As readers of my reviews know, I lived in Switzerland for over 2 decades. We had a home in Valais near Crans-Montana for 25 years, so I know the south-central canton of Valais quite well. Many wonderful gems that escape visitors’ notice, particularly Americans, can be found in the Valais. One of those special gems is Chateau de Villa, a veritable raclette and wine paradise.
This 16th century chateau lies above the valley town of Sierre, bordered above by the lower vineyards of the Cote de Sierre and just west of the imaginary, but realistic roestigraben (the linguistic border between French and German speaking Switzerland also know as the “potato ditch”). Is that a good enough description or would you prefer satellite coordinates? Just wanted to set the scene for readers because its location is part of its magic.
Recently I returned to Valais and was delighted to discover than in this world of tumult and unpleasant changes, one cherished thing has remained the same. The Chateau de Villa is still the best place on the planet to enjoy delicious raclette des alpage. Well, perhaps sitting in an alpine hut enjoying the raclette where it’s made could top it, but only by a small margin.
To begin with, there is nothing kitsch about Chateau de Villa. It is what it is – a 16th century chateau that houses an oenotheque with a vast selection of local wines and a lovely restaurant specializing in this region’s signature products – dried meats and cheese, particularly raclette. If you are unfamiliar with the vinous delights of Valais, this is just the place you need to go to explore these treasures.
The best way for me to describe the food and wine at the Chateau is to take you through a typical meal. But first, let’s order the wine.
Under Discovered Wine Treasures
Starting with white isn’t merely the usual Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio choices so prevalent in the US. Yes, you will discover wonderful Chardonnay (Simon Maye et Fils is one of the best I’ve had from anywhere, but not always available outside the cellar) and Sauvignon Blanc, but you should go for the local varietals such as Fendant, Petite Arvine and Paien/Heida. There are over 20 different types of white wines on the restaurant’s massive wine list.
One of my favorites is Paien (Heida). It’s a Savagnin Blanc that grows primarily in the mid to upper valley reaches of the Valais wine region. You will not find this wine anywhere outside of Switzerland. Actually, it’s hard to find outside of Valais. My two favorite producers of this varietal are Mabillard-Fuchs and Simon Maye et Fils, but only the former is on the list.
Of course, Fendant (made from the Chasselas grape) is the most common white wine in the region. Cheese must be in its DNA because it is a perfect pairing for all cheese dishes. Fendant goes well with dried meats and sausages, too.
Different red varietals are also abundant on the wine list at the Chateau de Villa. There are fifteen different reds on the wine list. My favorites – because they aren’t found anywhere else – are Dole (Gamay and Pinot Noir), Humagne Rouge and Cornalin. More and more producers such as Nicolas Bagnoud and Simon Maye are making stunning Pinot Noirs that are gaining notoriety beyond Switzerland’s borders. One restaurant in Alba in the middle of Nebbiolo country carried Simon Maye’s old vines Pinot Noir before the wife and chef-owner split.
Cornalin is a lovely red that goes great with red meats, particularly game. Again, Nicolas Bagnoud is an excellent producer of this red considered one of Valais’ treasures. It’s production dates at least to the early 14th century. Unfortunately, you won’t find Bagnoud’s wines on the list, so go for another great producer, Gregor Kuonen.
Syrah from Valais is a very special wine, too. It’s from clones of Tain l’Hermitage in the opposite end of the Rhone River in the Valle du Rhone north of the river’s delta. This is very special Syrah. Simon Maye was one of the first Valaisanne producers to grow Syrah and the winery’s old vines Syrah would rival many of its famous southern, French cousins.
I could go on and on, but I’ll let you discover these treasures on your own. One word about price. Make no mistake, Valais wines are expensive. If you spend time in the vineyards and caves of Valais, you’ll understand why. Production is small and the labor required to produce these crafted wines is great. Just enjoy it! Surely from the over 600 different wines on the list you’ll find something to your taste and budget.
Fromages des Alpages
So let’s turn our attention to food. To start, we always order a few plates of viande sechee for the table – three to four people to one plate if you’re having raclette is a good ratio. Each plate contains meat from three different producers. Your server will give you a clear explanation of each.
Since you’re about to indulge in a fabulous meal that is anything but low fat, don’t skimp on the calories or fat grams. Throw caution to the wind. With your viande sechee you will receive cornichons and the famous Valais walnut rye bread with pats of sweet, creamy Flora butter. Spread the butter on the nut bread, put a piece of viande sechee and a cornichon on top and then savor this lovely flavor combination that is so uniquely Valaisanne.
There are a few other meat plates that are delicious starters, but I’m a creature of habit and always enjoy viande sechee when I visit, particularly the high quality meat Chateau de Villa serves.
So, we next order raclette forfait. This is a degustation of five different raclette cheeses made in the alpages of Valais and bearing the AOC designation. The Chateau only serves Raclette du Valais AOC from the alpages in the Rhone River’s lateral valleys that stretch from just east of Lake Geneva to the Valle des Conches further upstream from Brig. The alpage choices change frequently, but the general areas remain the same. Over 12 metric tons of cheese are served here annually. Potatoes go hand-in-hand with the raclette and some of the fondue, so they serve over 600 kilos of potatoes each month.
“Master Scraper” Alexandre “Alex” Alder is in perpetual motion as he not only scrapes the cheeses, but serves each one as well, describing it in detail as, with a bit of panache, he places the plate before you. I am always amazed at how he keeps track of everyone’s plate and knows who in the room is having what. He’s simply brilliant.
Ask Alex for some religieuse. It’s the crispy, somewhat burned melted rind of the raclette.
The perfect partner for your raclette is the endless supply of small potatoes kept warm in a quilt-lined basket and bowls of cornichons and picked onions you’ll be served. Ask for the pepper mill if your server forgets (it gets VERY busy, so please be patient….have another glass of wine and the passage of time will not matter).
After you complete the tour des alpages, Alex will ask you what you would like to have again. I love strong cheeses, so I go for eastern Turtmann, Gomser and Simplon alpages that are usually on offer. Ask Alex for a map of the Valais that notes each alpage of origin. He will gladly mark which ones you’ve had.
There was one slight change recently made. Instead of an unlimited amount of raclette for a flat price, you “only” can get seven servings and will have to pay for each additional one. Since eight is my maximum and only on a dare, trust me, you will not be paying for additional servings.
The fondue choices are also wonderful; however, I make delicious fondue, so I always go for what I can’t get at home which means this high quality raclette. If you do order fondue, go for the fondue aux tomates. It’s typical to the region and is also known as Fondue Valaisanne. Instead of dipping bread into the creamy, melted cheese and tomatoes, you will get raclette potatoes over which you ladle the molten cheese. Superb! Don’t forget the fresh black pepper.
ONE NOTE OF CAUTION: Many people do not realize the danger in drinking water – particularly cold water – with fondue and raclette. You should drink only wine or hot tea that aids in the digestion of the cheese. You will not feel very good if you have water while eating.
The Chateau de Villa is an excellent place to visit when you explore the wine families of Valais. Make sure you visit the oenotheque before you go in for dinner as it closes early. Seating outside in summer is quite pleasant. Parking can be a hassle. If there are no places along Rue St. Catherine, there is a lot on the west end of the street. You can have pleasant walk to and from the restaurant. Just follow that wonderful smell of melted raclette and you’ll find it!