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The Art of Swiss Wine

At the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues in Geneva, head sommelier Salvatore Salerno sometimes swaps his job in the relaxed, Michelin-starred restaurant Il Lago for the passenger seat of a helicopter. Guests of the iconic luxury hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva, which opened its doors back in 1834, can visit some of the most beautiful Swiss wine-growing regions from the air with Salerno – followed by a tasting on site, of course.

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After all, only around 1% of Swiss wine is exported – so it is better to try the wines right where they are made in the first place.

Born in Palermo and raised in Italy’s fashion capital Milan, Salerno is without a doubt the perfect companion for this unique experience. After all the ‘Best Italian Sommelier’ 2014 (ASPI) has already proved his exceptional talent and enormous knowledge in some of the best restaurants in Europe, for example in the gourmet temple of Joël Robuchon in Monte-Carlo (2*) and the Lyonais gourmet institution La Rotonde (2*). And in fact there is apparently almost nothing that Salerno has not yet had in the glass, because even the most exotic wine related questions cannot lure the likeable Sicilian out of his reserve. As the first stop on the breezy wine adventure, Salerno’s guests reach the Lavaux wine terraces between Lausanne and Vevey on the northeast bank of Lake Geneva after about 20 minutes in the air – one of the most beautiful cultural landscapes in the world. Here some of the best white wines in the country are made from the Swiss flagship variety Chasselas. The gems from the Dézaley and Calamin Grand Cru zones are tasted in the cellar of the world-famous Domaine Louis Bovard, whose vine terraces, which slope steeply to the water, in some areas drop almost 50%. Just another 20 minutes’ flight from Lavaux up the Rhone Valley, the next stop is at Jean-René Germanier’s well known Domaine Balavaud in Vétroz. There the tasting of the exclusive wine collection including specialties such as the highly aromatic Petite Arvine, Valais Heida wine made from the traditional Savagnin grape or Germanier’s top Syrah Cayas is rounded off with a homemade raclette. When planning the tour, personal preferences of the guests can of course also be considered with a little advance notice. After all: only the sky is the limit. Back in Geneva in the evening at Il Lago, styled by Pierre-Yves Rochon, an exclusive menu from the kitchen of Massimiliano Sena is served, accompanied exclusively by rare Swiss wines, which Salvatore Salerno knows how to combine perfectly with culinary specialties from Sena’s kitchen.

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The perfect opportunity to review the eventful day again. But it doesn’t always have to be a helicopter tour because Geneva itself has some top winemakers to offer – after all, the canton with more than 1400 hectares – around 120 hectares of which are on French territory – is itself the third largest wine-growing area in Switzerland, where 1900 hours of sunshine per year and comparatively low rainfall in combination with the influence of mountains and the nearby lake create an ideal microclimate for viticulture.

In fact, the winemaking tradition on the south bank of the lake can be proven to go back more than 2000 years, and it was Geneva where a protected designation of origin – the first federal AOC – was established for the first time in Switzerland at the end of the 1980s. Today there are 22 Premier Cru sites in this AOC Geneva alone. One of the most prominent winemakers in the region is Jean-Pierre Pellegrin from Domaine Grand’Cour in the idyllic village of Peissy-Satigny at the foot of the Jura massif not far from the French border, only 15 minutes by car from Geneva city centre. On 15 hectares of its own vineyards – another 15 hectares are leased – Pellegrin cultivates 25 (!) different grape varieties. Because of his precisely crafted wines, Pellegrin is often called ‘the watchmaker’ by his colleagues and in fact Pellegrin’s wines present themselves in the glass as perfectly engineered as a Swiss chronometer keeps time. In addition to his single-variety top wines based on Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, which need not fear comparison with their cousins from Burgundy, he also produces a fantastic white and a red cuvee, the latter made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

They are matured either in huge clay amphorae (white) or barrique barrels made from French oak (red). For Il Lago, Pellegrin has also created an exclusive magnum of its wonderfully fresh Pinot Auxerois. Pellegrin’s friendly neighbours from the Bio Suisse-certified Domaine des Charmes are also worth a detour. Their Findling, or griset blanc in French, is a particularly rare grape variety of which there are currently only about 43 hectares in the world. The alcoholic and flowery wine is the perfect accompaniment to lobster and seafood in cream sauces or spicy Asian dishes, such as those served at Izumi rooftop restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues under the aegis of Mitsuru Tsukada – including a spectacular 360º panoramic view of Geneva with its 140-metre-high Jet d’Eau water fountain.

Together with oenologist Olivier Conne, we also try a superb, barrique-aged Savagnin blanc and an excellent Gamaret, one of the typical red wine grape varieties of the Lake Geneva region, which was only introduced as a new breed in the 1970s. Finally, an insider tip from Sommelier Salerno: the Lavinia vinotheque in Rue de Coutance, just a few minutes’ walk from the Four Seasons, one of the best-stocked specialist wine shops in Switzerland, offering many of the best Swiss wines as well as international rarities. Santé!

Words Thomas Hauer

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