When one speaks of the wines of the Rhône Valley two images spring to mind: the step vertiginous slopes of Cornas and Hermitage or the undulating and sun-baked landscape surrounding Avignon. Few, however, conjure up pictures of towering mountains and alpine meadows. Long before there were autoroutes linking foreign capitals there were rivers, the life’s blood of trade and culture from prehistory to the advent of the locomotive. The Rhône river was one of these ancient highways, and one that linked the Mediterranean to the Alps. Depending on your perspective, Rhône wines do not end or begin at Vienne but continue all the way up to the Swiss village of Brig, where you can find some of the highest vineyards in Europe.
Heading upstream and just past the border between France and Switzerland the Rhône widens and redirects itself in a great arc forming Lac Léman. It’s northerly course veers easterly before turning to flow southeast making the steep slopes of the north shore of Lac Léman an ideal spot for viticulture. It should come as no surprise that the Cistercian monks, rightly famous for being the first to recognize the potential of the terroir of Burgundy were also the early pioneers of grape growing in this part of Switzerland known as the Lavaux. From the city of Lausanne to the town of Monthey, most of the best sites for Swiss wines are situated: Epesses, Cully, Calamin, Dézaley, St-Saphorin, Vevey, Villeneuve, Yvorne, Aigle, Ollon and Bex.
Domaine Louis Bovard is a tenth generation estate located in the town of Cully on the north bank of Lac Léman. Proponents of the indigenous Chasselas, the Domaine tends a repository (Le Conservatoire Mondial du Chasselas) of the various massale selections of the variety in order to preserve the biodiversity of the Chasselas grape as well better understanding how different selections express themselves in the various terroirs they, and their neighbors, farm. In addition to Chasselas the estate grows Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Syrah. The steep, terraced vineyards of the Domaine are farmed sustainably with some biodynamic practices. Vineyard work is manual, dictated by the narrowness of the terraces and harvests are assisted by mechanical lifts that transport small crates of freshly harvest grapes to the top of the slope – much like one can find in parts of the Mosel.
Once the white varieties arrive at the cellar they are crushed and allowed a short time on their skins before pressing. After the must settles it is transfered to large wooden foudres for indigenous fermentation and aging on the lees. The Chasselas from Dézaley and Aigle are naturally allowed to go through malo while it is blocked for the Buxus Sauvignon Blanc. Often seen as fairly neutral and preferably consumed in its youth, Chasselas at Domaine Louis Bovard proves that this conventional wisdom is utterly baseless. These are riveting examples of alpine wine that not only capture the floral freshness of their settling but also reward those patient enough to resist their youthful charms.