Ellen Wallace is a sought-after specialist in Swiss wine and author of the newly-released book, Wine Hiking Switzerland. In this Meet the Member interview, Amanda Barnes learns why Mateus brings back sentimental and snowy memories of her childhood, as well as why cycling across China led her to Switzerland.
What’s your earliest memory in wine?
I grew up in Iowa, in the US, and although it was post-Prohibition, my father could buy his whisky only by crossing the state line, and then only in a plain brown paper bag. Beer was a rarity in my house and wine was not something I’d hear of until my parents won a trip to Spain and came home with an airport bottle of Mateus. We shared it over the Christmas ham dinner with mashed potatoes, green peas and lemon meringue pie, while snow piled up outside and Bing Crosby sang on vinyl records. A cultural hodgepodge that wasn’t an auspicious wine-lover beginning, but I do remember thinking how nice it was that my straight-laced teetotaller mother seemed to have a more liberated side to her that night.
What led you to live in Switzerland, and how has Swiss wine shaped your career?
I had been living in Paris and working as a black-market labourer for nearly seven years in 1985, despite paying taxes there – taxation without a permit wasn’t uncommon in France – when I decided it was time to become an honest worker, elsewhere.
About the same time, I met an Englishman from Zimbabwe who was living in Switzerland, and we decided to ride our bikes across China together. Post-French bureaucracy and several thousand kilometres of Chinese roads later, Switzerland began to look like a piece of heaven on earth. The move was sealed when I went to the foreign affairs office in Bern and was told I could have a resident/work permit the next day. I was working for Time Magazine and Business Week, covering news, as I had done in France. French business news always included the wine industry, but rarely had I seen the small and charming side that wine fans like to believe in.
I was astonished therefore to discover neighbouring Switzerland had wine – a lot of it, artisanal and very good, with spectacularly beautiful Alpine vineyards. I was smitten! I continued to report and eventually to publish news, always making sure it included plenty of wine writing. The love affair deepened.
I’ve written this on my web site, and I stand firmly by it: ‘Today Switzerland is to wine what Scandinavia once was to interior design. It is a showcase for precision, discretion, and a vision that calls for products tied closely to their place of origin. These are clean and contemporary wines; you could almost argue that form follows function, the modernist credo. There is respect for the land and its history, for traditional handling of materials, but here function means understanding what the educated wine palate of a Swiss wine-lover desires.’
What excites you most about Swiss wine today and what trends should members keep an eye out for?
I get excited because in Switzerland while heritage is respected, winemakers here listen to their grapes and focus strongly on understanding what the terroir can provide – this isn’t just a marketing concept. They are determined to discover how to make wines that reach this potential. There is a lot of humility alongside real pride in the beauty of the place, the labour, and the wines. Happily, Swiss wine-lovers, who consume all but 1.5% of wine produced here, are just as interested in wines made with this ethos – and given that tiny Switzerland is the largest market for a number of other wine countries, the Swiss palate is one that demands respect.
What I suggest people look out for in Switzerland is first of all the grapes, and the shifting patterns of where varieties are grown as the impact of climate change offers new possibilities. There is a lot of experimentation and one of the joys of Swiss wines is how much they benefit from the extent to which growers and vignerons share their knowledge with each other. There are a growing number of success stories with PIWI varieties as winemakers better understand how to work with them. Strong interest in natural wines from younger consumers means these are becoming better and more interesting.
Native grapes such as Cornalin and Petite Arvine, particularly in the Valais region, continue to garner attention, with good reason. The most marked change or trend is that the handful of very high-quality producers who were pioneers in exporting two or three decades ago is expanding to a much larger group – look for younger producers who are making exquisite wines and are happily selling some of them abroad. A disastrous, tiny 2021 harvest for many of them will be offset by a very good 2022 vintage. You can find some of them in my book.
Tell us about your new book and what inspired you to start the project…
Wine Hiking Switzerland was published in September this year in English, French and German by Helvetiq, in Basel and Lausanne, and is a collection of 50 wines, 50 wineries and 50 hikes. It is designed to get all wine-drinkers out walking to learn more about where the wines come from, and to get hikers to stop by and learn about the wines made from the vineyards that you see when you hit the trails in this country. Drinking wine and hiking are surely two of the most popular activities in this country and it seemed a natural fit to bring them together.
For me, personally, researching, walking, recording and editing descriptions of 50 hikes in six months was a terrific, if daunting, way to get out of the funk I was in from the isolation of Covid that hit immediately after my husband died from an accident. It was a mega-dose of physical and mental therapy. And it’s given me a chance to talk about wine to a larger public. I’ve been keen to encourage people who don’t normally read about wine to better understand that it’s not just a drink, but the point where the land and its bounty, plus people and history come together – culture in its richest sense. There shouldn’t be anything intimidating about this, but it should prompt respect and on occasion awe. If you can take a walk in a beautiful place and realize this, I’m happy.
Is there any other wine country that’s particularly close to your heart?
Researching my book also gave me the desire to get on the road again to some of my favourite other wine places, with Spain at the top of my list: especially newer wines including whites from Rioja, the waves-crashing dynamic whites from Galicia, the fun and often beautiful wines from creative young garage wineries in Andalusia in the south, where I just had a mineral and dense Syrah from high above Malaga. Catalan wines are a favourite, but my special loves are Ribeira del Duero’s northernmost reds, whose wild mountain land, weather, and rugged people have so much in common with my adopted home, the Swiss Alps.
Wine Hiking Switzerland is available to purchase here.