The challenges faced by the wine industry globally are echoed in the Swiss wine industry too. Setting aside the challenges brought by the global pandemic, we took a look through the lenses of sustainability, innovation and global warming to analyse the current developments taking place in the Swiss wine regions.
Growing demand for eco-friendly wine producers
Swiss winegrowers are constantly looking to innovate, deal with sustainability issues, and adapt to climate change. The need to be more sustainable or innovate arises from natural factors but also market forces such as a rising demand for sustainable wines (Swiss Wine, 2021). There is also an attraction to local heritage resulting in a preference for local grape varieties.
The underlying themes introduced in this pre-report were mostly confirmed via a field trip through two means: expert opinions obtained through interviews with winegrowers & winery directors, and personal perceptions of the wines tasted.
Sustainability in the wine industry
Resistant grape varieties are becoming more important. For example, at Agroscope Changins, they are focussing on creating fungal resistant varieties such as Divico and Divona. These grapes need less fungicides, therefore, it is better for the environment as it does not go into the ground and harm the biodiversity. Also, Piwi wines are being tested and researched as a result of the increasing trend of resistant grapes. It is important to say that when Agroscope tested the difference between organic and biodynamic wines, no difference was found. Nevertheless, more research must be done.
Different wineries have different approaches to sustainability procedures. For example, Domaine de la Colombe have a biodynamic approach, they also produce their own fertilizer. Jean René Germanier has been accredited the Bio Suisse Certificate for eight wines – this certificate focuses on using 100% chemical products that are made from natural products. Borger Weinbau works with organic spray products and a part of their vineyard is given at disposition for research and testing about sustainability in the vineyard. This winery works in a biodynamic way; however, they do not want the Demeter certificate on the labels because the owner wants to make his own decisions and not stick to the many Demeter regulations.
What is important to note is that due to the heavy rainfall this year, many wine producers are using non-organic products: organic sprays work only with up to 20 mm. of rainfall. We have seen that different vineyards have been affected by downy mildew, and an organic or biodynamic approach would not be enough to stop this disease.
All wineries said that they have seen an increase in sales since they adapted sustainable procedures such as becoming organic, biodynamic or natural. Sustainable wines are sold at a higher price since the production costs increase. However, this has not stopped the clientele from purchasing these wines as it is an increasing trend. There were other wineries that were not interested in converting from conventional to organic, biodynamic or natural. For example, Donatsch Winery does not produce natural wines as it is not part of their philosophy. Nevertheless, the winery tries to work on a more sustainable way in the vineyard. This demonstrates that most wineries try to be more and more sustainable even though not fully organic.
Also, some wine cellars and shops such as the Château de Villa and the Baur au Lac Vins are not too interested in selling sustainable wines because they do not need to: they are selling enough conventional wines. However, they both have a small section of organic, natural and biodynamic wines, and they agreed that the market for sustainable wines is increasing so that they will have to adapt and expand their offer.
Innovation in Viticulture
Switzerland is one of the most advanced countries in terms of innovation (World Intellectual Property Organization, The Global Innovation Index 2020). The institutional support and government subsidies make the work of organizations such as Agroscope or World Chasselas Conservatory center possible, making the Swiss wine industry arguably one of the most advanced in terms of introducing scientific discoveries and innovation as a strategy of adaptation to the climate change.
However, according to Masset et al. (2021), the ‘tight-flow’ organization of the Swiss wine sector “makes it very dependent on economic and climatic hazards”, combined with the complex organizational structure, the diversity of regulation and promotion bodies for each canton that create a lack of strong centralized support on the national level and high production costs. All these factors might represent an obstacle to innovation.
Nevertheless, the current achievements and on-going projects on innovation within the Swiss wine industry leave room for optimism. Agroscope’s work taken alone is already impressive by the short time it takes to implement scientific discoveries into the real-world conditions. As an example, the fungal disease resistant varieties that have been created are already actively used for wine estates all across the country, e.g. Gamaret and a newer Divico and Divona. With a view to preserve the natural levels of acidity in the wines, Agroscope’s research also focuses on exploring the innovative solutions in oenology, such as trials on using different types of bacteria and combining the two fermentations.
Other adaptation strategies to climate change seen during the business field trip include experimenting with resistant PiWi-varieties (PIWI International, 2021) explored by Shloss Reichenau, Michael Broger, domaine la Colombe among others, planting more heat-loving varieties, e.g., "Syrah planted on the northern limit of its ripeness in Valais", according to Gilles Besse, the winemaker of Germanier, or growing higher in altitude. The latter is explored by various estates including Domaine Louis Bovard, Donatsch, Germanier, Pircher. However, in most cases it is not so far permitted by the local appellation regulations.
How is Global warming effecting the wine making process?
In the pre-report, various themes related to global warming such as achieving balance in ripeness, i.e. between phenolic and sugar ripeness (Jones et al., 2005) and styles of wine being changed (Drappier et al., 2017). Specific to Swiss wine, it was hypothesised that rising temperatures may help winegrowers (Swiss Wine Promotion, n.d.) ripen international varieties (The Local, 2015) and potentially gain access to a wider market.
Weinbau Pircher and Domaine Louis Bovard attested for the better ripeness of their grapes in recent years while Michel Broger, Weingut Donatsch, and Pircher called global warming beneficial for the quality of their grapes. Donatsch contributed the idea that it might be too warm in the future for Pinot Noir, and Pircher said some of their varieties had to be replaced by “warmer” varieties (Muller-Thürgau by Grauburgunder and Grauburgunder by Riesling). With regards to changes in wine style, Bovard said withholding malolactic conversion helps retain acidity in riper grapes. They are also able to plant Syrah in Lavaux.
Climate change is also bringing about vine diseases and frosts to which winegrowers must adapt. One way is to experiment with different grape varieties like the Agroscope Changins. Another is organic fertilisers, which, according to Domaine de la Colombe, helped give their Chasselas wines higher acidity. Frosts were not a problem in Lavaux (possibly due to the moderating effect of the lake) but Grisons, where end-of-April frosts are normal, experienced earlier frosts which were damaging.
The winemaking industry against climate change
Overall, as seen during the field trip, the representatives of the Swiss wine industry seem very open and keen on experimenting with innovative viticulture and winemaking solutions. Together with a substantial, however, not unified government support, this creates the necessary motivating attitude for new creative climate change adaptation and prevention strategies to be explored, developed and implemented.
This report might be useful to see how Swiss wineries are adapting to their own needs as well as their clients’. However, its limitations are in the fact that there is a lack of information available about the Swiss wine market. It will be interesting to carry out further research into the efficacy of biodynamics, the market demand for sustainable wines, and how specifically new grape varieties or clones will help winemakers produce good wine consistently.