Terravin’s best Vaud Chasselas
It was glass number 13 that forced me to stop and ask myself if it is really possible for a single wine to be the absolute best. And for us – the judges for the Lauriers de Platine Terravin – to choose it with any certainty. To be clear: this is not the first time I’ve been faced with this dilemma. I’ve been a judge here for several years. It’s not a wine competition, but a selection based on the personal preferences of 40 wine industry and wine journalist specialists who are all intimately familiar with Chasselas.
I think of Chasselas as the most discreet and often most subtle wine I know. I had my first glass in 1982, on a visit from Paris to Vevey, and I don’t think I could calculate the number of glasses I’ve had since then.
Our task Thursday morning is a bit like choosing the most outspoken and charming person in a group of very shy people. You can do that only if you settle in quietly, listen hard and try to pick up subtle innuendos in the murmur of voices. Chasselas always rewards us, although neophytes often look puzzled and find it lacks what they are used to finding in wines that shout for attention.
What is a perfect Chasselas?
For me, a good Chasselas has delicate notes that might be fruity, pear for example, or hints of lemon, or lightly floral, and the mouth should be clean, preferably without CO2 or the tiniest of bubbles although some people like that. The acidity should be present, but only just. In short, a good Chasselas is an exquisitely balanced wine that tickles my nose, pleases my palate, is not particularly high in alcohol and can be enjoyed as a kind of Vaud handshake when you walk into a meeting or someone’s house, or throughout a meal or after. Or all of the above.
We’d started tasting pale gold Chasselas wines at 9:00 in the morning, flights of four wines at a time, a pre-selection of 16 of them. Our task was to whittle down our 16 finalists and come up with a winner. 16 wines down to eight, eight down to four, then the four down to one: the best Chasselas.
Canton Vaud is home territory for Chasselas, the most widely planted Swiss white grape that also goes by the name of Fendant (in canton Valais). More than half of Switzerland’s Chasselas is planted in Vaud, where the grape may have originated. Aigle, in Vaud, is where the Mondial du Chasselas is held every June.
The 2018 winner of that competition is a Vaud wine, Montoise Esprit Terroir, Mont-sur-Rolle 2017, from Cave de la Côte – the wine carries the Terravin label. Vaud and Chasselas are closely intertwined, and Terravin, which is a quality label, is an important thread in their story.
Swiss wine quality demonstration
The selection we were being asked to make is the final step in a year-long journey for these wines, a meticulous, Swiss-quality style process.
The pure quality judges, the year-long ones, met 64 times to blind-taste some 1,049 wines for the 2018 selection, red and white wines; of these 73% obtained the label, with 187 (just 8% of Vaud production) given the top-quality, or Lauréat, distinction. Terravin rules: the wines must be AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée; they must meet the 25-plus overall criteria set for each type of wine; no oenological faults and they must meet each of the criteria set for the tasting sessions; they display perfect expression of the characteristics of their grape, their appellation and their vintage. Each must have a “remarkable” level of quality and achieve a note of “excellence”. A group of 30 experts from all of Vaud’s regions make up the pool of judges; five act as the jury for a year and a new commission of judges is chosen each year. There is no discussion during judging and the ballots are secret until voting is finished.
The end result is wines where the quality is impeccable yet their individuality – terroir and the imprint of the winemaker – is respected.
The judges selected 753 Chasselas wines for the 2017 vintage label; of these 16 were selected as outstanding, at which point we, the passionés, step in and choose the best. I say hello to fellow wine writers and journalists from German-speaking areas, from Zurich and Lucerne and Bern, as well as some from Lausanne and Geneva, to wine producers from Lavaux and Morges, to sommeliers. The same team prepares and serves the wine each year, an important job to ensure the wines are exactly the right temperature, well hidden from our view and served correctly; we greet each other. We all chuckle over being back at school, for the tasting session is held in the primary school in Crissier, above Lausanne. Dozens of little people with winter jackets and backpacks just scooted into their classrooms. The electronic school bell rings.
We go to work silently, occasionally startled by the school bell marking the end of a class period. After each flight of wines we call out our preferences, and we try to calculate the winners and gauge who prefers what type of wine. Some love a bitter finish, others go for a fruity nose. But not necessarily consistently.
My notes on an impossible task
Back to my dilemma. Some years a winner or a handful of potential winners really stand out. In a year like 2017, the vintage we’re judging, the overall quality is exceptional thanks to good spring rains and a summer and harvest that allowed grapes to reach full maturity. Every one of these wines pleases me – each is, in short, a winner. We know already that 2018 is another good vintage and we can expect similar quality wines at next year’s selection, I think.
My notes, made during pauses or while glasses are filled:
Flight 1, 16 wines, at wine number 13
“Liking a wine shifts from a taste experience, from simply what pleases me. It becomes an intellectual exercise in the end because I have to ask myself what I’m looking for. It’s like appreciating friends – do I prefer one who stands out for having a strong character? Another who is reliable, toes the line? Do I love them equally or, on reflection, do I prefer the qualities of one – or how that one makes me feel about myself, which is not the same thing.”
“Look around: we are journalists, sommeliers, producers. Which one(s) of us can claim to know the public best, because we’re choosing wines to give their owners a marketing boost. The producers often seem to me to appreciate the technical qualities whereas the writers tend to go for more emotional appeal. But as soon as I write this I disagree with the comment because I realize two of the writers, who both do some consulting, tend to seek technical excellence. I can’t say that women prefer this, men prefer that, either.”
What is typicity for a Chasselas, this shy grape? Should I be seeking it – but technically, that selection has already been made. These are all superb examples of what a Chasselas should be. Yet when I come across notes of pineapple I think no, that’s not how I see a Chasselas, and I don’t like it.”
“Down to four now. I could change the order of my preferences so easily, and I do. And then I change it back again, just before we’re asked to stop. Each one seems to me to be especially good for a specific purpose. The first as an aperitif wine, the second with meals, the third for a lively discussion and the fourth is an all-around wine. So my favourite selection would be simply these four, each a star in its own way.”
“Two. And this is really hard. I change my mind three times and in the end give up. No one is a loser here. We’re all winners, the wineries, the judges, the people who will buy these. But where are they from?! Guessing not Chablais, maybe Lavaux, maybe La Côte.”
Minutes later we have the answer, and for me the great surprise is that two wines from Chablais are the top pair. I was sure the winners were from further west in the canton. I’m reminded that part of the fun here is that we rarely see repeat wines, a sign that one of the joys of Chasselas from Vaud is that there are so many very, very good ones. We’re given a chance to sample all of them, labels showing.
- La Viticole de Villeneuve, Chablais AOC, Villeneuve Grand Cru
- Jean-François Morel, Chablais AOC, Yvorne, Le Chardon
- Christian Dupuis, La Côte AOC, Elevé sur Lies
- Bourgeoisie de la Ville de Fribourg, Lavaux AOC, Epesses, Cave de l’Hôpital
My own votes didn’t quite match this result, but drink any of these and you will be a happy Chasselas fan.
The 16 wines we tasted:
Where to find Terravin Lauriers de Platine wines
You can find details about all the Terravin winners, including contact information for the wineries, which sell directly. Terravin also works with a company to package sets of winning wines. It’s worth subscribing to their newsletter for information and the option to purchase wines.