Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a year-long series on the life of a Vaudois winemaker, or vigneron, in the Lake Geneva region. GL follows Raymond Paccot and Domaine La Colombe in Féchy from the 2006 harvest to the next one in 2007.
At the end of the article you will find tips for visiting Swiss wine cellars.
Forecast for the 2007 Swiss wine harvest
Féchy, Vaud, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) – “Extraordinaire!” says the man from Marseilles and his wife. She is clearly knowledgeable about wines, agrees enthusiastically. It is noon on a balmy Saturday in August but with Raymond Paccot as host, several of us have been sitting around a cool cellar table talking animatedly about wine, the Vachérin cheese festival since one couple comes from the Lac de Joux area where it’s held, the south of France thanks to the Marseilles couple visiting their daughter in Mont-sur-Rolle, and the apple harvest in Switzerland because an orchard owner from Crassier, near Divonne, and his son are here.
Soon we will head out and join the rest of the world, enjoying the fine weather, the lakeside, the vineyards walking paths. But first we are learning about wine.
Saturday mornings are usually like this chez Paccot, at the Domaine la Colombe. Raymond and Violaine Paccot sell half of their wine directly, so for them it pays, literally, to be at home on Saturday.
Some people have been dropping in for years to say hello or to sample
the new wines and restock their cellars. Others are first-time visitors
who’ve phoned in advance or simply followed a map here. People drift in starting at 9:30 and
join the others around the table
for a tasting session, or dégustation.
is a logic to tasting, generally from dry to sweet, but with people
coming and going, and putting in special requests, it remains a puzzle
how Paccot and Daniel Margot, who works for the cellar, manage to talk
about wine and remember what to offer next to whom, all with amazing
For now we have worked our way through Paccot’s white wines, of which my personal favourite remains his Pinot Gris, then on to his 2005 Pinot Noir and a fine blended wine made from four reds.
We’ve reached the end of the line but there is a surprise. We sample La
Grive at the request of the French visitors. I know Paccot’s wines, but
this dessert wine is new to me and it’s a startling discovery: I, too,
love it. Margot tells us that this is lovers’ wine. Why, asks one of
the women. “Because women ask for a taste and then another,” he laughs.
“It puts them in the mood.”
The women look at each other and we grin: this is indeed a wine women love, similar at first taste to a Port wine, but lighter.
says Margot, it is not made from grapes that have been left to shrivel
and sweeten deeply on the vine, as some dessert wines are. And yes, it
would be excellent with a small piece of very dark chocolate. Held up
to the light the glass is ruby red, without the darker orange-brown
tones that Ports often have. La Grive, Margot explains, is vinified
using a method similar to that for Port.
The French couple ask about taking Swiss wine in quantity across
the border and we all join in the explanation, saying they simply pay
extra, and it’s not expensive, for anything over the limit. We aren’t
too sure how many bottles that is, but they seem happy and bend down to
make ticks on the order form.
We talk about the 2007 harvest. Paccot says he expects to harvest 17
September, as long as the vineyards are spared more rain. He will be
advertising next week for workers for the three weeks of the grape
harvest, or vendange. Next week he and the other winemakers from Féchy
meet to decide on harvest dates. Yes, he answers a question, it’s up to
each commune to decide on dates, rather than the canton.
“Do you have a set time that you have to
respect for harvesting?” asks one of the Swiss visitors. I realize I’ve
often wondered this, and wondered, too, why the harvest and the school
vacations in October don’t match. I’ve
been told the rationale behind the two weeks of holiday is that
historically, children were taken out of school to help with the
harvest. Now the vacation period has to be announced well before
harvest decisions are made, when the growing season is well advanced.
And the number of children who spend their vacations harvesting grapes
has certainly fallen.
“It used to be like that,” he says about fixed
dates. That was “back in the days when virtually the only grape grown
was Chasselas,” the white variety which many people have in mind when
they think of Swiss white wines. “The communes did it to rein in rogue
growers who harvested too early and had grapes that produced poor
wines.” Once growers began to diversify and grow early ripening
varieties such as Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir the “law” relaxed.
Communes’ wine producers still meet to agree on the dates to ensure
that the name of the villages’ wines means good quality.
Chasselas, Paccot pointed out, still serves, worldwide, as the base unit for determining harvest time. Chasselas normally takes 100 days
from flowering to harvest-ready, “although that can be 90 days or 110,
of course,” he says. Other varieties are considered to generally need a
set number of growing days that is more, or less, than Chasselas, under
Talk moves on to Burgundy, not far over the
border, and the difference between growing conditions in Burgundy and
western Switzerland. The harvest in Burgundy is a week earlier than in
Vaud, Paccot points out, because they are lower by 200-300 metres. But
Vaud is warmed by the lake, which minimizes the altitude difference.
“People always talk about Switzerland being too small for its wine to have impact, but if you look at Burgundy, the heart of it around the Cotes de Nuits, it’s only about 6,000 hectares.” Switzerland has 13,000 hectares of vines, of which Vaud has 3,800. The group was surprised that Burgundy has such a small wine production area – and that Bordeaux’s, with 100,000 hectares, is so large.
A regular visitor to the Paccots mentioned that she and her husband
have wine from Burgundy they bought with the idea of letting it age in
the cellar. She’s worried that it might be past its best. She and her
husband and Raymond Paccot talk about testing wines regularly, getting
clues about the state of it from the colour of the wine and how not all
wines, even the best, always age well.
Later that day I wandered up through the hilly vineyards to
Tristan’s chocolate shop in Bougy Villars. I remembered the advice
about La Grive, the dessert wine. I asked Tristan if he could suggest a
chocolate to go with it. His eyes lit up with pleasure, for he knows
the wine. “La Grive? You could try this dark chocolate with just a hint
of orange. Or this very black chocolate – or why not a little packet of
these chocolates with different percentages of dark chocolate, for a
really nice tasting session!”
I realized afterwards I had forgotten to buy a bottle of the wine
but now that I have the chocolate I will have to return to La Colombe.
Tips for visiting Swiss wine cellars:
- The best list of good cellars to visit, Swiss-wide, is the SFr35 French and German Guide des vins Suisse,
published every two years. The producers listed there have been
recommended by regional producers’ group. Order online or in bookstores.
- Larger cellars tend to have set visiting hours, smaller ones prefer
that you phone in advance. Many Swiss cellars are small, family
operations and they do not have someone selling wine at the cellar
itself on a regular basis.
- Producers are being honest with you when they say they are anxious
to educate visitors and familiarize them with their wines. You should
feel comfortable visiting a producer to sample the wines, without a
sense of obligation to buy them. If you are out for a morning or
afternoon of tasting in the region, explain this so the winemaker
understands what you are doing. Most will sell you a bottle or two, but
Swiss visitors are more likely to buy a case of six bottles or more.
- Don’t overdo it: tasting six wines is more than enough for most
people because your ability to distinguish fades quickly if you haven’t
been trained to do this.
- Taste, don’t drink, unless you’re really there for an aperitif, or
it’s your last glass. Producers always have a place where you can pour
the rest of your sample (this is what experienced people do) so you can
move on to the next wine. Use it!
- If you’re the driver, remember the one-glass limit.
- If you’re visiting and plan to fly out of Switzerland, ask the
cellar about shipping wine to you. They do it regularly and the cost is
often less than people expect.
Earlier articles in the series, starting with the first:
Raymond Paccot talks about how it all starts with the grape 9 October 2006
Up come the old vines 18 December 2006
Raymond Paccot seeks the perfect vineyard 14 March 2007
Chez Paccot, pruning for the next great wine 26 March 2007
Sealed with a kiss: bottling the wine 20 April 2007
A time to plant, 30 June 2007
Cutting back, for more 17 July 2007
Wine for sale 19 August 2007
Related blog post: “When grapes get underfoot,” 12 October 2006