Rising steeply above the waters of Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman, as it is known in French), the lush terraced vineyards of Lavaux are one of the most stunning landscapes in Switzerland and a paradise for both oenophiles and photographers. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 for both its unique topography and its deeply rooted history of wine making, this 2,000-acre stretch of land lines almost 20 miles of lake shore and is the epicenter of wine production in the canton of Vaud. If you are exploring the area around Lake Geneva, consider a jaunt through this magnificent wine country as a treat to both your eyes and palate.
Photo via Flickr by harmishhk
The History of Wine Production in the Lavaux-Oron District
The wine industry in Switzerland can’t hold a candle to that of neighboring Italy and France, but the Lavaux (officially the Lavaux-Oron District) has been site of grape cultivation for wine since at least the 11th century, and some suspect that production may date as far back as Roman times. Though there is historical evidence that proves that local Benedictine and Cistercian monks grew vines here in the 1200s, the remains of Roman settlements along the shores of the lake and in nearby Lausanne suggest that ancient Romans may have also built terraced vineyards here. Regardless, the city of Lausanne owes part of its wealth to the Lavaux wine industry, and the beauty of the countryside formed over centuries is a huge draw for tourism in this quiet corner of Switzerland.
The Lavaux wine country is made up of southern-facing, terraced vineyards held that have adapted to the mild microclimate on the northern shore of Lake Geneva; the predominant grape is the Chasselas, used to make the local dry white wine that fueled the economy of Lausanne and the surrounding countryside for a millennium. It is said that the grapes here are warmed by “three suns”: the one in the sky; the one reflected off the lake; and the one that emanates from the warm stone walls that line the terraces.
Chasselas is most often served as an aperitif or paired with the excellent local artisan cheeses or lake fish, like perch. Be sure to stop to sample the local wines, as Switzerland exports less than 5% of its production; if you don’t taste it here, you may not get another chance. You can taste Lavaux wines in one of the area’s many caveaux tasting rooms, cafés and restaurants, and even the honor-system wine stands set up near cellars along the trails and roads that wind through the wine country. Take a bottle and leave a handful of Swiss francs in the wooden box.
How to Visit
The area is an easy day trip from Geneva, Lausanne, Bern, and the Valais and Rhone Valley ski resorts, and you can take in spectacular views of the terraced vineyards covering the hillsides above the lake shore by car, boat, bike, or along the walking trails. You’ll also want to take in the postcard-perfect Château de Chillon and picturesque historic villages of Montreux and Vevey while exploring the area.
The Lavaux is between Lausanne and Vevey on the northern shores of Lake Geneva, and these two cities are popular gateways to the wine country, with highways and fast trains that connect with smaller regional roads and local train lines linking the smaller villages. If you are hiking or biking (or even if you just plan on taking a stroll through the vineyards as part of a winery tour), choose comfortable shoes and dress for the weather. Be sure to bring your camera to capture the gorgeous views of the vineyards with the lake to the fore and the Alpine peaks as backdrop.
When to Visit
The best time of year by far to visit is in the fall, when the foliage is particularly colorful and the weather perfect for a long hike or quick tour around the vineyards. Unfortunately, these are also the months in which local vintners are busy with harvest and production, and may not have much time to dedicate to tours and visits.