Impossible vineyards. Impossible to stand in the middle of Fully’s dramatic Combe d’Enfer in Fully, across the Rhone river from Martigny, and not be awestruck. There are higher vineyards in Switzerland and in the world, there are possibly steeper ones, there are wilder ones. My own home is higher than this. But the name gives a hint: a “combe” is a geological term for a depression in a hillside, with very steep slopes on either side, caused by erosion. This is a mountainside, not a small hill, and given that “enfer” is French for hell or a place of great sufferance, and that here the heat in summer is trapped (40C at times!), you begin to get the idea.
Terrific and terrifying, this terroir
Once you’ve climbed here you realize you will always toast the five families who work this hillside, before taking a sip of their very much terroir wines. These organic vineyards are worked almost entirely by hand, with very limited road access. The sound of birds is clear, overcoming the muffled noises of villages and roads below.
From the A9 autoroute, the Combe d’Enfer looks impressive, but so do most steep Alpine vineyards. Until I trekked through the vines at the end of March with Claudine Roduit of Domaine Rodeline and Marie-Thérèse Chappaz of the winery that bears her name, I didn’t give it much thought. We drove up and up, to about 600 metres, but it felt much higher on the little winding road above Fully that ends abruptly.
Twenty or so of us, taking part in an outing for the Mémoire des Vins Suisses annual meeting, clambered among the vines until we reached the start of this recess in the mountains. It took my breath away. Yes, the climb, since I haven’t done this kind of walking for months, not since replacing two knees. And the view is indeed spectacular.
It’s the labour that is truly startling: the sheer labour that built the original terraced vineyards centuries ago, that created dry stone walls hundreds of metres long, the work, virtually all done by hand, that lies behind replanting and caring for these restored vineyards.
Claudine tells us we are looking at vines planted on terraces rebuilt only 20 years ago, but she and husband Yvon were pioneers in planting local grape varieties here in the 1980s. Their experience with Cornalin, for example, provided information that encouraged the restoration of other parts of La Combe that had been abandoned.
We are impressed when we hear medieval monks did this kind of labour in places like Lavaux and Duoro in Portugal because what else did they have to do besides pray and work the vines, right? That someone still cares enough about splendid terroir wines to build terraces such as these, today, and work them without machines, gives pause.
Geological basics of La Combe: the stretch of mountain above Fully is part of the Aiguilles Rouges massif next to the Mt Blanc massif, whose rock bed is mainly crystalline gneiss and schist. Shortly before Saillon limestone and shale suddenly dominate.
La Combe’s centre features mixed pebbles and stones and deeper soil, a reflection of the history of rock and soil movements on this very steep slope, while glacial moraine type soil appears on the sides, which are drier and whose soil is not as deep.
The hamlet of Tassonières, whose name comes from the local patois for badger hole, sits to one side above La Combe, at 687 metres.
Cornalin is a happy product from vines at about 600 m, with Rodaline producing Païen (aka Heida) and Merlot higher up.
The Chappaz wines from here: the Pinot Blanc in her Grain Cinq wine (grown on cooler, more protected patches), her old vines Gamay and some Petite Arvine. Arvine is Fully’s emblematic wine, but it is mostly grown lower in the village, and on the lower part of La Combe d’Enfer.
A hike here in early spring gave us a good view of the vines, with their base covered in a thin layer of straw mulch that is ultimately recycled back into the soil. Marie-Thérèse, famed for her intense focus on biodynamic wine production that results in world-class wines, shows us how she has changed her pruning method here, after inviting Italian growers to work with her. Plants grow wild, everywhere, and are not cut back except directly under some of the rows of vines.
We’re shown the just-emerging wild thyme that will scent these slopes in a few weeks. Claudine points to a large chunk of dry wall that was pushed out by heavy snows and melt this winter; they have spent CHF100,000 this year repairing these ancient walls. The group goes silent as we all calculate what goes into the cost of a bottle of wine.
The walk down through vines to the Chappaz winery Grange, a one-time barn, for a tasting that would include wines from here, led us past magnificent pieces of art: some of the original vines planted by Marie-Thérèse’s uncle Maurice Troillet, who instilled in her the love of the land and making wine.
Twisted, each one with more character than the last, these vines from the early 20th century offer a silent salute to the investment in this land by the people who carry on working it.