Travel: Vaud for wine lovers
Whether you drive along the northern shore of Lake Geneva from Nyon round to Aigle, speed along in the tilting train, or even cover some of the distance on foot, you could be forgiven for thinking the only game in town is wine. Sue Style pays a visit
Here in Canton Vaud, the country’s second largest wine region, a quarter of all Swiss wine is produced. Everywhere you look, an artful patchwork of carefully tended vines teeters on terraces buttressed by drystone walls, criss-crossed by yellow-signposted walking trails and interspersed with small cobblestoned villages of old-world charm.
An enchanted land for wine lovers, the vineyards afford spectacular views out across the shimmering lake to France and distant Mont Blanc and the Dents du Midi. Many, particularly between Lausanne and Vevey, rival those of the Douro or the Mosel for giddying steepness and jaw-dropping beauty.
Practically any time of the year you decide to visit – spring and autumn are my favourites – the
likelihood is you will stumble upon some kind of wine festival, great or small. Every spring, the Arvinis wine salon ( www.arvinis.ch/en/) in Montreux assembles around 200 wine-growers for a full programme of tastings and workshops, while over the Whit weekend (the dates vary annually) it’s the turn of Caves Ouvertes when wineries throughout the canton throw open cellar doors for clients to taste and buy.
September sees the annual Lavaux Passion ( www.lavauxpassion.ch), a streetfest held in a different village each year offering more opportunities to taste, mingle and meet the wine-growers. This year’s event (in Cully) doubles up as a celebration of the 10th anniversary since the Lavaux vineyards were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their remarkable natural beauty. And mark your calendars now for the mother of all wine festivals, the Fête des Vignerons in Vevey, which has taken place approximately every 20 years since 1789 and will be staged next in summer 2019. Auditions have already started for this mind-blowing theatrical performance, which involves a handful of professionals and around 4,500 volunteer musicians, singers and dancers, aged between six and 96 years old, all with some connection to the local wine-growing scene.
The lakeside region divides into three sections. Starting at the western end, La Côte, stretching from close to Geneva around to Morges, is the biggest and most bucolic part. Vineyard holdings are larger here and vines rub shoulders with apple and pear trees.
First up in Founex is Les Frères Dutruy ( www. lesfreresdutruy.ch), which offers visits on weekdays to the original property in the village and on Saturdays to the modern winery close by. Julien Dutruy is an irrepressible guide to the domaine’s wines and a good example of Switzerland’s younger generation of well-travelled winemakers, with two-year stints in Bordeaux and Burgundy under his belt. Unusually for La Côte – a region majoring in Chasselas – the Dutruys’ main plantings are of Gamay, Pinot Noir and Gamaret.
Further round the lake at Mont-sur-Rolle, jovial winemaker Yves de Mestral’s Domaine de la Maison Blanche ( www.domainemaisonblanche.ch) sits on
‘When you age Chasselas from a prime site, it gets dressed up and becomes a jacket-and-tie wine!’ says Blaise Duboux
a gentle elevation overlooking the lake, surrounded by vines. If the weather is fine, tastings take place in the garden; it’s just the place to start testing Chasselas’ oft-quoted ability to faithfully reflect the terroir in which it is grown, as seen through the lens of de Mestral’s different cuvées of the same grape from various plots (plus a sparkling wine).
The central part, the Lavaux region, extends from Lausanne round to Vevey. This is home to some of Switzerland’s most venerated vineyards, originally terraced and planted in the Middle Ages by Cistercian monks and to this day responsible for some of the most elegant and ageworthy Chasselas.
There’s a huge concentration of talented wine-growers here (helpfully indicated by small brown signposts), among them Domaine Chappuis ( www.domainechappuis.ch) in Rivaz, a family-run estate established in 1335 – Christophe Chappuis belongs to the 22nd generation to make wine here. You can sign up for the ‘Lavaux Experience’, which involves a morning in the vineyard where he explains the tasks of the season followed by a tasting, lunch and three bottles to take home; or simply settle down in the cosy tasting room and work your way through his range of superb Chasselas and stunning red blends.
If you run out of time, or just fail to secure an appointment with one or other wine-growers, Vinorama, a wine bar-cum-shop in Rivaz will come to the rescue (see ‘Dine like a local’). The brainchild of Christophe Chappuis’s father Vincent, it gathers wines from around 150 vignerons in Lavaux all under one roof. The visit starts with a short video, which explains the winemaker’s year, then you can taste from the weekly-changing offer of open wines and/or buy a bottle to go.
Up the hill in the village of Epesses, biodynamic grower Blaise Duboux is another master of Chasselas and a firm believer in its ability to age (‘when you age Chasselas from a prime site, it gets dressed up and becomes a jacket-and-tie wine!’). He’s also an ardent defender of Plant Robez (aka Plant Robert), a Gamay clone thought to have arrived long ago from Burgundy, which took root here, then all but
‘the Lavaux region is home to some of switzerland’s most venerated vineyards, originally terraced and planted by monks’
disappeared in the 1960s and was resuscitated in 2002 by Duboux and a band of believers.
The final piece in the lakeside vineyard puzzle is the Chablais region, spread out along the right bank of the Rhône between the Château de Chillon and Bex, on the threshold of neighbouring Valais. Badoux, established in Aigle by Henri Badoux in 1908 and now part of the Schenk group, is famous for its best-selling Chasselas, Aigle Les Murailles, whose iconic label, painted by Frédéric Rouge in 1918 and unchanged ever since, shows the green lizard that basks in the estate’s steep shale/gravel terraces above the town. It’s their bread-and-butter wine, whose huge sales allow oenologist Daniel Dufaux to have fun with small cuvées of other whites (Viognier, Pinot Gris), reds (Pinot Noir, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc) and even an orange wine from Chasselas named Hommage; many of these can be tasted in the newly created wine bar and shop adjoining the winery.
The best part about visiting the Lake Geneva wine region is that distances are short – from Nyon to Aigle it’s barely 100 kilometres, or one hour speeding along the motorway or using the excellent train service. But speed, of course, is hardly the point. It’s the chance to slow down and wander gently through the vineyards, stopping along the way to familiarise yourself with the landscape, meet the people – and taste the very special wines.
Surrounded by some of the most-respected vineyards in Switzerland, Epesses enjoys magical views across Lake Geneva
Right and below: grand theatrical performances are acted out at the Fête des Vignerons
Château d’Aigle is situated just minutes from Lake Geneva
Above: Christophe Chappuis at the family vineyard in Rivaz
Above: you can taste the weekly-changing offer of open wines at Vinorama, a wine bar-cum shop in Rivaz Sue Style for Decanter (in association with Lake Geneva Region Tourist Office)