September 29, 2010. Valais, Switzerland. Where grapevines meet the snow. As my brother drove through this Swiss canton’s astounding Rhône glacial valley, the splendid anomalies of this region stretched high on either side of us. Melding seamlessly, towns and cities scattered the landscape—some lofty and sprawled high; other settlements stretched squat and low—while tiered slopes of vines etched their way up the Alps, causing these giant hills to spill over with 5,100 hectares (12,600 acres) of grapes.
These breathtaking mountainsides are ultimately responsible for producing 40% of Switzerland’s wine, some of which we explored in the charming town of Sierre at the sleek, stylish Enoteca Wine Bar, housed in the Château de Villa. This 16th century village château is also the domicile for The Wine and Vine museum as well as a restaurant. But it was too early for lunch, so we wholeheartedly started our Valais adventure with wine tasting. We relaxed in the wine bar where vertical-stacked bottles of local goodness stretched endlessly, and an awesome, antiquated grape press lent itself to the unique tasting atmosphere.
We imbibed in several local varietals, choosing from Enoteca’s featured tasting list of the week. Our first white savor of the day, Laurent Hug Fendant du Valais 2009, yielded a fruity citrus nose, slight acidity, and light bubbles on the tongue. This mildly floral, smooth-drinking Chasselas varietal with an alcohol content of 11.5%, left a lemon finish and proved a pleasing start. Next we explored Chandra Krut Heida 2009 (14% alcohol). Heida is also known as Sauvignon Blanc, and according to the tasting room attendant, Heida is considered the “pearl of Alpine wine.” This wine (14% alcohol) lent itself to a light buttery hue and nose; and a slight, crisp acidity which carried out on the finish. Historically these grapes were only grown at 1,150 meters (3,000 feet) near Visperterminen in Valais (the highest growing vineyard in Europe), but are now more widely grown in different areas of the canton.
Then we found our glasses thick with dessert wine, Grain Noble Ermitage Tourbillon 2007 (only 12.5% alcohol), which splashed a light orange hue and wafted a nose of mushroom and parsley (never smelled wine quite like this!). The taste of mushroom and honey was thick and sweet and our tasting room attendant informed us the fruity taste was coing. (If you’re unsure of what coing is, keep reading to the end). He also told us that Ermitage is typically harvested in October, when the mushrooms that grow alongside the slopes with this varietal get taller and favorably alter the quality of these grapes. Valais is favorable to sweet wines and the best plants are found on the steepest slopes, which tend to have excellent ventilation and exaggerate climatic conditions.
We found evidence of this local excellence in our final tasting which proved my personal favorite varietal of the day: Petite Arvine. Valais is famous for this white varietal, a delicate grape linked to grapes from Italy’s Val d’Aosta and neighboring France. It ripens late and gives rise to both dry and sweet wines. Our taste of this honeyed wine, Régence-Balavaud Petite Arvine de Vétroz 2009 (14.4% alcohol), misled us on the nose—a heavy, syrupy sweetness incorrectly led us to believe this was another dessert wine. But after a gentle taste, the honey sugariness acquiesced and morphed to a dry, slightly acidic lemon finish. We were given some pieces of bread to eat alongside with this Valais specialty varietal, and the wine then tasted creamier and thicker, almost as if the creaminess of the wine melted on our tongues.
After this lovely acquaintance with Valais whites, our palates whimpered a bit for red and our stomachs cried for nourishment. We then found our way to the establishment’s restaurant—Le Restaurant du Château de Villa—where we ordered a half bottle of Soleil D’Or Humagne Rouge 2008 (13.5% alcohol). Our waiter served up cornichons with pickled onions and thick, dense dark slices of bread laden with walnuts (which according to my brother, reminisced of the German-style bread found in the neighboring Swiss-German region of Switzerland).
But back to the wine. The Humagne Rouge filled our glasses blood-red, like Cabernet Sauvignon. The inviting nose of exotic spice, mushrooms, cherries, and a raisinesque perfume gave way to a pleasant taste of mushrooms with a spicy, earthy quality. This wine paired well with the local specialty that we each ordered up for lunch—a savory plate of charcuterie (paper thin slices of local dried meats such as salami, bacon, and dried beef). The meat brought out the spicy pepper qualities of the wine; a match made in Valais heaven in this awe-inspiring valley nestled in the southwestern region of Switzerland.
Since Valais is also home to the infamous Matterhorn, after lunch we took a road less traveled and climbed high into the Alps until we reached the ski town of Zinal. This lesser-known ski destination on the opposite side of Zermott (where the Matterhorn lies) boasts an altitude of 1,670 meters (5,479 feet) and the highest mountains peak at 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). No wonder snow topped these high jagged monsters, even in September.
A gondola ride transported us to spectacular views at 2,144 meters (7,034 feet), but sadly, my brother informed me that the awesome white glaciers surrounding this valley are expected to diminish within the next 25 years due to global warming. But we still reveled in our surroundings, snapping pictures of the smidge of the Matterhorn that we could see (look for the shadow in the picture below that resembles Darth Vader). The air smelled clean and we soaked up the brisk mountain sky. The surrounding serrated white-topped views that jutted into the sky like sharp tooth-like peaks in the off-season...left us feeling as if we had the entire mountain range to ourselves.
Although we were tired at the end of the day and still had to drive home, we remarked that, “at least we got our drinking done early in the morning.”
|In the ski resort of Zinal, giant cragged formations surround charming Swiss chalets.|
|We happened upon a box of coing, lying outside a shop in Zinal.|
|Another grand discovery was Petite Arvine; exclusive to Valais and a wine well done.|
|But our glimpse of the ominous Matterhorn reigned supreme.|
All Text and Photos Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.