Exploring the terraced vineyards of Lavaux by bike

Sun-drenched, sleepy and incredibly beautiful, Lavaux, in Switzerland’s Canton of Vaud grows some of the country’s best wine. While away an afternoon cycling between three vineyards, stopping off for samples on the way.Monday, 5 August 2019

The slopes of Lavaux, between Lausanne and the Montreux Riviera produce some of the most mysterious wines in the world; supremely delicate whites ranging from sweet and honeyed to mineral-bitter, depending where on the warm banks of Lake Geneva you’ve drifted.

Switzerland produces so little wine that only a tiny amount is exported, meaning the best place to taste it is at the vineyards themselves. Thankfully, that’s no hardship: the spectacular terraced vineyards of Lavaux, suspended between Alpine peaks and the lake, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, carved out by a glacier millennia ago.

The personality of Lavaux’s dominant chasselas grape was determined by that glacier’s activity: on the sheer slopes of the prestigious Dézaley AOC, where the sun beats straight down onto the vines, the wines are full-bodied with subtle toasty notes. Minutes away in Calamin AOC, meanwhile, where an ancient landslide left the soil rich with minerals, they become denser and dryer.

By far the best way to explore the appellations is by bicycle — or more specifically e-bike. Between the train stations at Vevey and Lutry, pedal along quiet gravel tracks and little village roads, cranking up the e-bike engine for the steeper terraces.

First stop: Domaine Neyroud-Fonjallaz, Chardonne

Domaine Neyroud-Fonjallaz commands one of the most extraordinary views in Lake Geneva, out over the water to a narrow valley, where snow-capped Alps stride southeast towards Italy. It’s easily reached by the funicular that runs up the hillside from Vevey, but the gradients are more than manageable on an e-bike, and the ride is well worth it; every hairpin turn through vine-covered slopes reveals more of the panorama.

This unassuming, family-run vineyard can trace its origins back as far as the monks who first brought wine to the area. Today, the Neyroud-Fonjallaz family owns 18.5 acres of land running from the gentle slopes of Chardonne to the sheer terraces of Dezaley AOC. All 70,000 bottles produced each year are prepared on site by husband and wife team Jean-François and Anne-Françoise, along with their children, and a single employee.

The deceptively small cellars are rich in family history. Wine diplomas and greying photographs of generations of vinters plaster the walls, but the real treat is the tasting area outside: a vine-shaded balcony with a breathtaking view, where Anne-Françoise serves clear, ice-cold glasses of chasselas alongside crumbling, homemade pastry cheese sticks.

What to buy: Plant Robert, made from a rare kind of gamay totally unique to the canton of Vaud.

Second stop: Domaine Clos de la République, Epesses

A short 20-minute cycle across the spectacular, steeply terraced vineyards of Dezaley AOC brings you to the town of Epesses, where the vines slope more gently down the hillside towards the lake.

Clos de la République is said to be the oldest family business in Switzerland. An ornate, 32,000-litre wooden barrel dominates the underground cellar, built for the 1897 wine festival, but perhaps the room’s most interesting feature is an old black-and-white photograph of the vineyard’s gregarious owner Patrick Fonjallaz with local legend Charlie Chaplin.

Patrick is the 13th generation of Fonjallaz vintners, and his family home and tasting rooms overlook his vines. It’s a view so stunning that he suspects people come largely for that — with his wonderful wine an added bonus. Locals say the wine in Lavaux is nurtured by three suns: reflected heat from the water, the heat from the valley’s natural rock walls, and of course the sun itself. The view from République’s garden, with its steep stone walls marching towards the horizon where Lake Geneva meets the sky, show them all in action.

What to buy: La Republique, a classic chasselas from Epesses’ gentle slopes

Final stop: Domaine Alain Chollet, Lutry

Gradients continue to soften as the valley slopes towards Lausanne — helpful, if you’re riding towards your third vineyard of the day. A quiet country road leads you from Epesses through the picturesque villages of Cully and Villette, before a final climb takes you to Domaine Alain Chollet, perched on a hillside above Lutry.

Alain, the vineyard’s owner, plays jazz saxophone to his grapes for an hour a day during fermentation, to help age them — naturally. His quirky attitude extends beyond his vines; as well as hosting formal tastings, Alain encourages visitors to drop in anytime to enjoy some wine in one of the refurbished ‘caves’ on his estate. These great little huts are kitted out with chairs, tables, an assortment of books and a self-service wine fridge (half a bottle costs 10 CHF/£8).

A railway line runs along the top of the vineyard, and the Domaine is just a short walk (or an even shorter ride) from the station at Grandvaux. It’s worth asking Alain to show you the shortcut down to Lutry, though: from the vineyard it’s a steep but spectacular ride down to lake-level and the town, where a train will carry you and your bicycle back to Lausanne.  

What to buy: Grand Cru Chardonnay, which grows excellently around Lutry

Like this, try these

The walking one: If cycling isn’t your thing, try one of the wine walks outlined in the free Vaud:Guide smartphone app. Walks vary from a quick 25-minute jaunt between vineyards to a six-mile hike across Lavaux, and as you go you can unlock quizzes about the wines and the region.

The one on the water: One of the best ways to see Lavaux is on the lake, and CGN operates gastro cruises aboard its lovingly restored belle epoque fleet. They run daily from Lausanne to the Chillon Castle — the entire length of Lavaux in the heart of the Montreux Riviera. Visitors can sun themselves on deck before enjoying a three-course meal. From 75CHF/£60 for a three course meal.

The one with even more wine: Locals are evangelical about Lavaux’s wine tasting sessions — they’re one of the best ways to explore the region's offerings. They are bookable online here.

Essentials

Regular trains run from Lausanne to Vevey and cost £4 each way. Walkandtalk operates English-speaking, customisable tours of the region on foot, bike, or e-bike. Spring is a perfect time to visit, with the weather warm but comfortable — great for cycling. You can rent bicycles from Lausanne train station from £30 a day.

Between 18 July and 11 August, Lavaux will host the Fête des Vignerons, a once-in-a-generation festival of winemaking. Vevey will be at the heart of the festival and is home to a bespoke 20,000-seater stadium built for the event.

Click here for other wine-related experiences that can be booked online.

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