By Jim Ferri
My train was speeding along the Swiss shoreline of Lake Geneva, through the Montreux Riviera, as the Swiss call it, (or the “Swiss Riviera” to others) when I first saw the vineyards.
Just outside the city of Montreux, lines of vines ran up the steep, terraced hillside, skirting the occasional red-roofed house. Atop it a small village was tucked into the sea of green, looking as if colored there by a child.
I knew of the existence of the Lavaux Vineyards, but the sight of them still took me by surprise. I was captivated.
Just as captivating was the view out the window on the other side of the train. Looking out, I became entranced by an old lake steamer leaving its silver V-shaped trail on almost-turquoise water. In a blue haze beyond it, rugged mountains thrust up into clouds on the French side of the large lake.
It was all so quaint and beautiful and so…well, Swiss-like.
The Lavaux Vineyards
When people romanticize about Europe, they often have visions of vineyards running across the hillsides of Bordeaux and Tuscany. They just don’t think of Switzerland.
I know I didn’t, at least not until I visited Montreux and the nearby terraces of Lavaux vineyards. Created by monks in the 12th century, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that covers more than 2,000 acres on the southward-facing side of Lake Geneva. (That’s the warm side and the reason the area’s considered Switzerland’s Riviera.) In addition to the vineyards, the Lavaux also envelops more than a dozen well-preserved little villages. Furthermore, they’re quite convenient to access and easy to explore by foot, bike or car.
Montreux, home of the famous 50-year old Montreux Jazz Festival, is a good jumping-off point for a visit. It’s a lovely city with excellent hotels and restaurants and only 15 minutes by train from the terraces. Also, the city’s hotels provide free Montreux Riviera Cards to their guests. The cards provide free transportation for visitors not only throughout the city but the entire region, as well.
Off to the Vineyards
Through the local Montreux Riviera tourist office, I was fortunate to get the services of a local guide, Antoinette. After meeting me at my hotel, we walked to Montreux Station for the short train ride to Chexbres Village.
Fifteen minutes later we were in Chexbres and walking along a road above the vineyards. We soon turned onto a quaint lane lined with old houses, which I learned were all owned by winemakers. It was in these that much of the Lavaux’s wine was made.
We soon turned into Domaine Bovy, and Antoinette introduced me to Eric Bovy, the winemaker. For a half-hour, we chatted while sipping his Saint-Saphorin, made from vines on the terraces only a few feet away. Then it was down to the cellar where Eric proudly showed us his 19 large oak wine casks. They variously held 2,000 – 7,000 liters, and on the front of each, his grandfather had painted a scene.
Domaine Bovy is a family business, handed down from generation to generation, and all very personal. It typifies how wine making was carried on for centuries before big corporations became involved. It was a great opportunity to sample wine making at a very grassroots level and quite comfortably on a sunny day on the Riviera.
A Wonderful Lunch, and Le Baron Tavernier Hôtel
After we left Domaine Bovy Antoinette suggested we stop at Au Lion d’Or (Golden Lion) restaurant for lunch. It was a quaint little place, filled with lunchtime locals, where both the food and atmosphere were superb.
Antoinette ordered the fish (“…it’s delicious, right from the lake”), while I opted for a salad and ravioli. The ravioli was filled with wild meats, the reason for my choice, since it was hunting season in the region. It was delicious; the portion, however, was so large I could only finish half of it.
When Antoinette suggested we have coffee in a nearby place with a great view, I quickly acquiesced. Soon we were sitting outside Le Baron Tavernier Hôtel where the view, as promised, was spectacular.
As we sat on the terrace of the Baron Tavernier sipping our coffees, we looked out on the vineyards and watched the steamers and occasional train snake along the lake shore. It was one of those places where you could linger for hours over coffee, drinks, or a meal, and damn the price.
A Walk Through the Vineyards, Then the Lavaux Vinorama
Leaving the Baron Tavernier, we ambled down a little vineyard road. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the vines were ripe with fruit, and roses and wildflowers were in bloom.
We mostly had the place to ourselves, and we talked about vineyards, the weather, and the Lavaux Vinorama where we were headed, but mostly about the splendor of it all. As we walked, I studied how picture-perfect was the little village that anchored these vineyards to the lake. The sight of an old white steamboat gliding across the calm waters below appeared like a painting.
It took us a leisurely half-hour to reach the village down on the lake shore. When we arrived, Antoinette took me to Lavaux Vinorama for wine tasting and to see a movie on winemaking.
I grumbled about sitting through a movie on such a beautiful day, but Antoinette assured me the vinorama was worthwhile. She was right; it was only about 20 minutes in length and was surprisingly well done and interesting. In fact, I greatly enjoyed it.
It captured a year in the life of a local vintner and provided a unique view into making of wine. Don’t be grumpy; you’ll likely enjoy it.
And, of course, after the vinorama, you can sample some of the more than 170 different wines of the region in the adjoining room. All in all, a perfect way to relax after a stroll through the Lavaux.