‘Come for the views and stay for the wine’, should be your motto as your travel through one of Switzerland’s most picturesque lake-side spots, discovering some of its most iconic vintages along the way
Though a mere stone’s throw from some of the most famous wine-making regions in the world – think Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux, Alsace and Piemonte – Swiss wine rarely features in any discussion of the world’s finest producers.
This is primarily because the Swiss drink nearly all the wine they make. In 2016, for example, Swiss residents quaffed an impressive 89 million litres of domestically-produced wine, a third of all wine consumed in the country that year (the rest is imported). In total, only around 1% of what they produce is exported, mostly to neighbouring Germany.
So if you’re wondering why you rarely – if ever – see Swiss plonk on your supermarket shelves or even stocked by specialist wine merchants, this is not a reflection on quality, merely a conscious decision by this famously inward European nation to keep the best for themselves.
When you taste it, you’ll realise why. While Switzerland is world-famous for its cheese, wine may be its best-kept secret, and there are some incredibly noble wines being made all over the country.
Amazingly – and this only adds to the region’s appeal – almost all of it, all 36,922 acres according to the latest World Atlas of Wine, is non-commercially farmed. Instead, most of the vineyards are attentively managed by individual growers and producers, sometimes on incredibly small plots.
The variety is equally impressive; there are over 200 different types of wine grapes grown within Swiss borders.
Merlot, for example, grows well on the Italian speaking slopes in Ticino in the south. The high, steep slopes of the Valais, the valley through which the river Rhone carved its way through the Alps, produces excellent Syrah, while superb Burgundy style Pinot Noirs emerge from the German speaking heart of the country. A short bus ride to the suburbs of Geneva, meanwhile, is worth a detour if you like fruity, but not too zesty, Sauvignon Blanc.
But perhaps Switzerland’s most iconic wine region, and home to some of its best wines, is the Lavaux, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Vaud region that stretches for around 32 km along the banks of Lake Geneva from Chateaux Chillon (just outside of Montreux) to Lausanne. Winemaking has been going on here since the 11th century, when Cistercian monks started building the terraced vineyards down towards the lake. Today, production techniques may have improved, but wines are still painstakingly hand-crafted on the steep hillsides by the local vignerons.
Some of these plots are so steep that a monorail is needed to transport grapes and winemaking equipment around the vineyards, 61% of which are devoted to a single white grape, Chasselas – the undisputed star of swiss wine, which generally gives a delicate, balanced white wine with floral aromas and a satisfying minerality.
“Lavaux is indeed a wine region worth visiting for the views alone, and then staying for the wine!” says David Connolly, an Irishman who moved to Geneva in 2009 and now spends every harvest season picking grapes for the winery Ponnaz et Fils, which has around 7 hectares of vineyards dotted across the region.
“Locals talk about ‘three suns’ that the vines on these steep slopes get. The sun from the sky, the sun reflected from the lake, and the heat which the stone walls keep and release slowly in the evening.
“Terracing the land into small parcels remains the only possible way to grow wine here which means that many of the vine management techniques have changed little over the past hundred years. Most of the work remains manual, from pruning right through to harvesting. At harvest time, family and friends are called in to give a hand.
“The work is physical, carrying boxes of grapes up and down the old stone steps along the terrace walls, but the setting is breath-taking and the long days often run into long evenings at the cellar door!”
Fortunately for visitors, you don’t have to work so hard to experience what must be one of the most visually stunning wine regions in the world. In fact, it’s possible to walk the entire route via a typically well-maintained (this is Switzerland, after all) pedestrian-only pathway.
The trail links a series of impossibly chocolate-box-pretty towns, all of which are worth a stop for a quick look around. St. Saphorin, Rivaz, Epesses, Cully and Villette are just some of the villages along the way, and each is home to an impressive number of proud winemakers, all eager to let you try their version of Chasselas, which can vary amazingly, even between neighbouring vines. Just knock on the door of their caves (cellar) and if they’re home, they may just let you try a glass or two.
If that sounds too much like hard work, then fear not, each of the towns has its own train station, so it’s possible to work your way along the lake that way. Bikes and a mini-train, the Lavaux Express, are also easy options.
If the quality of the wine comes as a surprise, then the views are exactly what you would expect from one of the world’s most picture-perfect countries. With the Alps in the distance and Lake Geneva shimmering below, it’s surely one of the most sublime places in the world to submerge yourself in the world of viticulture.
It’s also an unmissable opportunity for a spot of al-fresco dining, whether at one of the many restaurants in town (try the local specialty, the delicious seafood dish filets de perche en frites or of course the better-known fondue) or by bringing your own supplies (Gruyère cheese anyone?) and stopping at one of the many viewpoints along the way for a picnic.
All, of course, accompanied by a chilled glass of Chasselas. Salute!