Chasselas has long been attributed exotic origins shrouding it in an air of Middle Eastern mystery: Egypt or Constantinople. The existence of a Burgundy village bearing the same name has also muddied the waters. However, a recent genetic study used DNA markers to show that this grape variety originates from the Lemanic Arc and most likely the Vaud region. This scientific argument has been corroborated by empirical observation: a grape variety’s provenance often lies in the country where its cultivation is most widespread and has the longest history. The residents of Vaud have long shown an exclusive, almost religious devotion and attachment to Chasselas. More than just a wine, it is the canton’s calling card, a mark of its identity and a key element of its heritage: so it is no surprise that winemakers are seeking to draw out its quintessence, and that the expertise developed over centuries produces exceptional nectars.
Subtlety in a world of the coarse
In a context where powerful and aromatic wines are king and where vineyards willingly swagger and strut to assert their position, Chasselas offers a different approach full of refinement, elegance and easy drinking. It is a discreet grape variety which in the main produces refreshing wines relatively low in alcohol: Vaud locals like to talk about their thirst-quencher which never leaves the palate tired. Even so, dismissing it as a bit player would be an error – whilst perhaps lacking in exuberance and opulence, it enthusiastically delves into the more sophisticated world of subtlety and nuance. To use a political image, it evokes a quiet strength. The stressed and impatient should walk on by, as Chasselas only reveals itself to those who take the time to listen. Its relative neutrality allows it to express the terroir where it unfolds. This ability to convey the huge range of soils explains the variety of expressions it can display. Where aromatic dominance would block out other flavours, Chasselas reveals the full complexity of taste components. It is an invitation to travel, evoking the landscape
where it is born, sunny terraces or gentle undulations, the mirror or a lake or the sparkle of a river. It is linked to the land, and also to the winemaker whose expertise and personality it reveals. More than just a consumer product, it is the embodiment of a culture and a way of life.
A gastronomical grape variety
Chasselas is the perfect companion for friendly moments, shared among friends in a café or traditional ‘carnotzet’ bar. It is a wine of conversation. By tradition, almost by atavism, Vaud locals could not imagine drinking anything else as an aperitif. Yet whilst it is incomparable in this role, confining it there does it an injustice since it is able to open up unexpected gastronomic perspectives, as confirmed by top Michelin-starred chefs who do not hesitate to recommend it throughout a meal. Geographic complicity is such that it is often paired with fillets of perch or with regional cheese specialities such as fondue, raclette or malakoffs. However, this spectrum can safely be broadened: depending on the terroir and vintage, Chasselas has a broad range of expression and invites sometimes unexpected but consistently gourmet pairings. It makes a perfect accompaniment to fish from our lake or rivers such as lake trout, Arctic char or pike. In fuller-bodied form it also brings out the flavour of red mullet, wolffish or monkfish and can stand up against a tangy sauce. Some Chasselas wines have slight iodine notes that allow them to mingle with oysters, langoustines or lobster. With poultry or a piece of simply pan-fried veal, it makes a more confounding combination: despite being well structured, Chasselas retains a delicacy which highlights the dish by sharing its power without ever imposing it. For those who love discovery, the complicity of a mineral cru paired with steak tartare is surprising but exceptional. Finally, we have the sublime harmony between a decade-old Chasselas and an old Gruyere or a rich Mont d’Or, reaching a fusion-like level of symbiosis.
A grape variety to cellar
Smooth, a perfect way to whet an appetite or enliven a discussion, Chasselas is (far too) often drunk within a year despite only showing its full potential at the age of two or three. However, insiders know that the wines from the very best terroirs – and in particular from good vintages – have excellent cellaring potential. After ten or twenty years, or even longer, Chasselas’s aromatic profile changes completely to offer up a bouquet of stunning power and smoothness and a dazzling range of secondary and tertiary aromas: honey, caramel, ripe fruit, dried apricot, cinnamon, mild curry, hazelnut, toasted almonds, undergrowth and truffle to name but a few. It needs decanting to allow the magic to happen, with the end result being a richness and complexity to rival the most prestigious crus. However, its defining feature – the grape variety’s trademark – is a remarkable freshness that gives the wine tremendous balance. A mature Chasselas with a well-ripened cheese is a legendary pairing. However, it is also a wine of meditation, to be drunk alone in almost religious fashion, bringing forth a memory of the land, people and seasons which created this masterpiece.
Credit Photo : Office des Vins Vaudois