Last week I wrote a kind of general introduction to Swiss wine, of which here is the address if you want to check it out:
This week I will be focusing on just one of the three major wine regions of Switzerland, the Valais (the purple patch on the above map of Switzerland), some of whose wines I have tasted within the past year or so and some of whose vineyards I have also visited on these occasions. « Some » means just a part of a whole, therefore this article will not attempt to be any kind of guide to this region or its wines, merely my personal vision which is necessarily a little superficial as based on a few short glimpses, some tastings, the odd conversation and a bit of research.
If you also read French, you will perhaps notice that two of my friends and colleagues on this blog (Hervé Lalau and Marc Vanhellemont) are currently participating at a major tasting/competition of that emblematic white grape from Switzerland, the Chasselas (or Fendant as they call it in the Valais). I must admit that I still have to be totally convinced by the wines made with this variety (apologies to José Vouillamoz and others), although I have tasted a few good ones and quite a lot of the easy-to-drink category. Perhaps that is the key point in this case: maybe not all wines have to be super good and exciting? In this context I am often reminded of the comment of my friend Jean-Michel Novelle who produces a wide range of wines from his small estate in the canton of Geneva and who told me many years ago that he only accepted to take over the family winery and estate from his father on the condition that he could rip out all (or most) of the chasselas and replant with other varieties. And he did so! Then again, perhaps Geneva is not the best area for chasselas?
The Valais is the largest wine region in Switzerland. It takes the shape of a long ribbon of vineyards that line the banks of the river Rhône, mostly on its northern side and partially on slopes which face essentially south-east. At its eastern perimeter we almost come to the road up to the Simplon pass, and at the western end to the Lac Leman, or Lake of Geneva, but the main part of the valaisan vineyards lie between Sierre and Martigny, at which point the river makes a 90° right turn northwards before emptying itself into the lake, from which it will emerge at Geneva before carrying on its long route, flowing then southwards and into the Mediterranean west of Marseille. This vineyard is totally enclosed on both sides by some steep mountains that are dotted with many famous mountain and ski resorts such as Verbier, Crans-Montana, Grimentz ou Leukerbad. This makes for spectacular surroundings and some very steep vineyards that have to be worked by hand and require stone terraces to enable them to cling to the bases of these mountains, although the majority of the surfaces do lie on the valley floor and on deep, former glacial soils. Winter is one thing, and snow can still fall here in early May as I experienced recently, but it can get very hot in the Valais in the summer and I have tasted very ripe syrah from this region: talk about northern Rhône?
Most of these continental-climate vineyards lie at between 450 and 800 meters above sea-level, with the highest vineyard in continental Europe probably being in the Valais, at around 1,000 meters, at Vispertal. Sun is no problem here, with an annual regional average of over 2,000 hours of sunlight and around 600 mm of rainfall, making the Valais also the driest part of Switzerland. Perhaps the key climatic feature though is the sharp contrast between night and day temperatures, enabling good ripening without loss of acidity. Water for irrigation, when needed, is available from mountain lakes and the river Rhône.
José Vouillamoz, the renowned ampelographer and co-author of that magnificent reference book Wine Grapes, also happens to hail from the Valais.
There are over 50 different grape varieties used in the Valais on its almost 5,000 hectares of vines. Some of these are more or less indigenous to the region, and some have travelled in from France or elsewhere, often long ago.
An image of the now very rare, but historically prolific Gouais Blanc grape, one of the parents of Chardonnay and still producing in the Valais.
Of the native (as far as we know) white varieties, Arvine (or Petite Arvine) is the most important with just under 180 hectares. Amigne, Humagne Blanc, Rèze, Lafnetscha, Diolle, Grosse Arvine or Completer, for example, can boast between 30 and a couple of hectares each at the most. I would expect that these still rare varieties will gain more attention in the near future, depending of course on the results from recent plantings. Many have been saved from total oblivion recently. Chasselas is the king of local white grapes, having moved in from the neighbouring Vaud a long time ago and has almost 1000 hectares planted. It is called Fendant however in the Valais which can be confusing. To continue with name confusion, Sylvaner is called Johannisberg, Savagnin (aka Traminer) either Heida or Païen, Pinot Gris is known as Malvoisie, and Marsanne as Ermitage. Go figure when faced with one of these on a label! Amongst the anecdotal varieties we also find small plantings of Gouais blanc, known locally as Gwäss, and which is otherwise sometimes described as the Casanova of vines as it has been a parent over the centuries to so many varieties. These include Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Colombard, Furmint, Blaufrankisch and Riesling. Non-native varities planted include Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.
A taster at work at the Mondial des Pinots, held each year in the Valais
As to red grapes, Pinot Noir is the clear local king, with over 1500 hectares. Each year sees this fashionable variety celebrated in the town of Sierre with a competition and festivities. Gamay comes in a good second, followed, to a much lesser extent, by Humagne Rouge and Cornalin that hail from the region of Aosta, over the mountains into northern Italy. Before these local stars, in terms of volumes produced, we also have Syrah and Merlot, but also two Swiss-made crossings, Gamaret and Diolinoir.
Given this considerable diversity of grape varieties in what is finally quite a small area – the Valais vineyard counts fewer hectares than Saint-Emilion for instance – it is virtually impossible to generalise about the styles of the wines. Those that I have tasted, at least the good ones, have impressed me with their combination between freshness and ripeness. I detected no grassiness or rough textures indicating lack of ripeness in the varieties with which I was most familiar (Pinot Noir, Gamay or Sauvignon, for exemple). Arvine, as I mentioned last week, is clearly capable, at least in the Valais, of producing some extremely fine and even great white wines, quite keenly acidic, but also with intensity and complexity to surround that backbone. I tend to pass on Fendant (see above), although it can make a very pleasant drink. I also tasted one very extremely good Chenin blanc.
Take a trip to the Valais, and probably in the summer if your interest is in wine. It is beautiful and friendly, the road-signs are as clear as they are frequent (I was on my bike and I hardly use a GPS), and you will discover wines that range from the easy-to-enjoy to the more austere and complex type, both red and white, that call for food. I have not mentioned rosés as I am not a great fan of these but there are some if you like that sort of thing, although this fashion wave has not yet engulfed local production, fortunately.
PS. For you bikers out there, the road up from Aigle into the mountains is FUN!