(Continued from “The Alpine Bastion” on 30 March 2018)
The Swiss Confederation comprises a total of 26 cantons, sharing amongst themselves 4 official languages, namely German, French, Italian and Romansh. German is the most widespread, with 21 cantons having it as sole or joint official language, followed by French (7), Italian (2) and the rarissimo time capsule of Romansh (1). French may come as a distant second on the linguistic front, but French-speaking cantons and French grape varieties are dominant on the vinous front.
Switzerland probably has the most concentrated vinous portfolio across Europe, with the French quartet in Chasselas, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Merlot constituting a staggering 75% of total hectarage. Whereas Switzerland has no monopoly on Pinot Noir, no other country takes Chasselas as seriously as it does. If this confederation of cantons is to name a national variety, it must be Chasselas, as quintessential as Riesling and Grüner Veltliner are to Germany and Austria respectively.
Alongside the likes of Niagara, Muscat, Koshu and Concord, Chasselas is one of the few varieties that double as table grapes. It used to be romantically believed to have originated from ancient Egypt, but 21st century DNA testing showed that it probably came from western Switzerland, sadly nothing to do with Ptolemy, Cleopatra and Caesar. In Switzerland, Chasselas goes by a host of aliases e.g. Dorin, Fendant, Gutedel and Perlan, but Fendant – meaning “splitting”, as Chasselas grapes tend to split rather than crushed when pressed – is apparently the most important.
Chasselas is naturally vigorous and can be over-productive if yield is not controlled, leading to neutrality, indeed the gravest of all mortal sins a wine could commit in this day and age. If given care, however, Chasselas can be an immaculate piece of blank paper, on which the painter (winemaker) can paint with various types of watercolour (terroirs), not unlike Melon de Bourgogne, Silvaner and Welschriesling, wherein leanness can be alluring, and quietness can be charming.
It would be difficult to imagine how Swiss wine would be like without its French-speaking cantons; similarly, it would be impossible to speculate the course of Swiss history without French influence. The Alpine country’s celebrated – and at times controversial – policy of neutrality could be traced back to 1516, when Valois France crushed the Old Swiss Confederacy in the Battle of Marignano, leading to the signing of the Treaty of Fribourg (“Perpetual Peace”) in the same year. Switzerland would remain armed, but its era of expansionism was long gone, whereas its initially self-imposed neutrality was affirmed by the Treaty of Paris in 1815. It has seen no military action since then.
To be continued…
A single-varietal Chasselas from Vaud, or more precisely the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. South-facing and situated along the northern shores of Lake Geneva, this area may have been producing wine since Roman times, whereas the terraced vineyards can be traced back to the 11th century, planted by the Benedictines and Cistercians. Literally “the Embers of Hell”, this wine – coming in a curious 700ml bottle – was matured for up to 3 months in large oak casks, followed by stainless steel tanks. Limpid citrine with pastel golden reflex, the invigorating nose offers yellow apple, grapefruit, citronella and crushed rock. With vivacious acidity and potent minerality, the neat palate delivers lemon rind, Williams pear, kaffir lime leaves and crushed shells. Medium-bodied at 12.8%, the lemony entry continues through a herbal mid-palate, leading to a cleansing finish. If tasted blind, one could easily mistake it for a Chablis. Lovely as apéritif.
A single-varietal Chasselas from Saint-Léonard, a small municipality along the Rhône in central Valais. First introduced to Valais in the 18th century, Chasselas has been the main white variety ever since. This wine was matured on the lees in stainless steel tanks, thereby acquiring extra body and complexity. Glossy citrine with light golden reflex, the fragrant nose provides apricot, pineapple, basil and flint. With generous acidity and firm minerality, the vibrant palate supplies nectarine, pink grapefruit, thyme and rock salt. Medium-full bodied at 12.5%, the fleshy entry carries onto a creamy mid-palate, leading to a rounded finish. This wine sheds light on the depth and width Chasselas possesses.
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain,
France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages