Chandra Kurt, Lady Chasselas

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Sébastien Ladermann
Honoured by the Office of Vaud Wines, Chandra Kurt, wine expert, has her passion and commitment to the iconic vintages of Vaud canton officially recognised

It's difficult to catch Chandra Kurt – she always seems to be between two planes. A trip to Austria to explore the riches of the Wachau valley one day, then jetting off the next to Shanghai, the new centre of gravity on our winegrowing planet. Yet there was nothing in the background of this 47-year-old Zurich resident, born in Colombo (Sri Lanka), to indicate that she was destined to become the empress of Swiss wines.

An exotic childhood

A father who was an expert in elephants meant she discovered Asia and Africa at an early age. Over the course of those parental journeys, she developed a pronounced taste for travel and discovery. But it was at the table of her Italian maternal grandparents that she was introduced to wine, during the holidays. "Each of them had their own bottle, according to their taste: Pinot Grigio for nonna and Lambrusco for nonno", she says in reminiscence. An introduction that piqued her curiosity.

The exploration began when she met a winegrower for the first time, from a neighbouring property, who in turn recommended that she visit a colleague. And so in this way, her investigations were widened. Of course, at the time there was no question of making it her profession. She studied politics and history at Lausanne then Zurich, before giving it all up to dedicate herself to writing, her true passion at the time.

Until the day when she first got the chance to write about wine: a unique opportunity to bring two worlds together that Chandra had never thought possible. Ever since then she has continued on this path, travelling from one terroir to another, exploring all the aspects of the grape varieties that are so rooted in their localities. She wrote a number of reference works, including the famous Chasselas – de Féchy au Dézaley – Un voyage à la découverte des trésors du vignoble vaudois (Chasselas – from Féchy to Dézaley – A journey to discover the treasures of the Vaud vineyards).

Educational books

So what made them special? Avoiding specialist language which many people don't understand. Producing an educational book, with all the modesty that requires, is the true signature of Chandra Kurt. "The world of wine is a world of diversity. Small, big, famous, unknown, expensive or cheap, wine is made rich by its differences. I have now worked in this field for 28 years, but I still can't say I know it all. So I have no lessons to teach anyone."

A personality completely unlike famous gurus such as Robert Parker or Hugh Johnson, who prefers the shadows of the cellar to the light of the stage. Someone who opens the door to unexpected collaborations with winegrowers, an additional activity for her insatiable curiosity in a world without limits. Thus, a few years ago, she produced a collection of single vintage wines with the famous wine specialist Madeleine Gay. The goal? To clearly highlight the typical features of indigenous varieties present in Valais.

An educational approach which she then applied – in another context – to Chasselas. Her ambition this time was to highlight this vintage which, although a peerless indicator of exceptional terroirs, was not very aromatic. A characteristic which some people consider to be a fault, but which is fully appreciated by Chandra Kurt in particular. While the taste of consumers has changed a lot recently towards greater power and intensity – particularly due to a growing preference for consuming sweeter products – the capacity of Chasselas to unite subtlety and purity is an enlightening prospect.

A growing passion

"I took a very long time to understand and appreciate this vintage and its region of preference, the canton of Vaud," she says modestly. Rather than love at first sight, her interest in this unusual variety developed gradually – to the point of becoming the true passion of this specialist. "There is almost no variety like it in the world of wine. It reveals the diversity and richness of the terroirs where it is grown, while remaining very pure in its expression and digestion."

It was only a small step from (very) enlightened amateur to the chosen ambassador, a step Chandra happily took at the start of March. Appointed Commander of the Order of Vaud wines, Chandra Kurt now dreams of making Chasselas the symbol of Swiss winemaking abroad. Many countries use a grape variety or a winegrowing region to promote themselves abroad. Riesling for Germany, Piedmont and Tuscany for Italy, or even Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne for France.

Finding a common denominator for Swiss winegrowing has proven a little more complicated. This is due to the extremely small plots in terroirs and the great diversity of vintages grown. But Chandra Kurt did not shy away from the challenge. "At a national level, it is impossible to put one region above others. The solution was to focus on the plant. In my view, Chasselas represents an extraordinary opportunity to highlight a vintage which is at once typical of our country, highlighting the patchwork of terroirs where it is present and available in sufficient quantity to meet demand."

The delight of Pierre Keller

An ambition that obviously delights the lively President of the Office of Vaud Wines, Pierre Keller, convinced of the need to raise the standard of Swiss winegrowing on the international scene. "If we want to build a clear and cohesive image abroad, we must come together. With Chasselas, we have a truly unique product, almost exclusively grown in Switzerland. Let's take advantage of it!"

Back from Shanghai, Chandra Kurt returns to her home in Zurich, her head no doubt buzzing with new ideas and prospects. Like after every journey, she opens up a bottle of Chasselas. "In a world that is constantly changing and becoming more complex, this variety embodies a kind of essential simplicity for me."

  • 1968 / Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
  • 2005 / Responsible for the Swiss section of the "Oxford Companion on Wine" by Jancis Robinson.
  • 2012 / Launches a documentary project with Patricia von Ah to describe Swiss wines.
  • 2014 / Publishes her book "De Féchy au Dézaley", at Orell Füssli, in Zurich.