Cultivated predominately for use as a table grape in Hungary and Turkey, and squeezed for its juice across a host of other nations, here at the alpine heart of Europe, the Chasselas grape is undisputed king of the white wine varieties. Occupying around four-thousand of the nation’s fifteen-thousand hectares and constituting more than one-quarter of its total wine production, Chasselas is for many, the symbol of Switzerland’s viticultural industry.
It is really no surprise that the Swiss have decided to buck the trend where Chasselas is concerned, since this geographically small, landlocked nation of just eight million inhabitants has never been afraid to stand left of the circle or to opt out when the consensus says opt in (one only has to consider their non-membership of the European Union and well known neutrality to affirm this). However, what is surprising is that, so far at least, other wine nations have failed to recognise the enduring appeal of this versatile little grape.
Believed to have originated around Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) in the sixteenth century, Chasselas has been grown throughout Switzerland for more than five-hundred years and is especially synonymous with the Vaud region where it delivers its most celebrated examples. The grape’s relative ease of cultivation and tendency to ripen early make it a perfect match for the cool climate of Switzerland’s wine growing regions.
Comparatively low in each of the three As - aromas, acidity and alcohol, the Chasselas grape is all too often written off as ‘delicate’ and ‘neutral’. However, it is this neutrality that gives the grape its greatest strength - the ability to express the subtle, unique nuances that distinguish each terroir from the next. Like the Oscar-winning actor who assumes the roles of a wealthy Wall Street stockbroker, an undercover cop and an expert in the extraction of secrets through dream-sharing, the Chasselas grape - and it’s subsequent wines - take on the traits of their terroir, such that two varietals from two distinct vineyards may be (and very often are) markedly different in style and taste.
Domaine Louis Bovard - an iconic Swiss producer with vineyards in the Lavaux, Dézaley, Calamin and Chablais appellations of Canton Vaud, is renowned for its cultivation of this variety as well as for its overall contribution to the Swiss wine industry stretching back multiple generations. Unsurprisingly given the passion and attention to detail applied to the growing and winemaking processes here, Bovard’s Chasselas wines have consistently met with high scores and widespread acclaim, with perhaps the most revered of these - the Dézaley ‘Médinette’ Grand Cru proving a delectable, quite brilliant expression with hints of peach in its youth and tempered minerality as it matures. This wine and this producer however, are by no means a singular success; all across Switzerland, as well as in small pockets of France and Germany, the Chasselas variety is showing itself capable of delivering wines of distinction.
…But since so little of this wine passes over the national boundaries, only a small number of wine aficionados outside Switzerland have even tasted Chasselas and fewer still have explored its potential for excellence. However, with a growing interest from experts and the Swiss wine industry driven to increase its exports, it is hoped that the elegant and fresh wines from this variety will begin to receive a much wider appreciation.