Time for an ode to my adopted home country’s wine
LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND – Chasselas-bashing and ardent defenses are suddenly fashionable in Swiss wine circles, puzzling to any outsiders who’ve fallen in love with the eponymous Vaudois white wine. The wine is also widely made in Geneva and, under the name fendant, in canton Valais. Think snow, skis, white wine with cheese and you’re probably talking Chasselas.
Rumblings within the industry have reached Swiss mainstream media, with Le Temps wine writer Pierre-Emmanuel Buss taking down historian David Laufer for comments published recently that relegated Chasselas to plonk.
“The article has the merit of opening up the debate,” writes Buss. “Should Chasselas continue to be a favoured grape when the consumption of Swiss whites has fallen by 25% since 2002? Should the accent be put on reds; should the growing area be reduced? Because even if 2,700 hectares of Chasselas have been pulled up since 1986, 1,500 hectares of those in Valais, there’s still work to be done. The proof? In its most prestigious appellation area, Dézaley, a not unimportant part of the production is sold as bulk wine. An unthinkable waste.”
That said, argues Buss, Laufer appears to be clueless about what’s happening in the wine world.
The heated arguments about wines made from the Chasselas grape variety have more to do with a changing wine world and Swiss unease with the country’s place in the larger world of wine than they do with the grape. Added to that is anger and embarrassment in the wine community over an ongoing court case concerning fraud, with accusations that a cheap Valais Chasselas was passed off by a major winery as a finer and more expensive St Saphorin from Lavaux.
Chasselas – welcome to Switzerland!
Chasselas is what most people outside Switzerland probably think of if they know anything about Swiss wine: white, crisp, a wine that is promptly rolled out at every social and business gathering.
Swiss drinking habits are changing. Wine isn’t automatically served at every business gathering and fewer people drink wine with lunch, as in neighbouring countries.
The worst of it, flat and boring, is often served very cold, which covers up the taste, and during the 1980s and 1990s there was unfortunately a lot of that around. It was like that mainly because of over-abundant harvests, a glut of inadequately pruned grapes, and because it was the wine of choice of mediocre growers.
High yield with Chasselas, as with so many grapes, means poor quality.
But there’s been a shakeout in the wine business in the past 25 years and Swiss wines on the whole have improved tremendously, so that the relatively small number of excellent wines two decades ago has grown rapidly. Among these, Chasselas, a beautiful wine to its connoisseurs, and there are many.
There are more very good everyday Chasselas wines. Top wineries with good terroirs and oenologists are showing that some young and spritely wines can age into magnificent older ones with notes of honey and beeswax and toast: a true Swiss specialty to be treasured. Terrevin has been rewarding the top 5% of Chasselas in Vaud for several years and the quality of its Laurier d’or label wines is clear.
Does everyone have to love it?
So why all the excitement when a few people say they don’t like Chasselas?
The joy of wines is that we have a lot of options, something – or even better, several things – for all tastes. An American wine writer recently told me she doesn’t like Chasselas at all because it has no acidity. True, it’s a low-acidity wine, but that makes it easy to digest, which explains its popularity as an aperitif wine and its success with wine neophytes, who are in a wine-drinking situation very different from that of a wine writer when noting wines.
For many people, it’s easier on the head than champagne. What it lacks in acidity it makes up for in minerality and, often, a very slight bubbliness that gives it zing. But another American told me she doesn’t like “those little bubbles”, which she doesn’t think should be there in a still wine.
A British wine writer recently frowned over the pale colour. Could that be normal?
The best often have a slightly bitter finish that cleanses the palate so you don’t have the heavy, lingering after-taste of some wines. If you like sweeter wines you’ll find this surprising and maybe not pleasing. I’ve heard arguments that a younger generation going for sweeter wines will be put off. As an older drinker who grew up in the US and once ate and drank far sweeter things than I do today, I don’t agree. To me, it’s a generation thing, and while it’s important to woo younger drinkers, it’s important to remember they grow into older drinkers, a group that is increasing in size, with spending power.
The beauty of a great glass of Chasselas
So much for what people don’t like about Chasselas. Here’s what I like about it, and I wasn’t born to it at all – I grew up in Iowa, land of corn. Chasselas is not in my genes, but I’ve discovered that it’s cool and clean and upright and the light colour lets you slip easily into the glass while you talk about other things and enjoy the people you’re with.
Take a moment to enjoy the nose of a fine Chasselas, and you get a bouquet of flowers, a basket of spring and summer white fruits that is as uplifting as a spring day on the hillsides above Lake Geneva.
The mouth is equally pure and clean but with enough complexity for me to reach for a second glass, almost without fail.
Have a glass sitting on a terrace overlooking the lake or, in Valais, the mountains, with friends or family, and you’ll wonder how anyone could not love this.
Helping the world to love Swiss wine
Swiss winemakers have a tiny part of the world market, less than 1% and despite the clichés about the Swiss not exporting because they drink all their own wine producers want a bigger chunk of that market. Consumption is slipping at home and abroad, so every bit of market niche helps.
There is the price issue, but overlooking that for now, suggestions to make the job easier include adding “Swiss wine” to labels, focusing less on regional wines (lost on outsiders), simplifying the appellation system – and trying to do what the Austrians have successfully done by highlighting one white wine as the national wine.
Chasselas, although it’s not as ever-present in German-speaking Switzerland as in the western French-speaking region, is the obvious candidate. DNA research has shown that the Lake Geneva area is the birthplace of the grape, it is one of the best grapes in the world for reflecting the many different terroirs where it is grown, and it makes good young wines but it can also be aged.
Its strengths can also be a handicap. It’s not a uniform wine and since Switzerland doesn’t have massive vineyards and cellars that can churn out identical bottles from one year to the next promoting it as the Swiss wine can have drawbacks.
My take is that Switzerland needs to market and promote two things outside the country, if it wants a bigger export market.
First, you need an anchor, something people recognize, and Chasselas can provide that with younger versions of the wine from quality producers. There is no shortage of these.
Secondly, Switzerland has a treasure chest of real gem wines, and these need to be marketed as such on the coattails of the anchoring wine.
Switzerland is beautiful and varied and proud of its reputation for quality. Chasselas is all of that, in a glass.