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The Three Suns

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Biking through the historic terraced vineyards of Lavaux, Switzerland. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Ignore the beautiful roses—they are merely silent supporting actors in this lush scene on the turquoise shores of Lac Léman.

Peach and yellow, red, orange, white and blushing, every rosebush explodes with colors and perfume, but here, all that matters is green.

The chlorophyll-green grapevines, alive from ancient times, grow in long curving rows with winding contours that detail the steep drop from mountain to lakeside. Yes, the roses planted at the edge of the vineyards are lovely—but they are simply canaries in the Swiss goldmine of Lavaux. Roses are such sensitive plants that any disease or weakness in the soil will manifest first in the roses planted nearby. Thus, the winegrowers plant the flowers along the edge of each vineyard—an effective and organic early warning system.

The Romans grew wine here, and then the monks who followed. The Benedictines and Cistercians knew the sloped and sunny coast was ideal for grapes, though the landscape could use some encouragement. Thus the monks began to manipulate the ground, shaping the earth into thousands of long terraces, holding up the shelves of soil with carefully-laid stone walls. After centuries of development, the vineyards of Lavaux stand like a wide staircase to a Greek temple, with some “steps” only two or three vine-rows wide.

I rode my bike through the vineyards on a hot Sunday morning and found myself in a special patch of Europe just nine miles long. From Lausanne to Vevey, the terraced vineyards of Lavaux seem more Mediterranean than alpine, a wine-making world in miniature where the long knitted rows of grapes are stitched together with stone walls and villages so twee you half-expect an army of costumed villagers to run from their wine shops and kick off a choreographed song-and-dance number.

But underlying the painted signs and tourist bric-a-brac, and even the pomp and pride of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, there is the wine.

Pure, sun-rich, divine Lavaux wine.

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A glass of Louis Bovard Dézelay red reflects light from one of the three suns in Lavaux, Switzerland. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

These particular Swiss wines are little known and little exported—in part because these vineyards are so small, some labels only produce a few hundred bottles each. And yet upon this sun-soaked slope in Switzerland grow eight different appellations sold under more than 300 different labels.

Why is little Lavaux such a wine-intensive spot of earth? The answer is the sun—or rather, suns.

Balancing my bike against the warm rock walls, I listened over and over again as the local winegrowers of Lavaux spoke (with true admiration) of les trios soleils—“the three suns.”

The three suns are what makes Lavaux special and most importantly, what conjures some of the finest wines in the country. The three suns are: 1) Jean Rosset 2) Le Miroir du Lac and 3) Les Murs des terrasses.

In other words:

1)    “Jean Rosset” is a purely Swiss Vaudois term for the sun in the sky—the sun that rises and falls from east to west and that in summer, grants a full twelve hours of heat and light along the terraced shores of Lavaux. The proper name for the sun actually derives from the French writer Jean Rosset, who co-wrote (and is mentioned in) the 19th century romantic ode “Hymn to the Vaudois Sun.” Even today, the Swiss in this area refer to the sun as Jean Rosset.

2)    Under the bright sun, the vast blue water of Lac Léman becomes a mirror, reflecting light and heat on to the steep slopes of Lavaux, doubling the “sunshine” that penetrates the grapes in the vineyards.

3)    The miles and miles of high stone walls of the terraced vineyards act as the third and final sun of Lavaux, reflecting sunlight back onto the plants from the north side of the vineyards, and retaining heat by day so that even at night, the grapes are exposed to the sun’s lingering warmth.

This is not merely a poetic concept, but a fact of Lavaux wine—the constant warmth and triple sunlight means the grape ripens equally on all sides. The result is a fairly dry and subtle wine with fun and fruity nuances that differ from one terrace to another.

The wine of Dézelay is renowned in particular for its “sunny” flavours.

“This is the one part of the coast that sticks out into the lake—it is the last spot of land in Lavaux to feel the sun each day,” explained one wine expert at Louis Bovard.

That few extra minutes of daily sun creates a significant difference in the wine. The rich result is a golden glass of Swiss sunshine, alive with summer, and a nose more floral than all the roses I have ever ignored.

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A rose in Lavaux, not merely for show, but to reveal any weakness or disease in the nearby vineyards. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

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