In mid-December on a beautiful afternoon as the sun was sinking I took a series of photos of snowy vineyards above Sierre, in the Valais. Several of the vines were still covered with netting and the grapes sat cool but still relatively plump on the vines, waiting for the late harvest.
Photos: Valais, Switzerland, 15 December 2007
The holidays came and went, the harvest happened when I wasn’t looking. Three weeks later the grapes are gone and the netting whips around in the sun-dried but cold winds that blow along the Rhone Valley in Switzerland. This weekend we hiked through the vineyards, along part of the Valaisan Vineyards Walk above Salgesch/Salquenen, on the language divide in the Valais, east of Sierre.
Here and there a lonely grape remained on vines that still had netting dangling from the recent late harvest. I plucked a few. Oh how sweet they were! A single grape is almost too cloying at this point to be enjoyable, but they serve as a reminder of nature’s Christmas gift to winemakers, with the right skills, who are willing to wait.
Valais produces some excellent sweet wines, many but not all, made from late-harvest grapes. The term flétrie (or rôti) is used when the grapes are left to wither on the vines, which increases the sugar content. For a good explanation in French: author unknown.
The flétrie wines are slightly higher in alcohol content and, produced in relatively small quantities, they cost more than the all-purpose Fendant wines of the region. These sweet wines are the perfect accompaniment to foie gras, walnuts or other rich nuts, and some desserts. We sampled a number of these over the holidays: a 2005 Malvoisie (Pinot Gris) flétrie from Hugues Clavien’s Caprice du Temps cellar in Miege (CHF25) was exactly right with a Christmas Eve foie gras and toast, sweet enough without being overwhelming. We also tried a 2006 Malvoisie flétrie from the Rouvinez family (CHF22) in Sierre, slightly sweeter and worth keeping, as these wines do generally keep well.
Marie-Thérèse Chappaz in Conthey has an excellent reputation for her sweet wines, which probably explains why we couldn’t put our hands on one of her bottles on short notice. Instead, we settled for her President Troillet Fendant 2006, at CHF19 (CHF17.30 at the cellar) at the Tirbouchon winebar and shop in Montana, a bit pricey for a Fendant, but it is in a class of its own. It is the rare wine whose label’s list of what your nose should discover possibly understates the wine’s startling complexity: “gunpowder, ripe pear, notes of nougat,” and more. She points out on her web site that this is not a gentle Fendant and she is right. The wine called for a raclette, always a good mountain dinner, and the detour we took from the sweet wine road was well worth our trouble. This is a Fendant with attitude: sharp and racy and full of fun. Don’t be put off by the first sip, which surprises.
The Chateau de Villa in Sierre also has a busy winebar/shop with a wide selection of wines at cellar prices. They feature groups of wines by the week and during the holidays one on offer was from the Cave Les Fils Maye in Riddes, a Johannisberg flétrie that has less sugar than some but the nose offers a wonderful combination of exotic fruits, mango and litchi.
My favourite, however, remains the expensive (CHF31 for 37.5ml bottle) and extremely elegant 2004 Polymnie from Robert Taramarcaz’s Domaine des Muses in Sierre.
The grapes grow on several slopes, mostly around Granges. He excels at blended sweet wines and this one, with strong honey tones, forces you to sip it slowly in appreciation.
Taramarcaz belongs to the Grain Noble ConfidenCiel group of 30+ producers in the Valais whose charter has, since the group was founded in 1996, encouraged the creation of some wonderful sweet wines from Valaisan grapes. Grapes can be left to wither on the vine successfully only if there is a good period of damp followed by a good period of sunshine, both occurring at just the right moment. Every year is different, subject to weather. The winemaker is nature’s knowing puppet, to some extent, but the producers have learned that the best areas for the perfect combination are hilly river valleys. The Rhone in the Valais is one such.
Producers of ConfidenCiel wines can blend, but only with these grapes, part of the Valais treasure-chest: Amigne, Arvine, Ermitage, Johannisberg, Malvoisie, Païen.