Rows and rows of vines flanked by rose bushes, draped across precipitous terraces like a patchwork quilt, plunge down to the crystal-clear waters of Lake Geneva. The sun shines bright, gleaming on distant mountaintops. The world’s steepest vineyards, located in Lavaux, in the canton of Vaud in Switzerland, just east of Lausanne, is postcard perfect.
Swiss chocolates, cheese and fondue are commonly known, but few know much about Swiss wines. “It’s because we consume almost 95 per cent of our wines and only around 2 per cent is exported,” says my guide Karin Klappert. The Swiss are among the world’s biggest consumers of wine, and the Swiss vineyards are usually pint-sized and family owned. About 80 per cent of the wine produced is white. It’s usually enjoyed as an aperitif or with the cheese and fish from the region.
History echoes from every corner of the vineyards. The Romans planted the first grapes here, but it was in the 11the century that the Benedictine and Cistercian monks cleared the pine covered slopes and grew grapes, made wine and tackled gravity by building the stacked stone walls on these sun drenched slopes.
Lavaux’s terraces that stretch for nine miles were added to the Unesco World Cultural Heritage list in 2007. Locals claim that the terroir is special here and it has the perfect micro-climate for growing wine because of what they call the “three suns” — the sun, its reflection off the waters of the mirror-like lake and the heat stored by the stone walls, which lengthens the grape season.
Because of the hilly terrain, mechanisation is impossible and some of the steepest vineyards reach up to 350 m above Lake Geneva. Today, the Lavaux region stretches between Lausanne and Vevey, and covers about 830 hectares of vineyards and almost 200 wineries. The Lavaux Terraces today comprise seven appellations, two of which — Dezaley and Calamin — have been given Grand Cru designations, a prestigious ranking of estates.
From the Grand Vaux Station, we walk downhill to the Domaine Croix Duplex, run by siblings Simon and Maude Vogel, who took over a business started by their grandfather Samuel Vogel in 1929, with just three hectares. Today, they have 30 hectares and produce 26 wines from white to red and rose. The soil and its geology also determines the character of the wines. Long ago, this was all covered by glaciers and fossil-rich rock. Today, the chalky-clay soil produces the prized Chasellas grapes which make wines that are low in alcohol, crisp, and with floral notes. “It’s a simple wine that we drink on every occasion,” Maude says.
In the summer, the Lavaux-Panoramic, a dinky train, departs from Cully, taking visitors along the wine trail on steep, terraced vineyards of Lavaux. There are also many hikes and walks. The “Grande Traversée de Lavaux”, with great views of the lake, is the longest, covering 36 km — from the Château de Chillon to Lausanne.
Hiking down from the Domaine to Cully to take our boat back to Lausanne, we walk along narrow-winding roads through vineyards, small villages and miles of stone walls. Cully is lined with narrow cobblestone alleys, historic winegrowers’ houses built between the 16th and 19th century, small squares with fountains and churches.
As it starts drizzling, we huddle inside a café over cups of hot chocolate and look out at the mist-enshrouded lake. Much later, back home, as I pour myself a golden glass of the Chasellas wine, it reminds me of that beautiful day in Lavaux.
Kalpana Sunder is a Chennai-based writer
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