It’s always a pleasure to revisit the Valais, Switzerland’s arid, alpine, upper Rhone region and to catch up on things in the wine world down there, so I was delighted to accept an invitation to join in the 50th anniversary celebration of the Charte St-Théodule in Leuk earlier this week. It was one of those brilliantly sunny days for which the Valais is famous, and the event was held in the drop-dead gorgeous Bishop’s Palace in Leuk (pictured peeping out from behind the similarly dramatic Rathaus, above). It was a great opportunity to renew contacts, make new ones – and taste some outstanding wines.
St Théodule (St Jodern in German, St Theodore in English), in case you’re not familiar with him, was the first bishop of the Valais, who was subsequently adopted as the patron saint of local wine growers. The Charte that bears his name, explained current president Marie-Thérèse Chappaz in her introductory speech, is an association of 51 grower-winemakers scattered from the top to the bottom of the valley.
In her remarks she paid tribute to the tenacity, hard work and vision of these independent winegrowers, whose aim from the start (the association was founded in 1967) was quality, to be achieved by tiny yields and small-scale production – a bold aim in those days when quantity was the name of the game and over-production still rewarded by subsidies. She also stressed the duty of members to conserve the region’s precious winemaking heritage, and to offer a warm welcome to visitors.
The wine makers, each of whom presented two wines, were distributed around several floors of the Bishop’s Palace. There wasn’t time to even scratch the surface – usual problem at such events – but my shortlist included Vin d’Oeuvre, a young, boutique winery that has blazed a considerable trail since its foundation in 2012 by Isabella and Stéphane Kellenberger. The winery’s name, a playful portmanteau word that combines elements of main d’oeuvre (workforce) and vin (wine), is picked up on their labels by a splayed-out handprint. The effect is partly that of a friendly salutation, partly a reflection of the hands-on philosophy of this young winemaking couple. Each of their wines has its poetic handle, many of them in English. Humagne Blanc is “born to be wise” while its racy counterpart Humagne Rouge (no relation, ampelographically speaking) is “born to be wild”, the Gamaret-Syrah blend is Red Temptation, while Johannisberg (aka Sylvaner) is subtitled “anywhere, anytime” (I’ll drink to that…).
This is a pocket handkerchief-sized domaine: they started out with two hectares, which has now progressed to four, with vineyard plots – over thirty of them – distributed like small jewels at various points along the valley, from the heights of Visperterminen all the way down to Fully, the last village before the Rhone turns sharply north heading for Lake Geneva.
Next stop was at the table of Cave Caloz (with a visit to the domaine next day), where Sandrine Caloz was presenting their wines. The winery, I learned, was founded in the 1960s by Sandrine’s grandfather, a real visionary who had the foresight to plant Pinot Noir high above the village at 800 metres altitude, and who unwittingly laid the foundations for the winery’s present organic status (they completed conversion in 2017). Sandrine took over from her parents, Anne-Carole and Conrad, at the six-hectare family domaine in 2013. The white wine she brought for the event was Païen (also known as Heida in the Valais), the Savagnin Blanc grape from the French Jura, which found its home in the region some centuries ago and does particularly well here – a rich mouthful of citrus deliciousness, heaven in a glass.
It was also my pleasure to catch up with Raphael Maye, the youngest member of the Simon Maye et Fils family team. They farm twelve hectares in and around the village of Saint-Pierre-de-Clages and Chamoson (pictured below), where they makes wine from at least twenty different grape varieties – choice is not something you’ll ever run never short at wineries in the Valais. Raphael was offering a taste of Chasselas from the Trémazières plot in Saint-Pierre-de-Clages. Chasselas is mostly known in the Valais as Fendant, but chez Maye they prefer not to use the local name, considering it to be devalued, evoking a nondescript, quaffing, fondue-wine rather than their own respectfully-made, terroir-based version. They also brought their wonderfully elegant, hauntingly perfumed Pinot Noir, described by Axel Maye (one of the founder-members of the Charte St-Théodule) as “un vin de tous les moments”, a wine for all seasons/times. (If only, I thought wistfully: their wines sell out dismayingly fast…)
Another stop was with André Fontannaz of Cave La Madeleine, which he founded in Vétroz in 1991. The winery is named after Sainte Marie-Madeleine, patron saint of the village. The image of the saint, her head gracefully inclined, comes from a stained-glass window crafted by artist Isabelle Fontannaz, reproduced in delicate tracery on some of the estate’s wine bottles.
I loved revisiting Andre’s Amigne, one of the rare indigenous white vine varieties of the Valais, which has become the signature grape of the village of Vétroz. It’s a multi-purpose grape, which may be made either dry, sweet or somewhere-in-between. In order to distinguish the level of sweetness for what has become the village’s speciality grape, a sweetness scale was created in 2005, indicated by a bee sticker. One bee (up to 8g of residual sugar) means a dry wine, two bees (between 9g and 25g residual sugar) indicates off-dry, while a three-bee wine (above 25g residual sugar) will be sweet. His honeyed, fully dry Amigne 1 abeille also has a golden amphora on the chic black label, which hints at the amphora-shaped vessels – actually concrete eggs – in which the wine ferments.
It was a memorable couple of days, which confirmed the reputation of the Valais for the extraordinary beauty of the vineyard landscape and the quality of the wines. You may not – yet – be passionate about Swiss wine, but if you’re at least curious and want to learn more about it, there’s no better place to start. All the wineries mentioned can be visited, by appointment. A warm welcome is assured.