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Wine growers dodge bad weather to gather grapes

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Wine growers dodge bad weather to gather grapes
Harvesting chasselas grapes, the most common variety grown in Lavaux. Photo: Caroline Bishop
12:15 CET+01:00
A cold spring means a late harvest in Switzerland's vineyards but wine growers are optimistic about the quality of the wine this year. Caroline Bishop joins a vigneron in Lavaux, on the slopes above Lake Geneva, to discover the traditions of cultivating and harvesting grapes in these centuries-old vineyards.

The grapes keep on coming. In total around 1,500 kilograms of Chasselas are poured into the 100-year-old wooden press to extract the juice, and this is the second pressing of the day.

Artisan wine-grower Alain Chollet is in the middle of his annual harvest.

Like his fellow vignerons all over Switzerland, he is scrambling to find seven to nine fair weather days in the space of two to three weeks in October to harvest his grapes. The harvest is later this year due to the unusually cold spring, which created a late start to the growing season.

"It's been more than 30 years since we last saw such climatic conditions," Chollet tells The Local. "Happily the hot summer made up for the delay — if not the harvest would have taken place in November."

But he is optimistic about the prospects for this year's wine. Given the month of June was cold, the quantity may not be as high as usual, says Chollet. But it's the weather in September that dictates the quality of the grapes – and that was a warm, dry month.

With just three hectares of land and producing around 22,000 litres annually, Chollet's vineyard, located in the Daley area between the villages of Villette and Lutry, is one of the smaller ones in the Lavaux region, a Unesco-protected site on the shores of Lake Geneva between Lausanne and Montreux.

Vines were first planted in Lavaux in the 12th century by Cistercian monks who built walled terraces on the steep slopes. The area in the canton of Vaud now boasts 10,000 terraces over 40 levels from the lakeside to the top of the slopes.

"Back then there wasn't much alternative to grow on these steep slopes, as they didn't suit cattle or wheat," says Chollet. But vines flourish here, thanks to the composition of the soil, the south-facing aspect and the temperature regulating role of Lake Geneva.

"We often talk of the three suns: the rays of the sun itself, the rays reflected by the lake and the accumulation of heat in the walls of the terraces, released during the night."

Harvesting the grapes is labour-intensive. The gradient of the terraces means the fruit must be picked by hand, rather than machine. Chollet advertises on his website for volunteers to help and he pays them in wine — a bottle an hour.

During The Local's visit, the pickers are all local residents, including several retired people and others with flexible jobs: an artist, a tour guide, even a train driver. It's a convivial atmosphere on this warm, dry October day. Should it have rained, the harvest would have been postponed for another day.

The volunteers work from the early morning to around 5pm to cut bunches from the vines. It's enjoyable but backbreaking work and hands quickly become sticky with grape juice. Care must be taken not to catch fingers — or those of fellow workers — in the secateurs each uses.

Chollet's grapes are carted back to the house in a motorized wagon, while elsewhere in Lavaux monorail-like contraptions are used on the steepest slopes. Some châteaux even use helicopters, which whir overhead as pickers work.

IN PICTURES: GATHERING THE GRAPES IN SWITZERLAND'S LAVAUX VINEYARDS

Back at the farmhouse, the white grapes are pressed immediately to collect the juice. Red grapes, however, are left for several days before pressing so that the juice takes on the colour of the skins.

Chollet is one of the few wine-growers in the area to use a traditional wooden press, rather than modern equipment. "It's nice to maintain the traditions that have been passed down during the life of this press," he says.

About 80 percent of Lavaux grapes are white, nearly all Chasselas. This grape variety is thought to have originated in Switzerland and is the most widely used white grape in the country. Its light, simple quality means it adapts well to the varying conditions of each domain.

"The Chasselas perfectly suits the soil, the climate and the bacchanalian aspirations of the people here," jokes Chollet.

In the canton of Vaud, Lavaux is one of eight Appellations d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), the regulatory system which ensures wines meet the standards set out by their area of production. In total, Vaud vineyards produce 26 percent of the country's wine, making the canton the second largest producer after Valais. Vineyards are also found in Geneva, Neuchâtel, Ticino and parts of German-speaking Switzerland.

Switzerland produced over one million hectolitres of wine in 2012, according to the Federal Office of Agriculture, of which 42 percent was white and 58 percent red – mostly Pinot Noir. 

By comparison, France, the biggest wine producer in the world, produced 41 million hectolitres.

Unlike its famous neighbour, Switzerland's wine is not widely drunk internationally. Nearly all is consumed domestically (more than 0.9 million hectolitres in 2012), with only one percent exported.

"It's a niche market," says Rose-Marie Jaccard of the Society of Swiss Wine Exporters. "We do all we can to make our wine known in different countries. There are plenty of producers who make a lot of effort to export."

Around 30 percent of Swiss exports go to Germany, says Jaccard, with other markets in the UK and Belgium.

"The strong franc obviously isn't good, but I think the [low] percentage of exportation isn't really due to that," Jaccard tells The Local. "You can find Swiss wines of every price level."

Within the country, producers face competition from foreign wines. Switzerland imports nearly double what it produces, principally from Italy and France, to satisfy a 2.6 million hectolitre total annual consumption.

In an April 2013 survey by Geneva-based organisation Swiss Wine Promotion, 50 to 60 percent of those surveyed said they thought Swiss wines were more expensive than French and Italian imports.

Small vineyards like Chollet's, which has been in his family since the 1930s, face additional challenges. "Today the major difficulty is that the market favours mass production over artisan products," says Chollet. 

"As such, small family domains that have carefully maintained their land for ages will disappear to the gain of the big organizations. I know that I won't be able to hand down my domain to the next generation like my predecessors did because it won't allow a family to feed itself."

QUICK WINE FACTS

Total wine production in Switzerland 2012 – one million hectolitres

Global wine production 2012 – 252 million hectolitres

Wine production in France 2012 – 41 million hectolitres

Wine production in Italy 2012 – 40 million hectolitres

Wine production in Spain 2012 – 30 million hectolitres

Total wine consumption in Switzerland 2012 – 2.6 million hectolitres

Total consumption in Switzerland of Swiss wines 2012 – 0.9 million hectolitres

Total wine imports to Switzerland 2012 – 1.9 million hectolitres

(Sources: Swiss Federal Office of Agriculture, International Organization of Vine and Wine) 

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