The Celliers de Sion will make skiers as well as flatlanders happy this winter, with a new wine tourism centre that has just opened, 1 December. Winter visitors to the area can now opt for an easy introduction to two of the region’s largest wineries, learning something in the process about central Valais wines. The new centre fills a gap on Sundays and other times when many wineries are closed, with its generous opening hours: 7/7 from 10:00-20:00 – especially good for skiers from outside Valais, whose times for visiting wineries are limited.
By May hikers and walkers will be able choose among five good paths for combined visits to the centre with trails that boast spectacular scenery, either solo or guided educational tours for a fee. Guided outdoor excursions will start in March, weather permitting. One of the trails is along the magnificent groomed 5km Bissse Clavau walk (old irrigation channel) above the winery; the bisses walks are one of the treasures of Valais tourism.
Journalists and guests were given a sneak preview last week of the cellar on the outskirts of Sion.
Two questions pulled me to the official grand opening: what exactly is a wine tourism centre, with this one being called the first Oenoparc helvétique, and what does the building look like from the inside, or even the other side – this unusual windowless construction that I watched from the Sierre-Sion highway while it took form.
It’s all about the wall!
At is most basic level wine tourism is simply the notion of combining wine education with touring areas where wine is produced.
From the outside the building is low, windowless and industrial-looking, with a multi-hued facade that you realize is brushed stainless steel only when you’re close enough to touch the steel tiles.
One explanation for the design, which appears somewhat barren from the highway side, is that no one inside a building wants a window that looks out onto train tracks and a highway. The more likely explanation is that the scrap of land on which the wine tourism centre sits is in an area zoned for agriculture. A building here needs to look, feel and behave functionally as part of farming operations. For those of us who drink wine, rather than make it, it’s easy to forget that the word terroir is linked to the notion of farmed land.
Inside, the story and the view are different, and what a success! Who wants to look at train tracks and highways, in the end. An enormous glass wall looks out onto the looming, remarkable steep Clavau vineyards that are the pride of Sion. They are very impressive, and if you have the chance to see anyone pruning the vines or harvesting grapes on these steep slopes, you’ll never sip wine again without remembering the workers. For anyone from the area, this wall recalls another one, a building-long enormous and beautiful photograph of these vineyards that hung on an outside wall next to a major Sion roundabout for years.
Two independent wineries, close partnership
The building houses the combined barrel room for maturing wines from Varone and Bonvin, two independent family wineries whose partnership is called Celliers de Sion. Bonvin is the larger of the two, producing about 250,000 bottles a year; Varone 150,000. Bonvin is one of the oldest wineries in the area, created in 1848 before the railroad had even reached Sion. The winery has about 23 hectares; Bonvin, which opened in 1900, has 11.5 hectares but it buys wines from other growers.
Together they supply to supermarkets a “much larger quantity” than either produce, I was told by director David Héritier (Coop’s Bibacchus line is made by the Celliers, for example). The Celliers de Sion also provides a joint sales force for the two separate and competing businesses.
What do you do at a wine tourism centre?
The wine tourism centre has a spacious presentation centre and wine shop on the ground floor, which is 1200m2, with emphasis on the first, says scenographer Michel Etter, who has helped develop a number of museums. This is a centre for learning about the vineyards that are the source of these wines and about the wines in their geographic context.
The accent really is on visitors rather than wine sales. And “visitors should have freedom to move, to learn.” To that end, the building has minimal text, relying mainly on images to tell its story.There is an interactive area for building your knowledge about how wine and the senses work. Wine tasting classes and guided tours are part of a large offering, for a fee, but drop-ins can also watch the free 10-minute film, explore and hike, and of course taste wines even without a guide (CHF9 for 3 wines from an automat).
Etter says the building’s job is to recount a story, thus the glass wall that opens onto the mountains with “heroic viticulture” as a key theme. In fact, at the Oenoparc people refer to the inside and the outside of the centre, with the outside the trails, where you learn firsthand what heroic viticulture means. The trails vary in difficulty, but there is something for everyone, including grandparents.
The stainless steel wall turns out to be quite interesting; the material was anything but a random choice. Architect Pascal Varone says they wanted to use materials that are intrinsic to winemaking; stainless steel tanks play a major role in making most wines today. And yet it needed to connect to the environment. Once inside, you understand better how this material is also wedded to the Alpine mountainscape, for the vineyards and building share textures, as well as tones and hues that dance together with shifting light.
Inside, the architectural marriage of mountain, vineyards and wine continues, subtly and in every detail. Look at the floor: it is made of tiny blocks of larch wood – the extremely hardy mélèze of the high alps. Great for large crowds over time and for not showing the passage of large numbers of people.
Wine tourism, all the rage
Switzerland’s approach to wine tourism until now has included mainly private wine tours, wine fairs, of which there are a growing number, open houses and wine trains like the BAM train offer in Morges. The Rouvinez winery in Sierre is a good example of what a larger domain can do: their elegant, state-of-the-art family winery is well worth a visit to understand how wines are made today with integrated production and, increasingly, organic approaches. The family owns 24 wineries, including Bonvin, one of the Celliers de Sion partners; their enthusiasm for a wine centre isn’t surprising, given their environmental interest.
France has been developing wine tourism for years and although Switzerland has been slower, it is now a buzz term in Swiss wine circles. The switch to organic and biodynamic winemaking is a strong movement and wineries are keen to educate consumers to the environmental aspects of their work (note the photo of the mini-house: a safe house for helpful insects). People are drinking less wine than they were 25 years ago, but they are drinking better wines, according to industry wisdom, and consumers want to know more about wine, to understand it.
Vaud recently developed a system to certify people involved in the wine tourism business, to ensure quality (a good idea, as some dubious operators were starting to appear). It has been working with other cantons, notably Valais and Geneva, to develop wine tourism courses and educational certificates.
Lavaux wineries joined forces to create the Rivaz Vinorama and La Côte in Vaud has a similar project in the planning.
Setting an example
The Celliers de Sion is a private project with just two wineries, but they expect to have 48,000 visitors a year by 2018. The Swiss market is the initial main target, with a potential for more than 3 million visitors, but the centre has been designed and organized with international visitors and groups in mind as well – with English, for example. The material provided to date, in particular a very good small “passport” booklet, is well done and informative.
Canton Valais is keen to support the venture, says Vins du Valais director Gérard-Philippe Mabillard noting that the canton has developed skiing and cycling for tourists, and wine tourism is the next step, reinforcing the links between mountains and valleys.
Celliers de Sion, Route d’Italie 9, 1950 Sion / Tel. 41 2703 5681