Swiss Wine Tasting!

One of the things you learn about Switzerland when you move here is that there are a surprisingly very large number of wine producers within the country. Not a lot is exported, and international wine critics don’t spend much energy researching the various appellations, but it’s a fairly big business all the same. Partly due to there being so many producers, there are also a large number of wine festivals. Around Geneva, the Caves Ouverte in late spring is probably the biggest, but there are a handful of others within half an hour of the city that occur sporadically throughout the summer and fall. This weekend, the towns of Luins, Bursins, Vinzel and Begnins had their annual festival, so we hopped the train and headed out.

The good news this weekend was that we had an “in” with one of the wineries. Although we only have a handful of Swiss friends, one of them happens to be the niece of a producer in Vinzel. She introduced us to the vigneron who gave us a tour of the facilities and talked to us about his wine-making process, after which we tried the different wines they produce. The added benefit was that they were quite good, especially by Swiss standards.

Another bonus is that the countryside between the Jura mountains and Lake Geneva is very pretty at this time of year, so it was great seeing all the trees and vines covered in red and yellow leaves. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t cooperative, and it rained most of the day, but not enough to bother us. Buses were running between the four villages, so we could hop on and off as needed, although we mostly stayed in Vinzel, since there are five wineries there and that’s more than enough for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon.
So now that I’ve been to a handful of Swiss wine festivals, I might as well give my thoughts on Swiss wines. They’re actually ok, but they’ll never do well in the international market. The reason for this is partly due to the quality, but moreso it’s probably the cost. Even in Switzerland, where the government imposes very protectionist policies, Swiss wines are still more expensive than comparative wines from France or Italy. It just costs too much to produce wine here, from owning land to hiring people. As far as quality, well, I’ve come to more or less like the Chasselas grape, which is the backbone of the Swiss whites, as I think it’s a nice, simple grape that does a good job of cleansing the palate. However, the taste is kind of bland, and doesn’t have the smoothness of more famous grapes, and after you’ve had it a few times you start to wonder why you’re wasting your time still drinking it. A lot of producers do try to use grapes that are more familiar in other markets, such as Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, and others. However, I’ve found these to be very weak in most cases, lacking in both body and flavor, and not nearly as good as the versions put out by other regions.

That said, there are some pretty solid wines made here, if you know where to look. It’s just hard to find them and experiment, due to the fact they’re so expensive. Trying a bunch of French wines for $8 a bottle is a lot easier to palate than trying a bunch of Swiss wines for $15 a bottle. Plus, there are a lot of truly bad Swiss wines, which makes experimenting with them even more risky. It’s one thing to be stuck with a bottle of wine over dinner that is simply ok; it’s another thing to be stuck with a bottle that is downright awful.

These tastings are good for this kind of thing, though, as we were able to try a handful of styles and ultimately came away with a couple of good bottles. It helps you in identifying the few good producers, and you can then stick with them. Plus, wines always taste better when you’ve seen the vines they’ve come from and met the people who’ve made them.

On Sunday, we still had a full day of the weekend left, so there was no way I was going to waste it sitting at home. One of our friends told us there was a chocolate festival going on in Divonne, and while earlier chocolate festivals have been severe letdowns, the plan also involved stopping at the Divonne market and eating oysters. I’ve never considered oysters to be a French thing, and in truth they probably aren’t, but during the winter all the French markets serve them, and they’re really good. We also got some king crab legs and prawns, which were among the best I’ve ever had; fresh seafood rules! Way better than Red Lobster.

And the chocolate festival? Well, it was in a building, and was just a bunch of booths rented out by different chocolate vendors, and while the chocolate was very good, the vendors weren’t very gracious with their free samples, even though there was a cover charge. We did manage to snag a couple of mint-infused dark chocolate bars, so at the end of the day, that was a win in and of itself.

Next weekend: Thailand!

Paris Cinq!

As stated in the previous entry, Soph was able to get us cheap train tickets to Paris this autumn, and we used this opportunity to book a couple of trips to Paris, a city we’d neglected since last New Year’s. Armed with our recently purchased netbook, which allows us to spend the 4-hour train ride catching up on various sci-fi shows and movies, it’s like we get to have a nice relaxing Friday night together, and we end up in Paris! And there our story begins…

The main things we wanted to accomplish this weekend were walking and eating, in no particular order. We had decided that it would be fun to revisit the Montmartre area, as we had stayed near there our first time in Paris two years ago, but hadn’t returned since. Doing some quick internet research, I found a nice wine bar and an even nicer bakery, meaning we had everything we needed to enjoy an afternoon.

Speaking of bakeries, we’ve developed a habit in Paris where we get up in the morning, find a bakery, buy a bunch of stuff, eat it on the street, and then find another bakery and eat the spoils yet again, before heading out into our day. Speaking as someone who lives in a French-speaking city (because that makes me an expert on pastries), there is just no comparison with the Parisian bakeries versus what you get virtually anywhere else. This time we were trying to save ourselves for the spot that had won the 2007 baguette of the year award, but within four minutes of leaving our hotel we spotted a croissant that looked too good to pass up. Upon purchasing it, we clearly were eating one of the best pastries we’d ever had, and this was just a random bakery. When we finally did arrive at the award-winning place, we obviously had more croissants, and of course a baguette (the baguette of the year award means that the winner supplies the French president with their baguettes every day that year. Hey – some people try to spot celebrities, we try to spot famous baguettes…it’s all about priorities). Over our two mornings this weekend, we ended up eating four breakfasts, and I could have easily had another two or three.

Throughout the course of our walking, we were at one point led us up a random side street, where we saw what looked to be a really cute restaurant not too far from our hotel. We decided to try it out (after looking up some reviews online, of course), and were rewarded with yet another fantastic dinner. Escargot, filet mignon, a crème brulee made with camembert and sausage…I don’t know where these places come from, or why they aren’t everywhere, but they absolutely rule! Once again the owner came out and talked to us about the meal, while his family sat in the corner eating alongside us.

On Sunday morning, we thought it would be a good idea to walk around the Marais district, and then to hit the Bastille market. We’d been to the Bastille market before, and as it’s a fairly large market we figured we’d buy some assorted goodies and annoy our fellow passengers on the train ride home by breaking out the sweet smell of moldy cheese. I tried to convince Soph to buy some salmon, but she wasn’t having any of it. This market was unfortunately out of control crowded, and being as we’re Americans who don’t like people bumping into us, this wasn’t exactly the place for us, so we left fairly quickly. On the bright side, the Ferney-Voltaire market we usually go to has most of the same stuff, for the same price, so it’s kind of nice knowing that we don’t have to go too far out of town to get the freshest produce available in France.
All in all, another great weekend. Found some really great streets to walk around, Soph found some cute clothes to buy, had a great dinner, and just enjoyed the two days we spent there. Doesn’t get much better than that!

Next weekend: Swiss Wine Connection!