Category Archives: Valais Switzerland

Canton of Valais in Switzerland

Raclette Paradise at Chateau de Villa

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.

Unusually heavy Easter snow blankets the 16th Century Chateau de Villa.
Unusually heavy Easter snow blankets the 16th Century Chateau de Villa.

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.

Summer is a great time to dine under the chestnut trees at Chateau de Villa.
Summer is a great time to dine under the chestnut trees at Chateau de Villa.

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.

The Oenotheque at the Chateau de Villa is a great place to taste and purchase Valais wines.
The Oenotheque at the Chateau de Villa is a great place to taste and purchase Valais wines.

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.

Terraced vineyards make the vendange a tricky exercise.
Terraced vineyards make the vendange a tricky exercise.

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.

Like all winemakers in Valais, Nicolas Bagnoud works hard during the vendange.
Like all winemakers in Valais, Nicolas Bagnoud works hard during the vendange.

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.

Viande sechee du Valais from three of the top producers make a great entrance into a delicious Valaisanne meal.
Viande sechee du Valais from three of the top producers make a great entrance into a delicious Valaisanne meal.

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.

Raclette oven gets used a great deal each day.
Raclette oven gets used a great deal each day.

“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.

Maitre Racleur Alex Adler masterfully scraping raclette.
Maitre Racleur Alex Adler masterfully scraping raclette.
How does Alex keep up with the five different cheeses?
How does Alex keep up with the five different cheeses?

Ask Alex for some religieuse.  It’s the crispy, somewhat burned melted rind of the raclette.

Delicious religeuse will confirm to you raclette is a heavenly treat!
Delicious religeuse will confirm to you raclette is a heavenly treat!

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).

You'll never run out of cornichons for your viande sechee or raclette.
You’ll never run out of cornichons for your viande sechee or raclette.

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.

Map of the different alpages of Valais Chateau de Villa sources its raclette du Valais AOC.
Map of the different alpages of Valais Chateau de Villa sources its raclette du Valais AOC.

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.

Holy Trinity of Valais - Molten raclette, potatoes and pickles.
Holy Trinity of Valais – Molten raclette, potatoes and pickles.
One swift stroke with a knife and the melted raclette slides off into a perfect puddle of cheese.
One swift stroke with a knife and the melted raclette slides off into a perfect puddle of cheese.

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.

Fondue Valaisanne also for by the name Fondue Tomate. Instead of dipping bread, the cheese is ladled over small potatoes.
Fondue Valaisanne also for by the name Fondue Tomate. Instead of dipping bread, the cheese is ladled over small potatoes.

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!

Cows naturally battle for domination in the alpages.
Cows naturally battle for domination in the alpages when they aren’t grazing on the tender alpine vegetation.

Valais, Switzerland’s Vinous Pleasures

I know it’s only spring (and if you’re up here in the Colorado High Country you might think it’s still winter).  But it’s never too early to start planning your autumn wine trip to Valais, Switzerland where you will find an abundance of wine families.  So I thought I’d post an article I did some months ago that was published in the Vail Daily.  If you have questions or need travel tips, send me an email through this website.

map of Valais 171

For those of you old enough to remember the movie and Broadway production, Camelot, you’ll recall Lancelot’s crooning song to Guinevere “If Ever I Would Leave You.”  Basically, Lancelot loves her so much he can’t think of a season he could bear leaving her. I was like that when I left Switzerland’s third largest canton, Valais, after calling it home for nearly 25 years.  There really is no a season when Valais isn’t special.  But autumn is the season my love for Valais is greatest and the one I miss the most, even here in the visual splendor of the Rocky Mountain High Country.

View of Val Anniviers from La Tieche near Crans-Montana, Switzerland
View of Val Anniviers from the alpages along La Tieche near Crans-Montana, Switzerland

Other than Zermatt, most Americans are unfamiliar with Valais (Wallis in the German part of the canton).  And that’s a pity.  Valais’ beauty are the 300 million year old mountains of the Bernese and Peninne ranges soaring 14,000 feet above sea level over the lush Rhone River valley 13,000 feet below.  The resulting diverse landscape is suitable for agriculture, viticulture, dairy farms, hydroelectric plants and recreation, most notably skiing, hiking and mountain biking.  It’s the agrarian economy of Valais juxtaposed with the recreational wonderland that I love so much.  Needless to say, viticulture creates particularly enjoyable recreational opportunities for oenophiles.

The breathtaking panorama and rich culture – the amalgamation of over two millennia of various peoples, from the original Celtic inhabitants to Romans and Germanic Burgundians – makes Valais one of the most intriguing places in Europe.

The breathtaking panorama and rich culture – the amalgamation of over two millennia of various peoples, from the original Celtic inhabitants to Romans and Germanic Burgundians – makes Valais one of the most intriguing places in Europe.

View from Bluche up the Rhone Valley in Valais, Switzerland
View from Bluche up the Rhone Valley in Valais, Switzerland

In America, tourists – and locals – flock to maple and aspen forests in autumn to witness colors dying leaves unleashed as chlorophyll levels diminish and vibrant colors masked by green emerge.  Even in dry, hot years like this one, aspens paint the slopes in colors I liken to calico cats.  No set pattern.  Just a mélange of gold, red and white when early snows come. Valais has its own foliage, but its stars are changing grape leaves.  Ancient vineyards use south-facing lower slopes of steep, craggy mountains and the floor of the Rhone valley as a canvas to paint their own botanical masterpieces.

So now you have a vision of Valais in autumn.  Let’s explore a bit the delights this season has to offer.  This week, wine.

Vineyard foliage provides the backdrop for the vendanges, or grape harvest.  The oldest evidence of wine consumption in Valais is a 2nd century BC Celtic ceramic bottle found in a woman’s tomb.  Odd habit of the Celts; they offered wine to the dead.  Romans, who history tells us were into imbibing while still alive, picked up where the Celts left off.  Wine has been continually produced in Valais since Roman times with production records from the Middle Ages found in church registers.

Aerial autumn view of the vineyards of Nicolas Bagnoud in Valencon above the Rhone River
Aerial autumn view of the vineyards of Nicolas Bagnoud in Valencon above the Rhone River

When I mention Swiss wines, particularly to guests in our home, I get a kick out of watching their skeptical faces turn to smiles of enjoyment as they take their first sips of these Alpine wines.  Primarily due to the relatively small production and high labor costs, not to mention the skyrocketing value of the Swiss Franc, over 98% of Swiss wines are consumed domestically.  And that’s pity.  The wines are truly special.

During the vendanges, growers pick grapes for over 23 locally produced wines from Visp (the turn for Zermatt) west to Martigny.  The often hot and dry microclimate of Valais, one of the sunniest spots in Europe, is perfect for growing a number of cultivars, some familiar to Americans, some not.

Fendant, one of the over 100 synonyms for Chasselas and used exclusively in Valais, is the second most planted grape in Valais, behind Pinot Noir.  To the Valaisans, Fendant AOC is as iconic a Swiss symbol as cows, cheese and chocolate.  The Valaisans are pragmatic people.  All good food needs good wine and starting off a meal in Valais with a cold bottle of Fendant is a gastronomic must amongst locals.  Makes sense since it is a natural pairing for cheese dishes such as Raclette AOC produced in high mountain pastures – alpages – during the summer and enjoyed throughout the year.  The origin of “Fendant” is thought to be a local patois derivation of the French verb “fondre,” to melt.  The tough outer skin is in stark contrast to the large grape’s delicate meat that melts when squeezed.  Easy to remember what’s great with raclette and fondue – both melted cheese dishes – think Fendant, the grape that melts!

One might call Pinot Noir “the grape that saved the Valais wine industry.”  Its appearance in the mid-19th century was part of efforts to regenerate viticulture in Valais.  Like the home of Pinot Noir, Burgundy, Valais is prone to both dryness and cold weather, both of which the grape tolerates well.  Unlike Burgundy where irrigation is forbidden, both drip and sprinkler irrigation provide summer moisture in this semi-arid Alpine environment.  Legendary Valais wine producer, the late Simon Maye, brought drip irrigation to Valais from Israel in the mid-20th century.  His impact on wine production, both through innovation and dedication to quality, cannot be overstated.  His sons, Axel and Jean-Francois along with their mother, Antoinette, carry on production of excellent Valais wines, most notably Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes (old vines), Dole (a classic Valais blend primarily of Pinot Noir), Syrah, Petite Arvine, Paien, and Fendant.

Paien, or Heida as it is called in Upper Valais, is the Valais version of Savagnin Blanc.  This grape, that pairs beautifully with wild mushrooms and fresh mountain cheeses that abound in Valais, is cultivated in both the French and German speaking parts of the canton.  The earliest record of Heida was found in Visperterminen where since the 16th century it has been grown in Europe’s highest vineyards at 3600 feet above sea level.

Many indigenous varietals were on the wane as other more trendy – and lucrative – wines appeared in the mid-20th century.  But since the Valais government’s initiative in the 1980s to preserve these ancient members of Swiss viticulture, production has increased. Cornalin du Valais, the rich, bold red that ages nicely and stands up to the powerful flavors of game, is one varietal that has enjoyed a renaissance.  It has become so important that there’s a festival (fete) in Flanthey to honor it every September.  It’s my favorite Swiss wine in autumn given the availability of a bounty of flavors that so nicely pair with it.  Enjoying a bottle of Cornalin in autumn on vintner Nicolas Bagnoud’s winery patio, drinking in both his excellent Cornalin and the spectacular optics of autumn while enjoying dried sausages and local cheeses, should be on any oenophile’s itinerary for Valais.  Other indigenous wines include Armigne, Petite Arvine and Humagne Rouge, also known as Cornalin d’Aosta.  This red wine is referred to as “gentleman’s wine” because of its low alcohol content that makes it great for lunch when followed by an afternoon of work.

Vintner Nicolas Bagnoud during the pinot gris harvest.
Vintner Nicolas Bagnoud during the pinot gris harvest.

Now that you have a little more knowledge of the Valais wine portfolio, I urge you refer to www.lesvinsduvalais.ch for a broader view of the vinous pleasures hidden in plain sight in Valais.