I would never have discovered one particularly beautiful perch on an Alpine slope if it weren’t for Dr Henry Wuilloud.
The exhibit “Les 1001 vies [the 1001 lives] du Docteur Wuilloud” at the Valais Wine Museum in Sierre/Salgesch runs for another month, until 30 November. It opened in March with a remarkable conference and tasting session with wines from grapes – including Chardonnay and Syrah – introduced into Valais by this former head of the cantonal viticultural services. You can join a similar tasting session of wines he introduced, 9 November, at the museum in Sierre.
Autumn now drapes the post-vendange vineyards of Valais with darker colours. It is Halloween, and I am haunted, not by grape harvests past so much as by my memory of this year’s first summery evening, 4 June, when it was at last warm enough to sit outside among the vines and reflect on their past and present beauty. I clambered around bits of vineyard above Sion and below the ancient Montorge lake, where grapeseeds from millennia ago have taunted biologists and archeologists with their mysteries. A few friends and members of the Wuilloud family were invited for what I had understood would be a short hike and a glass of wine.
A fine surprise: I found myself tasting or sipping one very good wine after another in a jewel box of a location which, it turns out, can be rented for private tastings of Cave des Bouquetins’ wines.
The vineyards, some housing very old vines, are owned or managed by Cave des Bouquetins in Grimisuat. It is owned by part of the extended Wuilloud clan. The Wuillouds have a tendency to have large families, with enough cousins, aunts and uncles to provide an army of workers during the harvest.
In June, when the 2019 harvest was still just tiny flowers on the vines, as last rays of the day were picked up by the shimmering Rhone river, someone poured me a Fendant. We studied a 200-year-old vine. The light lingered, higher up, over the twin hilltops of Sion. We sat outside an old hut where trays of dried meats and cheeses and pickles waited for us; under us and all around us were stone walls rebuilt by Uncle Charly, who was with us. His wiry frame is a giveaway that he spends hours every day on this Herculean and solitary labour that falls to wine producers with grapes on the Valais mountainsides. Stones and rocks have to be carried, fitted. The Wuillouds, notably Great-uncle Dr Henry are great travellers. Charly, his brother Alain, also with us, and Francine, whose children run the vineyard, and who had just returned from visiting another member of the family in Lebanon. We all talked about our travels, the wines we’ve found elsewhere, and the Fendant disappeared, as Fendant is wont to do in good company. Joggers and hikers occasionally looked over from the trails through the vines.
This man Wuilloud
I didn’t grow up among the vineyards of Valais so I had no idea who Henry Wuilloud (1921-1963) was until this year, when suddenly his name and face were on posters and flyers everywhere, it seemed. I now know that it’s no exaggeration to say he was a key driver behind the push to make Switzerland’s largest wine region a contemporary, commercially viable area of vineyards that could compete on the world stage.
The main reason for his sudden appearance is the exhibition at the Valais Wine Museum, the result of a collaboration between the museum, the cantonal archives office, which received Wouilloud’s extensive collection of work, and family members. In May, after the conference led by Swiss wine specialist and international grape DNA expert José Vouillamoz, I wrote:
Wuilloud was arguably the man with the greatest impact on wine production in Valais, and by extension, in Switzerland. From 1921 to 1960 he pushed the modernization of the canton’s vineyards, Switzerland’s largest in terms of surface area and wine production, through his research, teaching, introduction of new grape varieties in the post-phylloxera world, his efforts to save some native grape varieties and much more. In short, it is hard to summarize his work and his impact. His archives, which went to the state in 2015, take up 20 linear metres of space, so extensive were his writings.How one man changed the wine profile of Valais
Wuilloud oversaw the canton’s vineyards, but he also had his own private vines in the hamlet of Diolly, part of the commune of Savièse above Sion. One of the grapes there was the red selection he called Rouge de Diolly. It is half of the secret (Pinot Noir is the other half) behind the successful 40-year-old cross Diolinoir. Rouge de Diolly was later identified by José Vouillamoz as Robin Noir, an old and abandoned grape from France’s southeastern Drôme area.
Cave des Bouquetins
Cave des Bouquetins owns 3 hectares of vines but it also manages several other small vine parcels that belong to members of this large family. My short walk turned out to be a tour of some of these as well as an educational tour of the rock wall handiwork of Charly Wuilloud. This nephew of Dr. Henry is a retired natural catastrophes expert who now pours his energy into rebuilding old dry stone walls, stone by stone, day in and day out, as well as extensions of them such as a platform next to the renovated hut in the vineyards where I found myself sipping Fendant. His brother Alain, also retired but now busy on solar energy projects – for this has always been a family of hard workers – says that Charly has the natural eye needed for fitting stones.
Their brother Marc started the winery with yet another brother Henry; Marc died in an accident in 2001 and his wife Francine, mother of 8 mostly young children, took over the winery. Today, while she still works there, it’s their son Romain who manages the vineyards’ 13 grape varieties and daughter Isaline who makes the 26 wines. Some have names like Face Nord that reflect the extent to which these are mountain wines made by a family with strong ties to the Alps; Romain works as a guide during the winter months.
Wines with a view
My favourites among the wines turned out to be the ones I felt had that special Alpine something. Romain says the accent is always on the vintage, in bringing out whatever nature has had in store for the vines that year. So expect these to differ from one year to another; I know I’ll be back to taste and compare the 2019s.
The prices at the winery range from CHF14-25 for full bottles and they have a good collection of 50 cl bottles.
For the 2017 whites: it was hard to separate out the threads of pleasure in the Fendant from those of the view spread before us, but I very much liked this classic Valais Chasselas. The Petite Arvine was very good, clean citrus and grapefruit notes, a sharp touch of salinity, refreshing. The Pinot Gris was my favourite, with clean and pure aromas of white fruits and wonderful mouthfeel, from the first taste to the lingering finish.
For the reds, I very much liked the Cornalin 2017, which surprised me because I tend to prefer them when they have spent more time in oak. The oaked Merlot, a 2016, was a discovery, for this grape is only gradually making headway in Valais. The must-try Diolinoir is sold out, a popular wine, but happily it is part of a new blend with Pinot Noir and Syrah called Diamant Noir that I thought was superb, despite being almost too young to drink. One to try again, when it is a bit older, preferably while sitting among the vines as day fades into night.