Tourists in Lavaux

With a few weeks of travel behind us, we’ve had more than one encounter that made us think about the real purpose of traveling - what makes a good travel experience, and what’s simply a tourist trap? Ironically, we learned about the history of the word tourist this week at a classic tourist trap. We learned about the practice, starting in the 1600s, of young British aristocrats heading over to the European continent for a “grand tour.” These “tourists” left home to see the art and hear the music they’d only read about, to smell and taste what was completely foreign, and to open their eyes to a world outside their own as an important part of becoming a truly educated and worldly adult.

This concept that they sought - to see, taste, and experience a world other than your own in its purest form, is really the purpose of travel.

It’s so easy to find oneself waiting in line after line with a sea of other tourists when you travel, and it’s so difficult to be enveloped into the genuine “foreign" experience. In a world in which traveling can feel so bland - completely removed of its flavors for fear that it might be too spicy or too sweet for foreign taste buds, I felt my senses awaken and my mind opening as we toured the region of Lavaux in Switzerland. After an eye-opening and heart-warming week, I can say with confidence that to walk the streets, meet the people, and most importantly, to taste their wine, is to travel. It’s to be a tourist in the most rewarding way.

To describe the picturesque hill-top wine region of Lavaux, is to describe a site of breathtaking beauty. Dangerously steep terraced vineyards cascade down towards the lake below, and the snow-capped Alps create a backdrop so stunning it’s hard to believe it’s all real. Yet, to paint a picture merely of aesthetics would be to miss the real beauty of Lavaux. The true beauty lies in the people - the way they value family, community, tradition, and the nature surrounding them. The warmth of the people and the beauty of the landscape has even touched the minds and hearts of more than one famous author. Dickens himself wrote of Lavaux, “The air there was charged with the scent of gathered grapes. Baskets, troughs, and tubs of grapes stood in the dim village doorways. Church-roofs, distant and rarely seen, had sparkled in the view.”

Planted by monks in the 11th century, these vineyards have been nurtured by generations of the same families, tended to with bare hands, sweat, and a respect for traditional techniques above all else. Wine (and sometimes winemakers) are still carried up these steep hills in what seems to be a cross between a conveyer belt and the most dangerous roller coaster I've ever seen. Clearly these winemakers aren’t jumping on the latest trends or making wines for foreign markets. On the contrary, they don’t even export the wine. Rather, they make it for their family, for their neighbors, and for themselves. This town in fact, is not for foreign markets. It’s a capsule in time and tradition, and it’s a rare gem for those lucky enough to be tourists.

Our week in Lavaux began as many trips in Europe do, with the fear of maneuvering a rental car through the twisted and tiny paths called roads (or more accurately, ‘chemins’). Once our hearts stopped pounding, we settled into our tiny cottage in Riex, one of the few small villages that make up the Lavaux region. Anxious to explore, and hoping for our first taste of the local wine, Riley and I had only ventured about 100 feet from our front door before we found a group of old winemakers sitting around a table beneath a weathered “Caveau des Vignerons” sign. With a welcoming smile, they pointed us inside where we were greeted by the most darling woman. She didn’t speak a word of English, but with our elementary French and lots of gestures, we gathered from her that this tasting room was shared by all the winemakers of the village, and that they simply rotated hosting one another every week. As this week was her family’s turn, she proceeded to pour us a selection of wines from their plots in the Lavaux region, and off we went to join the winemakers outside.

I was beside myself - this is exactly the kind of experience you dream of having when traveling!

As cars drove by other friends and neighbors were called in to join the fun, and  soon all three tables were full of locals enjoying themselves - children, parents, and grandparents all included. To our host’s delight, we selected her family’s wine as our favorite, and then off we went - enchanted, excited, and full of wine.

We learned over the next week that nearly all of the wine made in this region comes from the same grape, the Chasselas. Often used as a mere table grape, the winemakers keep with tradition in planting it in the different villages with minimal interference (meaning no watering during dry years and very rare use of chemicals). There are three appellations in Lavaux: Lavaux AOC, Calamin AOC and Dézaley AOC. The Lavaux AOC itself is then divided into eight different sites of production. Calamin and its neighboring region, Dezaley, were in fact the first sites in Switzerland to be awarded Grand Cru status.

The wines of Dézaley are certainly the favorite child of the winemakers in Lavaux. Originally formed by glaciers, the steep slope of Dézalay’s hillside has been terraced between the glacial remnants of conglomerate rocks. The soil has a consequently chalky clay characteristic that absorbs the warmth of the sun and helps create this wine’s valued complexity, especially when compared to the neighboring villages. Nearly every winemaker we met boasted of the power of the trois soleils (the three suns). With nearly religious devotion, they credited the warmth of the sun, the reflection of the sun on the lake, and the warmth of the sun found in the soil for creating the complexity and ageability of the wines. In fact, the monks were originally inspired to carve into these incredibly steep hills because of the unique ability for grapes to ripen on this site. They found that the cooling effect of the lake, plus the trilogy of sunlight, allowed the grapes to hang on the vine longer and ripen more fully. The finished product has touches of honey and almonds on the palate, and a beautiful combination of floral and fruit qualities on the nose.

Just a small step behind Dezalay in the minds of the winemakers, the Calamin wines are also treasured in Lavaux. They are described as being the simpler of the two, something to enjoy as an aperitif, or with a simple meal. Tasting these local wines is a wonderful experiment in terroir. The first night when our darling host poured the first three wines for us to try, I thought my French was failing me as she explained that they were all the same wine. Despite the fact that nearly all the wines come from the same grape here, each village produces a distinct style - more fruit for one, more complexity for another, and so on. Regardless of subtle differences, we found the different wines complemented the fresh seafood dishes as well as the local creamy Swiss cheeses perfectly. They paired nicely with the stunning views as well!

A few nights later we decided to walk to Epesse, the next village over and home to the Calamin wine, to see about their Caveau des Vignerons. At first we were unsure what to do when we arrived and the door was locked, but we quickly realized that when you’re the only tourists in the village, everyone knows that you’ve arrived and there’s no need to knock. Within minutes a neighbor shouted to the winemaker, who was in the house next door chatting with his buddies, and he ran up the hill to greet us. We were his only guests for the night and he spent the evening bouncing back and forth between us and what appeared to be the preparations for a large family dinner at his home. His little boy of about five years old ducked in at times, unsuccessfully trying to climb up onto the bar stool to report some message or request from his mom about the dinner. We talked with the winemaker about the soil in the different villages, the effect of the trois soleils, and which of his children were continuing on in the winemaking tradition with him.

As much as I loved to be inside and learn about his wine, perhaps my favorite moment of the entire week was when we took our glasses to a table outside with the village children playing nearby. Unable to contain their curiosities, these adorable kids peppered us with questions ranging from what language we spoke to why we didn’t have children. We laughed together, playfully teased one another, and deeply enjoyed the authentic connection. The highlight of our chat was when the youngest of the crew (the same one that couldn’t climb on to the bar stool) quietly approached our table and confessed that he was in love with four different girls - likely the entire population of young girls in all of Epesse! Seeing the passion in his heart and his openness to share his deepest secret with us helped me to see that we had finally found the hidden treasure. This is the true beauty of Lavaux that these winemakers are so painstakingly bottling generation after generation, and this is what it feels like to be a true tourist.