The canton of Vaud is the second-largest wine-growing region in Switzerland. The region has been growing grapes and making wine since Roman times. Today it accounts for about a quarter of the country’s total production.
The region consists of eight designated AOCs (appellation d’origine contrôlée which means “controlled designation of origin”). Six of these are primarily on Lake Geneva’s northern shore and just below the southeastern tip at the northern tip of the Rhone Valley before it enters Lake Geneva. These AOCs are:
- Dezaley Grand Cru
- Calamin Grand Cru
- La Cote
La Cote is the largest of these AOCs and produces the largest range of grapes. Other AOCs, such as Lavaux and Bonvillars, produce a few reds, especially, light and minerally Pinot Noir, Plant Robert (a variant of Gamay) and a little Mondeuse (a red grape that likes stony vineyards). But with more than two-thirds of the region’s production focused on white wines—especially Chasselas—reds clearly play a weak second fiddle.
Chasselas (pronounced sha-sa-la) produces delicate, light-bodied, low-alcohol (11%-13%), fruity wines with balanced acidity and a bit of effervescence. The wine is ideal for cutting the fat of the region’s cheese fondue and raclette. The high-yielding varietal is ideally suited to the region’s cool, marginal growing conditions since the grapes ripen early (i.e., well suited to areas with short growing seasons and that are susceptible to early frosts). It can also grow in a wide range of soils, from chalk and sand to clay and gravel, and tends to take on the characteristics of its terroir.
The Lausanne area produces much of the region’s Chasselas. The grape is grown between La Cote area to the west, and Lavaux (known especially for its famous Dezaley vineyard) to the east, and, to an extent, in the Chablais area, where the Rhone River flows into Lake Geneva (before eventually flowing out the other side in France).
You can find the grape particularly in the endless number of steep terraces that have been cut into the nearly vertical mountains. The terraces follow the contours of the land, all providing maximum exposure to the sun and overlooking Lake Geneva. The area is beautiful to visit and looks much like the terraces of the Mosel, Rhine and Douro river valleys.
Grand Traversée de Lavaux
The Grand Traversée de Lavaux is a 35 km paved trail that takes one through the vineyards that overhangs the lake and passes through a number of picturesque wine villages and hundreds of vineyards. It goes from Lausanne to the Chillon Castle. We took an abbreviated walk of about 5 kilometers.
Our walk took us through the towns of St-Suphorin, Rivaz and Epesses and the parts of the Lavaux, Dezaley and Calamin regions. We were captivated by:
- Quaint towns with their small family-owned wineries and tasting rooms (all of which were closed on the rainy Saturday morning that we visited during harvest season);
- The incredibly terraced vineyards thanks to the monks of the Middle Ages who built most of them; and
- How every available square foot was planted with grapes. Some terraces accommodated as few as two rows and one tiny plot was large enough to accommodate only five vines!
The grapes are mostly tended and picked by hand. The only bit of automation we saw was a single, tiny cog-track that allowed farmers to move fertilizer up, and move grapes down from the steep terraces by cart, rather than carrying it all on their backs.
But if you expect to take a walk through the area and taste wines, plan ahead. Many places are only open by appointment. We were there on a Saturday morning during crush season and ran into only one open tasting room—a roadside stand where the proprietor’s wife described and guided us through a tasting of their four wines. We suspect she was only there for a small tour group which was leaving as we walked by. Since we were there, she stayed open for us but closed up the stand as soon as we left. These Didier Junhof wines were:
- 2018 Les Cotes Dezaley Grand Cru (dry and minerally with nice acid);
- Les Deserts St.-Saphorin (a bit fruity for our tastes) Chasselas;
- 2017 Pinot Noir (quite austere); and
- A pleasant 4 Cepages (merlot, pinot noir, and syrah) assemblage.
Although merlot doesn’t normally like cool climates, the vines are planted next to the terrace walls, where they benefited from the heat stored and radiated from the stone.
But looking at all these terraces, and thinking of the all those Middle Ages monks who labored so hard to build them made us even more thirsty. We needed wine!
Since so few wineries were open for tasting wines, we stopped at the Lavaux Vinorama regional tasting room and wine store. Our GPS took us to a location that was over a mile from the actual location. Fortunately, we asked directions from a kind person who gave us a ride to the real location.
Once there, we tasted and learned about many of the area’s wines. Our host began with an overview of the area and its overwhelming focus on Chasselas (which accounts for 75 percent of the region’s planting). Red, especially pinot noir, gamay, and syrah, account for 20% with other whites accounting for the remaining five percent.
She explained how Chasselas is a relatively neutral grape that picks up and displays the characteristics of the soil in which it is grown (which emphasizes the importance of individual appellations). She also provided an overview of the various regions and their soil types (samples of which we saw in an adjacent room). She told us that earning a Grand Cru classification is automatically awarded to wines grown in Dezaley and Calamin regions (due to their unique soils). Other wines can earn it by complying with specific requirements, such as limitations on yield (typically about one kg per square meter), sugar levels and so forth.
After our introduction, we were ready to taste some wines. We began with a flight of five wines beginning with three 2018 Chasselas wines:
- Maurice Mayroud from St.-Saphorin, with its refreshing, fruity taste;
- Cret-Dessous Calamin Grand Cru, which is more minerally, but also very nice, and our favorite of the tasting; and
- Le Philosophe Dezaley Grand Cru, which was smoother and rounder and suited for current drinking, but also very well suited to aging.
This got us into a discussion of the aging potential for these wines. While most are intended to be consumed within about three years, some of the Grand Crus, especially those from Dezaley, can age for 20 years or more. As they age, the oxidation turns them into a more caramelly color with tastes of honey, caramel, dried apricot, and hazelnut, among others.
We then tasted two of the region’s red wines:
- 2016 Pinget blend St.-Saphorin Grand Cru (70 percent pinot, 20 percent diopinor, and 10 percent marat), which had nice structure and a nicely restrained fruitiness; and
- 2017 Epesses Plant Robert, a Gamay variant that was light, watery and had no character. It bore no similarity to the deeper bodied, much more interesting 2017 Denis Farquex Plant Robert from Riex that we had the previous night at dinner.
Based on our preferences and our descriptions of what we liked and disliked, our host suggested that we try three additional wines:
- A 2017 Pierre Ponjalloz (nice and crisp) Chasselas:
- A more nuanced, fuller-bodied 2018 Cheinde Fer Dezaley Grand Cru Chasselas, which we preferred;
- A 2016 Toveyre Merlot from the Chardonne region, which we found to be lighter than warmer-climate merlots with which we are familiar, but still quite pleasant.
A large plate of aged local cow’s milk cheese from the town of L’etivaz accompanied the wines.
Overall, it was a great experience. We walked away with a much greater appreciation and a different perspective for the region’s wines and especially of the Lake Geneva region’s fixation on Chasselas.