Chasselas: a symbol of Swiss winegrowing

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Text: Chandra Kurt Photos: Gian Vaitl

Chandra's Cooking with Wine

My unconditional love of Swiss wines I've been drinking them for decades, and the more I try them, the more I realise that our country has a magnificent winegrowing tradition, of which Chasselas is of course a part. 

With its 15,000 hectares of vineyards, Switzerland is dwarfed by the main wine producing countries such as France, Italy and Spain, who each have almost a million hectares and together represent almost half of global wine production. It is therefore quite normal that the vintages of these countries are known throughout the world, while ours remain in the shade. 

The most common variety 

In our country, Chasselas is indisputably the king of all varieties but it is rarely found under this denomination.

In fact, it has different names in different regions. In the canton of Vaud, for example, bottles of Chasselas carry the name of their village of origin: St Saphorin, Yvorne, Aigle or Féchy. In Valais, Chasselas wines are known as Fendant. This variety is characterised by its rather neutral taste and delicate aromas and its ability to reflect the slightest nuances of the terroir where it is grown, with its specific climatic conditions.

The origin of Chasselas has long been subject to all kinds of speculation. According to the latest research, this variety originated in the Vaud area. At least, this is the conclusion reached in late 2009 by Dr José Vuillamoz at the University of Neuchatel: "Chasselas is one of the most widely grown white grape varieties in the world. There are several theories about its origins. Some say it comes from Egypt, or Turkey, but the genetic and historical studies that we have undertaken allow us to confirm that it originated in the Vaud region." 

Chasselas in cooking

Chasselas is not an aromatic variety like Riesling X Sylvaner or Sauvignon Blanc. Nor does it have the international reputation of Chardonnay. In most countries in the world, it is even sold as fruit and thus rarely made into wine. 
Ideal for stimulating appetite, Chasselas is an excellent apéritif. In Valais, it is often served with fondue or raclette, while in the Vaud region, it is often drunk with fillets of perch, trout or pike, or with local specialty cheeses. Chasselas also has excellent results with exotic cuisine, and goes well with sushi. It is best served cold, at a temperature of 8–10°C. 

A vast range of specialities 

Beyond Chasselas, which is an integral part of Swiss viticulture, a great number of other grape varieties are grown in our country which are not found anywhere else. The Valais region alone has around fifty indigenous varieties, mentioned by LE MENU in the December 2009 issue. It is this diversity that I like most in Swiss vintages. Personally, I think they are inimitable and of exceptional quality. 

Are Swiss wines expensive ? 

Swiss wines are often criticised for being expensive, more expensive at least than foreign wines. But it's just not true, although they're no giveaway either! What is true is that it's hard to find complex Swiss wines for less than 5 Swiss francs, while at this price you could buy foreign vintages (from Spain, France, Southern Italy and the New World) that are perfectly decent. In our defence, we should say that in the countries mentioned, vines are grown over much larger areas and they are worked mechanically, which massively reduces production costs. And salaries are often lower than ours. 

On the other hand, no Swiss wines cost more than 100 Swiss francs, while in other countries, many bottles are sold at this price. If you're happy to spend between 12 and 20 francs on a local bottle of wine, I don't think you will be disappointed.