(Continued from “The Alpine Bastion III” on 1 June 2018)
Juxtaposed with German and French, which serve as sole or joint official languages in 21 and seven cantons respectively, Italian and Romansh may seem negligible in size, but not in terms of significance and understanding Swiss history. For starters, Italian is the sole official language of Ticino and one of the three official languages of Graubünden, whereas the status of Romansh as a joint official language is limited to Graubünden alone.
Ranked 5th and 8th largest by area and population respectively, Ticino joined the thitherto bilingual (German- and French- speaking) confederation in 1803, then in the form of the Helvetic Republic, a client state of France, as a direct consequence of the French Revolution. Situated south of the Alps, Ticino is densely wooded and mountainous, indeed amongst the most elevated cantons of Switzerland. Ticino traditionally marks the northernmost boundary of Italian influence, which ends at the foothill of the Alps, the northern side whereof is Franco-German territory. Since the early 20th century, Ticino has been known for it cool climate Merlot – a natural continuation of Lombardia’s portfolio of red grapes, perhaps?
All 26 cantons of Switzerland have either one or two official languages, except the trilingual Graubünden (German-, Italian- and Romansh-speaking), the only canton wherein Romansh is declared a joint official language. Ranked 1st and 15th largest by area and population respectively, modern day Graubünden used to be the heartland of the famed Helvetii, a Gallic tribe subjugated by Julius Caesar in the mid-1st century BC. Within the following decade or so, the Romans established a number of permanent settlements there, including Augusta Raurica (Basel), Noviodunum (Nyon) and Aventicum (Avenches).
The Helvetii were described in detail in Julius Caesar Commentarii de Bello Gallico, one of the first written records of modern day Switzerland, and the name lives on to this day, in the form of Confoederatio Helvetica, the official and politically neutral name of the Swiss Confederation. In using a Latin name, there can be no bias for or against any linguistic group. This is a key manifestation of Switzerland’s democracy and diversity: rather than engaging in futile and frivolous quarrels about, say, whether Cantonese and Catalan are languages vis-à-vis Mandarin and Spanish, political maturity led to a compromise on a middle ground.
Romansh is a descendant of sermo vulgaris, i.e. spoken Latin of the late republication / early imperial era. Although Romansh is spoken by no more than 60,000 people, it entails astonishingly six standards forms and seven dialects. Without subscribing to extreme determinism, this is how geography shapes history. The Caucasus is another example: for its modest size and population, the region is linguistically saturated not by languages, never mind dialects, but entirely unrelated language families. With the benefit of Weltanschauung, the Cantonese-Mandarin quarrel is a non-question.
In a nutshell, Switzerland is an extremely characterful wine-producing country surrounded by vinous powerhouses, including – clockwise – Germany, Austria, Italy and France. The vast majority of its wine is consumed domestically, with merely 2 peercent exported, and mainly to Germany. The price-quality ratio of Swiss wine is by no means the highest in Europe, but its nicheness is perhaps second to none, especially when it comes to Chasselas, indeed Switzerland’s idiosyncratic choice for a national variety.
To be continued one day…
A single-varietal Merlot from the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. Rich garnet with cardinal-purple, the aromatic nose offers sour cherry, liquorice and black coffee. With ample acidity and fruity tannins, the approachable palate delivers plum, dried herbs and charcoal. Medium-bodied at 12.5 percent, the tangy entry continues through a lively mid-palate, leading to a tart finish.
A single-varietal Pinot Noir from the trilingual canton of Graubünden. Dark garnet with carmine-ruby rim, the aromatic nose presents blackberry, cassis, nutmeg and sous bois. With bounteous acidity, tart tannins, the brooding palate supplies mulberry, black olive, cocoa and charcoal. Medium-full bodied at 13.5 percent, the dense entry persists through a chewy mid-palate, leading to a smoky finish.
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain, France,
and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages