By Valerie Fortney
It’s a slice of paradise where stunning vistas unfold at every turn. The giant lake, an intense blue or turquoise depending on the sun’s daily journey, is framed by snow-capped mountains and along its shores, southwest Switzerland’s grand castles speak of its glorious past and prosperous present.
For the oenophiles among us, though, the crowning glory is the blanket of vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see in this region (called cantons by the Swiss) known as Vaud. The 30-kilometre stretch of the Lavaux Terraces hugging Lake Geneva, between Lausanne and Montreaux, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 — and once you see it, you’ll understand why.
I find myself on a recent day taking in all this gobsmacking beauty with a wine glass in one hand and sturdy walking shoes on my feet, as I traverse the stone streets of Chexbres with hundreds of other wine lovers. The picturesque village is nestled along what the locals know better as Lac Leman, in this French-speaking corner of the multilingual country.
During Open Cellars, just one of countless events throughout the calendar year celebrating Switzerland wine culture, more than 300 vintners in the region open their cellar doors to visitors, letting them sample the varied wines from this Alpine nation of about 8.5 million souls (go to swisswine.ch for info on producers and events throughout the year).
Had they not done their homework before arriving in the land of precision time pieces, Swiss army knives and Lindt chocolate, first-time visitors might be unaware of a centuries-old, proud tradition among the Swiss: the approximately 15,000 hectares of vineyards throughout the country producing over 200 grape varieties, at altitudes ranging from the low 200’s to above 1,000 metres.
In its 20 wine regions, the country boasts everything from crisp white Chasselas (an Indigenous white grape) to Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder), Gamay and Merlot, produced everywhere from the heart of the Swiss Alps to the right bank of the Rhone.
Those first-timers in a country where fondue is a near-daily sacrament, though, can be forgiven for their ignorance. After all, the fiercely patriotic Swiss — fourth in the world when it comes to annual wine consumption per capita — keep for themselves about 98 per cent of the wine produced in their rich, diverse soils, with only a tiny bit trickling out to countries like nearby Germany.
Hence, it’s why so few have heard of such time-honoured Swiss wine traditions as the Fete des Vignerons, a three-week festival in the town of Vevey that happens once every 20 years (the last one, sadly, was in 2019); or the interesting fact that the vineyard of Saillon is owned by none other than the Dalai Lama. Combine that with low volumes (the entire country’s output is equal to about 10 per cent of Bordeaux’s annual harvest) and a visit to Switzerland offers a rare treasure trove of wine sampling you simply won’t find anywhere else.