Walk the Wine in Switzerland
When you’ve done Napa, sipped your way through Sonoma and biked Bordeaux, it’s time for a new wine adventure, and the Lavaux region in Switzerland is it.
Since 2007, the steep, terraced vines of the Lavaux have been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Skirting the shores of Lake Geneva from Lausanne to Chateau de Chillon, more than 2,075 acres of vines beckon oenophiles, yet the region flies under the radar. It shouldn’t.
Like Switzerland itself, its wines are an often overlooked gem due to the small production and the fact most Swiss wines never leave the border. But a quick lesson in geography—France, Germany and Italy are its neighbors—and suddenly the thought of Swiss wine makes perfect sense.
Not only does the Lavaux boast more than 200 winemakers—most of them with families who have crafted wine for centuries—the jaw-dropping scenery is both Instagram worthy and ideal for strolling, sipping and experiencing an unexpected side of this tiny alpine nation.
The Lavaux is a quick hour train ride from Geneva, making it easily accessible for international tourists. For a central base to explore the area, the four-star Hotel Astra in Vevey or the five-star Fairmont Le Montreux Palace in Montreux will appeal to the American traveler. For a more budget-friendly, intimate experience, book the charming Auberge de la Gare—a five-room, family-run B&B in Grandvaux.
The Lavaux features six production regions and three appellations. More than 75 percent of the wines come from the Chasselas grape. The varietal is one of the most widely grown white grapes, often used in blends, though it only stands on its own in a few regions. The Chasselas is a bit of a chameleon, a refined, elegant, low-alcohol wine whose strength lies in its neutrality and ability to express terroir in every bottle.
It’s hard to believe the different nuances of Chasselas until you taste it for yourself, and the place to do that is the Lavaux Vinorama.
The Vinorama was created by the winemakers to serve as a one-stop tasting room. While many vineyards are open to the public on Saturday mornings and occasionally during the week, the mom and pop businesses are too busy tending the vines and making wine to be open standard hours. The Vinorama is a dedicated tasting room, wine shop and educational stop open seven days a week.
I met with director Monica Tomba to do a tasting of six Chasselas wines, one from each region. My favorite, from Villette, is a light, fruit-forward expression and the perfect thirst quencher on the 90-degree day. The same grape from the Chardonne area had a very minerally tone I didn't care for, but Monica told me it is her favorite. (Proof that the Chasselas can appeal to all palates.)
While red wine comprises only 20 percent of Lavaux wines, you must try the Plant Robert grape. According to Monica, this is the only region making Plant Robert wine. Similar to Gamay, it is spicy with black pepper notes. She tells me it’s a love-it-or-hate-it wine. (I love it and bought a bottle.)
Armed with a feel for the region, it was time to explore the medieval towns where the wineries reside.
There are two “Wine Trains” tourists can take. The first is an hourly standard train that transports wine lovers through the terraced vineyards from Vevey to Puidox-Chexbres. The second is the Lavaux-Panoramic train, which leaves from Puidoux-Chexbres on select days and times and includes a guided tour through the vineyards, stopping as several cellars to taste. For a more curated experience, Swiss Riviera Wine Tours also offers a five-hour tour of the region.
I elected the hourly train and began meandering through the towns from Chexbres. I marveled at the rows and rows of meticulously groomed terraces and pondered the amount of effort and knowledge it must take for winemakers to coax great wine from the challenging environment.
There are also great hikes (er, walks) throughout the area.
If you’re feeling ambitious, the Grand Traversée de Lavaux (GT) is a 21-mile trek from Ouchy in Lausanne to Chateau de Chillon. My legs still smarting from hiking the Alps, I decided to explore the most scenic area to walk through-Chexbres’ hills and lakeside by St. Saphorin instead.
But before we walk, we must eat, and Le Deck at Baron Tavernier is THE place to indulge: It has the top terrace in the area to enjoy a local glass with a view.
As I walked from Chexbres to St. Saphorin, I stopped at Domaine Bovard’s tiny terrace to sample a rose and sit among the vines, enjoying the wine with my boyfriend. The Gault & Millau Guide named Louis-Philippe Bovard an iconic winegrower last year. To sample wines along the way, stop at various wine bars like Espace De La Papille in St. Saphorin or Bacchus Vinobar, in Rivaz, the next town over.
After a day roaming the Lavaux, it was time to head back to Vevey and toast the end of a great wine weekend at Chef Lionel Rodriguez’s Restaurant Les Trois Couronnes in the historic Belle Epoque Hotel Trois Couronnes. Boasting a Michelin star, the focus is on Mediterranean cuisine. In a nod to the times, there is even a healthy gourmet menu.
A gorgeous setting, meticulously prepared dishes and a glass of Chasselas wine in hand?
It’s hard to beat this taste of Switzerland.