In the 30 odd years that I have been coming to Switzerland, I haven’t always taken Suisse wines very seriously. That doesn’t mean I haven’t tasted and drunk my fair share over the years, but I haven’t really paid attention to what I was drinking. I wrongly assumed that Swiss production was dominated by white – perhaps because that’s what goes so well with the traditional dishes of raclette and fondue and I thought naming a wine Fendant rather odd, more reminiscent of a soft-centred chocolate than a wine.
Although I love the way the Swiss restaurants serve the wines by the decilitre in little table top decanters, allowing you to taste a little and then whistle up another few more ‘decis’ depending on how thirsty you are, not seeing a label does keep the wines rather anonymous. Another excuse for my ignorance is that Swiss wine doesn’t get out much. Only about 1% is exported; the Swiss are no slouches when it comes to drinking, 4th in the world of wine consumers, at 33 litres per capita per year, most of which is Swiss so only about 1 – 1.5% leaves the country. If you want to drink Swiss – you must come to Switzerland.
Thanks in large part to the enthusiasm of (and gifts from) fellow Swiss wine educators I have started paying more attention, so last week when Raphael Gross from the Cesar Ritz Hotel School, offered to take to some Swiss vineyards I jumped at the chance.
The whole of the Swiss wine growing regions could fit comfortably into the Medoc but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand. The diversity of varieties (over 240 although ‘only’ 75 appear in the official statistics) is mind-boggling. Names such as Petite Arvine and Humagne are strangers to those of us more familiar with the international varietals. Pinot Noir may dominate the red plantings (of which there is more that white) but it is Chasselas that dominates white wine production with 27% of total planting.
So Chasselas seemed like a good place to start, in France it is pretty much confined to table grapes, but its home is here on the Slopes above Vevey at Dézaley in Vaud. Vaud is the second largest wine region of Switzerland (25% of production just behind the Valais at 33%) and the scenery is simply breath taking.
The soils are a mix of clay and limestone, spread along the middle of the slope, with a Southern exposure and sun reflecting up from the lake giving ideal ripening conditions.
The geography is definitely challenging – that view down to Lake Geneva might be spectacular but it doesn’t make it easy to work. The vines are all terraced, with walls built by hand by the original wine making monks in the middle ages and maintained ever since. Every thing has to be done by hand, tractors cannot work the steep gradients and even helicopters have been called into service for sulphating against mildew and for lifting the crates of hand picked grapes out during the harvest. More traditionally, and affordably, they use little containers winched up and down on cables, but the work is back breaking.
Chasselas is known as Fendant when it comes from the Valais at the end of Lake Geneva, but here in the lovely UNESCO World Heritage site of Lavaux, it is known by the appellations based on local villages.
The Fonjallaz family has been growing grapes and making wine here since the 16th century. 17th generation Louis Fonjallaz made wine around the world before coming back to work with his father on their four ha vineyard, most of which are here high above Lake Geneva between Lausanne and Montreux. They have been around for so long there are lots of Fonjallaz in the tiny hillside village of Epesses – it’s a bit like Burgundy – where every cellar door seems to carry a variation of the same name.
Louis Fonjallaz is a ‘viticulteur encaveur’ growing grapes and making thirteen different wines from this tiny vineyard but we were here for the Chasselas. We tasted the appellations: Epesses, Calamin Grand Cru and Dézaley Grand Cru, sitting in his ‘tasting room’, a pergola perched on the slope overlooking his vines of Calamin and the breath-taking view of the Swiss Riviera,
Epesses is popular as an aperitif wine; its acidity being reinforced by a slight ‘frizzante’ or ‘perlant’, malolactic fermentation gives the wine a weight and mouth-feel that balances their floral character.
The designation Grand Cru on these wines depends not on just on site but on planting density, yields and winemaking specifications. Calamin, for example, is always a Grand Cru. The terroir of this 14 ha appellation being more soil than rock, thanks to an ancient landslide, this gives a more mineral personality to the wine with an elegant mouth-watering bitterness to the finish.
The 55 ha Dézaley appellation, is known as the Balcony of the Lavaux, see the view above, and has now been official declared the origin of Chasselas. The Fonjallaz Dézaley belongs to the La Baronnie Dézaley association, a group of 11 producers that sell and promote their wines together in cases of 12 mixed bottles identified by a specific bottle, aiming to increase the reputation of these small production wines. Dézaley wines have a surprising ageing potential, Louis shared a 1999 with us, still fresh but with a beeswax character reminiscent of older Pessac Léognans.
We continued my education over lunch at the Auberge de l’Onde in St Saphorin. Here in the heart of the vines, Jérôme Aké Béda, (2015 Gault & Millau Swiss Sommelier of the Year), presides over a cave with an eclectic and international range of wines but remains an enthusiastic ambassador for the local Chasselas. My head was spinning (in a good way) after a whirlwind wine tour in a glass, of Switzerland from Chardonnay to Chenin Blanc from the Tessin to the Valais.
Swiss wine discoveries are not only amongst the vineyards; the magnificent Beaurivage Palace in Lausanne has one of the largest wine cellars in the whole of Switzerland with over 75 000 bottles, and 3000 different wine listings including over 250 Swiss wines. Here, another Gault & Millau Sommelier of the Year, Thibaut Panas, will also be happy to share his favourites from the region and beyond in the feutré atmosphere of the bar or Michelin star Anne-Sophie Pic restaurant. It’s the perfect base from which to discover region.
If you want to discover more, come and visit. The association Vaud Oentourisme groups together vineyards, local restaurants and other tasting experiences making it very easy. Swiss Wine Tourism is now officially a thing.