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Variety is the spice of Geneva wine

A man empty's his basket of grapes from a vineyard in the wine growing region of Dardagny.

(ST/swiss-image.ch)

A tour of some of Geneva's top wineries reveals that this is one of Switzerland's most dynamic wine-growing regions.

Swiss wines are a jealously guarded secret - very little is exported. But even for those who know just how fine they can be - it often comes as a surprise that a tiny canton like Geneva is among the shining lights.

Despite being regarded as city-state, 50 per cent of Geneva's surface area is given over to agriculture, and a large proportion of this is covered with vineyards. In fact, Geneva is the third biggest wine-producing canton in Switzerland after Vaud and Valais, accounting for 10 per cent of the country's production.

Bad reputation

But quantity rarely equates to quality. "Twenty years ago, Geneva wines had a bad reputation," says Gail Mangold-Vine, whose CFS Communication company organises English-language tours of Geneva's finest wineries.

Traditionally, Chasselas and Gamay grapes have been the main grapes grown in Geneva. In 1985, 90 per cent of red wine was made from Gamay, and 84 per cent of white from Chasselas. Those figures have now fallen to 70 and 68 per cent respectively.

While a glass of well-made Chasselas is still a refreshing accompaniment to the local cheeses and lake fish, it was felt that Geneva wines needed to be taken more seriously.

The first thing to do was to improve quality and bring in better grape varieties. Then the public had to be told.

Noble varieties

The winemakers have done their bit. The humble Chasselas and Gamay have gradually been replaced with noble varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir - Geneva is, after all, not that far from Burgundy - and more unusual ones like Gamaret and Kerner.

With a top quality product to sell, an aggressive marketing campaign was launched. Three targets were identified: Geneva restaurants and hotels, German-speaking Switzerland and English-speaking residents of the Geneva area.

Mangold-Vine and CFS were approached to provide the third element of this three-pronged assault.

I accompanied her on the third such tour. Each looks at a distinct wine-growing region of the canton. This one would take us to the villages of Anières and Chevrens, which nestle in a slender finger of land between the French border and the left bank of Lake Geneva.
"Our strategy is to visit the entire canton, to take people to very different wineries, and especially those that have done most to improve quality," explains Mangold-Vine, who also edits a Geneva Wine magazine.

Expertise

My group of around 25 people is joined by an English-speaking enologist, Simone de Montmollin, who gives an added insight into the winemaking techniques and advice on tasting.

She says the tours are not just about selling a region, but also promoting the culture of wine, and increasing people's appreciation.

"I've always liked wine, and this is a good way of learning more. There are people with lots of expertise who are prepared to talk to you," says Madhav Joshi, an Indian living in Vevey. "Before I arrived here, I knew nothing about Swiss wine. For me, wine came from France, Italy, Australia or South Africa. But I've been pleasantly surprised."

The enthusiastic response to the local wines is in sharp contrast to how they were received 20 years ago. But today, Geneva winemakers regularly win prizes in international competitions.

"People are drinking less wine, but they're drinking better wines. So there is a great deal of pressure to produce really high quality wines," Mangold-Vine says.

"Fifteen years ago, a group of Geneva vintners decided to diversify and to really pull up their socks with regard to winemaking techniques. But it's taken some time for the results to be seen. Those improvements are there now, but even the Geneva people are not necessarily aware of it," she told me.

Ambassadors

With more and more restaurants showing increasing pride in stocking local wines - the message is slowly getting through.

As far as the winemakers are concerned, the emphasis on quality was an economic necessity: "The price of the grapes was falling, so we had to improve the quality. We had to produce what people want," says Claude-Alain Chollet, a passionate and inventive winemaker whose Domaine des Champs-Lingot winery, just outside Chevrens, is our first stop.

Chollet is continuing a family tradition, though not necessarily with the kinds of grapes his father and grandfather would have used. Alongside the ubiquitous Chasselat, Pinot Noir and Gamay, there are varieties not normally associated with Geneva: Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and a wonderful Kerner.

Next we move on to Anières, dropping in on three top wineries, all within a stone's throw of each other. First, it is Alain Jacquier, where the shining lights are an un-oaked, Chablis-like Chardonnay and a clean but fruity Oeil de Perdrix, the classic Swiss rosé.

Then it is on to Philippe Villard, a rising star of the Geneva winemaking scene. There a sumptuous late harvest Gewurtztraminer knocked our socks off. Finally, Jean-Jacques Gavillard, whose winery occupies the site of an old monastery, impresses us with his yet-to-be-bottled Gamaret-Garanoir blend and his dry and sweet Muscats.

Whole package

An added bonus to visiting the wineries is that they are often located in some of the most picturesque corners of the canton. So the magnificent views of the lake and the Alps, the historical buildings and quaint villages become part of the overall package and help to sell the wines.

"People are discovering a Geneva they never knew existed," Mangold-Vine says. "To promote wine and not bring in some of these other aspects is very boring as a marketing technique."

It is unlikely that the wines of these small, high-quality producers will be found in the shops. Most are sold directly to consumers and restaurants.

Tasting visits to the wineries have a long tradition in Geneva. Indeed, on May 25, every winemaker in the canton will throw open the doors of his cellar and invite the public to taste his wines for free. This proximity is a major selling point for many consumers.

"These are our neighbours. You can drive over in five minutes and pick up the wines yourself," says John McCarthy, an American resident of Geneva.

"These tours are a great chance to discover the wineries right in your backyard. We go on wine tours to Burgundy, Provence and Tuscany, but I'd never taken the time to find out about the wines right here - and quality is very good."

The chances are, he'll be on the next tour in Céligny, scheduled for October 5, when the harvest should be in full swing.

by Roy Probert


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