First published in USA Today…
Switzerland’s vineyards hide in plain sight. It seems impossible that tourists driving around the compact country wouldn’t notice the thousands upon thousands of green vines planted neatly across rows of stone terraces, yet Swiss winemakers report exactly that.
Perhaps the lack of alpine wine in travelers’ domestic markets coupled with their single-minded focus when visiting – whether it be to ski Zermatt, hike the Rhone glacier, or shop for watches – explains their failure to recognize how deeply Swiss wine culture is rooted. But the funny thing about finally noticing the obvious: once you do, you’ll see that object of your attention everywhere. And so it was during a recent trip to explore the wineries of Vaud, Valais, and Graub nden: vineyards were everywhere.
For a country few associate with fermented grapes, Switzerland has a long, rich history of cultivation analogous to its better known neighbors France and Germany. In fact, just as monks carefully planted, observed, and delineated the patchwork of venerated sites that now compose Burgundy, Lausanne’s bishops in the 12th century also ordered the architecture of vine parcels out of the wild terrain surrounding Lac Léman (Lake Geneva).
While vineyards are scattered across six regions, from Zurich to Geneva, and Neuchatel to Ticino, three cantons are particularly suitable for visitors due to their distinctiveness, the density and accessibility of the wineries, and quality of the wine.
Vaud, a French speaking canton in the southwest corner of the country, encompasses much of Lake Geneva and the UNESCO World Heritage site, the terraced vineyards of Lavaux. These stunning sites soar from the edge of the lake precipitously towards the firmament at inclines you’d believe only angels could harvest. Chasselas, a delicate white, and the best known Swiss grape outside of Switzerland, shines here.
Southeast of Vaud lies Switzerland’s warmest, most prolific growing area, Valais. The Rhone River cuts a wide, 100 km long swath of hospitable channel, allowing for valley floor and slopeside viticulture. Valais produces an enormous range of grapes (some argue too many). Several, like Petite Arvine, have the quality and charm potential for international markets, except for infinitesimal production levels. But trying a wine you’ve never had and will never see elsewhere is part of the area’s allure.
Continuing northeast across two harrowing mountain passes leads to German-speaking Graubünden, and the source of the Rhine River. The premier wine region of Bündner Herrschaft earned the monikers Heidiland and Little Burgundy, for two obviously different reasons. Johanna Spyri set her tale of a little girl from the Alps not far from the country’s finest Pinot Noir vineyards. The Completer grape, an age-worthy rarity, is unique to the area.
Before you go, create a free account on SwissFineWine.ch. The multiple-language site aggregates hard to find data in one place, like information on grapes, regions, wineries, and wines. Users can track where they’ve been, where they want to go, along with the wines tasted with room to rate and comment. Contact information and maps are especially useful.
Here’s my guide to road tripping across Swiss wine country:
Fairytale scenery. Impossible vineyards. Alpine peaks and verdant pastures. Lake Geneva is trimmed in a landscape of contrasts that defines the clichéd term “indescribable beauty.” But there is nothing cliché about an 800-year old wine region of which few have heard.
Outsiders have heard of the Swiss Riviera, defined end-to-end by the elegant towns of Lausanne and Montreux. They descend in droves throughout the summer seeking incredible views balmy weather, and a lively music scene. Freddy Mercury spent enough time in Montreux to earn a permanent perch on the riverfront.
Another draw, the La Prairie anti-aging center lures moneyed clients in search of the fountain of youth. Perhaps they are in the right place, but looking in the wrong spot. “The secret to longevity is a bottle of Chasselas a day,” suggested local winemaker Simon Vogel. ”Or at least, that’s what my grandfather preached, and he lived to be 99.”
Domaine Croix Duplex in Grandvaux (Monday-Saturday, no appointment)
Perched high in the village of Grandvaux, family-run Croix Duplex offers infinite views from their flower-ringed tasting terrace. The son, Simon Vogel, makes the wine, focusing on terroir-driven Chasselas. They are members of Clos, Domaines & Chateau, a 23-proudcer strong association that adheres to strict production guidelines and quality controls. In addition to Chasselas, they make vivid Pinot Noir, plus red grape novelties Gamaret and Garanoir.
Clos Du Boux in Epesses (tastings by appointment)
Grand Cru Chasselas specialists, the son of this respected family winery, Benjamin, has recently stepped in to play a leading role in its future. He will guide interested parties through a comparative tasting of the most important and distinct appellations of Lavaux, from St-Saphorin (often light, with finesse) to Dézaley (known for structure and complexity).
Domaine Henri Cruchon in Échichens (Monday-Saturday, no appointment)
“There are no bad varieties, only bad vignerons” declared Catherine, the plucky daughter of winemaker Raoul Cruchon. The well-traveled 28-year-old brought her experience abroad, home to the traditional region. She and her dad grow a range of local grapes using organic/biodynamic viticulture principles (in a vineyard with a view of Mont Blanc!), and experiment with unfiltered and low Sulphur wines. Try the Altesse (a grape known as Rousette in Savoie), for its honeyed aromas laced with apple and ginger spice, or the smoky, unfiltered Chasselas called Mont de Vaux.
Cave de Rois in Villeneuve (tastings by appointment)
If Swiss Syrah could become a thing (so far, only the French can coax consumers into buying it), then Marco and François Grognuz, the father-and-son team behind Cave de Rois (King’s Cellar), will be those responsible. Working with tiny plots of land, they discovered that certain sites too hot for Chasselas, could bake Syrah into proper ripeness.
Domaine de la Pierre Latine in Yvorne (tasting by appointment)
Owned by Philippe Gex, the vineyards sit high above the Rhône Valley adjacent to an ancient road used by the Romans to cross the Alps. Gex turns Grand Cru Chablais grapes (Chasselas), into a transparent, mineral-tinged wine that pairs brilliantly with Gruyere cheese. He makes perfumed Pinot Noir and Syrah, too. Andrea Scherz, the director of the Gstaad Palace, commissioned a 100th anniversary edition wine from Gex which proved so popular with guests, he continues producing it exclusively for the resort.
Montreux and Lausanne both make excellent bases for exploring the region, although Montreux’s smaller size equates to less traffic and bustle.
The Suisse Majestic Located in Montreux, the younger vibe, with commensurate price (slightly lower than nearby Grande Dames), plus killer views from terraced rooms, makes this an easy choice.
Gstaad Palace Technically in the canton of Bern, tack on an excursion to this century-old luxury property after visiting Pierre Latine, the last winery on the way up to the village. A recent renovation modernized the formerly classic rooms, most outfitted with balconies. For the ultimate escapist fantasy, plan a lunch outing to their rustic alpine pasture hut.
A tour with Swiss Riviera Wine Tours. They handle the appointments and driving so you can relax. However, if you’re willing to part with a dear sum, schedule a ride across Lac Léman at sunset with company owner Nic in his restored vintage Riva. Viewing the terraces from the water is magic.
Lunch at Tout un Monde in Grandvaux. A new chef spins regional cuisine into polished dishes, accompanied by an all-local wine list. Book the three-course business lunch for the best value, and dine on the terrace.
Dinner at Auberge de l’Onde, housed in a historic 13th century building in charming St-Saphorin. Decorated sommelier Jérôme Aké Beda is a local celebrity; ask about his personal wine project.
Finally, for the wineries you miss, wine bar/retail shop Vinorama stocks over 260 Lavaux wines, many available for tasting.