For a small country, Switzerland is quite special. It boasts 12 UNESCO heritage sites. As per the official definition, A World Heritage Site is a landmark or area with legal protection by an international convention administered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. World Heritage Sites are designated by UNESCO for having cultural, historical, scientific, or other forms of significance.
Obviously, a personal goal of mine would be to visit all 12 UNESCO destinations during my sojourn here.
This fall, I got to visit the site closest to where we live called the Lavaux.
It is considered one of Switzerland’s most beautiful regions. It came into being in the 12th century by the Cistercian monks. Now it is miles of walls and terraces that are carefully maintained by today's winegrowers. Lavaux sits in the canton of Vaud and stretches from Lutry (near Lausanne) all the way to Chardonne (near Vevey). The place was recognized by UNESCO in 2007 as a world heritage site; a place worth preserving for its importance to humanity’s story.
What makes it so special? First of all the unique terraced architecture (900 hectares make up Lavaux) makes the region look very Verde, pretty, and unique. Secondly, these grapes are said to get the light and heat of three suns: the sun above, the heated reflections of Lake Leman, and the heat given out by the stone walls at night. Last but not the least, this region is renowned for four types of wines, the first specifically available only in Switzerland. These being, Chasselas, Gamey, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. The wines are certified by three AOC (Appellations d'Origine Contrôlées) labels: Lavaux, Dézaley, and, Calamin. An AOC indicates the geographical origin, quality, and (generally) the style of wine. Most of the grapes have the same ancestry (come from the same plant) but terrior gives them a difference in taste. For example, Calamin is a tiny designation of barely 16 hectares, but a terroir of choice for its amazing Chasselas wines!
The Lavaux grapes are mostly green grapes called Chasselas, originally found in France and used only for eating, not for making wine. Now, Chasselas is considered the traditional grape of Swiss wine producers. It’s a very delicious wine and worth trying when visiting Switzerland.
Switzerland is not famous for wine as much as France or Italy is because most swiss wine produced is drunk locally. Yet, sometimes close to 400,000 people come from all over the world to drink Swiss wine. A very unusual event tied to Lavaux but hard to participate in because it happens once in 20 years is the Fête des Vignerons, The last one took place in 2019, so add the next one to your calendars because it’s such a major event that it takes a few years to plan and then enjoyed by oenophiles and others alike over a few short days.
Being a world heritage site means there can be no overdevelopment in this area. This is a good thing. In my few months in Switzerland, I have come to realize construction is a constant presence here, yet, it’s such a calm that comes over you when you cross this area..no construction to be spotted! All existing villages are aware of trying to have a small land footprint in the middle of the valley of grapes. In total, there are 10 communes or villages that are part of this unique UNESCO heritage.
A funny fact we learned about the Lavaux grapes is that half of their body is from America. That’s right; all grapes in Lavaux have American roots (talk about “a global village!”) One year, US parasites killed all the swiss grapes. The solution for this American problem was also American..grafting swiss stems with American roots that were parasite resistant; thus all swiss grapes now have American roots.
The story of how the Lavaux area came into being is also rather unique and worth sharing. In fact, there are various waves of history attached to this region. First, there were the Cistercian monks who started growing grapes for wine production. Then, when the farming interfered with their other priorities they hired locals to help them. As per this website, “Helped by the winegrowers-laborers, they embarked on a gigantic endeavor to build terraces held in place by stone walls. During their occupation of the canton of Vaud, the Bernese authorities recognized the importance of the winegrowing activity in Lavaux and spread its fame beyond the Swiss borders.” Later on, Italian laborers came from far and near when the locals got disinterested in the arduous farming. Each of the small one-acre wine-growing grape lands is called a parcel. Currently, the City of Lausanne is one of the largest landowners in Lavaux; they sell most of their wine to local restaurants.
Obviously, in any place I visit, I try to learn about the sustainability of that place. I was happy to learn that Lavaux farmers have implemented a lot of sustainable measures over the years. Currently, all wine is produced is on a quota system so they don’t have to produce as much as possible from each harvest. The farmers are trying to grow new varieties of the grape that use less water, are more heat resistant, etc. In recent years, the farmers have taken to leaving some land fallow each year instead of working with fertilizers and other chemicals to continue production at all times and seasons.
In conclusion, the Lavaux area is an amazing, historically deep yet active part of daily life in this region-both for locals and tourists alike. It’s one of the first tourist attractions my friend visited on her first trip to Switzerland. It is also what one local decided to do for the first time in 20 years. This to me shows the region to be ever new and very old at the same time. May it remain that way forever.
To learn more about Swiss wines, grapes, and particularly Lavaux wines/grapes, please check the following links: