When we think of famous winegrowing regions of the world, Switzerland doesn't come to mind. Yet this jagged little country Switzerland actually produces some top drops, writes Anna King Shahab.
The train from Zurich airport is six minutes late, a myth-busting revelation early-in-the-piece on my first visit to Switzerland. But I'm willing to believe delays to the schedule are a rare occurrence, because over the next week I spend in the country I jump on dozens of trains that depart on the dot.
From Zurich it's a few hours and two like-clockwork changes to reach the vineyards of Lavaux, on the northern banks of Lac Leman (better known as Lake Geneva, but this is the French-speaking canton of Vaud we're in, and they will give you a generous pour if you use their language). We're staying two nights in the small village of Chexbres, which places us in the middle of wine country, and a 10-minute train ride to the city of Lausanne, where we head the next morning.
At the station, we meet Lausanne Tourism guide Franziska, who leads us over the road to hop on the city's underground train, which, as we head steeply up the hill, feels like a cable-car hybrid. Then it's upwards again, tackling steep steps to reach the Gothic cathedral. Franziska, charging ahead sprightly, tells us the folk of Lausanne (okay, she said women, but I'm taking an inclusive approach) are famed for their shapely legs, as a result of having to climb hills every day. Do pack your comfy shoes.
On the ridge above the lake in the heart of the old city, Lausanne Cathedral — the Notre Dame — was completed in 1235 and is considered one of the most beautiful examples of the Gothic period in Europe, particularly its stained glass windows. Among the exquisite pieces here is a rose window of than 100 pieces — depicting secular subject matter like seasonal labouring and the natural world — many of which remain intact from the early 12th century.
To quench our thirst we're getting back on the train to visit the source of the region's wine. In less than 10 minutes, we're hopping off in Grandvaux, where we're greeted by a majestic view: rows of terraced vines paint the steep hillside, right down to the sparkling water of the lake.
Domaine Croix Duplex, just a few minutes walk from the station, is a third-generation vineyard now run by winemaker Simon Vogel and his sister Maud who, along with marketing, runs the tasting room — which looks right out on to that stunning panorama.
As we happily pick away at platters of local cheese and charcuterie (I become enamoured with the Vaud region's goat's cheeses) Maud takes us through the Domaine's range of wines. She explains the dominant grape in these parts is the native chasselas, and we taste several crus made with the grape, as well as chardonnay, riesling and syrah. The vineyards of Lavaux — which was made a Unesco World Heritage site in 2007, benefit from what's called the "three suns"; the sun itself, the reflection of the sun off the lake, and the warmth of the sun retained in the steep, stone-walled terraces.
We don't find Swiss wine in New Zealand, or elsewhere outside Switzerland, because production is small and the local market here is willing to pay top dollar in order to drink it all up (only about 1 per cent does get exported, mainly to Germany).
Back in Lausanne, we stroll through the manicured grounds of Casino de Montbenon, built in 1908, to take a seat at the Bistro de Montbenon, now occupying the building.
This smart-casual space instantly impresses with its jam-packed buzz (surprising for a Monday), lofty, domed and carved classical ceiling and long chrome bar, lively with bartending deftness. Seated on the mezzanine level, we opt for dishes that speak of the region — fresh fera and smoked trout, from Lac Leman. As the sun sets over the city, and with views stretching over the lake to the mountains, we take in our last spectacular views of where those fish spent their swimming days.
SAY IT RIGHT:
Fly from Auckland to Zurich with Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific and Emirates. Other airlines offer connections from hub airports with Swiss Airlines.
Once there, a Swiss Travel pass, exclusively available to foreign visitors, is the best way to travel within the country, covering trains, trams, buses and boats and some museum entries.
Baron Le Tavernier sits in the quiet village of Chebrex, a five-minute walk from the train station and right on the lake.