Coming soon! Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte Suzanne Hoffman Foreword by Maurizio Rosso Release date: June 2, 2016 Treiso (Barbaresco), Italy Conceived in Italy
Publisher: Under Discovered LLC, Vail, CO Editor: Elatia Harris Designer: Cindi Yaklich, Epicenter Creative
Copy Editor: Jody Berman, Berman Editorial
Eugenio Vacchetto Printer: VeronaLibri, Verona, Italy
Suzanne’s Journey on a Road Not Taken
In November 1999, my Piemontese odyssey in Italy’s Northwest began. Over 20 trips and 14 years later, on March 19, 2013, I arrived for a different reason. Now my purpose wasn’t to drink and eat as though Bacchus himself was my guide. This time it was to travel a road not taken. I was writing a book. This was the first of many trips to interview wine families I had known for years and many I met because of this project.
Writing was not a foreign experience for me – not as an attorney, nor as a journalist – but this was my first book. It was one I was driven to write as the desire to commit to paper the images and words of Piemonte’s wine family women – and their men – burned in my soul.
Life planted the seeds for this venture shortly after the summer of 2005 when I lost my mother, my companion along with Otis, my Miniature Schnauzer who traveled with us on that first trip to Piemonte in 1999.
These were difficult days for me. I yearned for a closer bond with the wine families we had come to know, particularly the women who nurtured those lives. My grandmother, Frances Castrogiovanni Manale, had been my family’s strong connection and, although she had been gone for over 30 years, I felt her presence when I listened to stories the wine families shared with me.
The wine families are linked to one another through their traditions, their land and the labor of love they share. The generational links are the women, particularly the grandmothers. In the words of Nuto Revelli, revered Italian author, they are “l’anelloforte” (the strong ring). They keep traditions and stories alive. They nurture the future of the family.
To me, the wine families represented constancy, familial love and a strong connection to place. To hear their stories about their grandmothers – many of whom lived centuries ago – was once again to be in my own grandmother’s kitchen in New Orleans. To smell her Sicilian cooking. To feel her soft, peaches and cream skin as she hugged me. I needed that, and more. Perhaps deepening my connections with them through my own labor of love could help me heal my wounds of loss. Grandmothers, even if they are someone else’s, always make us feel better.
Now, after nearly three years of countless emails and over 100 hours of interviews over wine tastings, delicious meals and walks through vineyards and cellars, my book containing the personal stories 22 wine families of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato regions of Piemonte shared, we with are moving to the next phase – production.
In celebration of completing months of intense work writing and editing with my editor Elatia Harris, I would like to share today the beautiful cover design created for my book soon to be printed in Italy.
Pierangelo Vacchetto and his daughter Elisabetta Vacchetto of Alba, Italy, took the two photographs on the cover. They are two of the three Vacchettos who are capturing the images of the wine families for “Labor of Love.” Eugenio, Pierangeli’s son, is the third. Cindi Yaklich of Epicenter Creative in Boulder merged their two photographs to create this beautiful cover design. You’ll have to guess who the subject is!
Elatia Harris is finishing the editing. Cindi is now working on the interior book design while Jody Berman of Berman Editorial is copyediting and proofreading. It’s all coming together.
Check back next week for the answer to the question, “Which Italian printer will transform Labor of Love into a treasured keepsake?”
Trivia question: Where in Piemonte is this and whose hands are those? Answer next week!
My Piemonte labor of love is progressing beautifully.
In seven months – God willing – I will introduce you to the women with whom I’ve spent so much of the last 30 months. Many of them are delightful ghosts who have been with me day and night as I labored to learn more about them, their families and the times in which they lived.
You will meet strong, brilliant women like Luigia Oddero, her daughter-in-law Maria and granddaughter-in-law Carla, all of whom played crucial roles in the success of their family’s winery in Santa Maria La Morra. I doubt, however, you would find their names in wine publications, something that saddens Luigia’s great-great-granddaughter Isabella Boffa Oddero. She knows how significant those women were to the patrimony of the Giacomo Oddero family.
After you read “Labor of Love,” I know you’ll be inspired to visit Monchiero Carbone in Canale in Roero. As you sit in the tasting room sipping their luscious wines, you’ll notice on the wall the black and white photo of Clotilde Valente Raimondo, known as Tilde, the woman who created the legacy of the wine you will enjoy there possible. The black, kind eyes of the petite woman will enchant you. You’ll want to ask about her daughter Francesca (Cesca). If you meet Cesca’s great-granddaughter Lucia Monchiero, you’ll be meeting the future of the winery.
In Barbaresco, you’ll discover a woman you may of heard of before – Clotilde Rey – because her name and that of her great-granddaughter Gaia were merged to create the brand name of the legendary winery’s Langhe Chardonnay – Gaia & Rey. But did you know about her crucial roll in her father-in-law Giovanni Gaja’s legacy? Clotilde died long before I set foot in Piemonte, but I can’t help but believe that to meet Gaia Gaja is to meet Clotilde Rey such is her great-granddaughter’s brilliance and drive.
On the ridge in Tre Stelle in Barbaresco you’ll find Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose. There’s a strong, formidable woman in her family whose story is known to so few, but whose life touched so many, particularly during the dark, brutal days of the German Occupation between September 1943 and May 1945. You can find the name of Beatrice Rizzolio inscribed on the wall of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
These are but a few of the women from the 23 different families that you’ll meet if you follow me on my labor of love. Sadly, these grandmothers across the generations are no longer here for me to interview, but their families have brought them alive for me and by extension for you. What a delight and an honor it has been to get to know them and have the opportunity to be their storyteller.
I was delighted to read Will Lyon’s article in the Wall Street Journal – “Why Piemonte is the new Burgundy.” I’m always thrilled to see Piemonte get such positive, enthusiastic ink, particularly in the Journal. I’m even more delighted to see Punset amongst the list of recommended wines since it’s long overdue for feisty organic pioneer Marina Marcarino and her wines to receive such accolades!
So my hat is off to Mr. Lyons for such a nice article; I must respectfully demur, however, and note that Piemonte is not the new Burgundy. Nor the old. Piemonte is Piemonte. And, as Barbaresco producer Giovanna Rizzolio pointed out, it is Italian.
Piemonte has its own heart and soul that is reflected in its wines. And its heart and soul emanate from the cornerstone of the region – the wine families.
It’s a little sad – at least to me – that Piemonte’s wine families were not mentioned. Without their indomitable spirit and unyielding drive, the incredible oenological delights wine lovers are finally recognizing would not be possible.
The wine families of Piemonte are the source of the charisma and individualism of the region’s wines. Some prime examples include Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli whose noble red wines reflect her spirit and passion;
Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose Barbaresco who fought a tsunami of opposition to be the first woman in Barbaresco to own and operate her own winery;
the Rocca sisters – Daniela, Paola and Monica – of Albino Rocca in Barbaresco whose own beautiful oenological signature was written on their 2013 Barbaresco, their first vintage to emerge on their own without their late father, Angelo Rocca.
and the Grasso family of Cà del Baio in Treiso in Barbaresco and Deltetto family of Canale in Roero;
…..and so on (it will all be in my book “A Labor of Love – Wine Family Women of Piemonte.”)
Incidentally, I don’t believe Piemonte is the “new Burgundy.” Piemonte is AND ALWAYS WILL BE Piemonte. I kind of feel passionate about that if you haven’t noticed!
Please never forget that the soul of Piemonte’s wines are forever tied to the families who create them. Their’s truly is a labor of love!
Women are now as important to the lifeblood of many Barbaresco wineries as the juice they extract from their grapes. Once in the shadows, societal changes broke the shackles that kept women out the family business and hereditary fortunes in patriarchal Italy.
Think about the changing face (actually, gender) of the heirs of Barbaresco’s wine families – women. Two wineries he praised – Cà del Baio and Albino Rocca – have three sisters who have or who will inherit the winery, carrying it on to future generations.
Not so long ago, Luigi, Ernesto and Giulio Grasso’s Cà del Baio, borne of hard work and determination, would not have stayed in the family given Giulio’s heirs are only women – Paola, Valentina and Federica.
And the three Rocca sisters, Daniela, Monica and Paola. What courage and talent they have displayed since the tragic death of their father! Mr. D’Agata has rightfully given their incredible work at Albino Rocca the credit they deserve.
Needless to say, Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose had to swim upstream against a very strong current to create her beautiful, successful winery on her family’s land.
And there are some dynamos! Elisa Scavino, Francesca Vaira, Isabella Boffa Oddero, Maria Teresa Mascarello, Gaia and Rossana Gaja, and Marta and Carlotta Rinaldi, just to name a few.
This is not to take away from the guys. Just to note the changes afoot in the vineyards and cantine of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato. Otherwise, why would I spend two years to date researching and writing about them? Still many wonderful stories to uncover and share in the hills of Piemonte.
Sommeliers are gastronomic matchmakers, helping diners discover the perfect match for a chef’s creation from candidates presented on a restaurant’s wine list. Digging into their gustatory toolboxes of aromas and tastes accumulated from years of tasting repetition and a vast wine knowledge, sommeliers can create happy marriages between wine and food, transforming an otherwise mundane process of eating into joyful gastronomic adventures. Add to that an intriguing story or two about the wine’s origins or its producer, sommeliers can work magic converting liquid in a glass from a mere drink into to something to savor and remember. The wine comes alive as its tastes and aromas become part of the diner’s own catalogue of dining memories.
The seeds of the profession sprouted in 14th century England. Sommeliers had humble beginnings as wine procurers for royalty and the aristocracy. Although the job description of a sommelier has evolved over time, sommeliers are still humble servants. At least that’s philosophy of one of the world’s most respected wine education organizations, the Court of Master Sommeliers.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. Personally – and I’m stepping out on Captain Hook’s plank here – I find the mystique, pop culture and wealth that’s part of the wine industry increasingly breeds an attitude that isn’t always synergistic with the concept of service. Ok, let’s just say it as it is. Some of the industry’s newer members – sommeliers, bottle shop employees and wine reps included – are wine snobs. I said “some,” not all, so don’t get frazzled. I venture to say that I doubt I’m alone in my observation. I even hear it from winemakers whose wines grace the upper echelons of many top restaurants’ wine lists. It baffles them that some of those on the far end of the chain of commerce don’t share their own humility. Many with lesser knowledge – most notably the ones buying the product – often feel intimidated. Certainly not a way to cultivate wine appreciation.
But through the expanding popularity and reach of the Court of Master Sommeliers’ certification program, the humble, agrarian beginnings of wine increasingly are reflected in the service demeanor of sommeliers responsible for connecting the last link in the chain between producer and consumer. If Mensa had a wine and spirits subgroup, it would count amongst its members Master Sommeliers whose years of grueling studies and training helped them reach the rarefied air of the world’s top wine professionals.
If I haven’t gone off the end of the plank yet and you’re still with me, I’d like to introduce you to a wine genius with whom I’ve also had the pleasure of working with on a wonderful epicurean fundraising event for the Roundup River Ranch camp for seriously ill children. Master Sommelier Sean Razee.
Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing this tall, quiet humblest of humble sommeliers who resides in Vail Valley. I’m working on my certification – Level II – to enhance my ability to tell winemakers’ and wine professionals’ stories, so I decided to write about the experience in the certification program. Sean helped me round the corners and smooth the edges of my article.
I interviewed Sean about his own journey to the pinnacle of the wine industry. The interview unearthed some fascinating insights and raised my level of appreciation of sommeliers’ role in connecting vintners with consumers.
As of November 2014, 220 professionals earned the title Master Sommelier since the first exam in London in 1969. One hundred forty of those Masters earned their title in North America. In case you’re a statistics geek, 119 are men and 21 are women. Colorado is home to 12 Master Sommeliers. Sean Razee is one of those 12.
In his first words of his intriguing article in Aspen Peak Magazine, journalist Douglas Brown states, “Aspen boasts more master sommeliers per capita than any other city in the US.” Not a surprising statistic based on Aspen’s prowess as the Rocky Mountain culinary capital which hosts one of the nation’s best food and wine festivals each June. Another reason is Aspen is home to a temple of epicurean pleasures – The Little Nell – and home to an oracle of wine that professionals from all over the world seek. More about him in a minute. For several decades, Colorado has been a Mecca for aspiring sommeliers and where Sean reached a fork in his career path that lead him to the Court of Master Sommeliers’ program.
Like so many who follow the same path Sean discovered in Colorado, wine culture was not a part of his upbringing in California. In the mid-1990s, Sean finished his studies in food science at Long Beach State University. Many believe – myself included – that wine is bottled poetry, art, literature and spirituality. So it’s no surprise Sean relished studying language, art and religion in university and continues expanding his knowledge today. Soon after receiving his degree, however, serendipity directed Sean’s career steps to the wine world.
Sean’s interest in wine blossomed during wine country adventures with friends. Sean admitted, “I didn’t know what I was drinking, but I loved the experience and wanted to learn more.” His quest for knowledge took Sean to Colorado for the winter of 1996-1997 when he worked at Beano’s Cabin in Beaver Creek. It was there his discovery of the “all-encompassing aspect of wine in the restaurant setting” nudged him closer to the wine industry.
One season turned into another and soon Sean’s expanding experience and responsibilities at Beano’s led him to explore wine career options. Using his background in food science as a springboard, it made sense to apply to UC Davis’ graduate oenology program. Fate, however, had different plans for him.
In 2002, Sean became wine director at Spago’s in the newly opened Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch. The job prompted him to defer his oenology studies a few years. Not surprisingly, Sean never made it to UC Davis. He discovered another wine industry career path existed. Although he already had many years of experience under his belt, Sean wanted formal training and certification. Enter Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher.
Many who now hold the esteemed title “Master Sommelier” and the two levels of certification below it owe their success to Jay Fletcher. Like Sean, Jay didn’t make a beeline to sommelier training. However, in London in 1996, after nearly 15 years of working his way up the restaurant industry ladder in Aspen and arduous studies, Jay received his Master Sommelier Certification, becoming the 30th American to achieve the distinctive title. The Madison, Wisconsin native who once hitchhiked his way to Colorado – as friend Ilan Baril recently wrote in The Juice, “to ski, hang out with a good-looking woman and have a drink or two” – then became a sought-after sage who drew aspiring sommeliers from across the globe to Aspen.
The timing was perfect. Sean wanted to pursue certification with the Court and Jay’s work educating candidates was beginning. Sean told me he chose the Court’s program because of its international recognition as the fastest growing wine certification program in America and that a service component comprises one-third of the exam. “You need to be able to talk about the wine and serve it properly,” Sean said.
Sean began making frequent trips to Aspen to taste wines with Jay and absorb the knowledge he graciously shared. The experience brought him in contact with other masters’ candidates. By 2006, Sean took the grueling, three-part masters’ exam.
Given this is one of the most demanding exams in the wine world with a meager passage rate of 8%, candidates have three years from the first attempt to successfully complete all three sections. For Sean, he passed service in his first attempt. Mind you, this isn’t “open a bottle and pour some wine” sort of service exam. It’s even more difficult than that on the Level II exam. To give you an idea, take the most difficult service scenarios imaginable, make them even worse, and you might have the degree of herculean service difficulty that candidates have to master to be Masters.
Two years later, Sean passed the remaining two sections – theory and blind tasting – in Healdsburg, California. With his wife Jennifer and daughter Noelle present, in 2008 Sean proudly received his well-deserved title, Master Sommelier.
It didn’t take long before Sean, like Jay before him, became immersed in the opportunity to educate certification aspirants. Today, as director of Vail Resorts’ Mountain Dining beverage program, Sean no longer has many opportunities to “work the floor” and be that last link between winemaker and consumer, but he does stay active in his mentoring of certification candidates.
In conclusion, I asked Sean to share with me some of his insights he conveys to his protégés.
The Court’s mission, in Sean’s opinion, is to (1) educate sommeliers, (2) create standards of service and (3) “impart humility.” There’s that humility component again, something no doubt difficult to maintain in the heady world of wine. But Sean credits his own humble roots to keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground.
The program requires candidates to learn a wide breath of information that often goes far beyond one’s focus and interests. Perhaps amassing knowledge of little known wine regions isn’t as sexy as zeroing in on Bordeaux and Bourgogne, but it’s what makes Masters’ expertise so special. Sean sees this as a way to achieve a high level of broad wine knowledge thereby creating well-rounded wine and spirits professionals.
Sean’s own personal mission is to mentor candidates, “impart humility” and help them develop their own skills.
One of the most interesting insights I gleaned from Sean was his perspective on wine as part of everyday life. Yes, there are “icon wines” that are rare treasures, but he respects wine as an agricultural product that in so many cultures is “a grocery that sits on the table during meals and becomes part of daily life.”
Like Sean, I admire the farmer-winemakers who toil in the vineyards, bring the grapes home safely and then perform alchemical magic in their cellars. They bear the greatest risk, but have the lowest margins in the chain of commerce between their vines and consumers’ glasses. In the northern hemisphere, theirs are stories of hailstorms in August, of frost in early May, of rain on the grapes in October. Disproportionately more than anyone else in the chain of vinous commerce, wine producers bear the burden of volatile currency markets, energy cost spikes and economic crashes.
It’s that final link where Sean Razee speaks for the producers, adding a heightened level of appreciation and understanding of the precious liquid he pours. Whether he’s serving a humble bottle of a lower priced wine on his list or a treasure from Vosne-Romanée, Sean cherishes the vintners’ stories he happily shares with clients. He’s a golden link, a humble representative of the producers in that long chain between vineyard and glass as he makes happy marriages between food and wine.
I have no idea how far I’ll get in my quest for Level II certification. There are huge challenges awaiting my 57-year-old nose in the blind tasting and my arthritic hands when confronted with opening and serving a bottle of champagne in the service exam. But I have to admit, the trip down the path to the exam has already brought me a greater understanding of and appreciation for the men and women who insure winemakers do not toil in vain to create vinous magic. Sommeliers, I’ve discovered through knowing Sean and learning from Jay in my Level I class, are great historians. Every time they pour a glass of wine and tell its back story, they honor the winemakers and keep the magic alive. Yes, sommeliers are gastronomic matchmakers and theirs is a labor of love.
I’m in Piemonte now, spending a month wrapping up final interviews and research for my book project on the wine women of the Langhe and Roero.
It’s mid-May, a time when the weather can be unpredictable, but is generally kind to visitors and vintners. Although snowstorms still plague my home in the Colorado Rockies, here the sun is shining. At my agriturismo in the countryside, I am suspended between Heaven and earth, azure blue skies and rolling green hills.
Unfortunately, my experiences haven’t always been like today. The shyness of the sun in those early trips nearly foiled later adventures to the region. How I came to love this land and find a connection so deep that I am consumed with writing about it is something that did not come easy.
Since so many of my storytelling-moments involve Piemonte, people often people ask why I’m drawn to the province, particularly the Langhe and Roero, the two most prominent wine districts (my apologies to Montferrato and northern Piemonte wineries). It’s a fair question and actually quite easy to answer. This region in the northwestern corner of Italy is an endearing amalgamation of people, culture and natural beauty that literally bewitched me.
A year passed before I experienced a sunny day in Piemonte and saw for myself what I had only seen in photographs – vine-covered rolling landscapes peppered with medieval hilltop towns against a backdrop of snow-covered alps far away on the western and northern horizons.
In early November 1999, I set out on my first Piemontese adventure with my mom and my mini-Schnauzer, Otis.
My mom was visiting and my husband Dani was in China overseeing a shipbuilding project at Jiangnan Shipyards in Shanghai, so this was a great opportunity to take mom on a reconnaissance mission to learn about this under-discovered region. We lived in neighboring Switzerland, so I loaded up mom who was visiting from south Louisiana, and Otis who enjoyed the benefits of Europe’s enlightened pet access rules into our white Ford Explorer for the nearly 5 hour drive south from Zurich.
Anyone who knows Piemonte knows Mother Nature usually unleashes her foul mood on the region in November after (hopefully) holding rains in abeyance through the autumn harvest. At a minimum, there’s always fog. But there is also rain. We had rain. Lots of it. Walking a dog in the pouring rain through sticky mud was not the experience I sought. Frankly, I was miserable.
In those days before bloggers and writers began spreading the gospel of Piemonte, there were few travel resources in any language much less English. A few of my colleagues at Swiss Re gave me tips, but for the most part, I didn’t know where to go or what to eat. I was just told it was hard to make a bad choice. My mom was along for the ride. Normally someone who wanted to be in full control, she happily ceded control to me. You might say it was a classic case of the blind leading the blind.
I discovered agriturismo Villa Meridiana on the outskirts of Alba. Perched on a west-facing slope high above the town with a view, I was told, of the Roero to the north and the Langhe to the west, it was one of the few agriturismi in existence at the time. As I had discovered when I booked, it was full. No one had told me early November was still high season when gastronomes across Europe descended on Alba to dine on and purchase tartufi bianchi d’Alba.
Fortunately, the owners had two vacant apartments in Neviglie, a hilltop hamlet in the Barbaresco appellation about 10 minutes to the east. We were delighted, but the terrifying drive on narrow, winding roads in pouring rain in what we would in later years dub the “wine panzer,” proved to be an unexpected stressor. Wine was needed.
We spent four rainy days and nights there, only once venturing outside at night. Although we didn’t discover very much beyond the apartment’s door, each day we had a delightful time buying grissini, bread, salumi, cheese and, of course, wine from the mercato d’Alba and small salumerie, panetterie, alimentari and enoteche.
The experience connected me to the region and I knew I would return if for no other reason than to see the sun shining on the vineyards.
Still Seeking the Sun
During the first February of the new millennium, I made my second trip to Piemonte, this time with Dani and my ever-present companion, Otis. Still not the best seasonal choice, but at least the persistent clouds didn’t rain on us. Although we didn’t see the vistas the Langhe was known for, the abundance of medieval villages, seemingly ghost towns in the mid-winter cold, held gastronomic secrets we soon discovered – excellent, family-owned restaurants.
We couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate introduction to classic Piemontese cucina. It was as it should be: simple, fresh and made with love. Needless to say, the concept of eating food grown within a few miles of the restaurants was a fabulous discovery.
The warmth of the food and those who prepared and served it made us long for more. We still hadn’t seen the landscape nor had we truly experienced the wine culture. That would soon change in a – positive – seismic way.
Discovering a part of New Zealand in Barbaresco
It wasn’t until later that year, again in November, when I saw the bright sunshine and what the clouds and fog had hidden from me. The trip began as expected: foggy days and even foggier nights. On the third day, an early season snowstorm blanketed the near naked vineyards with snow so that when the clouds surrendered to the sun, we discovered the landscape in all its splendor.
Snow-covered vineyards, azure blue sky – we call it “bluebird skies” in Colorado – and soaring mountains on the horizon made the wait worthwhile. Perhaps it was Mother Nature’s way of making visitors to the region worthy of witnessing the splendor she could unveil.
On that trip, we not only discovered what fog and clouds had hidden from us, but it was the beginning of our adventures in wine. After the brief period of sun, the snow melted and the fog returned. Piemonte was once again shrouded in her foggy winter mantle.
Nestled on the slopes of the Martinenga ampitheatre, it’s not an easy place to find, particularly when the pea-soup thick fog obscures signs. But we persevered and our lives changed forever. We quickly discovered it wasn’t just sun that had been missing, but an anglophone wine sage to guide us through the exciting world of Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Arneis and all the other varietals that make their home in Piemonte.
At Home – Briefly – in Piemonte
Fast-forward 15 years and over 20 trips to this morning in the Langhe. Once again, I’m rewarded with deep blue skies above, but now it’s lush green below my feet that dominates the colors of the landscape. Nascent grapes are profiting from warm, sunny days and vines are growing fast to produce leaves that will capture the nurturing sun’s rays.
Another vintage is dawning in the heart of Piemonte. I’m here to witness it and share with you stories of Piemonte’s wine families and their region.
Come back in the days ahead as I share stories and guide visitors to some of the under-discovered places that enchant us. Needless to say, I will introduce you to many people who have become dear friends, including Jeffrey, the tall Kiwi of Martinenga.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.