A chance find of Latin inscription on the worship of wine in antiquity, together with many Roman remains - Saint-Saphorin overlies what survives of a substantial Roman villa built along a main Roman highway, and Lausanne was a Roman settlement - suggests that the area was probably cultivated for wine in Roman times.
The city of Lausanne grew from the Roman camp and was ruled by the Dukes of Savoy and the Bishop of Lausanne and then later by Bern before joining the Swiss Federation in 1803.
The oldest written testimonies to attest to the culture of the vine date from the 9th century and mention various places of the current canton of Vaud. By the 12th century several large abbeys had been given land in the area by the Bishops of Lausanne - such as the Cistercian Abbeys of Hauterive, (1138), Hautcrêt (1141) and Montheron (1142), and over the next four centuries until the Reformation, it was the Abbeys that managed these fertile lands and shaped the landscape, introducing terraces and developing roads to export their wines. Many of the current boundaries and roads follow these mediaeval structures.
By the 14th century, the growth and extent of work had encouraged the monks and brothers of the monasteries to let out most of their land to tenants who cultivated the land as mixed farmers - as well as vines they also had arable fields, grazing animals and orchards - against the payment of a percentage of their crops (a half, a third or two fifths of the fruit) to the monasteries. By this time many of the families who still farm the area had become established. For instance the Chappuis family history records vine growers back to 1335.
A document of 1331 is the first to describe the structures created for the vines: terraces 10 to 15 metres wide, supported by walls up to 5 or 6 metres in height. Terms requiring vine growers to maintain walls and the ‘slides' for heading the water run-off appeared in 1391.
In 1536 Lausanne came under the control of Bern and several wealthy patrician families from Bern started to acquire land in Lavaux. Bern carried out improvements to the roads, for instance from Vevey to Moudon.
Wine growing was carefully controlled to keep up quality: first by the Prince-Bishops of Lausanne and later by the Bernese. The first testimonies for this control dates back to 1368. Wine cellars were defined and local wines were encouraged, while ‘foreign' wines and distillation (which would deprive the vines of manure and take too much wood) were discouraged. The value of the land on which the vines were grown was much higher than that for arable fields resulting in much interest from the middle-class of Lausanne and pressure to extend the wine growing areas. In response, there was much legislation to try and prevent this and maintain quality, often doomed to failure.
By the 1800s there were many small plots and a huge diversity of landowners (including some monasteries such as Hauterive associated with Freiburg, who had managed to hold onto land after the Reformation), as well as many representatives of wealthy secular and ecclesiastical families. This patchwork of often very small land-holdings meant that work on the land was inefficient. After 1803 when Lausanne had become the capital of the newly formed Swiss canton Vaud, and joined the Swiss Federation, a period of agricultural improvement was ushered in. Terraces were rationalized and larger walls created and new drainage of whole sectors created to limit erosion.
In 1849 the Great Council of Vaud agreed to the improvement and widening of the road connecting Lausanne to Vevey by the edge of the lake. At the end of the 19th century, the Corniche road along the Lake made it possible to connect the villages between Cully and Chexbres. Finally the railway arrived in 1861; it was enlarged in 1862 and again in 1904 and the lines now form a triangle round the site.
One of the biggest changes to vine growing was brought about by the phylloxera vine disease imported from North America; it arrived in Lavaux in 1886. To recover from this, the growers changed their methods to allow easier access to the vines for chemical treatment in order to prevent a recurrence of the disease. In order to have better access, many of the old methods disappeared as new grafted vines were planted along lines rather than ‘goblet' fashion.
Change came also at a Canton level: in response to the crisis, the authorities intervened to support the industry at canton and federal level. In return the industry was much more tightly regulated with the introduction of Statutes of Wine to maintain quality but also a decent income for the wine growers. This brought to an end the relative freedom of the wine growers.
Following the Second World War, the expansion of Lausanne and other towns attracted growers to leave their plots and at the same time, improved transport offered the possibility of growers living in towns. Mixed farming finally disappeared and with it the orchards and cows and pigs. Between 1957 and 1977 legislation was introduced to sustain what had come to be seen as part of Swiss culture (see below). Resisted by many initially, it is now seen as the saviour of the industry in protecting not only wine making but also the vineyard landscape.
The final major alteration to the landscape was the building of the A9 Autoroute along the upper edge of the site, in the proposed Buffer Zone.
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