Hang around Switzerland long enough and you’ll eventually grapple with the chasselas riddle: Why is this famously ordinary table grape — and the famously neutral wine that comes from it — given star billing in Swiss vineyards and held in such high regard by its proponents?
After living with chasselas for a while, I can offer some clues.
Chasselas is the Swiss native almost no one gets excited about. Ever. Currently it represents one out of every four vines nationwide and more than one out of every three in Suisse romande — but a recent consolidation is telling. Chasselas is the only autochthonous variety with a shrinking footprint, particularly in Valais, where native grapes with greater international potential gain traction and acreage at its expense. One could argue that declining acreage equals declining interest but I would argue that consolidation is the best thing to happen to chasselas since fondue.
The prevailing wisdom that chasselas lacks a signature aromatic profile and, thus, has limited appeal is unfortunately reinforced by the sheer volume of mediocre product. Too often I hear the same refrain from consumers and professionals alike: “I don’t get it. It’s terribly neutral and THEN there’s the lack of acid, the sweetness, the overall blandness.” Some of these problems of perception can be attributed to overcropping — chasselas is a prolific variety — but not all of them. Rigorous vineyard practices on classic sites can effectively limit yields but the real issue is in the details of winemaking and choice of style. Each individual grower must ask the question: Am I for old-school, low acid, amorphous and slightly sweet; or, do I embrace the possibilities of juicy, lean and mineral. A recalibration of attitude and intent will likely give us more of the latter and less of the former.
Another big issue with chasselas (ironically also a strength) is its sheer transparency. Not to be confused with neutrality. Old-school innocuousness is two parts stylistic preference and one part slight-of-hand to mask faults that would otherwise metastasize in the finished wine. The faithful transmission of what we call terroir to chasselas is mostly attributable to its inherent transparency, but transparency also provides an unobstructed view into the most subtle weaknesses. Sugar tends to even things out but it’s also responsible for the critical indifference of the critics.
At this point let me offer a little analogy between chasselas and chicken.
Chicken is one of those things many people find flavorless and boring. Unless its a majestic Volaille de Bresse Demi-Deuil most aspiring cooks will dismiss its appearance on a restaurant menu as unimaginative or as something easily made at home. But as any chef worth his salt shaker knows, a perfectly roasted chicken is one of the standards by which to judge a cook. The ideal roast chicken requires a crisp, perfectly blistered skin —perhaps with a faint smear of wood smoke — seasoned to perfection with just salt and pepper. Your bird gets full marks for succulence when it’s juicy and you get extra points for the subtle addition of flavors derived from a thoughtfully placed bouquet garni.
It’s my belief that such a chicken, like a perfectly poised chasselas, is an elemental experience that is soul-satisfying in its simplicity. The lesson learned: With chasselas, as with roast chicken, there is no hiding.
Now, about the neutrality label. Chasselas clearly lacks the assertive herbaceousness of sauvignon blanc, the floral complexity of riesling or the exoticism of viognier. But I would argue it approaches — in muted terms and in some cases — the wet stone, white flower and green apple matrix of chenin blanc. It’s true, chenin is a fabled chameleon that stands out in every stylistic form it assumes: from searingly dry and mineral, to plush and pillowy, to semi-sweet, to full-bore honeyed. Even geeky pet nats work just fine.
Chasselas is not so lucky. It loses its edge with too much sweetness or too little acid. It’s simply not assertive enough to survive oxidative processes — although it shows promise in skin contact scenarios. In the vineyard it becomes bitter when distressed from lack of water or essential nutrients. It’s not a wine of many layers and it doesn’t play well with others in a blend. In short, it can never aspire to chenin’s versatility.
And unlike chardonnay, another relatively neutral grape, chasselas doesn’t take well to wood, unless it’s neutral (that word again).
The only regular debate is whether a malolactic fermentation is desirable. Some argue, mostly in Vaud, that ML adds complexity and texture while others, mostly in Valais, prefer the freshness from a blocked ML.
The bottom line is that chasselas doesn’t leave you with a lot of room to maneuver. That straightjacket may appeal to some, but to others—who are not just committed to its survival but to its highest expression — it’s both a grape of frustration and inspiration. So easy to mess up but so rewarding when it’s done right. In my opinion, its single greatest expression is as facilitator — dry, softly fragrant, mineral and sneakily energetic with an uncanny ability to improve everything around it. That includes all the cheesy Swiss classics and maybe even a simple roast chicken.