Update 21:00 SION, SWITZERLAND – It doesn’t get much more perfect for wine-tasting weather, as Switzerland’s largest wine-producing canton opens its winery doors for three days, to present the newly bottled 2010 vintage. It was a very good year, the wines are a delight, the sun is shining and temperatures are expected to be 23-25C for the duration of the Valais Open days.
Here are the basics of how it works, and some suggestions for where to go – my highly personal selection that offers a good mix.
The real specialty of canton Valais is that it offers such a varied collection of wines, many of them found nowhere else in the world: a dozen easily found white grape varieties and almost as many reds, plus some excellent rosés and blends. Valais is increasingly being touted as one of the world’s top producers of late-harvest sweet wines, which age beautifully and are the after-dinner par excellence wine to share with friends.
Start with the cantonal wine web site
The Vins du Valais web site offers a wealth of information in English on the canton’s wines, including a database that you can search by producer, grape type and food/wine pairings. Its pages on the 2011 Open days are not in English, but its search tool for the 2-4 June event is very useful because you can search by location. Everyone who can grows grapes for wine in Valais, mostly on a family-consumption scale, but this still leaves some 600 growers-producers and another 190 cellars that trade wine: too much to experience in one or even three days! Note that most, but not all, wineries are taking part in the three-day event.
Select the area you want to visit: consider public transport
Select the village(s) you want to visit, based on how you’re planning to get around. The advantage of having a car is that you can buy and pack bottles in the car as you go. The disadvantage is that even if you spit out the wine most of the time, strongly recommended, you have to be careful about the amount you consume: Switzerland’s legal limit is 0.5, the equivalent of one glass of wine (please note that it was recently incorrectly reported on a radio programme to be 0.8).
Most wineries will ship to you, with next-day service via the post office. This means that if you’re using one of the shuttle options you can carry home that one bottle you think you must have for dinner and leave the rest to show up later in the post. Wineries’ policies vary, but the shipping cost is not high and if you buy more than 6 or 12 the postage is often free or discounted.
Sion and Sierre offer free shuttle buses, for the first time, to groups of wineries. It’s a great way to sample several without worrying about alcohol limits and driving, but also a way to avoid the problem of parking. Several villages have set up their own shuttle buses with drop-offs and pick-ups at a number of participating wineries. Others are organized as tours; some of these charge a fee, worth it in terms of simplifying things.
Bed-and-breakfast and farm stays are a good option in Valais, and the cantonal wine site has an online reservation option for these.
Select the wineries: consider concentrating on Valais specialty wines
A good general rule is to start with whites and move on to reds. So how do you do this when you’re visiting several wineries? My approach is to select, for example, three wineries whose white wines I particularly want to try, then six whose reds interest me. I allow 30-45 minutes per winery, which gives me a chance to taste the wines, ask other visitors what they like and why, talk to the owners – and relax a bit. This means that I can realistically fit in three in a morning, take time out for lunch and do another three in the afternoon. Or two, lunch and four post-lunch.
Village restaurants are one option for lunch, with several offering special Open days menus, and several of the wineries offer meals. Keep in mind that many of the wineries also offer excellent snacks, so some people simply snack their way through the day!
To buy or not to buy, and how many wines in a day?
I sample anywhere from three to six wines at a winery, using the bucket provided to spit out. If you don’t do that, you won’t be able to tell one wine from another after the first winery! If your really are there just to visit one or two neighbouring wineries, sit back and drink, santé! Just remember that these are mostly small family wineries, with very few exceptions, and this is the one day of the year when they invest in a major marketing effort: they will welcome you, but do the decent thing and buy at least three bottles to help cover their costs. Glasses will be poured small: you’re there to sample, not consume, remember.
If you’re really exploring and learning about the local wines, no one will expect you to buy, so relax, learn what you can, ask questions and ask for a brochure/order list. You can note on these what you like and what you don’t and decide at the end of the day where you want to spend your money.
My personal list
These are not necessarily where I’ll be visiting this weekend, but I can recommend these villages and these wineries, as a good way to sample a cross-section of the best regional specialties. I’ve put an asterisk* in front of these where I know they speak English.
Fully – closest to Geneva and Lausanne, white and especially bio (organic) and biodynamic wines, is the long string of a village of Fully, with scores of wineries. This is home to Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, arguably one of the country’s best wine producers, albeit a tiny winery; she no longer holds open house days because she can’t keep up with demand. The dramatic mountainside covered in vines lends itself beautifully to fine wines.
Caves Beudon, les vignes dans les ciel, a wonderful source of information about biodynamic growing, a step beyond organic methods, in a magical setting that you can reach only on foot, a steep climb. You can save that for another day, however, as owners Jacques and Marion Granges-Faiss have happily set up a stand and tables at the foot of their mountain home, for three days.
Jacques is a great raconteur and source of information about the geology, flora and fauna of the area. Quality-wise, in the past their wines have been somewhat irregular, so I’m keen to see what the 2010 wines are like. His wines are always interesting and be sure to ask why he created a second, golden Fendant called “Antique”. His best-seller is his very dry Petite Arvine. They also grow apples, pears and more down on the plain.
Benoit Dorsaz, note that despite the road closed signs, you can reach him by car: he makes beautiful wines, possibly because his vineyards are beautifully situated but also lovingly cared for but this grower who is passionate about nature and working hand in hand with it. Whites: his dry (it’s vinified in Valais from very dry to dessert sweet) Petite Arvine is reliably excellent and his Viognier and Petite Arvine sweet wines are lovely. His reds are also recommended.
St-Pierre-de-Clages and Chamoson, central Valais – broad and nearly flat, where the Rhone valley opens out and orchards are plentiful on the left bank, with vineyards covering the right bank. The first village is best known for its summer used-books sale, but it has several excellent wineries. Two are separated, a distinction more apparent to locals than to visitors, by a handful of wineries. Among the good ones here:
Cave du Vidomne, Catherine and Meinrad Gaillard (some English), one of the most startling little wineries in the region, with small volume and extraordinary red wines that are beautifully aged. These are not cheap wines by Swiss standards, but they are hand-crafted and barrel-aged for five years before being released, and the wait and price are worth it. They are generally only open by appointment, since this husband and wife team are almost always out in the vineyards, so this is the rare opportunity to drop in.
*René Favre et Fils, brothers Mike and Jean-Charles offer excellent wines, great knowledge about the region’s wines and vineyards, and Mike in particular, who has held several positions in the world of Valais wines, is a colourful character who enjoys what he does immensely. Some of the family vines are the oldest in Valais, tucked up on the hillside just below the abrupt mountain above the village, and they are treated as great treasures. Their Johannisberg and Humagne blanc are good examples of these wines, and for the sheer pleasure of the names and fun labels, if not the wine (which is good), try the blends: the white Blue Bike and Red Pickup. Blue Bike is full-bodied compared to the varietal (single grape) whites and Red Pickup, with Merlot, Syrah and Diolinoir is hearty and designed to go with a meal.
*Maurice Gay, at the other end of the spectrum size-wise, will leave you wondering where to begin with its huge selection of wines. This is a winery that regularly wins awards and that consistently produces very good quality wines, in a large range. For whites, try the Johannisberg for which this area is famous, dry and crisp, the Heida/Paien, a Valais classic, and the wonderfully perfumed dry Muscat. The latter is a special treat for lovers of dry wines and anyone who wants to better understand how a wine can be both dry and very fruity. But given the large selection here, it’s a great place to just follow your temptations and try a new wine. Hint: The muscat is a great wine with Asian foods that are not too spicey. The winery is out in the vineyards below the town, easy to spot from the autoroute.
Sierre/Salgesch (aka Salquenen) – This is the language divide between French- and German-speaking Valais. A great mix of small and large cellars, includes Provins, the country’s largest and a cooperative winery that sets a great example for others, is open for the weekend on the main street of Sierre, at the entrance to the town, coming from the east side autoroute exit. Three of my favourite Swiss wineries are here:
Maurice Zufferey, discreetly one of the best winemakers around, with an understated elegance to his wines and the man himself: he has served as mentor for more than one good, young Swiss winemaker, and with reason. This is a small winery on the hillside above Sierre, near the easily visible Chateau Mercier, in the suburb/hamlet of Muraz. Start with his Fendant to get a sense of what a good Valais Chasselas is like and how it differs from the more mineral ones from Vaud, but be sure not to miss his Zirouc, if you’re lucky enough to find some left to try! It’s a fine sweet wine, so before you try it, sample his beautiful Pinot Noirs and two Valais specialties, Humagne Rouge and Cornalin. The first is a rustic wine, often saved for the game season, but it goes well with barbecued meats. Cornalin is a difficult grape and difficult wine, and here it is in the hands of a pro. His wife manages the Sierre/Salgesch vine and wine museums, which are well worth a visit.
*Domaine des Muses, Robert Taramarcaz, whose winery is in the industrial estate of Sierre, so he is not surprisingly playing host for the Open days at his other winery “home”, a charming farm at the foot of his vines in nearby Grange (see web page for map), with raclette on offer. The wines themselves are worth the trip, however. This extraordinarily hard-working young producer is a frequent winner of top wine prizes (eight gold medals in 2010) and while he is a specialist in late-harvest sweet wines, his Fendants are superb and his new Merlot is a great surprise: good nose, but smooth and very long in mouth. Be sure to try his “Seduction” line. For details about the wines, visit his web site.
*Rouvinez wines, sits in a spectacular hilltop spot next to a monastery, above the town’s aqua-blue Gironde Lake. You’re in a world-class winery here, in terms of size (they export) as well as quality, and the cellar itself, with its recently renovated area for guests, reflects this. A must-try is my favourite Swiss wine, their almost grapefruity Petite Arvine, Chateau Lichten, and their Marsanne is a lovely white wine that will suit others who are not great fans of dry and acidic wines. Their red blends are particularly worth trying. This is a great place to learn more about what makes Valais wines so special, as the educational part of the display is very good, with explanations about the climate, geography and soils.
Be sure to remember to look up while in Valais: the peaks, the mountains and the skirts that are traces of glaciers all add up to a very special place for making wine, as changeable as the magnificent clouds and light.
I’ll be visiting as many of the wineries as family permits, and taking photos, so expect to see some of the wineries featured here in coming days. This is part of my warm-up to judging at the Grand Prix des Vins Suisse, in which I’ll be taking part again this year, later in June.