Chasselas at a Crossroad: The Vaud Rescue Plan

Recently the Canton of Vaud unveiled a new three-pronged plan to help stabilize a wine industry beset by foreign competition and climate-related setbacks. The plan, which runs through 2027, earmarks 25 million francs for new sustainability initiatives, targeted investment in e-commerce and digital infrastructure, and an aggressive, yet undefined, consumer awareness campaign aimed at German-speaking Switzerland.

While a comprehensive plan for the industry is long overdue, this one falls short in several areas and fails to identify the real problem: too much Chasselas.

The table below illustrates the problem.


Chasselas in
Francophone Switzerland
Vaud
(ha total/ha Chasselas)
Valais
(ha total/ha Chasselas)
Geneva
(ha total/ha Chasselas)
Neuchâtel
(ha total/ha Chasselas)
2000 3882/2652 (68%)5239/1652 (31.5%)1359/483 (35.5%)605/292 (48%)
20213783/2252 (59.5%)4732/784 (16.5%)1375/270 (19.6%)603/150 (25%)

The figures reveal an unmistakable decades-long trend: the percentage of vineyards devoted to Chasselas is declining. The cantons of Valais, Geneva, and Neuchâtel have shed nearly 50% since 2000, while Vaud has begrudgingly given up less than 10%. Even more telling—Chasselas accounts for 92% of all white varieties planted there. With per capita wine consumption falling, particularly among younger drinkers, continued dependance on this single variety could lead to a generation of lost sales.

Don’t get me wrong: I am, and always will be, a champion of Chasselas.

Chasselas is native to the Lemanic Arc and unique in the world of fine wine. This frequently disparaged variety is a fantastic conveyor of terroir and one of the varieties most given to the expression of minerality. Some of the most beautiful and dramatic vineyards in the world are devoted to it, and some of Switzerland’s best wineries continue to excel with it. More than that, it’s a powerful symbol of Swiss skill and perseverance. Indeed, Chasselas stalwarts are among the people I most admire in the business.

On the other hand, there’s nothing more uninspiring and unmarketable than commodity Chasselas. I’ve written about the significant challenges it faces here. Mediocre examples do serious damage to the entire category and are largely responsible for its negative reputation. Let’s be clear, there is no demand for commodity Chasselas outside of Switzerland and there are diminishing prospects at home. Even though calls for protectionism are routine among a certain cohort, there is no chance the federal government will impose trade barriers to foreign wine because to do so would risk retaliation in other areas.

Currently, the wines of Vaud represent 8% of the domestic market, much of it commodity Chasselas. The canton’s plan is an attempt to stabilize the market at 8% and then to grow it by half a percentage point annually. That goal is overly optimistic. While stabilization may be possible, growth will be exceedingly difficult to achieve without an overhaul of the vineyards.

Since moving away from Chasselas, Valais is in the ascendant with high-value native varieties leading the way. Meanwhile, Geneva has become a hotbed for industry-changing experimentation and Neuchâtel has become a reliable source for world-class Pinot Noir. Ironically, much of Neuchâtel’s continued success with Chasselas is because of its popular, early release non-Filtré wines—a category extension of Chasselas that works.

There has been some success with orange, or skin-fermented Chasselas, but that promises to be a niche market without sufficient volume to solve the over-supply problem.

Sustainability Initiatives

Sustainability initiatives are the best part of the plan. In its press release, the canton hints at the type of initiative it is likely to support—modernization of energy-intensive infrastructure; a switch from groundwater to lake water for irrigation and other needs; and the construction of a common bottle-washing facility to encourage recycling.

Conspicuously lacking, however, is coordination with an existing cantonal program to replace Chasselas vines with other varieties of greater market value. Legacy Alpine varieties like Mondeuse, Altesse, Trousseau, and Savagnin are ready to be exploited by local growers. Other varieties like native crosses, hybrids, and PIWIs will not only increase vineyard diversity, but pay environmental dividends, as well. Those who doubt the market demand for such varieties are, more often than not, the very ones who seek government assistance for their excess Chasselas.

Enough is enough. Dependence on government bailouts every few years is unsustainable and unnecessary with the right planning.

The Digital Platform

Investment in digital infrastructure is a no-brainer. In fact, it’s imperative. The modern consumer requires a state-of-the-art e-commerce platform and the wine industry has been slow to respond to this need. Technical help for individual wineries to revamp websites could prove more valuable than direct subsidies. A website that stimulates the consumer and provides basic technical information to corporate buyers and the press should be the goal.

An up-to-date winery website should also include an e-commerce platform that is user-friendly, informative, and capable of capturing critical sales data and purchase history. Recognition of consumer needs should be a priority.

The canton’s own, improved website will be a crucial adjunct to its educational campaign and its presumed goal of unifying sales across all winery sites. Imagine buying a mixed case of wine from a number of wineries on a single site. Making wine easy to buy in whatever form the consumer wants is a goal worth pursuing.

Consumer Awareness

A coherent, multi-lingual consumer awareness campaign will be difficult to achieve because Vaud is so geographically diverse and its current wine regulations so confusing.

There are six distinct regions, with eight AOCs, and dozens of villages that can appear on a label in one form or another. Beyond that, there are two qualitative designations, Grand Cru and Premier Grand Cru, which are difficult to understand in themselves, but especially confusing when viewed next to the two geographic Grand Crus, Calamin and Dézaley, which have their own cahiers des charges.

Much like the Burgundy model, wines made from Chasselas carry the name of the village and the AOC. Nowhere on the label does the word Chasselas appear. Alternatively, any wine not made from Chasselas must display the name of the variety (or the word assemblage to indicate a blend), the village or fantasy name, and the AOC. No wonder people are confused.

Even the weirdly nostalgic 700 milliliter bottle size is entirely out of step with the rest of Europe, but stubbornly celebrated in Vaud as traditional. Standardizing bottle size and simplifying the information on a label so that each aligns with the rest of Switzerland will benefit the average consumer more than it will upset traditional values.

These are a few of the challenges a new information campaign must overcome. Recognition of the many problems is the necessary first step to an effective communication strategy.

2 thoughts on “Chasselas at a Crossroad: The Vaud Rescue Plan

  1. An article absolutely on point and one which should be read carefully by the Swiss wine authorities. I say this as a foreign lover of Swiss wine, and indeed the fine iterations of Chasselas which do exist (I’d hate to see Lauvaux replace it with anything else). Ironically, the U.K. would potentially lap up commercial Chasselas on flavour, but for its price.

    Like

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