Wine writer Yves Beck, who posts frequently on Facebook, set me straight there on what seems to be an urban myth about the Swiss countryside. I’ve been told by many people that Valais is the only canton that authorizes watering for vines. I mentioned it recently because Salgesch (called Salquenen in French), near Sierre, sits in one of the dryest, sunniest patches of Switzerland, part of the Pfyn (Finges) Mediterranean-type forest. Everyone was watering, it seemed, during a particularly bad patch without rain in early July. That was followed by a week of heavy rains, to the relief of growers.
But Yves tells me that wine producers in canton Bern also water their vines, and they started doing so 20 years ago. I now see I need to rephrase to say that Valais is the only canton that allows regular watering.
My research shows that in Valais “in case of water shortages, the priority is given to watering vines, then other crops. Gardens are next and finally, pastures and lawns.”
Vaud bans watering with one regular exception: Vully, on the northern edge of the canton. Elsewhere, in dry years or during droughts the canton may authorize it, but not after the “véraison”, the period in mid- to late-July when grapes begin their ripening phase and start to change colour.
While researching the question, I was pulled into reading a summary of the vineyards of Switzerland by Maurice Peyre, published in 1922. He mentions the dryness of Valais and how growers use the glacier-fed bisses (man-made irrigation channels) to water their vines. If you have time to dip into it, the overview of Swiss wines nearly 100 years ago is wonderful: Zurich’s vineyards are being pulled up at a rapid rate; Geneva’s have dropped to only 25% of what they were – a canton where the whites are “mediocre” but the reds magnificent; Lausanne’s vines are losing ground to construction but that’s no great loss and all the wine is drunk in the city; Morges has very high alcohol wines, etc.
Lavaux’s wines are praised while he notes that until the winter of 1709 (presumably not a gentle one), olive trees were planted here. The Fête des Vignerons is praised as a semi-pagan, semi-Christian festival, which must have sounded titilating in 1922.
Central Valais, the stretch from Martigny to Sierre, receives the highest of accolades at the time, with vineyards as blessed as those in France thanks to hot summers, protection from the wind and plenty of sunshine. But the wine is almost entirely white, notes Peyre. A curious mistake, it seems to me, is that he describes Dôle as a treasured wine made from a plant imported from the Jura. Dôle today, and I think historically – but I’ll check further – is a blend of Pinot Noir and other reds. There is a town in France, Dole without the accent, that is supposed to have vague old ties to the name of the wine, but I am not aware that it involves a grape variety used for the wine.