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Neuchâtel & the Trois Lacs (Three Lakes)

Four cantons and three lakes together make this small wine region in Switzerland. The Three Lakes are Lake Neuchâtel (canton Neuchâtel), Lake of Bienne (Bielersee, canton Berne), Lake Morat (Vully, cantons Fribourg and Vaud).

The Lake of Neuchâtel’s banks account for two thirds of total production. The vineyards stretch along the lake from Vaumarcus in the south, through Auvernier and as far as Neuchâtel and Cressier in the north. The other wines from the region come from the vineyards bordering the Lakes of Bienne (in the canton of Bern) and of Morat (in the Vully area, which is spread over the two cantons of Fribourg and Vaud).

The main red grape variety in the region is Pinot Noir which produces excellent red wines, as well as the superb Oeil de Perdrix, a choice and fruity rosé. The main white remains Chasselas. A few years ago Neuchâtel winemakers started making an early unfiltered version which is increasingly popular. But the winemakers in Neuchatel have planted a very wide diversity which is well worth exploring.

The Three Lakes are Lake Neuchâtel (canton Neuchâtel), Lake of Bienne (Bielersee, canton Berne), Lake Morat (Vully, cantons Fribourg and Vaud). 

  • 4.9% of national production.
  • Cultivated area, approximately 1,803 acres.
  • Grape proportions, 44% white and 56% red.
  • Average temperature, maximum 24°C in summer and a minimum -1°C in winter.
  • Sun exposure, 1,641 hours per year.
  • Average annual rainfall, 978 mm with 120 rainy days.
  • Lowest elevation 430 metres, highest elevation 600 metres.
  • Soils are Alluvium, clay, marl and stones.
  • Neuchâtel used to be part of Burgundy, and was even at some point claimed by Prussia. It makes for exciting history.

 

Terroir

The soil is calcareous that originates from the Jura. Most of the vineyards have light and stony soil, however there is also some marly and heavy soil. Of course the vineyards close to the coasts are of alluvial origin.

The ancient calcareous soils around Neuchâtel are not dissimilar to those of Chateau Chalon, 60 miles (100km) to the west in the French Jura. These two traditional wine communes share another interesting characteristic, namely the quality-focused attitude of their winemakers. Neuchâtel was the first Swiss region to impose yield restrictions on its vineyards.

Climate

The area has a rather dry, windy climate that nevertheless enjoys about 1,700 hours of sunshine in a year. The climate is influenced by the lake, which means that the winters are mild and there is mist in the autumn. 

The Canton enjoys about 1,700 hours of sunshine in a year. Neuchâtel as a whole is one of Switzerland's warmer viticultural areas (topped only by Ticino). The climate is influenced by the three lakes, which prevent summer temperatures from rising dramatically and also dampens the effects of frost and snow in winter. The winters are mild and there is mist in the autumn. The vineyards are oriented in the most favourable direction climatically.

Neuchâtel has an average rainfall of around 1,000mm (39 inches) per year. Because it is not quite as warm as Geneva nor as reliably sunny as the central Valais, vineyard location is important. To maximise the vines' exposure to sunshine, they are mostly planted on the northern banks of the lakes, where the south-easterly aspect brings them warming rays all through the morning and early afternoon. There are some vines on the southern side of Lake Neuchâtel, around the lakeside town of Cheyres, but even these are planted on relatively sunny, well-angled slopes.

As is the developing norm across Switzerland (particularly since the early years of this century), red wine varieties now predominate in Neuchâtel's vineyards. The region's 2010 vintage was made up of 55% reds, whereas just a few decades ago the proportion of red varieties would have been closer to 25%.

Pinot Noir and Chasselas are the unrivalled rulers of the vineyards here, accounting for 85% of the planted area. A small number of other grape varieties make an appearance including Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The Gamay x Reichensteiner crossings Gamaret and Garanoir are also present, although Gamay itself is almost nowhere to be found in Neuchâtel, despite being the red grape of choice of Geneva and Vaud to the south.

Saucisson Neuchâtelois: a sausage eaten sliced. There is a fierce saucisson rivalry between Neuchâtel and Vaud.

Suchard Chocolate: Suchard’s industrial enterprise was born in Serrières creating a love of chocolate. The region has several well known chocolate and sweet makers.

Cheese Specialities: Try a platter of Britchon, Neuchâtel Tomme and Bleuchâtel. But be warned the smell can be overwhelming. Britchon has a semi-hard texture, Tomme is quite runny and the blue is actually mould on the Bleuchâtel.

Torée (sometimes called feux de berger): a Neuchâtel tradition that consists of preparing a big fire in a pasture and cooking sausages and potatoes in the embers. It’s traditionally done in the Autumn (after the flocks are brought in) but it can be organised at any time of year provided you find a good place. Traditionally, the sausage is wrapped in a few cabbage leaves then in damp newspaper. The fire is lit early in the morning, so by 10 o’clock it would only be a heap of embers. The sausages and potatoes are buried in these embers without any other protection. The embers are then covered with fresh pine branches which produce a column of white, sweet-smelling smoke.

Lake and river fish: Perch is ever popular, as well as a local fish called Bondelle.

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