Update 29 May Geneva, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) – Geneva is the grandaddy of Swiss wine open days: it was the first to offer this, in 1987, and the event has become hugely popular.
Several things contribute to this: almost all the cellars participate, some 80 out of 95, they are geographically fairly close so it is easy for visitors to sample several wineries in a day, free shuttle buses keep cars off the road and rid visitors of the problem of a designated non-drinking driver.
And, not to be overlooked, the day has a remarkable record for being warm and sunny. This year promises to offer the same (if you haven’t yet visited the new GenevaLunch weather forecast page, this is your chance).
The basics on Geneva wines
Geneva is the country’s third-largest wine producing canton, well behind Valais and Vaud, but the density of its production area makes it easy to visit. A surprise, given the proximity of the many vineyards, is the number of different wines.
Opage, the cantonal agriculture office, provides a good list and description in English of Geneva’s grape varieties with food pairings. If you’re a newcomer, forget the idea that Swiss wine is just crisp white aperitif wines. Geneva produces many excellent reds and, not surprisingly, its Gamay can rival the best in Beaujolais. Gamaret, a grape variety developed nearby at the Changins federal wine station, is particularly well suited to Geneva’s microclimates and soils.
An excellent reference for Swiss wines, with a section on Geneva and its top growers, is the Swiss Wine Guide (note: I lead the team that prepares the English version of this book, produced by Vinea with Ringier every two years in three languages).
Wines in Switzerland are often named after their grape variety. Varietal (made from one type of grape) wines are very popular, for a good reason: Swiss growers have so many distinct terroirs, with microclimates and soil changing dramatically within small areas, that very different wines can be produced from the same grape variety. Chasselas is particularly well known for this. Geneva’s Chasselas tends to be more floral and rounded than Chasselas wines from Vaud, which can be quite mineral.
Blends are often given fantasy names, but the grape varieties are sometimes listed on the label. Feel free to ask.
AOC: Geneva has about 10 percent of all Swiss AOC wines, over 60 of them, usually with the names of the villages where they are bottled. New this year, some of the grapes that make it into Geneva wines, can come from certain clearly marked border areas in France.
Tips for touring Geneva’s wineries
- Opage, the cantonal office that promotes wines, has a useful searchable map that gives you a good starting point, and the Swiss wine export board has one with an overview. Both sites give good background in English on the region, the wines, the producers, well worth reading to get your bearings before you leave home.
- You can pick up a copy of the free Terrific Terroir, the marketing magazine published annually by the canton, at tourism officers and other outlets around Geneva, or download it in advance and print out just the lists of winemakers (pages 19-20) for the area you plan to visit.
- The three main wine areas, to start, are called the Left Bank, Between the Rhone and Arve, the Right Bank.
- You can start to prune your list to some of the top wineries by seeing who has won various competitions. Opage lists winners from the Vinalies Internationales, a major international wine competition in Paris, and among the 66 winners of the Grand Prix du Vin Suisse, the annual national competition, were six from Geneva in 2009, including two Gamays and a red blend (assemblage in French). Keep in mind that some of the top winemakers don’t enter competitions.
- The tasting sessions are free, but remember that these are almost all small family businesses and you are their guest. Broken glasses and drunkeness are a problem caused by a small minority, but they can be highly visible; don’t join them!
- Do ask questions, even basic ones, and don’t be afraid to try your French if you’re not fluent. Also don’t expect all winemakers to speak English.
New this year: several winemakers will be charging CHF5 for a glass you can use all day and take home at the end of the day. But be sure to hold onto it when you leave one winery and go to the next!
My suggestions for wineries to visit
Please note this is based on my tastings and visits to the wineries, and it’s a very limited sampling, but I’m happy recommending these winemakers, who are good tasting guides with fine products.
- Domaine de Miolan
- Bernard, Bosseau, Domaine de la Planta
- Marc Ramu, Domaine du Clos des Pins
- Emillienne and Jean Hutin, Domaines Les Hutins (daughter and father team, English is good)
Domaine du Chateau du Crest
J and C Dupraz, Domaine des Curiades
Jean-Pierre Pelegrin, Domaine Grand’Cour
- Florian Barthassat, La Cave de Geneve (the canton’s own winery, which works with world-class chef Philippe Chevrier is well worth a visit)
- Gerard Pillon and Jean-Daniel Schlaepfer, Les Balisiers
- J and K Meinen, Domaine de la Roselle (English definitely spoken here)
- R Burgdorfer, Domaine du Paradis
- F Beguer, Les Gondettes (a woman’s touch, much appreciated)