Histoire d’Enfer is a small domaine situated high above Sierre in the heart of the Valais and reached on tiny roads that trace the contours through the vineyards. The winery is the brainchild of a band of four enthusiasts: a medical doctor, a couple of financiers and an agronomist. Its creation in 2008 was – if not exactly the story from hell – certainly testing. Or so it is described by Dr Patrick Regamey, the flying doctor of the partnership, who (when not expounding with impressive energy on the wonders of their wines) continues to practise medicine in Geneva and Crans-Montana.
To understand why its genesis was so testing, you need to know that most wineries in the Valais are owned and run by locals, with the vineyards passed on from generation to generation, sometimes over several centuries. Regamey comes originally from Canton Vaud, the financiers shuttle between Zurich, Geneva and London, and the agronomist is French. So the arrival of the four partners from outside the region in search of prime sites and looking to set up an operation from scratch met with a rocky reception. Regamey, not one to mince his words, describes some of the obstacles they encountered in colourful language that’s not fit for publication, though the winery’s name (“a story of hell”) goes some way towards explaining how it was for them. Another explanation for the name, he explains, is that “all four of us were in love with great wines, and sooner or later it became a question of making some for ourselves” (“une histoire d’en faire pour nous”) – a neat play on the words d’enfer and d’en faire (same pronunciation, different meaning).
The letter D is also writ large on the dramatic black and silver labels. The fourth letter in the Greek alphabet (delta), it references the founding four, who started out with four hectares. And if that wasn’t enough on the symbolism front, the number four also indicates the earth – solidity and stability for sure, not to mention the role of the distinctive local terroir and the character it confers on the wines.
All wines except the late-harvested Grains Nobles are mono-varietal, which they consider allows the best expression of each grape. Two-thirds are red and the rest white, the majority sold directly from the winery and the rest to trade. (You’ll find them in top restaurants in Switzerland – most recently I spotted some on the excellent list at 7132 Silver in Vals).
The estate is farmed organically – “In 8 to 10 years everyone will be working organically”, claims Le Docteur (as he is often referred to, whether by his patients or the wine fraternity), “we can’t continue to poison our soils [and ourselves] as we have been doing”. Vines are planted on a series of steep, south-facing slopes between Corin (above Sierre) and Salquenen, where craggy hunks of limestone headbutt their way up through the meagre topsoil at regular intervals. All reds and some whites are oaked, in barrels sourced from Taransaud, one of Burgundy’s leading coopers.
Soon after my arrival, the tasting table opened up to a multi-generational family of visiting Belgians, who had discovered Histoire d’Enfer wines up in Crans Montana, closely followed by a wine merchant from Strasbourg. Together we were regaled with a parade of reds, led by a pale ruby, spicy Humagne Rouge, a rustic Diolinoir (“le Cornalin du pauvre“) and a complex and delicious Cornalin.
If you’re a Pinot Noir fan and eternally curious about how it performs in different climates and different hands, you can have a lot of fun (and plenty of instruction) working your way up through their five different cuvées of the grape. Start with the three grown in their vineyards around Corin (labelled L’Enfer du Désir, du Plaisir and de la Passion – from desire to pleasure to passion) and then shift up to the two wines grown around Salquenen. These are intense, full-bodied, supremely elegant wines whose names (L’Enfer du Calcaire, ‘hellish limestone’, and Calcaire Absolu, ‘total limestone’), leave little doubt about the terroir around here and the importance the domaine attributes to it.
Among the whites, I was seduced by their Humagne Blanche, one of my favourite Valais specialities, pale and delicate, reminiscent of white spring blossoms, along with a succulent, rich Paien (known as Heida further up the valley) and a complex, lightly oaked, long-lasting Petite Arvine which delivered a salty lick at the finish. The climax was a super-ripe Grains Nobles made from Pinot Gris, Petite Arvine and Sylvaner, where sweetness and acidity were held in exquisite tension.