If your thrills when holidaying in Switzerland’s southernmost region have so far been limited to black runs down to Verbier or Zermatt, and the only Valaisan wine to have passed your lips is a jug of après-ski Fendant (shame on you), it’s time to get ready for a different kind of white-knuckle ride.
The last 20 years have seen huge changes in this prime wine-growing canton and a steady ramping up of quality. Chandra Kurt, Zurich-based wine writer and Valais specialist, likens a wine trip here to a treasure hunt: everywhere you go you’ll unearth growers who are polishing up little-known gems like Petite Arvine, Cornalin, Humagne and Heida and/or giving new lustre to old-established varieties (Chasselas/Fendant) or classic blends like Dôle, a (frequently undistinguished) Pinot Noir-Gamay assemblage.
When skiing loses its lustre and you feel like broadening your vinous horizons, head down into the valley and visit any of these top wineries (a longer version of this article was published in this month’s Decanter):
Gérald Besse (www.besse.ch) works eighteen hectares of vines in and around Martigny from fourteen different grape varieties. Park in town and walk the vineyard trail designed by daughter (and winemaker) Sarah, which contours the Besse vineyards along steeply stacked terraces buttressed by an impressive array of dry stone walls. By the time you reach the cellar door, you’ll have some idea of the particular challenges of winemaking around here and be ready to taste a lip-smacking Petite Arvine or a lively Gamay.
Marie-Thérèse Chappaz‘s biodynamic winery (www.chappaz.ch) is in Fully, yields are restricted both by the fearsomely steep geography and by choice, and the wines, which are measured out by the drop to faithful followers, sell out at a dismaying pace – your best chance of finding them is at top hotels and restaurants in the region.
Simon Maye & Fils (www.simonmaye.ch) in Saint-Pierre-de-Clages have quietly established themselves over decades as one of the region’s premier growers with around twenty different wines, ranging from terroir-driven Chasselas to an outstanding, highly prized Syrah Vieilles Vignes.
Almost nextdoor in Chamoson is Didier Joris (www.didierjoris.ch). Visits to his tiny domaine are by appointment only. Regard any visit as a fabulously enriching tasting exercise – with trenchantly expressed views on the world of wine thrown in – revel in his remarkable Syrahs and swallow your disappointment if others (notably Switzerland’s top restaurants) have beaten you to the draw.
Cave La Romaine (www.cavelaromaine.ch) in Flanthey, on the way up to Crans-Montana, have just opened a spectacular wine cellar for visitors – looks like a cross between a church, an amphitheatre, a terraced vineyard (the barriques arranged on various levels) and a stage. Upstairs in the state-of-the-art tasting room, you’ll have your work cut out to give proper attention to the wines (Cornalin and Humagne Rouge are the stars) on account of the spectacularly distracting views up the valley.
Robert Taramarcaz in Sierre, at the heart of the Valais, is one of the new generation of young wine makers who recently returned to the family fold at Domaine des Muses (www.domainedesmuses.ch) after spells in Burgundy and New Zealand. His range of thrillingly original wines (whites from the north-facing left bank of the Rhone for maximum freshness, reds from the right bank for maximum ripeness) are prized alike by Swiss wine cognoscenti and by David Schildknecht for the Wine Advocate.
And right up at the top end of the valley in Visp is Chanton Weine (www.chanton.ch), who practice extreme wine growing at its most challenging best. Their reputation rests on their tireless championing of rarities like Gwass – described by José Vouillamoz, joint author of Wine Grapes, as the Casanova of the vine world, since with the help of Pinot (and other varieties), it has spawned almost all the worthwhile wine grapes extant today – as well as the exotically named Lafnetscha, Himbertscha and Rèze. Take a parting sip of their Heida, a prized golden drop grown 800 metres up on the vertiginous slopes of Visperterminen. Then get your boots back on again and ski down like a champion.
WHERE TO STAY
Maya Guesthouse, Nax
Unique, warmly welcoming, 8-bedroom eco-hotel on a sunny plateau above Sion owned and run by Louis and Lisa, built from strawbales, wood, glass and stone. Dine with fellow guests seated on chairs from recycled wine barrel staves at the huge communal oak refectory table, as the sun sinks behind the Alps across the valley.
Bella Tola, St Luc
Delicious hotel in the tiny village of St Luc high up in the Val d’Anniviers, built in the 1860s for British travellers and done up with taste and sensitivity by the intrepid Anne-Françoise and Claude Fuchs. A heavenly spot to hide away for a few days, with skiing when you feel like it and sorties down to the valley for wine breaks.
La Grande Maison, Savièse/Chandolin
Imposing sunflower-yellow village house built 1812, transformed five years ago into a stylish, quirky B & B. Mediterranean-French-Swiss food is served in the atmospheric barrel-vaulted dining room in winter and on the terrace(s) in summer.
Castel de Daval, Sierre
Turreted, red-shuttered B & B in the vineyards above Sierre owned by winegrowers Monique and Bertrand Caloz-Evequoz. A glass of house wine is offered on arrival and you can taste the domaine’s full range next door.
WHERE TO EAT
Les Alpes, Orsières
Wow factor guaranteed at this outstanding table close to Verbier. Good-looking, big-flavoured food from chef Samuel Destaing, with spotlight on a different Valais producer every month, whose wines are offered by the glass.
Château de Villa, Sierre
Cosy wood-panelled restaurant inside the 16th-century château serving typical Valaisan specialities (terrific raclette tasting menu and fondue) and a good range of local wines. The oenotheque next door is a must, for its fabulous selection of all the top Valaisan wines to buy, and petits plats to sample on the spot. www.chateaudevilla.ch/restaurant.html
Restaurant Didier de Courten, Atelier Gourmand and L’Ampelos Wine Bar, Sierre
Star chef Didier de Courten combines a gourmet restaurant, brasserie and wine bar under one roof at the Hotel Terminus, close to the station. Classy food at every level and excellent wine selection, big on the Valais.