High up, perched on the steep slopes of the Alps, overlooking the Rhone, we find some of Switzerland’s most stunning vineyards. The Valais (Wallis in Swiss German) is the country’s largest appellation and wine region. Viticulture has very deep roots here and with over 50 varieties grown this is one of the most prolific with ⅓ of the wines produced in the whole country coming from this region.
The region and its terroir
Vineyards are generally located on steep south-facing Alpine slopes at 460m-760m above sea level. Those in Visperterminen are at an altitude of 1100m and rank among the highest in Europe. The majority of the vineyards are very steep and have to be worked by hand. They require stone terraces to enable them to cling to these mountains.
Winters are harsh and snow can fall as late as May but the Valais is the warmest Swiss region in the summer. The Alps protect the vines from the harsh cold weather and the Foehn, a warm southerly wind that blows throughout the region accelerates the grapes’ maturation. It is also said to be causing headaches and erratic behavior.
The Valais boasts 12 Grand Cru vineyard communes. They are allowed to only plant specific grape varieties. In Chamoson, Sylvaner (Johannisberg), Petite Arvine, Pinot Noir, or Syrah are allowed while in Fully Petite Arvine, Ermitage (Marsanne), Gamay, and Syrah. Petite Arvine, Humagne Rouge, Cornalin, or Syrah are allowed in Saillon and in Vetroz we find Amigne, Chasselas (Fendant), Pinot Noir, and Gamay.
The Grapes and the Wines
There are more than 50 varieties planted throughout the region. Some are indigenous and some “imported” from other wine regions. There is a lot of Chasselas to be found in Valais. It “traveled” there from its native Vaud and it’s rather confusingly called Fendant, but for me, it is Petite Arvine, a Valais native that is of most importance. It is capable of producing exceptionally elegant, aromatic, and complex whites with crispy acidities.
For the reds, Pinot Noir is the clear local king with Gamay coming in a close second. When blended together they make the “Dôle” blend, a light and fruity wine. Cornalin (also called Rouge du Pays) is a red grape from the Italian region of Aosta on the other side of the Alps. It crossed over into Switzerland a very long time ago and is now the symbolic red grape of the Valais. Cornalin is a notoriously finicky grape to cultivate. It needs exceptional conditions to reach perfect maturity and sometimes only produces grapes every other year. When it does though, it gives juicy, fruity wines with silky tannins that can age well.
Geneva Wine Society is organizing a virtual Meet the Winemaker Online Wine Tasting with a small family winery from the Valais on Thursday 25 February. Caprice du Temps covers an area of 4 hectares and produces about twenty different types of wines. It is located in the Coteaux de Sierre appellation. With 600 mm of rain per year, Sierre is the driest and sunniest town in Switzerland! Its exceptional climate and its terroir composed of limestone and areas of lustrous schist contribute to the high quality of its wines. We will have the opportunity to taste 3 of their most popular wines, a very special white wine, and two fresh and fruity reds.
This article has also appeared on Vivamost!