Vinous Visits (and awards) in the Valais

20150818_140314-001My visits to the Valais, Switzerland’s southernmost, sunbaked canton, are a bit like the Number Nine Bus. For ages there are none on the horizon; then all of a sudden along come two or three in a row. So it has been of late. First I was invited to serve on the panel at a Grand Prix du Vin Suisse event organised in Sierre by Vinea, the Swiss wine promotion body. A large group of tasters had done the hard work for us in advance, selecting just 72 wines from over 3,000 submitted by 550 different producers from all over the country; our task was to decide on the final rankings (numbering them from 1 to 6) of these top wines, presented in 12 flights (Chasselas, Pinot Noir, Syrah, red blends, white blends etc. etc.) – fun, instructive and a great opportunity for me to see what’s fermenting on the Swiss wine front today.

The cloister at the Abbaye Saint Maurice
The cloister at the Abbaye Saint Maurice

No sooner back home and I was back down there again, this time in Martigny and St Maurice, together with a bunch of travel and food writers and broadcasters from Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK, award-winners in the annual lineup of Valais Media Prizes. There was a terrific range of print and broadcast entries, one about an attempt to climb the Matterhorn in the footsteps of Edward Whymper, another an in-depth piece on the stunning St Maurice Abbey, which this year celebrates 1500 years since its foundation. Inevitably there were loads of skiing entries (Valais is home to Verbier, Zermatt, Saas Fee et al), while I kept the gastronomic flame burning with my wine travel piece published in Decanter 2014. Once again, lots of fun and as ever a delight to be visiting the Valais, one of my fave Swiss cantons.

André Fontannaz, vigneron-encaveur in Vetroz, inspecting his Pinot Noir grapes
André Fontannaz, vigneron-encaveur in Vétroz, inspecting his Pinot Noir grapes

Before leaving, I snuck in a quick visit to the Cave La Madeleine just up the valley from Martigny in Vétroz. Owned by André Fontannaz, it’s ranked one of Switzerland’s top 100 wineries by Gault-Millau. Fontannaz is no stranger to awards and prizes (most recently a gold medal for his Syrah in the Syrah du Monde 2013, the Grande Medaille d’Or for his Malvoisie aka Pinot Gris in the Mondial du Pinot 2013 and a coveted Etoile du Valais for his Petite Arvine). Expectations ran high.

Chamoson-001You have to see the vineyards in the Valais to believe them – and to believe that anyone could have ever thought to plant vines here, far less work them. Growing at the foot of steep slopes that rear up from the valley floor smack into the rockface, they present a precarious patchwork of vines punctuated by dry-stone walls and the occasional hardy shrub that somehow finds a crack between the rocks to put down root. On the basis that everything starts here, we asked if our visit might begin among the vines.

Amigne grapes ripening in Cave la Madeleine vineyards
Loose bunches of small berries on Amigne vines make them ideal for late-ripening, sweet wines

Monsieur Fontannaz set off at a cracking pace with us, panting somewhat, in hot pursuit. Vétroz is famous for Amigne, one of the Valais’ most ancient, indigenous varieties (Petite Arvine, Cornalin and Humagne Rouge are others). It’s important enough that of Fontannaz’s 17 hectares of vineyards, 2 are planted with this amenable variety, which gives superb, honeyed, mainly sweet white wines.

A lone bee on the neck label of this Amigne indicates an off-dry wine

Just how sweet is indicated on the label by the symbol of a jolly little bee: 1 for off-dry, 2 for medium-sweet or 3 for very sweet.

We clambered back down to the cave, casting admiring glances at the domaine’s newly acquired concrete eggs and an array of French oak barrels on the way, before embarking on our tasting.

To see Cave La Madeleine’s full range of wines, go to their website. And if you get the slightest opportunity to buy up some of their Petite Arvine (succulent hints of sweet-sour rhubarb tart with a characteristic salty finish) or their Syrah, grown in two blocks in Vétroz and in neighbouring Chamoson (peppery, explosively delicious, oak beautifully integrated), just do it.

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