In the shelter of the Swiss Alps, Valais is Switzerland’s primary winemaking location, responsible for more than a third of the country’s total wine production. The canton stretches for 100 miles along the exposed hillsides of the river Rhône in Switzerland’s southwest, basking in sunshine, and is comprised of 13 valleys. The ten highest peaks in Switzerland can be found here, all at more than 4,000 metres, and the highest vineyard, Visperterminen, stands at more than 1,000 metres.
This is the driest of all sites used for Swiss wine production, and the warm Foehn wind helps ensure rapid maturation for the grapes grown here, mitigating the relatively low temperatures seen at such altitudes (the vines are grown at 460 to 760 metres elevation). The soils are extremely varied across the area, the result of the dynamic nature of the landscape – receding glaciers, geological movement and alluvial deposits from Rhône and Alps waters.
Around 20 varieties of vines are grown here across around 5,200 hectares, more than half of them red, by more than 22,000 producers across 125 appellations, most of them independent (only around 700 bottle their own wines). And these figures are set to grow, with large amounts of capital being funnelled into production by savvy investors wanting to boost the growing export market. Some of the best-know appellations are Fully, Conthey, Vetroz, Saint-Leonard and Salgesch.
It is not the easiest place to harvest, with the vines growing at gradients of up to 40 degrees, but that is made up for by the excellent soil drainage and sun exposure that can be attained in such conditions. As a result of the steep farmland, vineyards are sometimes terraced with some degree of human-made irrigation.
This is the land of the Pinot Noir, although locals will tell you that it is unlike any Pinot Noir you will experience elsewhere. The second most prominent grape is Chasselas/Fendant, the country’s favourite white grape. Similarly, Gamay, Marsanne, Pinot Gris, Savagnin Blanc, Sylvaner and Syrah/Shiraz grow in abundance. Local red grape varieties such as Diolinoir, Cornalin and Humagne Rouge are rarely seen outside Valais. A large amount of the Pinot Noir and Gamay here ends up blended and sold as Dôle.
The grape varieties are central to how the wines here are presented, and bottles will usually feature the varieties used in production rather than the estate or appellation.
The reason you may not have heard so much about Valais wines is largely due to Switzerland’s relatively low profile on the international wine scene. Perhaps that will change as the money continues to roll in. But for an introduction to the much-overlooked local wine scene, Valais wines are an excellent way to begin.