I lean back in the white plastic lawn chair, stretch out my legs and watch a red-and-white Swiss flag wave at the rows of kelly-green grapevines below. Sipping a pale pink rosé, I think to myself that all hikes should end like this.
In early June, my Washington friend Ashley came to visit me in Lausanne, the charming Swiss town on the shores of croissant-shaped Lake Geneva where I now live. Like most people, Ashley was surprised by the rows of grapevines that line the hills along the lake. Who knew that the Swiss make wine?
Swiss vineyards are pint-size, family-owned businesses with limited production. Annually, the country produces about 29 million gallons of wine, just 5 percent of California’s production of 560 million gallons. With such small yields, much of what is made is drunk locally.
After a few hazy gray days, the sun appeared, demanding that I play hooky and explore the vineyards with Ashley.
The 25-mile stretch of land that arcs from Lausanne east to Montreux is the Lavaux, Switzerland’s largest wine region and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here, farmers plant the grapes wherever they can — sometimes dozens of rows climb up soft slopes, often just a few rows cover a steep, terraced plot and occasionally, a single line grows right along the train track or in some other unlikely spot.
Ashley and I take a 16-minute train ride to St. Saphorin, a small village wedged between the lake and a steep incline covered with vineyards outlined by gray stone walls. We walk past buildings the color of cheese — creamy brie, pale gruyere — and discover the small school-bus-yellow signs that dot nearly 40,000 miles of hiking trails throughout Switzerland.
Perhaps to counter their affinity for cheese and chocolate, the Swiss are deeply passionate about hiking. The trails through the Lavaux vineyards, many of which are paved, are relatively easy compared with the strenuous hikes through the mountains, and they can be a great way to explore Swiss wines. In St. Saphorin, Ashley and I study the yellow signposts, determine our direction and begin huffing and puffing our way up a sharp hill. We stop to take pictures or read the placards describing the history of the region and the grape varietals and finally admit that this is also an excuse to catch our breath.
At the top, we’re rewarded with heart-stopping views of sapphire-blue Lake Geneva and cotton-ball clouds waltzing around the snow-tipped peaks of the French Alps on the other side. We continue our trek through paths that cut through rows of grape vines winding up wire trellises toward the sun, and an hour later arrive in Chexbres, a small village perched almost 700 feet above the lake.
We walk through town in search of an open cave, or winery, realizing that it’s midweek and many of the vintners are actually out in the fields. Most of the region’s vineyards are open to the public by appointment or on special Open Cave days, where all the winemakers in the town will offer tours and tastings. These carnival-like affairs in the spring and fall are filled with wine, music and, of course, plenty of cheese.
None of the caves are open, so we follow the signs out of town. Just five minutes later we discover Le Deck, a restaurant that juts out over the hill in a gravity-defying manner. We snag two seats at the edge and study the Lavaux-heavy wine list. Our waitress recommends a local white, pointing to the vineyard below us that it came from.
Mercifully, our after-lunch march takes us on a slow descent through Dezaley, an appellation first planted by 12th-century monks who began the extensive terrace work that vintners still use today. Forty-five minutes later, we reach the village of Epesses.
Again, all the caves are closed, but we notice several cafes offering local wines and realize that this is the solution for those interested in sampling the local wine when the caves aren’t open.
We stop at Auberge du Vigneron, a traditional Swiss restaurant and inn with a patio and flights of local wine. Rosy-cheeked from our hike, we sip our wine and chat about the day. We agree that we prefer the rosés and reds to the whites, which lack the full whack of flavor that we tend to like.
The dominant white grape is the Chasselas, which is not known as an intense wine, particularly in comparison with the sharp bite of Germany’s Gewürztraminer or the tang of an Italian pinot grigio. Swiss winemakers try to minimize that acidity in favor of soft, approachable wines.
As if concerned that our assessment has offended some Swiss sensibility, Ashley points out that our adventure is about the experience more than the wine. “If I really want to sample different wines, I go to a wine bar or a store that does tastings,” she says. “Going to the vineyard is about the experience.”
I can’t imagine a more appealing experience than watching the Swiss flag ripple and roll, admiring the staggering views across the lake, sipping wine and laughing with my friend, but it’s time to focus on the wine. We walk less than 20 minutes downhill to Cully, hop a four-minute train to Rivaz and stop at Lavaux Vinorama.
This stone multimedia center, tasting room and wine shop, which appears to be carved into the hillside, opened in 2010 to teach visitors about the wine region and give them more access to the wines.
Inside, Ashley and I watch a 20-minute film about a year in the life of a winemaker. Available in several languages, including English, the film features grand aerial shots of the region and serves as a gentle reminder that the often-romanticized business is still hard, get-your-hands-dirty agricultural work.
In the tasting room, where more than 200 bottles from area vintners line blond wood shelves, we order a flight of three red wines. Gamay, pinot noir and Plant Robert, a local grape, make up the bulk of red wine in the area, and we sample several before buying a few bottles to take home with us.
Relaxing on my balcony later that evening with one of our newly acquired wines, we watch the jagged tops of the mountains turn a brilliant pink as the sun sets, and I have an oenological epiphany. This isn’t “Bottle Shock: Part Deux”; Swiss wines aren’t going to cause an upset like the one that California vintners staged against the French in 1976. But the Swiss environment and atmosphere complement the country’s easy, straightforward wine just as a slow-cooked rack of lamb enhances a bold Napa cabernet sauvignon.
And, in the entirety of the experience, the Swiss are definitely gold-medal winners.
Kelly DiNardo is a freelance writer based in Switzerland.