Red and blue routes criss-cross the light green wine terraces on the leaflet we get at the Vevey tourist information. “It’s very easy to find your way”, the woman from the information desk assures us. “You just follow the blue arrows!” After all we are in well-organized Switzerland. For sure they have implemented a tourist infrastructure at their UNESCO World Heritage sites, not only for groups but also for individual travellers. But then there aren’t so many people actually walking in the vineyards of Lavaux.
A Roman tradition
The wine growing tradition in the Lavaux goes back to Roman times. Up until the 19th century, the vineyards started right behind the Old Town of Vevey. Back then, the Confrerie de Vignerons, the Brotherhood of the Winemakers, controlled an area as large as today, but all within 5 km around the town. Today the wine terraces are spread over a large area all around the eastern end of Lac Leman, between Lausanne and Martigny.
Then mildew and the vine fretter destroyed many of the vines, and the industrialisation let Vevey grow well beyond the old limits of town. The wine growers decided to focus solely on wine, abandoning their little vegetable plots in between. They had a powerful quality control association initiated by the vineyard owners, and the best wine growers would win prizes according to an intricate system of bonus points.
To improve harvests, they planted mostly a small number of grape varieties best suited to the conditions. Today almost all the wine grown in the area is Chasselas (a white grape known as Fendant in neighbouring Valais), plus some Pinot Noir and only a handful of other varieties. The Lavaux vineyards became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2007 for their rich and long history and culture connected with wine production.
Walking into the vineyards
Getting off the train in Cully, a small village huddled around its church on the lake shore, our Swiss vineyard experience starts right away. Behind the railway tracks, whre lines and lines of vines stand on narrow terraces.
A dry stone wall usually divides them from the next terrace. And another one, and another one. Vineyards as far as you can see. More picturesque small villages dot the hillside.
And although we don’t find any blue arrow, our leaflet indicates Riex as the first picturesque village on our route. It is already visible above us to the right. 800 m further on – and 70 m higher in altitude – we wander the three streets of Riex, where nearly every house seems to belong to a winemaker.
Many of them will open their cellars around 5 pm to visitors, to taste their wines and buy them. In most cases, people buy by the box, but of course you can always buy a single bottle.
More Winemakers’ villages
The only blue arrow we can find now points right down back to Cully. But we take the not very frequented road leading straight to Epesses instead, on a similar altitude and only one kilometre from Riex.
It’s a similar, very cute village of winemakers. There’s also a tiny restaurant with a terrace that offers a good wine-selection by the glass. We consider taking our rest here, but on the other hand, the woman in the tourist information had advised us to go to Chexbres by all means. We postpone the break and hope for pleasant wine-tasting opportunities there.
Chexbres, however, turns out to be a rather uninspiring larger village with more modern buildings and lacking cute wine bars in spite of the good location nearly 200 m above the lake. So we move on, back to the lake shore towards Rivaz, yet another cute little Montreux Riviera village surrounded by vineyards.
Tourists from afar
In the afternoon we meet some other tourists, a Chinese family also explicitly doing the walk in the vineyards of Lavaux. The father asks us whether they picked the wrong day of the week? “Everything is closed! Frankly it’s a bit disappointing, we had hoped to have a rest somewhere and taste the wine…”
As nice as the landscape and the walking was, between ourselves we had just arrived at the same conclusion. But then, we do find an open restaurant with a good selection of local wines in Rivaz.
The next (rainy) day we visited Vevey’s local history museum with its panels and films about the main wine-related event in the area. The Fête des Vignerons (Wine Growers’ Festival) which only takes place once in a generation (20-25 years). It grew from regular parades (until the 18th century) into a huge cultural event and show where the best wine growers are crowned. We also find that there is a wine-tasting facility in Rivaz especially developed for tourists – its shop and tasting bar open at 10.30 and stay open until the evening.
Is it worth going to walk in the vineyards of Lavaux?
If you like wine and wine-tasting as well as walking through a lovely landscape, the Lavaux wine terraces will delight you. You can get a quite detailed leaflet indicating the different routes with approximate walking times at the tourist information centres in the area. Do not bother looking for the blue arrows, though. On weekends you can also take a train that brings you to the villages. If you are interested in buying from the producers, go after 5 pm, when most of them will be open for tasting and sales. The Vinorama – a facility where you can buy and taste a wide (rather high end) selection of the regional wines also shows a movie about the vineyard culture in Lavaux. Call ahead for times.
Practicalities of walking the vineyards of Lavaux
Access to the Lavaux vineyard terraces is easy from the railway (S1) that goes along the shore of Lac Leman. From there you can walk up into the vineyard regions. There are also buses and in some cases cable cars that connect the higher lying villages.
The next Fête des Vignerons will take place on 26 July to 11 August 2019: www.fetedesvignerons.ch. We will try to come back for that.