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La Côte is the stretch of the northern shores of Lake Geneva, nestling between the city of Geneva in the west, the suburbs of Lausanne to the east and the Jura to the north. This is a charming region with neat villages, stunning castles, and of course the ever-present expanse of Lake Geneva and the Alps.
La Côte is a subregion of Vaud and it is where I grew up.
La Côte is the largest winegrowing region in the Canton de Vaud and is principally white wine country. Chasselas is still grown extensively here.
It is divided into three sub-zones - Nyon, Begnins to the west, Morges to the east, and between the two, in the heart of La Côte villages such as Luins, Vinzel, Bursinel, Coteau de Vincy, Tartegnin, Mont-sur-Rolle, Féchy, Perroy, Vinzel and Aubonne.
For the tourist, La Côte is within easy reach of the cities of Geneva and Lausanne, and makes an ideal excursion from either, offering country lanes, lovely villages, stunning castles, top restaurants and wine cellars. Everything is green, warm, cosy and pretty.
Vaud’s climate is heavily dictated by the waters of Lake Geneva, which alleviate the spring frosts and reduce the summertime highs to around 86°F (30°C).
The vast majority of vines grown are owned by individuals rather than large wine companies. Many thousands of smallholders sell their grapes under contract or make wine cooperatively, and the main cooperatives are excellent, but a growing number are now motivated to produce their own wine.
Moraine with varied soil compositions: clay, chalk and all types of minerals.
The classic wine style is crisp, fresh Chasselas, although the precise aromas and flavours vary depending on the soil type in which it is grown. In La Côte the wines tend towards floral rather than mineral notes, while a combination of flowers and stones come through in the best.
Although Chasselas reigns supreme, you will also find Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc Pinot Gris. The northern Rhône's Viognier grape, a variety on the brink of extinction not 20 years ago, is the next most common, with its plantings here surpassed only by those in Geneva. The Geneva side of the lake is indeed a good terroir for Viognier.
Although white wines may outnumber and overshadow all others in the Vaud, there are still some high-quality reds made here, predominantly from Pinot Noir and Gamay, but also from the blending of Gamaret and Garanoir. As everywhere in Switzerland, there is after these a cornucopia of varieties used differently, single and in blends, in each winery.
Our tip. A surprising elegant style of Merlot has been developed in Vaud - don't just take our word for it, try our examples from Uvavins and Badoux Vins.
Filets de Perche: Perch was a very exclusive Victorian delicacy and it is possible that the early English tourists brought it to the attention of the Swiss, but it is now a cherished staple along the lakes.
Whether dusted with flour and fried in sweet butter à la meunière, or sautéed in a simple white wine sauce, this local fish has a ubiquitous place on every lakeside restaurant menu. The filets are small and labour intensive to prepare. There is a reason folks order it year round - when served with thin, crispy frites (alumettes) and washed down with a chilled Chasselas your taste buds will find themselves in seventh heaven.
The Swiss eat more Perch than the lakes can supply, so it is imported all the way from Ireland and the lakes of eastern Europe. Alas, it is near impossible to get small perch filets of the right kind in England.
Saucisson: Note: if you want to start a lively debate in french speaking Switzerland, ask whose saucisson is best. In Vaud (as well as neighbours Neuchatel and Geneva), sausages are serious stuff. From the traditional Easter or Pentecôte Boutefas (huge lumpy sausage) to the famous cabbage-stuffed saucisse aux choux, typically enjoyed from September to April, and many variants of saucisson of all sizes, there is a lot of it.
Papet Vaudois: A Swiss "bubble and squeak". A traditional dish in the Canton of Vaud, Papet is a mixture of leeks and potatoes (boiled to form a soft "papette"). Cream, white wine or vinegar is sometimes added. Papet is traditionally accompanied by saucisson or saucisse aux choux (a seasonal autumn/winter sausage made with pork and fermented cabbage).
Tomme Vaudoise: The melt-in-the-mouth soft cheese speciality from the Vaud canton and the Geneva region. Cheese connoisseurs appreciate the round mild taste of the young cheese and the distinctive rustic taste of mature Tomme. It has a very thin white rind and is creamy in consistency. You can find "tomme fleurette" sometimes in the UK from Kaese Swiss.
Boutefas or Botatos: A bigger saucisson. The name comes from the patois for 'Boute La Faim,' or ‘end to hunger’. The sausage has been known in the region since 1634, initially under the term Bourrifas and later Boutefas. Legend has it that the occupied Vaudois chopped up the biggest hanks of ham to avoid giving them to their Bernese rulers.
Malakoffs: The villages of Vinzel and Bursins are the best sources for a very local specialty, the Malakoff are gruyere puff pastry which is fried. These cheesy delights have always been a favourite of the Vaudois, but after the Crimean Wars they were renamed after a beloved officer who led his army of Vaud born mercenaries to victory in the siege of Sebastopol.
Desserts here are some of the best, and most unusual in the country.
Le Bouchon Vaudois: A candy shaped as a wine cork created in order to become an iconic specialty of Vaud. First created in 1948 Le Bouchon Vaudois is a registered trademark and only members of the Waldensian Society and French-speaking patron bakers/confectioners can make it. (In my opinion there are better things to try in the bakeries and chocolatiers in Vaud.)
The salée au sucre is a popular breakfast item for special occasions. This is a "cream danish" of sorts, using a yeast dough and a topping of cream and sugar.
The Carac is a miniature pie filled with dense chocolate ganache and glazed with neon green icing.
Gâteau à la raisinée or Gâteau au Vin Cuit - technically this is borrowed from Fribourg next door but it's been in Vaud so long it is now native. A pie made from a thick syrup of reduced pear or apple juice, this is a must try.
In La Cote they also make a tarte au vin - a tart where the filling is, for the most part, wine, butter, sugar and a dash of cinnamon. It can be made with red or white wine. It's a lot better than it sounds :)
Vaud has a ridiculous number of starred restaurants, and many of the restaurants in the villages serve excellent food, especially on La Côte
All of these will require reservation well in advance.
Hotel de Ville in Crissier
The restaurant was launched in 1971 by Fredy Girardet, a highly regarded three Michelin star chef and one of the founders of Nouvelle Cusisine. After Girardet retired in 1996 his protégé Philippe Rochat took over, retaining its three Michelin stars and in April 2012 Rochat himself handed over the reins to Benoit Violier, who had worked in these same kitchens for 16 years, and trained at Jamin under Joel Robuchon. Benoît Violier was nominated chef of the year 2013 - obtaining a score of 19/20 by the Gault Millau Switzerland.
It is so far one of the only restaurants (or the only?) where three Chefs in a row reached 3 Michelin stars and 19 Gault Millau points. The fourth could be well on its way.
The restaurant is on a hill in the small town of Crissier, a few miles from Lausanne (and about 2 miles from where I grew up).
Ermitage, Bernard Ravet
A restaurant which came recommended by no less than 10 different winemakers - with an amazing wine list if you want to sample the best of Swiss Wine. We enjoyed our visit and plan to go back. Lunch is a bargain!
Every vaudois has strong opinions as to where the best are, and asking around will get you friendly and animated around. It changes, as popularity can ruin a place quick, but places once dismissed can surprise you. Perches is not that hard to do right if you are good and not too greedy. In Lausanne, we were recently very pleased at the Restaurant du Port, which I used to dismiss as "for tourists"
La Plage, Aubonne - consistently good and so quiet straight on the lake. In villages, we like the Auberge de Bursinel.