the Italian-speaking Ticino region) and Syrah (Shiraz) are well represented but it’s almost certain that you’ll need to travel to the country itself to enjoy any of these.

And the memory I hinted at earlier? I’m fairly sure that the first time I ever tasted a Swiss wine was over a meal at the long-closed Swiss Centre in London many years ago. I have a particular reason to remember the occasion because my dining companion at the time, Hilary, soon became my wife – and now, more than 40 years later, we were able to celebrate with this bottle given by our friend, who had no idea of its significance!