Lavaux is a wine sub-region of Vaud, situated on the northern shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland. This area, which occupies an enviable position on the eastern half of the lake, is known for producing steely white wines, mainly from the Chasselas grape.
Where the vineyards of neighboring La Cote (just along the lakeside to the west) are visibly similar to northern Burgundy, those in Lavaux have more in common with classic German wine regions, such as the Mosel. Rising directly up from the lakeside, the hillsides here are so steep that extensive terracing is necessary (© All rights reserved, Wine-Searcher). The highest vineyards sit 350m (1150ft) above the lake and are some of the steepest in the world, matching even the most vertiginous in the Mosel. Above the famous wine villages of Saint-Saphorin and Dezaley some vineyards climb 250ft (75m) in just 500ft (150m), giving them a gradient of almost 100% (45 degrees). The centuries-old viticultural history here (Cistercian monks are credited with the earliest terracing and plantings almost a thousand years ago) has earned Lavaux's vineyards status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Just as the Mosel flows steadily down below its vineyards, providing a route for long barges full of coal and steel, so Lake Geneva sits below the vineyards of Lavaux, although its surface is dotted with yachts and speedboats. The lake is a very important feature in the area's growing conditions, not only moderating both summer and winter temperatures, but also reflecting a great deal of light from its sparkling alpine waters. The climate here is so mild that it is sometimes described as being almost Mediterranean.
As is standard for the Vaud region, the white wines made in Lavaux are dominated by Chasselas, and the reds by Pinot Noir and Gamay. Between them, these three varieties cover more than 85% of the Vaud's vineyard area, with Chasselas plantings more than double those of the two red varieties combined. There is also a small quantity of Pinot Gris in Lavaux vineyards, plus about half as much of both Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. Although Chasselas may seem to be absolutely dominant here, if the rest of Switzerland is anything to go by, the ratio of red to white will increase over the coming years. In the early 1980s, nearly 70% of all Swiss wine was white (made mostly from Chasselas), but since the beginning of this century red wines have become more prevalent.
The vines here are managed by a relatively large number of growers, as evidenced by the fragmented 'patchwork' appearance of the hillside. Most either sell their harvests under contract or join together in co-operative wineries. An increasing number, however, are now making and selling their own wine, a sign of the Swiss wine industry's increasingly commercial focus.