The “First” Rhône Valley, part 2

Switzerland is practically unknown for wine production, at least abroad, although it is surrounded by notable wine producing countries. Germany, Austria, France, northern Italy all command considerable respect, whereas hardly anyone ever heard of Swiss wine. That is due to a number of factors, the least of which is latitude: roughly between 46 and 47.5 deg. N. It is the altitude, combined with the alpine climate, which requires vineyards receive maximum sun exposure. The steep, south-facing vineyards require manual labor and its produce is, therefore, expensive. All but about two percent of all Swiss wine production is consumed domestically.

The Valais is the first part of the Rhône valley, and the largest wine producing area in Switzerland. At Martigny, where the Rhône River makes a 90-degree turn, before emptying into Lac Leman, we enter the Canton de Vaud; the area is called Chablais, (no relation to the similar-sounding Chablis in France). It enjoys a similar climate as the Valais, but the plethora of grape varieties is focused on Chasselas for whites, and Pinot Noir for reds, although some Gamay is grown as well. Chasselas is a fascinating grape, eschewed in France for vinification, but esteemed, more than any other, as a table grape. In French-speaking Switzerland, it is the principal grape all along the Rhône valley, lake Geneva, and throughout the three-lakes region (more about that in a future post). In a wide range of aromas, Chasselas reflects the terroir of its origins. Interestingly, no white wine is called Chasselas but the most basic, because the wine is named, analogous to French custom, after vineyard and location. The notable vineyards are always located on hills with southern exposure.

The Chablaisconsists of several major appellations, AOC Aigle and Yvorne, Bex and Ollon, upriver from Lake Geneva. Villeneuve AOC is located at the end of the lake. These wines are dry, substantial, and rich in earthy aromas, with an elegant minerality. The pair well with seafood, shellfish, fresh-water fish, and they are enjoyed as aperitif. The one wine with an international reputation is the Aigle Les Murailles.

The northern shore of Lake Geneva is also know as the Swiss Riviera: Montreux, world-famous for the Jazz Festival, Château Chillon, famed by Lord Byron’s poem The Prisoner of Chillon, Vevey and Lausanne may be known. But wine lovers might be more interested in the following names: Lavauxis the wine growing area with the most notable vineyards. Saint Saphorin, Chardonne, Vevey-Montreux, Dézaley Grand Cru, Calamin Grand Cru, Epessess, Villette, Lutry are all the AOCs in the LavauxDézaley has its origins in a 1142 land-grant from the bishop of Lausanne to the Cistercian monks of Haut-Crêt. In very difficult manual labor, they developed the extremely steep, terraced vineyards and owned them until 1536. Dézaley is now property of the city of Lausanne. Both Calamin Grand Cru and Dézaley Grand Cru  vineyards located around the charming lakeside village of Cully. The wines of the Lavaux are almost exclusively white, vinified from the Chasselas grape, and have gone through malo-lactic fermentation. Their flavor profile typically shows bright and lively acidity, a harmonious balance and a long finish. They are ideally suited as aperitif, to accompany lighter first courses, fish and seafood. Every 25 years, the Fête des Vignerons is held in Vevey. It is most important event pertaining to wine in Switzerland and it dates back to the 17th Century. 1999, the last time it was held from July 30th through August 14th, and the next event will be 2019.

Near Lausanne is the famous village of Crissier, where Fredy Girardet, often referred to as 20th Century’s greatest chef (and restaurant), earned 3 Michelin stars. Girardet retired in 1996. His understudy Philippe Rochat is now running the Hôtel de Ville, and it is listed among the top 50 restaurants of the world.

Between the cities of Lausanne and Geneva, the terrain levels out and becomes less steep, making grape growing easier. This is La Côte, with the AOCs of Morges, Aubonne, Mont-sur-Rolle, Féchy, Perroy, Tartegnin, Coteau de Vincy, Bursinel, Vinzel, Luins, Begnins, Nyon.   This largest area produces about 40% of wines of the Canton de Vaud. About 70 % are white Chasselas, a quarter red Pinot Noir and Gamay, mostly blended, and the balance is specialties such as Sylvaner, Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, without much commercial significance. Wines from this area were among the first in the world to be bottled with screw caps, following the recommendation of the Swiss study published in 1981 about cork taint, or TCA.

Visiting the Lake Geneva area, following the flow of the Rhône headwaters toward the Mediterranean Sea, should include a boat trip visiting all the charming lakeside villages and sampling its wines.

The Canton de Genève, with Geneva at the center, the largest city in French-speaking Switzerland, was home of the reformer Calvin. It is a global cosmopolitan city of finance, diplomacy and the Red Cross. Visitors love Geneva for its charm and elegance. Our interest focuses on grapes and wines from Geneva. It enjoys a moderate climate and ideal soil conditions. The AOCs Satigny, Peissy, Choully, Russin, Dardagny, Lully, Choulex, Jussy make up Switzerland’s third-largest grape-growing area; the Canton de Genève employs modern, innovative and mechanized viticulture. The wines from Geneva are about equally white and red. Geneva has long-standing experience in marketing its great diversity of indigenous wines.

The course of the Rhône, from its inception at the glacier at Gletsch, flows southwesterly through the Valais, turns northwesterly as it enters the Vaud, then empties into Lake Geneva. All along the banks of the river and the lake, hundreds of years of grape-growing and winemaking expertise have shaped the culture. From Lake Geneva’s end, the Rhône flows southwesterly, leaving Switzerland for Lyons, then turning south and becoming the well known, famous Rhône Valley. The “First” Rhône Valley, the ValaisChablais, the Lake Geneva regions of Lavaux, La Côte, and Genève will never rival its better-known southerly offspring. That is exactly what makes it the hidden treasure it is. We at the Napa Valley Wine Academy are planning a trip to the “First” Rhône Valley in fall of 2014. It will include all of Switzerland’s wine growing regions: the Three Lakes region, Ticino, Bündner Herrschaft (Grisons) where a most peculiar wine called Churer Schiller is made from red and white grapes grown in the same vineyard and co-fermented. As such it is unique.

Tour de Suisse. In a series of articles on grapes, wine and wine customs of Switzerland, we will learn about these areas and its wines.



Jürg Oggenfuss, CSW.