Swiss wines are generally thought of – when they are thought of at all – as being light little whites that do not travel and are best drunk within a year or two.
This may be true of many of them, especially cooperative-produced wines that have lost much of their individuality through mixing, but such a statement overlooks the remarkable variety of wines, made in all three major linguistic areas, some of which are now exported to both Great Britain and the United States.
One of the best and most charming wine regions is Lavaux, between Lausanne and Montreux along the shore of Lake Leman. The vineyards here rise in steep, terraced slopes out of the mountain-mirroring water.
The whites of Lavaux have the loveliest name any wine has ever carried – Dorin, from their golden color.
They are richer both in color and taste than their many Swiss cousins, although in the French cantons white wines are nearly all products of the same Chasselas grape. The reason for this is their triple exposure to the sun, expressed in the name of a wine from the village of Epesses: "Trois Soleils."
The "three suns" are the sun itself, the sunlight reflected from the lake and the sun's warmth reflected from the terrace walls.
The sunny character of these wines also makes a lie of the notion that they have short lives. While a 1931 Saint-Saphorin is a full, mature wine only awaiting a suitable occasion to be drunk, a 1920 is still hard, scarcely mellowed, and will probably be really ready to drink only at twice its present age.
Younger, yet even better, a 1949 Dézaley "Clos de l'Abbaye" would do wonders for the magnificent perchets (small perch) of Lake Leman served in Cully's excellent lakeshore restaurant, Le Major Davel.
Unfortunately such fine vintages are virtually impossible to find commercially, no doubt because the Swiss, who produce not nearly enough wine to satisfy their thirst, drink up their own wines too rapidly.
No matter, there is plenty of good young wine with its characteristic taste of the soil, a sort of smoky taste called "gunflint." There are subtle yet distinct differences in the products from one village to another.
Le Corbusier once remarked acidly of his countrymen: "The Swiss are cleanly and industrious, and the hell with them," but he was not of the wine-growing regions. The vignerons of Lavaux are cleanly; such impeccably clean wine cellars could not exist elsewhere. They are industrious; try using anything other than human power on 45-degree slopes, terraced or otherwise.
They have the same cheerful, generous, Rabelaisian spirit as their French brothers. The wine from giant oval tuns, called vases and containing 500 gallons, is offered squirting out of a guillion, a pewter-lined stopper made of wood, pulled out just far enough to allow a small jet of wine to shoot into a narrow sort of shotglass holding one deciliter (about 3.5 ounces).
That may not sound like much, and it isn't, but about the time the 20th vase has been tapped (that makes two liters), one's thoughts about Le Corbusier are that he was a great architect, but when it comes to his judgment of his countrymen, the hell with him.