World Heritage Vines Under Three Suns Vineyards as Cultural Landscapes

Monday, 26 November, 2007
Graham Howe
Unesco features vineyards as “cultural landscapes” on its evolving register of 850 world heritage sites of universal value. Graham Howe attended the gala Unesco celebrations of the newest listing of heritage vineyards in Switzerland in September 2007.
The Brotherhood of Guillon, a medieval guild of winemakers and vintners, attended the Unesco celebrations at Chateau Chillon, the famous fortress on the shore of Lake Geneva. Attired in colourful robes, hats, chains and badges – they hosted a ressat, a traditional festive meal offered by a vintner to his workers to mark the end of the grape harvest.

The brotherhood is named after the guillon, the conical peg or spigot, set in the base of a barrel, through which one draws the wine. Demonstrating its uses, one of the brothers poured me a glass of Chillon wine from the barrel in the famous dungeons which inspired Byron to write his poem, “The prisoner of Chillon” (1816).

Three suns set over the steeply terraced vineyards of Lavaux as we boarded La Suisse, a belle époque paddle steamer at the Chillon pier. They say the grapes of these cool-climate vineyards planted between the snowy Alps and the icy waters of the lake are ripened by three suns – the natural sun, the reflection of the sun on Lake Geneva and the old stonewalls on the hillside that retain the heat for hours.

These vertiginous vineyards, planted at 375 to 600 metres above the lake, were first cultivated by monks in the twelfth century – and worked by dozens of artisanal wine growers today. The interaction between man and environment has shaped this unique cultural landscape over the centuries. The locals call it “a love story between people and the land”.

This was going to be a wine tasting afloat. A living history of grape varieties is planted in these glacial sandstone, limestone and clay soils – mostly Chasselas (a white Swiss variety aka as Fendant), Pinot Noir and Gamay – as well as the noble Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhône varieties and old heritage Swiss and Italian varieties. We tasted Chasselas by Lavaux cellars from the eight appellations we sailed past, from Vevey-Montreux to Lausanne on the lake shore – 840 ha of vineyards which produce 5,52 million litres every year. The glacial terroir is expressed in a subtle dry, zesty and petillant wine with a mineral core on a spectrum of floral, honey and nuts with age.

I was amused to hear a leading Swiss sommelier quip, “Lavuax could have been in Burgundy if the Swiss hadn’t defeated the French in 1476. Are Swiss wines like our reputation – neutral, discreet, serious and polite? Or can we express ourselves?”

Over a feast of perch from the lake, veal from the mountains and cheese from the alpine villages, our host commented, “For us, the main function of a Unesco listing is to promote tourism. Research at new world heritage sites show that the tourist numbers increase by 30% in the first year.” I can bear witness to that theory after joining the tourist throngs at four of eight Unesco sites in Switzerland - the Bern old quarter, St Gallen Abbey, the Aletsch Glacier (the biggest in the alps) and the vineyards of Lavaux.

Tourists come from all over the world to help with the harvest every year – in exchange for good company, good food and a bed in one of the many family cellar homes. We ascended Lavaux’s steep vineyards, passing families and friends making their way like mountain goats up steep paths, heavily laden with crates of Chasselas grapes mounted on backpack frames. Helicopters whirled overhead, lending a hand by uploading crates in an alpine harvest that seems to defy gravity and nature. The low-yield harvest is strictly controlled under the AOC system, allowing for one litre of wine per m² for wine of origin – with a ceiling of 47,000 litres per private cellar.

The AOC system governs a “cadastral” system of production by appellation and domain. We visited Domaine du Daley, one of the oldest vineyards in Switzerland founded in 1392 high on the slopes of Lake Geneva. Cyril Severin, a winemaker whose family bought the vineyards from the church in 1937, is a leading producer of top-quality Chasselas and Pinot Noir. He commented, “Unesco has recognised the uniqueness of human activity and winemaking tradition in these terraced vineyards (with a 65% gradient). We also rely on gastronomy to develop new markets – developing our ‘Swiss Sushi’ wine for Japan and working with top Swiss chefs.”

One of these days, you might hope to find the Constantia Wine Valley, the oldest vineyards in the new world, listed alongside the eight major tourist attractions in South Africa – inter alia Cape Floral Kingdom, Drakensberg, Saint Lucia, Sterkfontein, Richtersveld and Robben Island – already ranked as a Unesco World Heritage (see whc.unesco.org).

The vineyards of Lavaux which go back to antiquity are the newest member of an elite club of Unesco vineyards which includes Tokay in Hungary, the Douro in Portugal, the walled Atlantic vineyards of the Azores, and Saint-Emilion. Unesco defines the Alto Douro region as a product of centuries of viticulture which has moulded a cultural landscape of terraces, quintas, villages, chapels and roads. It defines the Tokay region as an entire landscape which illustrates a specialised form of traditional land-use for centuries, creating an intricate pattern of vineyards, farms and villages devoted to production of a specific wine.

The World Heritage Convention of 1992 was the first international legal instrument to recognise and protect cultural landscapes. Unesco has since listed 55 cultural landscapes as part of our collective identity – as combined works of mankind and the natural environment or as organically evolved landscapes. Some sites reflect “specific techniques of land use – and help to sustain biological diversity; others embody the spiritual relationship of man with nature as well as artistic and traditional customs - cultivated terraces and sacred places which testify to the creative genius, social development and the imaginative and spiritual vitality of humanity.”

The concept of the world heritage register is driven by Unesco’s goal “To reveal and sustain the great diversity of the interactions between humans and their environment, to protect living traditional cultures and preserve the traces of those which have disappeared.”

The criteria and nomination process are lengthy – but surely the cultural landscapes of the Constantia, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch wine regions would benefit from increased wine tourism if they achieved the global exposure of a Unesco listing? On leaving Lake Geneva, I lingered a little on the lessons of Lavaux.

* Graham Howe attended the Unesco celebrations in the Lavaux and Valais wine regions as a guest of Switzerland Tourism (www.MySwitzerland.com), Swiss International Airlines (www.swiss.com) and Swiss Travel system (www.sbb.ch)

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is likely the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for a wide variety of print media, online and radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over seventy countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra.