A Swiss by the book - The Chasselas

What is Chasselas and what does Fendant have to do with it? Diverse as the people of Switzerland, Chasselas yet has a unique personality.

Chasselas is quite an institution in Vaud and on the Lake Neuchâtelarea, but this grape variety can actually be found throughout all Switzerland. For a long time, it was regarded as a Swiss grape variety by choice, while its origin was thought to be in Savoy or Burgundy. This was not the only legend about the origin of Chasselas. It was said that it came from Egypt or from Constantinople and became the most important grape variety in Switzerland for a long time. But genetic and historical studies, particularly those by Dr. Jose Vouillamouz have debunked these myths. The leading expert on genetic studies of European grape varieties and author of very easy-to-read books on Swiss grapes, proved with genetic analyses that Chasselas comes from the Lac Lemans region - more precisely from its Northern part. This means that Chasselas is an indigenous Swiss grape variety.

Beyond genetic analyses, this original Swiss grape variety was first identified as "Edel" (German for noble) in a herbal back in 1539, and in 1612 the name Chasselas was mentioned as a table grape. With these records dating back to the 16th century, it is clear that Chasselas is a rather old cultivar. Around this time, a naturalist from Basel, Johann Bauhin, also wrote about a grape called Fendant or Lausannois. This suggests that the grape originates from around Lausanne. The Lavaux region, located between Lausanne and Vevey, is still home to the greatest Chasselas clones indicating the birthplace of the grape variety. More than 300 clones are believed to exist here.

Chasselas or Fendant?

Until the 20th century, Chasselas was usually referred to as Fendant; more precisely, Fendant Blanc as opposed to Fendant Giclet. Giclet meaning splash referred to the characteristic of Fendant Giclet berries to burst open when crushed. In the case of Fendant Blanc, on the other hand, the berries open rather slowly and sort of melt away, which gave the variety the name Fendant (French for splitting).

They are basically light and refreshing wines that fit perfectly with the Swiss aperitif culture.

In Vaud, the name Chasselas became more and more widespread at the beginning of the 20th century. More towards Lake Biel, Chasselas is also called Gutedel, which in its turn goes back to one of the first names from the 16th century. In Valais, however, the traditional name Fendant was preserved. Chasselas vines had been brought there en masse since 1848 and the development of the mountain region with its agriculture due to the construction of the railway (the first section Bouveret-Martigny was opened in 1859 and the railway network was gradually extended) opened up Valais to the rest of Switzerland making it a wine export region. Chasselas was sold as Fendant to the rest of Switzerland, which over time reinforced the difference in the name. Finally, in 1966, a Federal Court decision stipulated that a Fendant could only come from Valais.

Headed for the future

For a long time, Chasselas (including Fendant) was the number one grape variety in Switzerland, both in terms of planting area and production volumes. The quantity is not particularly surprising, as the vine is a true mass producer and yields a lot of fruit. In the 1982-83 vintages, after two years of frost, this led to swimming pools being filled with wine in French-speaking Switzerland, as winegrowers did not know what else to do. The volume production made Chasselas a very simple and at best mediocre wine. It was not until the beginning of the 1990s that quotas were introduced and resulted in the quality raise of Chasselas. Unfortunately, these same quotas also helped to make other cultivars popular, which in turn was detrimental to Chasselas consumption.

The massive loss of popularity led to the introduction of a re-planting programme in 2001. Anyone who uprooted Chasselas vines and replaced them with other grape varieties received a premium from the federal government. Many winegrowers did not wait long and replaced poorly selling wine with other varieties gaining their premium. In the French-speaking Switzerland, 40% of the Chasselas vineyards were converted in the course of this restructuring. Nevertheless, Chasselas is still the number one white wine variety in Switzerland today, beaten only by Pinot Noir in the overall ranking.

Chasselas clearly has its position and justification on the market and today its sales are constantly rising. They are light and refreshing wines that perfectly fit into the Swiss aperitif culture. Chasselas is served both at weddings and at funerals. Thus it’s an important social link and cultural element in French-speaking Switzerland.

Chasselas vineyard management

In the vineyard, it never actually challenges the vintner in having a good harvest in autumn. Chasselas is more of a variety whose yields need to be reduced in order to produce quality grapes. However, studies and my own experience have shown that the quality of Chasselas cannot be increased immeasurably through yield reduction. If you reduce it too much, the wine becomes tart and bitter, limiting the potential of the grape. The vineyard is quite easy to manage, which does not necessarily mean that it cannot be attacked by fungus. However, it is relatively forgiving. If the shoots have not yet been pruned, Chasselas can be easily recognised by its copper engraving on the young leaves. Its berries are rather large and become golden yellow when ripe. This earned the variety another name -Chasselas doré (French for golden) that was used for quite a while.

The characteristic flinty minerality tastes a little like a summer rain fallen on sun-heated stones.

Chasselas is mainly native to the French-speaking Swiss regions, although it displays a different character from place to place. Basically, Vaud is responsible for almost 60% of the produced Chasselas, but between Lake Neuchâtel, Geneva and Valais, it is actually impossible to define a general character. After all, Vaud has eight AOCs, thanks to Chasselas. Four of the eight happen to be in Lavaux, the birthplace of Chasselas. One can say that the Vaudois Chasselas is basically a wine whose aromas range between honey, apple blossom and elderflower and show a certain elegance. If malolactic fermentation occurs, it is creamier, and otherwise refreshing.

In Valais, the sun is stronger and the vines get more hours of sunshine. This results in a more powerful Fendant that has yellow-fruit aromas -like apricot- without having much acidity. You often find Fendants with a residual CO2 from fermentation, which makes the structure somewhat refreshing.

Geneva, Chasselas is a typical aperitif wine: light and fresh with a floral and fruity aroma, but also slightly carbonic.

In Neuchâtel and in the Three Lakes region, you can find more citrus and pear aromas. As with all Chasselas, there is flinty minerality here. This characteristic minerality tastes a little like a summer rain fallen on sun-heated stones.

For wine lovers, aged Chasselas is an absolute must.

When speaking of Chasselas, it is a must to mention a special tradition from Neuchâtel. Here, every year on the 3rd Wednesday of January, the new Chasselas is brought to market unfiltered leading to folk festival-like joie de vivre on Lake Neuchâtel. The unfiltered Chasselas is then sold throughout the year. Thanks to the lack of filtration, the non-filtré has a fuller body and its aromas tend towards pineapple.

As you can notice from the different expressions in various wine growing regions, Chasselas is an excellent reflection of terroir, which can take on very different facets due to different geological compositions in the soil. A Chasselas on limestone is something quite different from a Chasselas on slate: a Vaud Chasselas is very distinct from a Fendant from the slate region in Lower Valais.

It is hard to believe but Chasselas has a great aging potential. On Lake Geneva, I was able to taste 40-, 50- and 60-year-old Chasselas, which were absolutely brilliant. With age Chasselas takes on prominent, almost nutty honey notes and a strong minerality. For aged wine lovers, Chasselas is an absolute must.

Chasselas is actually the Swiss grape par excellence and a big export hit. In Austria, Gutedel is an integral part of the Viennese «Gemischter Satz», where different grape varieties are harvested together on one plot. In Germany, it is widespread in Baden and is also often found in Eastern Europe as far as the Black Sea. There, Vaudois winegrowers had settled in the Tsarist empire and introduced the population to viticulture and winemaking. Chasselas has even made it across the ocean. Small quantities can be found in California, Canada and New Zealand. In Mexico I was able to taste a Mexican Chasselas from Swiss emigrants. But the best Chasselas is in Switzerland.

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