GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Switzerland produces and consumes more red wine than white, a fact that surprises many people. Surely, I hear the protesting voices, the lovely crisp white aperitif wine that you see and drink everywhere must be the main wine?
We’re talking about Chasselas, Switzerland’s justifiably most famous grape, of which some 40 million m2 were planted in 2010, the second most widely grown grape, with just 3 million m2 less than Pinot Noir, or about about 18 percent of the total space given over to grapes in Switzerland. The country has 160 grape varieties (planted on more than 100m2), and 42 percent of the total grape-growing surface is planted with white wine varieties.
Old traditions die hard and the Swiss white wines are gradually giving way to red: the country produces about 22 percent less white wine than it did 30 years ago, as consumers shift to a wider variety of wines and to higher quality wines, including more reds.
Chasselas nevertheless remains particularly popular in French-speaking areas. It’s a good all-around white wine and it carries the imprint of its terroir beautifully, which means it gives us good variety, making it an interesting wine for winelovers.
Its birthplace dating back centuries is canton Vaud, and nowhere in the world does it grow better than in Switzerland and, arguably, in Vaud.
Summer is the time when this wine is out in force, after the previous harvest’s bottles are put on the market, around May. GenevaLunch has been posting a series of video reviews by Romanduvin of selected Chasselas wines, in late July and early August.
About the grape
Swiss Chasselas captures its terroir and in the glass it reflects the beauty of summer hereThe grape known as Chasselas in Neuchatel and Vaud was called fendant in many parts of Vaud in the 19th century and it is still known as that in canton Valais, while it is known as gutadel in German-speaking Switzerland and Genevans often call it perlan.
The name fendant originates from the grapeskin’s tendency to melt away from the juicy interior when it is pressed, rather than to squirt out the juice. It is aromatic and in Switzerland is virtually always vinified dry.
The grape has mutated and is known under scores of other names outside Switzerland; it is used mainly in blends in France and is often vinified sweet in New Zealand.
Within Switzerland there are several varieties of Chasselas, all close cousins, so the precise variety is rarely mentioned.
How and why Chasselas varies from one region to another
Chasselas has an afinity for beautiful places, here: Flchy, canton Vaud, in autumn, overlooking Lake GenevaTerroir is more than the soil where a grapevine is planted: it is the mix of light and air, soil and water, climatic conditions in general. A short drive or train ride through Switzerland makes it quickly apparent why a grape such as Chasselas, very sensitive to its terroir, can have so many different profiles.
Winds off Lake Geneva that change dramatically with altitude, hugely varying amounts of rainfall, and exposure to the sun depending on the angle of a slope, are just some of the elements that shift significantly in this landscape.
The soil left behind when the Rhone glacier scoured the land varies, too, from one place to another depending on the steepness of the slopes, for example.
Geneva’s Chasselas wines tend to be more floral and lighter than those from Vaud, where the mineral aspect the grapes pick up from the soil often creates an almost sparkling (known as petillant) wine when the bottle is opened. Award-winning Chasselas wines tend to come from a number of different villages, but Féchy, between Rolle and Morges, has some of the finest Chasselas terroirs in the La Côte region and the whole of Lavaux, but particularly Dézaley is known for producing superb Chasselas wines.
Fendant in Valais tends to be smoother, making it the wine of choice to accompany cheese fondue and raclette cheese.
Neuchatel is famous for its unfiltered Chasselas, a variation on the wine that is available starting the third Wednesday in January every year.
When to drink a Chasselas
Robert Taramarcaz in Sierre/Granges regularly wins awards with his Chasselas wines, available as a traditional version and classicTraditionally, these wines are drunk young, before they are three years old, when they tend to be fruity, aromatic and smooth in mouth. Increasingly, very good Chasselas wines are being aged and for those lucky enough to sample these, it is a tasting experience: they have a golden robe unlike their pale youthful colours, rich smells of honey and beeswax and in mouth they can resemble fine dry sherries. The Memoire des vins suisses group, 40 of Switzerland’s best wine producers, have been keeping members’ bottles and testing their aging abilities.
I sampled some beautiful older Chasselas wines at a vertical (several vintages) tasting session offered by Vaud’s Clos, Domaines & Châteaux group a few months ago and I’m now convinced these can make a very special older wine.
Can you simply sit on your Chasselas wines for a few years? I’ve accidentally done this a few times, with very mixed results. A 2005 La Colombe from the winery of the same name in Féchy recently resurfaced in our house and it was surprisingly good. If you want to try keeping some for a few years, ask a good producer to recommend bottles that will hold up to this.
The birthplace of Chasselas, one of the world’s most widely planted grapes
If you think Chasselas can only be drunk young, you’re wrong: a vertical tasting last November with wines now 30 years old shows that a finely-made one can age wellThe grape first appears in historical documents in the 16th century, and its origins were long debated, with Egypt and Turkey mentioned as possible homes until 2009.
Chasselas was the focus of a geneological study by Swiss biologist and DNA specialist José Vouillamoz at the University of Neuchatel, who works at the Swiss federal Agroscope Changins-Wädenswil ACW research station in Conthey, Valais. Vouillamoz and C Arnold in 2009 published the results of their research (pdf, Fre), showing definitively that the grape originated in the Lake Geneva region between Italy, France and Switzerland, almost certainly in canton Vaud.
Chasselas spread, through numerous mutations and carrying a number of different names. Hungary is the country today with the largest plantings, but it is also found close to home in France, Germany, as well as further afield in New Zealand and Mexico.
Links to other sites:
- Jancis Robinson on José Vouillamoz’s work, describing him as “one of the world’s best-informed experts on vine identification through his work with DNA analysis”
- “Un conservatoire pour valoriser le chasselas”, Le Temps, 26 August 2010 (Fr)
- “Chasselas”, a web site from Schenk SA