Sunday, October 9, 2011

Fine wines and cow hoe-downs

Yes, I’ve been a little quiet lately. Travel and social engagements have kept me busy throughout the rest of summer and into the start of autumn. And autumn is here with a vengeance; today it’s only 12C and there’s a healthy dusting of snow on the Alps. But the cooler weather hasn’t deterred festival organisers or festival goers. Over the last few weekends, I’ve attended two festivals in or near my home town, Nyon. One was a sophisticated wine festival showcasing the best local wines on offer; the other was a mountain-side cow hoe-down, featuring pretty much every cliché Switzerland has to offer.

Fetes de la Vigne in Nyon - the Swiss try out
their local drops
A few weeks back, I gathered some friends and we headed into the old part of Nyon for Fetes de la Vigne, a wine festival that features the best wine producers and wines in the local area. Local wines, however, are no slouch. Before moving here, I actually had no idea that Switzerland was such a prolific producer of wines – I thought the climate would be too cold but apparently it’s not; most grapes are grown in the French-speaking cantons in the south and west of the country. One of Switzerland’s best natural products is also its best-kept secret; the country exports less than two per cent of its wine, and what does go out of the country goes mostly across the border to Germany. So little wonder then that most people don’t know about Swiss wine.

But the local drops are great. I’m a red and rosé drinker and there’s plenty to choose from. The good thing is that at Fetes des Vignes – unlike other wine tastings in the area – the actual tastings are free. Plus they’re pretty generous with their ‘tasting’ size, with one old guy at a cellar stall giving my friend Julia and I nearly half a glass of a red to try. After my third ‘tasting’ I was well on my way to getting hammered until we decided to grab a bite to eat. The free tastings do work though; between the seven of us who went, we bought at least three, if not four, bottles of wine. The last one we bought was a bottle of red that had strong notes of dark chocolate but went for a pricey CHF35. We didn’t end up opening it that night, but despite what my parents – who are wine connoisseurs among the best of them – say, we won’t be cellaring it. Why store wine when it’s more fun to drink it?

The festival itself though was fun. It brought the whole community out for it, expat and Swiss, together. Friends and neighbours crowded around communal tables sharing a laugh and a glass – or four – of local wine. I have one gripe though – and it’s about the grapes. The programme for the festival in the local paper said that there would be grape harvesting and crushing. The harvesting I could easily give a miss. But grape crushing sounded like fun. Here I was thinking I could kick my shoes off and jump into a barrel of grapes to crush them with my feet, like I’ve seen them do in movies. Seeing the Swiss crush grapes with their feet would have been a sight to behold, but maybe they don’t have the passion the French, Spanish or Italians do. There was no feet crushing of grapes; the Swiss version of crushing grapes involved putting them through an old-school mechanical press to make grape juice. Never mind, it was still a fun festival.

Yes. It's a cow with a tree
and flowers on its head.
A week later, and the fun moved to St Cergue, a village up in the mountains from Nyon, for Desalpes (that’s from the Alps) – a traditional festival that signifies bringing the cows down from the mountains for the winter. Desalpes is Switzerland personified. The only thing missing from the parade of Swiss clichés was Heidi, and I’m sure that was only because she’s Swiss-German, not Swiss-French.

The festival is basically a continuous parade of cows, being brought down the mountain road into the village. Each farm leads their herd into the village headed by their ‘queens’ of the herd – or those that yield the most milk. The queen of the herd is easily identifiable by the headdress of trees and flowers on its head. Yes, you read right – by the flowers on its head.

The cows also have the massive Swiss cow bells and decorated collars round their necks. Then there are the dogs – I think they’re Bernese Mountain dogs – but they’re the adorable, sweet-natured working dogs, who pulled carts of children in a parade (I have no idea why).

While Desalpes is definitely a visual feast – including seeing traditional folk dancers in folk costume – it’s also a literal feast, with the streets of the village lined with stalls full of food, most of it local and traditional. Crepes, sausages, chocolate – it’s all there.

No Heidi? The next best Swiss cliche -
Alpine horns
It all makes for a cacophony of noise; in addition to the cow bells (which are actually quite loud when you add up a herd of over 100 cows, all with bells on, going at a brisk trot down the road), there’s the most Swiss cliché of them all – the Alpine horn. I can’t think of anything more Swiss – a group of men (with the odd woman thrown in), lined up in a row, blowing on these long, wooden horns, decorated with edelweiss and the Swiss coat of arms. Swiss cliché heaven.

I think there’s one thing to remember for the next Desalpes – bring a pair of Wellington boots. There’s a lot of cows…