Does it seem odd that I’m writing about a French grape variety and using a title written in German? Okay, you’ll accept that the Swiss love Chasselas. It’s their most widely planted grape variety and comprises around 60% of white wine produced in Switzerland, but of course most of that is in the French-speaking Cantons. In fact the famous grape geneticist, Dr José Vouillamoz, has established from DNA testing that the variety originated in the Lake Geneva region of the Suisse Romande.
However, if you stay with me I’ll take you on a journey that will prove this grape should not be maligned in the way it has been, with the most respected of authorities calling it “pale”, “decidedly neutral” and “usually an eating grape elsewhere” (World Atlas of Wine, 8th edn). In fact in her original book on vine varieties (Vines, Grapes and Wines, 1986) Jancis Robinson called Chasselas “…a vine that produces such generally unremarkable wine…”. I’ll also show you that its best wine is German.
The very first time I drank Chasselas was an almost forgotten wine from the Upper Loire. Before the fame of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé had spread much beyond Paris, an obscure wine named after the town of its origin, Pouilly-sur-Loire, was a varietal Chasselas of seemingly no repute. It may have been a wine of little impact but I soon found the variety again in its heartland.
A very long time ago, when I was beginning my voyages of wine discovery, I spent a lot of time around Geneva, and drank a lot of Chasselas, both from the Canton of Vaud, mostly the villages of La Côte (east of Geneva on the north shore of Lac Léman), and from the French appellations on this lake’s southern shores (Crépy and Marin in particular). These wines in the late 1980s or early 1990s could often be the very epitome of nothingness from Switzerland and battery acid from France, and this latter’s rasping quality must have been quite an achievement from a grape generally low in acidity.
These early examples were generally of moderate quality and this was because of high yields and an undiscerning local market which would drink anything available. Because Chasselas can be cropped high and is never highly alcoholic, yields were forced and sugar added (chaptalisation) to compensate for low alcohol. When we get to know Chasselas we see that it’s a variety which rarely has an excess of acidity, nor alcohol either. It could be termed subtle, or even shy. In fact it turns out that it’s a variety which truly expresses its terroir, especially when the winemaker treats it with the love and care it deserves. It is usually enhanced by wood, but not new wood. Equally, those who believe in the variety have found that lees ageing adds a great deal that is good. In fact the winemaker we shall come to at the end of this article even takes skin contact a step further, making one cuvée of the variety in an amphora.
We begin to see this nascent quality, and loving care, in the terraces above the village of Aigle, between Montreux and Martigny in the Eastern Vaud, where Henri Badoux et Fils lends 70% of their production to the variety, and makes a very well-known cuvée called Aigle Les Murailles. You’ll recognise the name because I’ve written about this wine quite recently. It’s commercial in a sense, but still excellent quality. It acts as an entrance to the more serious Chasselas made on the UNESCO-listed terraces of Lavaux, which cascade down to the sun-reflecting water of Lac Léman/Lake Geneva, between Lausanne and Montreux. Here we move from soft and easy (though still eminently ageable to a degree) to layers of complexity and an ability to develop significant nuance with age, especially in the delineated “Grand Crus” on this stretch of lakeshore.
Not far from the Lavaux Vinorama enotheque at Rivaz you will find a vine conservatoire devoted to Chasselas. There are around forty clones preserved here, with further sites elsewhere in the Canton. In fact it is the clonal diversity of Chasselas on this stretch of vineyard which drew attention to its origins in the Lake Geneva region. The Lavaux Vinorama is worth a visit for a tasting (fees charged) and a film in the basement, but in true Swiss style the vineyard paths are well marked and the scenery above the lake so beautiful that seeking out the Chasselas vines in the conservatory is a pleasant way to walk off one of the enotheque’s light lunches with tasting samples.
Next stop, the Swiss Valais (or Wallis to German speakers), and in particular to Fully, a village close to Martigny, almost at the point where the River Rhône sweeps northwest towards its interrupted passage into France, via Lac Léman. We are not really all that far south of Aigle here, but whereas Aigle’s vines are warmed by the föhn wind, the climate of the Valais can be surprisingly hot and sunny. Chasselas in the Valais is now exclusively called Fendant, though not all Fendants are equal. Marie-Thérèse Chappaz is one of the very best winemakers in Switzerland, and her different Fendant cuvées are another biodynamic step up in terms of soul and personality. Compare “La Liaudisaz” with “Président Troillet”.
Before we step forward into the whole point of this article, I will just take a final detour back into that once unpromising vignoble south of the lake, in France. One producer, Dominique Lucas, of Domaine Les Vignes de Paradis has the measure of Chasselas. Dominique is based at Ballaison, quite close to Geneva and the Swiss border, and farms around ten hectares of vines. He makes a number of Chasselas wines which aspire to greatness at the top of the range (though “Kheops”, a Chardonnay made in a concrete pyramid, truly is a rare world class wine). Dominique is one of the only artisan producers in France to give Chasselas serious attention and he succeeds with aplomb.
So what does the phrase “world class” have to do with Chasselas? Well in the same way that they call Chasselas by another name in the Valais, they do the same in the German-speaking world. Here it is known as Gutedel. If we enter German-speaking Switzerland we can find excellent wines both under this varietal label, and indeed as Chasselas. In Basel-Land in particular (perhaps Weingut Jauslin), or for the adventurous, Anne-Claire Schott at Twann (Bielersee), who uses the variety as part of her co-planted white wine blend, aged in concrete egg and made pretty much as a “natural wine” with a tiny bit of added sulphur.
All over German-speaking Switzerland you will find increasing numbers of younger winzer making a big effort with Gutedel (and indeed the same with Chasselas in the French-speaking Cantons). Check out almost anyone in the winemaker group known as Junge Schweiz, Neue Winzer to find some wines worth trying. Be aware, however, that with a few exceptions, the Swiss rate Chasselas from the French-speaking Cantons more highly than their Gutedel siblings, although this perception is slowly changing. But to find the best Gutedel on the planet we must leave Switzerland, driving up to Basel and over the German border.
Markgräflerland is that part of the Baden wine region in Western Germany which sits almost unseen and unknown to many, a few kilometres from the Swiss border, south of Müllheim. In the village of Efringen-Kirchen, Hanspeter Ziereisen farms 19 hectares of vines. Many of his vineyards lie on south-facing slopes which overlook the Swiss city of Basel. They sit between 250 masl and 400 masl, protected by forests, and by a cooling wind which blows through the Belfort Gap to the west, keeping the vines relatively disease free without the need for pesticides.
Hanspeter is probably known best for making some of the finest Pinot Noir in Germany, or even for producing by far the best attempt at German Syrah. But Gutedel is something of a speciality of the Markgräflerland, brought here in the late 18th Century from the Lake Geneva region. Ziereisen makes several bottlings. They are all very good, even the humble entry-level Heugumber cuvée. But it is in his top Gutedel, called 10 hoch 4 Alte Reben (ten to the power of four), that we finally see what this grape can achieve.
The wine is named simply after the very high planting density of the Steingrüble vineyard, achieved by interplanting the existing rows to make for very narrow spacing. Forty-to-fifty-year-old vines, on pure Jurassic limestone soils (in German, “Jaspis”, hence the name on Hanspeter’s top bottlings), proves the terroir-malleable Chasselas is capable of far more than mediocrity. The grapes for Hanspeter’s top cuvée are hand harvested and undergo a 24-hour maceration in large oak barrels of 450 and 600-litres capacity prior to ageing. The result gives a wine of pear and white peach fruit with mineral texture and a smoky note (perhaps a hint of Lapsang Souchong or Matcha?). It is both subtle and intense at the same time, with a touch of salinity.
Hanspeter believes emphatically in what I have suggested myself, above, that Gutedel/Chasselas is a great expresser of terroir, and in the Southern Markgräflerland, around two hundred kilometres (approximately 125 miles) from the place of the variety’s birth, he has seemingly found the perfect location for this variety, and has almost certainly fashioned the greatest Gutedel in the world. The 2016 was one of my white wines of the year in 2019, though a bottle could well cost in the region of $125.
I can imagine to the completely uninitiated paying such a sum for a fairly unknown grape variety in the United States, or the UK, might be scary. We wine writers may not earn the money to buy such wines regularly, but at least we get to taste them, so we know when we have a safe bet. A century ago the value of Gutedel from this region was better appreciated and the top wines matched the best from Germany for price. Remember that at this time Germany’s top Rieslings easily matched the best from Bordeaux and Burgundy by the same measure. Their ability to age was equally appreciated. It may have been a time when subtlety was a quality more recognised than it was a decade or so ago, but the pendulum is swinging back, I’m certain.
What I will say, emphatically, and this is in some ways my whole message with wine…don’t always worry about the grape variety. If you have a little bit of a sense of adventure within you, look for a greater palette of flavours for your palate to explore and savour. If you can find increasingly exciting Chasselas/Gutedel based on some of my own recommendations, then you will equally find sensational Silvaner, Neuburger that pushes the right buttons, Roter Veltliner and Rotgipfler to wake up your tastebuds, or perhaps even a Klevner from Italy’s German-speaking Südtirol or a Heiligensteiner Klevener (sic), aka Savagnin Rose, from Northern Alsace. The point is to explore Europe’s full viticultural heritage rather than merely buying what the marketeers (and the self-appointed taste arbiters) tell you to like.
If you can’t afford the 10 Hoch 4 (like me), then Ziereisen makes several other Chasselas. If you want to explore further afield, whether in France of Switzerland, the “Chasselas” is unlikely to be the producer’s most expensive wine. Occasionally it will be the cheapest. The one place to be a little wary is Switzerland, because not all of the wines will be as good as the top producers by a long way. Marie-Thérèse Chappaz is always a name to check out, or peruse the producer names in Sue Styles’s “The Landscape of Swiss Wine” (Bergli 2019).