Any wine lover should immediately head to the north shores of Lake Geneva where one of Europe’s best-kept secrets lies waiting: the timeless Lavaux Vineyards. Just an hour from Geneva by train, Lavaux is the largest contiguous vineyard region in Switzerland, covering 800 hectares between Lausanne and Vevey, and has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2007.
Vines may have grown in this area as far back as Roman times, but the present man-made terraces can be traced to monks of the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries in the 11th century. They crafted these extravagant constructions to harness the full potential of the sun and soil for production of a highly cherished wine. This is not a surprising history given that Switzerland ranks in the top 10 countries for consumption of wine per capita, producing around 29 million gallons of wine per year, or 21 bottles per person. Of this, they export less than 2% of it, and import another 45 million gallons.
Aside from the wine, the lure of the Lavaux is that the ancient paths, once built to tend to the vines, now create an intricate network of trails that allow tourists to wander from village to village by foot through the beautiful scenery. The entire ‘Grande Traversée de Lavaux’ covers 36km of paths nestled in the vines from Lausanne to the majestic Château de Chillon, and takes about 8 hours to complete. The paths are generally pedestrian only, though some still allow cars, and are marked with a mixture of (not always obvious) signs ranging from the yellow “tourism pedestre”, to the green “Grand Traversee”, to a yellow or blue arrow painted strategically on a wall or road, seemingly as a result of past tourist mishaps. The experience is a little like a ‘choose your own adventure’ story, where each turn may lead to a completely new and unplanned ending. But no matter what path you’re on, the winding contours that detail the steep drop to the lakeside are just as stunning.
We began our hike in the quaint town of Lutry, just outside Lausanne, with a steep climb towards Grandvaux under the brilliant glow of the three suns, the secret ingredient to the region’s fine wines. The first sun is “Jean Rosset”, a local Swiss term for the sun in the sky. The second sun is the reflection of light and heat off the glassy surface of Lake Geneva and onto the steep slopes of Lavaux, doubling the “sunshine” that penetrates the grapes. And the third sun comes from the long lengths of high stone walls terracing the vineyards which reflect sunlight back onto the plants from the north and retain heat so that even at night, the grapes are exposed to the sun’s lingering warmth. The constant warmth and triple sunlight means the grapes ripens equally on all sides, resulting in a moderately dry and subtle wine with fruity nuances that differ from one terrace to another. The wine of Dézelay in particular, the last spot of land in Lavaux to feel the sun each day, is renowned for its “sunny” flavors.
Of course, one can only fully experience the surroundings by enjoying it with all the senses, so our hike was regularly interspersed with picnics and sampling of the local products at numerous cafes and caveaus (wine cellars). When we reached the beautiful town of Grandvaux we each ordered a glass of local Chasselas, the most common grape of the region, at the lovely cafe Tout a Mond. Our waiter pointed out the plots where our wines had come from – one behind the church, the other above the train station- as we took in the view over the bright green parceled vineyards and tranquil blue Evian waters of Lake Geneva.
Continuing up from GrandVaux towards Chexbres sitting high in the hills, we were passed by the “Lavaux Express”, a small green choo-choo train that transports weary hikers, or those who prefer not to walk, comfortably through the vines on certain days of the week. Aside from this, it would be easy to forget what century we were in as we passed through the unchanged scenery and ancient villages.
From Chexbres we made our way down to the attractive stone town of Rivaz. We were looking forward to a break from the heat in the inviting Lavaux Vinorama, which offers the region’s largest selection of local wines for tasting and sale. In the glorious air conditioning, we first sampled two of the Grand Cru Chasselas that exceptionally demonstrated the nuances between the plots. Next, we were poured a glass of the famous “sunny” Dézaley Grand Cru 1er classe, along with another Diolinoir to compare. While both were delicious, the sun really did shine through in the Dézelay.
The last leg of our hike took us down a beautiful pedestrian road leading from Rivaz to St. Saphorin, considered the “crown jewel” of the Montreux Riviera. This adorable hamlet, full of tiny medieval streets, wine cellars and a couple well-known restaurants, is a spectacular final destination a perfect spot for one last glass of wine. And in Switzerland, even the most off-the-beaten-track villages are connected by rail, so when we were ready to go we just hopped on a train back home!