Open cellars, or Caves ouvertes, are popular in the Lake Geneva region and provide excellent opportunities for tasting Swiss wine in an informal setting without pressure to buy expensive bottles.
The cantons and wine-growing regions of Switzerland have open tasting days throughout the year with individual vineyards often allowing wine tasting on weekends too. The larger cantonal and regional open days are mostly in spring (May and early June) or during the harvest season (September / October) but wine events are scheduled throughout the year including winter (and then not only mulled wine at the Christmas markets or après ski). Open-day wine-tasting events are a fun and cheap way to sample the amazing variety of wines produced in the Lake Geneva region. Private wine-tasting experiences may often be arranged but for buyers or paying guests.
Vineyards in the Lake Geneva Region
Wine is an important industry on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Vineyards also provide some of the most beautiful backdrops to cruising on the lake or traveling on its northern shores by train, car, bicycle, or hiking.
The UNESCO World Cultural Heritage-listed Lavaux region between Lausanne and Montreux is the most beautiful while the more gentle slopes of La Côte, roughly between Nyon and Morges, are also a pleasure to explore.
These regions are easily reached by train or car with buses providing further connections. Hiking is hugely popular in especially the Lavaux while cycling is easier in the less challenging terrain of the La Côte region.
Although Switzerland’s wine-grape growing area is only around 15,000 hectares or 0.2% of the world’s growing area, around 160 varieties are planted. A third of Swiss wines are produced in Valais, a quarter in Vaud, and 9% in Geneva.
Wine-Tasting Opportunities in the Lake Geneva Region
Wine tasting opportunities in Switzerland may roughly be divided into four broad categories:
- Wine shows
- Cantonal open-cellars weekends
- Regional open-cellars weekends
- Wine tasting at individual wineries or community cellars.
The open-cellars days (Caves Ouvertes) are a great introduction to the Lac Léman region and its wines. On open cellar days, all are welcome with no pressure to buy.
Wine Shows and Competitions in Switzerland
Competitions and shows for trade professionals often have wine-tasting opportunities for casual visitors too. These events are more suited for those with at least some knowledge and appreciation of good (and fairly expensive) wines.
Guided tastings and courses for amateurs are often offered too – only occasionally in English. Admission is usually charged to these tastings.
Some of the larger events are:
Even if not attending one of these shows, the awards and medals given to wines and wineries are a good indication of quality when buying Swiss wines without tasting.
Cantonal Caves Ouvertes Days near Lac Léman
The various cantons in Switzerland often have many vineyards open on specific weekends early in the season – usually from mid-May to early June. Valais (Wallis) in the Lake Geneva region is usually the earliest followed by canton Vaud (Waadt) and Geneva (Genève / Genf).
Visitors commonly buy a glass at the first vineyard, or information center, for around CHF20 and receive a map (or passport) of all vineyards participating in the region. A little bag to hang the glass around your neck is often sold for a nominal amount – these are quite handy to carry the glass between vineries (although a broken glass is usually replaced for free).
Food is usually available for purchase during these events or smaller snacks and regional specialties may be served for free. Wine may be bought by the bottle, case, or ordered for delivery but there is no real pressure to buy.
Visitors may freely taste wines at all participating cellars. Spittoons are available but rarely used. However, getting helplessly drunk is considered very bad form.
Free shuttle buses (navettes) are provided if the region is not directly on the railway line but visitors generally stroll from vineyards to vineyard. Arriving (and especially departing) by public transportation is highly advisable – on cantonal open caves days, discounted Swiss Railways RailAway savings offers are usually available.
These open cellar events are very popular with visitors to the Lake Geneva region. Apart from tasting the wines, it also makes for a great day out and an opportunity to check which vineyards serve meals, have rooms, or other activities.
Regional Open-Cellars Days near Lake Geneva
Very similar to the canton open days are regional open days for a specific wine-growing region or town. Often glasses are bought for around CHF20 for the day but at some, each winery will provide its own glasses for free. Food is often but not always available for purchase.
Wine may be bought by the bottle, case, or ordered for later pick-up or delivery. Although there is no real pressure to buy, decency sake requires at least the occasional purchase of a bottle to enjoy on-premises or take away, especially at free events. Similarly, food is often free but with a box for voluntary contributions.
Open days are most common between April and October but sometimes even winter weekend events are held. Two personal favorites in the La Côte region:
- Tartegnin (mid-October)
- Luins – Vinzel (early November)
Winetasting at Individual Wineries or Community Cellars
Individual wineries often have open cellar days especially over weekends and often Friday nights. At such events, visitors may literally find themselves sitting in the front room of the vintner so these events are best for people intending to actually buy. Traditionally, Swiss wine is sold directly from the cellar to consumers, so wine producers take wine tasting very seriously.
A good alternative is to have a meal at a vineyard accompanied by a range of wines suitable to go with every course. These meals are usually available on Friday and Saturday nights and usually require reservations or a minimum group size, which may be as small as six or eight adults.
Cantonal and regional open days give good opportunities to check out wineries offering meals. Alternatively, enquire through the local tourist offices or follow links from the cantonal organizations listed above.
Many towns and wine-growing regions have community cellars where a variety of wines from different growers may be tasted. Expect a charge depending on the number of wines tasted and whether any bottles are bought – usually around CHF20 for six wines with the charge waived if 6 or 12 bottles are bought.
An excellent source in English on Swiss wines is Ellen’s Wine World by Ellen Wallace, a journalist and wine specialist with three decades of experience living in the Lake Geneva region. She is also the author of the best-selling English book on Swiss wine – Vineglorious! Switzerland’s Wondrous World of Wines. This lovely book with many color photos also makes an excellent gift.