Geoffrey Dean discovers the hidden wonders of Swiss wine
One of the impediments to drinking Swiss wine is that you struggle to find it outside Switzerland, even in London. Swiss people not only love consuming their national wines, but are also happy to pay what are often high prices for them, and who, therefore, can blame Swiss winemakers for sticking to their domestic market? A paltry 5% or so of Swiss wine is exported, leaving very little for foreign consumers to get their hands on.
The plus side of this international shortage is that to taste what are some very fine top-end wines, and excellent mid-market ones, you have to pay a visit to Switzerland, and in particular to its biggest wine-producing district, Valais, which has 5,000 hectares under vine.
This beautiful Alpine canton, through which the fledgling Rhone flows, is so stunning that it would walk into a world top 10 of picturesque wine regions, if not the top three. Throw in some delicious cuisine, superb accommodation from five-star to B&B, skiing in winter and hiking the rest of the year, and you have all the ingredients for a memorable wine touring holiday. More on that later, but first the wines.
Robert Taramarcaz is perhaps the best winemaker to start with, for his range is available outside Switzerland, including the UK. Based in Sierre in the middle of Valais, this talented thirtysomething producer, who honed his trade in Burgundy and New Zealand, is an amateur actor in his spare time and has the smouldering looks of a matinee idol.
It is his Domaine de Muses wines, though, that win him nominations, notably his elegant pinot noir from 80-year old north-facing vines near a village called Granges, and his reserve Syrah, with its lovely red fruit and beautifully integrated tannins. His aptly-named Terpsichore Seduction, a blend of the Swiss black grapes, Cornalin and Humagne Rouge, is long and well-balanced, selling locally for 46 Swiss francs (about £35).
Heading west from Sierre along the valley, you soon come to the picture postcard village of St.Pierre-de-Clages, where Simon Maye et Fils have a long record of making outstanding wine since the winery was founded in 1948.
Brothers Jean-Francois and Axel Maye, who oversee operations, conjure 17 different wines, including an old-vines Syrah with fabulous intensity of flavour and length. Their range from Swiss varieties is no less impressive, including a complex Paien (aka Savagnin Blanc or Heida), a spritzy Chasselas (aka Fendant), and a full-bodied red from Petite Arvine.
Less than a kilometere away in the village of Chamoson can be found another of Valais’ best producers, Didier Joris. This charismatic flying winemaker also makes wine in Spain when not presiding over three hectares of ultra-steep vineyards tucked into the Haut de Cry mountain range.
Tasting with him, strictly by appointment, is always ex-barrel as his wines are sold on allocation only. These range from international varieties, like his chardonnay, cabernet franc, pinot gris and much sought-after syrah, to local ones like Paien, his favourite white. These are all special wines.
If this triumvirate of gifted winemakers are the best-known in Valais, mention should also be made of two large-scale wineries with impeccable credentials, Cave La Romaine and Rouvinez. The views up the valley to Mt Bietschorn from the former’s state-of-the-art new tasting room must be as dramatic as from any winery in the world. Cave La Romaine’s imposing list of wines from as many as 24 different cultivars includes a single red varietal, Diolinoir (Coup de Coeur 2011), which spent two years in 100% new oak and showed tremendous concentration.
Other wineries with strong claims include Marie-Therese Chappaz in Fully, Gerald Besse in Martigny at the lower end of the valley, and Chanton Weine, at the upper end of it. The latter’s vines are near Vispertiminen, a village renowned for the highest vineyards in Europe (up to 1150m).
Finally, how and when to taste the wines of Valais? Car, or train from Geneva, are obvious travel options but the IVV (Interprofession de la Vigne et Du Vin de Valais) have enterprisingly set up a 66km cycle trail along the valley from Martigny to Visp. Two of the best times to go are early September, when Valais producers show their wines at a weekend street festival in Sierre, or in mid-March. That is when visitors could also take in the Momentum Ski Festival at Crans Montana, and base themselves out of the splendid new five-star hotel there, the Crans Ambassador. That has an exceptional Valais wine list, as does the Chateau de Villa restaurant in Sierre, where the Castel de Daval winery offers B&B accommodation onsite. Wherever you go, the wines, not to mention the region, will captivate you.