I'm sitting at a white-cloaked table in the foyer of La Maison Rose, a handsome old pink villa in the lakeside Swiss wine village of Cully, five or six miles east of Lausanne. The front door is open, and a soft autumn breeze wafts in. I can see sunlight skittering off the inky blue frosted-glass surface of Lake Geneva (which the Swiss call Lac Léman), across the road, and, in the distance, emerging from the late-morning haze, the terraced slopes of Dézaley—efflorescences of dense green vines alternating with steep, sinuous gray stone walls—ascending gently from the curving coastline.
La Maison Rose is the headquarters of the Louis Bovard winery, among the best producers in the canton of Vaud, one of Switzerland's nine major wine regions—and on the table in front of me are six examples of the produce of those terraced slopes along the lake: six vintages of Bovard's extraordinary Médinette dézaley.
Through my travels in Switzerland over the past two decades, I've discovered a fact that I suspect remains unknown to much of the world: This insular, mountainous nation produces some of the best and most interesting wines in Europe. And I've come to love these wines in all their unexpected variety—the luminous gamays of Geneva; the austere, well-made whites of Neuchâtel and Fribourg; the light but flavorful pinot noirs of the Zurich region; the rich Italianate merlots of Ticino; and, most of all, the wines of the Vaud and its neighbor the Valais—especially the fresh, bright, sometimes downright glorious whites based on the grape called chasselas.
Switzerland grows about 90 percent of the chasselas in the world (the balance is grown mostly in Germany and Alsace), and the grape accounts for roughly 60 percent of the country's total wine production. Chasselas is particularly prevalent in western Switzerland, and nowhere is it more important than in the Vaud. "Here, we are in the heart of chasselas," says Louis-Philippe Bovard, an amiable, courtly, white-haired gentleman who serves as managing director and enologist for his family's winery in Cully. It is easy to see the basis for his claim: La Maison Rose sits in the middle of the region of Lavaux, which runs along the northern shore of Lake Geneva between Lausanne and Montreux. There, it is said, chasselas ripens with the benefit of three suns: the one burning above in the sky, the one reflecting off the lake, and the one radiating from the stone walls winding through its vineyards. The result is that the grape develops perfectly, yielding wines that are always deliciously fragrant, subtly flavorful, and wonderfully mouth-filling.
Legend has it that chasselas comes from Egypt (this is disputed), and it may have been grown around Lake Geneva as early as the 12th century. "What is interesting here," Bovard explains, "is that the grape is dramatically marked by the smallest differences in soil and climate, so that contiguous villages give us wines that are very different from one another." All the wines of Lavaux can be very good, but almost everybody agrees that those of Dézaley are best—and I have lingered long, at many a Swiss table, over a bottle, and sometimes another bottle, of Médinette dézaley, in the belief that Bovard's just may be the best of all.
Tasting six vintages of the wine in a row confirms my suspicion. The 1995 all but fills the foyer with its greenish, herbaceous aroma, leading to a faintly smoky, faintly lemony flavor. (Vintners in both the Vaud and the Valais consider 1995 to be one of the best vintages of the century; all wines mentioned in the following pages are '95s unless otherwise specified.) The '94 has developed a complex bouquet and the citrus character is almost gone; the wine feels perfectly in balance and the finish is long and attractive. The smoky character has intensified in the '92, and the wine is almost meaty in structure, with the beginnings of an attractively bitter mineral flavor. The '90, my favorite of the lot, has a different nose altogether, complex and elusive, and is very well developed in the mouth, with a lovely exotic-fruit intensity that reminds me of condrieu—the great, eccentric viognier-based white of France's northern Rhône. (Bovard says that recent studies suggest a chromosomal relation between viognier and chasselas.) In the '88, the predominant note in the bouquet is one of honey; the wine is delightful, though considerably less complex than the '90. The '86 has a faint iodine smell, which seems off-putting at first, but is unexpectedly rich and flavorful in the mouth, and still very lively.
I don't know when I have genuinely enjoyed a tasting of consecutive vintages this much. These are not wines that presume upon their pedigree—asking you to consider their sharp-edged feebleness as a sign of breeding, or to forgive their overbearing oak as an excess of youth. They are modest and sensible (as we expect the Swiss to be), but also surprisingly opulent and luxuriant, and immensely satisfying. They are surely some of the finest "unknown" wines in the world.
The Rhône, the fabled river of Burgundy and Provence—which courses for hundreds of miles through the very heart of France before debouching into the marshes of the Camargue and the Mediterranean—starts life as a torrent of melting glacier water near the town of Gletsch, below Switzerland's Furka Pass. From there, it rushes down past Brig, widening into the vast Alpine valley of the Valais, then composing itself into a straight-sided canal leading up into Lake Geneva. It is said that the Rhône flows into the lake with such force—by the time it gets there, it has dropped nearly 6,000 feet from its mountain origins—that it literally pushes through that large body of water intact, retaining its fluvial integrity until it flows out of the lake again at Geneva.
The Romans probably introduced winemaking to Switzerland around the first century b.c. Today, there are vines all over the country—almost everywhere but in its mountainous core and its far eastern reaches—but the vast majority of Swiss wine production is found along the Rhône, westward from Visp, and on the shores of Lake Geneva. These regions yield around 75 percent of Switzerland's annual production of about thirteen million cases, placing it twenty-first among the world's winegrowing nations.
The Swiss also boast the world's sixth highest per capita wine consumption, but are able to produce only about half of what they drink. This means, first of all, that Switzerland is an excellent market for wines from other countries and, second, that, apart from a few wines exported mostly for reasons of prestige over the years, the Swiss have never seen much point in selling their bottlings abroad. Until now. In 2001, Swiss borders will open to free trade—which means, among other things, that the local wine market will become more competitive. Thus, Swiss vintners are looking seriously at foreign markets—especially the U.S.—for the first time. "We have great hopes for the American market," says Claude Becker, director of Robert Gilliard, a top Valais winery in Sion. "In Europe, before you try something new, you must watch others do it. In America, the open mind is typical. If you see something new, you try it, and if it's good, you keep it." Perhaps with this in mind, a Swiss Wine Information Council has been staging monthlong promotions in New York since 1995 (with Florida added this year)—bringing Swiss chefs and winemakers to town and helping to place Swiss vintages on wine lists at top restaurants.