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 for a broader view of the vinous pleasures hidden in plain sight in Valais.

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