Valais is the largest wine region in Switzerland which consists of 13 valleys which all converge on the main Rhône valley.
There are about 22,000 grape growers in this region tending to 5,200 hectares of vines. Only 700 produce and bottle wine commercially.
The primary white grape is Fendant (Chasselas), dry, low in acidity and of fairly subtle character.
In red wines, Pinot Noir is the dominant variety, but more famous is the wine labelled Dole which blends Pinot Noir and Gamay. Then you have Gamay and Syrah.
The region’s white wines are the traditional accompaniment to the local cheese speciality, raclette.
In the Valais, when you eat Raclette, you know from which Alp it comes.
Visperterminen in the Haut Valais is the region’s highest vineyard. The vines thrive at altitudes of well above 1,000m.
Valais has the 10 highest mountains in Switzerland, all over 4000m.
The Rhône Supérieur is where you can find the perfect terroir for every wine.
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Valais will blow you away
Located in the mountainous south western corner of this small country, the main vineyard area of Valais runs east-north-east for 30 miles (50km) from Martigny to just beyond Sierre. A less densely planted section follows the valley due east between Leuk and Visp (Viege).
Leuk, located on the dividing line between the French and German speaking parts of Switzerland, is subtly different and a touch more Germanic than the more central and western areas.
In 2010, over 12,300 acres (5,000 hectares) of vineyards were planted, representing 40% of Switzerland's white vine plantings and fractionally less than its reds. It generated 25% more wine than the country's second largest region Vaud and five times more than Italian speaking Ticino.
If you have a vineyard in the family you don't sell it, ever. If you don't want to make wine you rent it, or sell the grapes. As per tradition, some 22,000 grape growers tend to 5,200 hectares of vines, handled by cooperatives such as Provins Valais (30%) or negociants such as the Union of Valais Wine Merchants UNVV (55%).
700 growers now produce and bottle their own wine. This reflects the new-age attitude of the Swiss wine trade and its increasingly commercial, export driven focus.
The terroir is noted as one of the world's most dramatic, yet it remains largely unknown because of the low profile that Swiss wines have kept until recently. The valley’s lower slopes are 650m above sea level yet the shelter from the high alpine peaks makes this part of the Rhône valley the driest in the Alps. One bonus is the föhn wind bringing warm air from the Mediterranean. Most vines grow at between 1,500 and 2,500ft/460–760m). Many need to be terraced or worked with pulleys and need irrigation from time to time. The most highly regarded areas, officially designated as Grand Crus, are Fully, Conthey, Vétroz, Saint-Léonard and Salgesch. The föhn effect is also enjoyed by Ticino although there, mountain weather systems bring sporadic heavy rainfall.
Many vineyards are planted on steep gradients of up to 90% (42 degrees). This steepness, although making it harder to manage and harvest the vines, brings the significant benefits of excellent drainage and increased exposure to sunlight. The village of Visperterminen, just south of Visp, sits on the edge of some extremely steep, west-facing slopes, around 4750ft (1,150m).These are some of the highest vineyards in Europe, only topped by those located just the other side of the Matterhorn in the Aosta Valley.
Valais has 125 appellations, the most prestigious of which (from west to east) are Fully, Conthey, Vetroz, Saint-Léonard and Salgesch. These are 'Grand Cru' areas, although this title is has been given locally rather than nationally.
Isolation has meant that rare indigenous red and white varieties have thrived - Humagne Blanche & Rouge, Petite Arvine and Amigne, Cornalin, Marsanne Blanche, Muscat and Heida, Gwäss (a synonym for Gouais Blanc), Himbertscha and Lafnetscha, Rèze (Resi) Durize and Eyholzer Roter grape, also known as Hibou.
Many of these are specialities which are made from the highest vineyards along with some late-harvest sweet wines, sometimes from raisined (flétri) grapes.
Diolinoir, (a cross between Diolly and Pinot Noir) and Cornalin are little known red varieties rarely seen outside of Valais, while Humagne Rouge is now completely isolated to Valais.
Further down the valley, some concentrated whites from Chasselas (Fendant) followed by Johannisberg (Sylvaner); Ermitage (Marsanne), Malvoisie (Pinot Gris), Chardonnay, Riesling, Riesling-Sylvaner, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Blanc are made, as well as some deep red Syrahs, which rival the winemakers in Tain l'Hermitage further down the river Rhône in France.
Pinot Noir is now the most widely planted red grape in the region and some of the Pinot Noir and Gamay grown in Valais is blended to be sold as Dôle, which is similar to Burgundy's Bourgogne-Passetoutgrains.
Vines are cut via the classic Gobelet-cut. The soil is generally light, well aired, with only a little clay. Every area has limestone but the conditions of the soil can vary widely, for instance, slate is present in Sion.
Raclette: Indigenous to the canton of Valais and originally consumed as a nutritional meal, mainly by peasants living in the mountains.
Traditionally, the Swiss cow herders used to take cheese with them when they were moving cows to or from the pastures up in the mountains. In the evenings around the campfire, they would place the cheese next to the fire and, when it had reached the perfect softness, scrape it on to bread.
It is accompanied by small firm potatoes (Bintje, Charlotte or Raclette varieties), gherkins, pickled onions and dried meat such as jambon cru/cuit and viande des Grisons.
In the Swiss canton of Valais, Raclette is typically served with tea or other warm beverages. Another popular option is to serve Raclette with white wine such as the traditional Savoy wine or Fendant, but Riesling and Pinot Gris are also common. Local tradition cautions that other drinks, water for example, will cause the cheese to harden in the stomach leading to indigestion.
Rye Bread: For a long time rye bread was the staple daily food in the villages of the Valais. Rye is indeed the only cereal that is able to adapt to the conditions found in the mountains. The AOP Valais rye bread ensures the continued cultivation of rye in the Valais and therefore helps to safeguard the landscapes. The basic recipe is clearly specified, however the individual touch of each of the artisan bakers ensures that each Valais rye bread loaf has a different taste.
Enjoy the round shaped rye bread for breakfast or as a snack, spread with honey or jam. For an apéritif, spread with butter as an accompaniment to Valais dried meat or smoked salmon.
Hérens Beef: The Hérens breed of animals is raised in the Valais. The meat is sold by butchers and restaurant owners who are members of the “Fleur d'Hérens, Viande du Valais” network.
The maturation period ensures that meat of good quality is offered to consumers.
In the summer the animals are brought to the high mountain pastures. In the winter their basic fodder must come from the farm itself. The food is certified GMO free. Transportation and slaughter take place in the Valais whilst the legislation on animal protection is respected.
Enjoyed either as a meal at home or in a “Saveurs du Valais” restaurant.
Fondue: Melted Swiss cheese in a pot, dipped with pieces of bread on a fork. There are some variants however, tomatoes mixed with cheese, chocolate instead of cheese, or using vegetables (carrots) instead of bread.
Cholera: Pastry made of potatoes, apples, onions and cheese.
Brisolée: Hot chestnuts with butter, bread, thin slices of dry-cured and smoked meat.
Seasonal Produce: Apricots, Pomegranate, Almonds, Asparagus.
Val d'Hérens - Cow fights in Valais
Cow fights take place throughout the region in which the Hérens breed has its home (Central Valais and Valle d'Aosta in northern Italy). More than any other breed, these small black cows with short sturdy horns have retained the instinct to organise themselves into a social hierarchy. In an often fierce contest starting in early spring, it is decided which will be the queen cow leading the herd up to the Alpine meadows.
The fights do not take place in organised fashion, each cow simply chooses her opponent on the spur of the moment. She suddenly stops grazing, lowers her head, snorts and paws the ground with her hooves. If a cow of similar strength accepts the challenge she wastes no time in informing her opponent in the same manner. Cautiously they approach each other. The fight begins, Heads clash and horns lock, each cow trying to get a good hold. Then they stand firmly and push with all their strength, the stronger one forcing the weaker to retreat. After the contest which may continue for several minutes, the loser turns around and runs away, followed by the winner, who encourages the loser to remember "whose boss" by adding a few more blows with her horns.
In addition to these spontaneous clashes, there are also organised fights to determine a regional and cantonal queen.
Peluches & Empaillés
In Evolène the carnival season begins on Epiphany (January 6) when a large number of young people run with cow bells through the village to announce a special celebration.
Afterwards it’s the turn of the strange creatures called "peluches" (soft toys). These strange beings in cat, fox or wolf form, wear un-tanned chamois, sheep or fox fur and their legs are covered with pieces of hides which they tie with strings. The head is covered with a wooden mask sculpted by local craftsmen. Alone or following a leader, they move with their bells through the village and take delight in frightening passers-by as they go.
On Carnival Sunday other mysterious creatures come to swell the ranks of these monsters, the "empaillés". Scarecrows wearing jute sacks and masks and carrying rice brooms.
On the night of Mardi Gras, the entire population congregates in front of the “poutratse”, old man winter in local dialect, who will be burnt on a bonfire. A ritual that marks the end of winter.
Tschäggättä & Mask Carving
The masked carnival figures typical in the Lötschental, the so called Tschäggättä, appear in the period between the Catholic holiday of Candlemas (February 2nd) and Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday). Every evening after work these wild looking figures streak through the valley and hunt down and frighten anyone who is still out on the streets.
The Tschäggättä wear old clothes inside-out, with the fur facing outwards. They also carry two sheep or goat skins held in place around the loins by a leather belt on which a "trichla" (cow bell) usually hangs.
Their feet are often clad in sacks that are bound around their legs to enhance the wild appearance of their clothing but also to prevent the wearers of the masks from being identified by their shoes or by their footprints in the snow.
The Tschäggättä wear gloves, formerly made of "Triäm" (wool remnants). The figures wear over-sized, grotesque and sometimes brightly painted masks made of pine, the backs of which are covered with sheepskin or goatskin. A stick completes the costume.
The Wine Route between Martigny and Leuk
The 40 mile wine route snakes through the French-speaking town of Martigny to the German-speaking one of Leuk (Loeche in French). The most popular section is between Sierre and Salgesch - both have museums and the walk between them is particularly full of interest and variety.
This walk combines three Swiss loves, walking, wine and food. It snakes along the left side of the valley following the contours of the hillsides past almond trees and wooden houses. Year round, a traveller could finish the entire walk in three days at a brisk pace.
The highlights include stops along the way, at cellar doors for wine tasting sessions and detours for fromage d'alpage (alpine cheese).
A pre-trail visit to the Great St. Bernard Pass in the Alps is a short ride on public buses from Martigny train station. The pass now features a breeding kennel for the St. Bernard dogs and an impressive museum alongside the hospice. See www.gsbernard.net and www.verbier-st-bernard.ch.
When on the trail, stop in Saillon to walk Farinet's Trail and see the stained glass sculptures and the Dalai Lama's vineyard, "smallest in the world." www.saillon.ch.
In Sion, Espace Provins is open Monday to Saturday for tastings of the cooperative's wines, including Petite Arvine. See www.provins.ch.
Alternatively, the Château de Villa in Sierre is the largest cellar for wine tasting in the valley and offers raclette and other local food specialties. www.chateaudevilla.ch.
Salgesch offers a small but interesting museum on Valais and its wine history, Le Musée de la Vigne et du Vin. www.museevalaisandduvin.ch.
A worthy post-trail journey from Leuk is the Rhone glacier. Every year workers excavate a 300 foot tunnel into the ice, but the view back down the Rhone is worth the trip alone. www.gletscher.ch.
Some of the best spring skiing in the world is available in the Valais at prices which although high, beat the equivalent offerings in Colorado.
The Matterhorn Museum in Zermatt, Switzerland, is a crystalline, state-of-the-art museum centering on an authentically recreated Valaisan village. It provides a fascinating insight into mountaineering, the dawn of tourism and the lives the Matterhorn has claimed.
Visit Espace Ella Maillart, dedicated to the remarkable Swiss adventurer who lived in Chandolin when she wasn’t exploring remote Afghanistan and Tibet, or winning ski races and regattas.
Upper Valais -- Swiss-German speaking in the eastern part of Valais.
Lower Valais -- French speaking in the western part of Valais.
Anzère - the sunniest spot in Switzerland lying at 1,500m above the Rhone Valley with winter sports, bars and hostels.
Brig - the centre of Swiss-German speaking Valaiswith the baroque Stockalper castle.
Fiesch - a beautiful village in the upper Valais at the foot of the Eggishorn.
Finhaut - a small village between Chamonix in France and Martigny in Switzerland.
La Fouly - a small village at an altitude of 1,600 metres which is also a ski resort.
Leukerbad - this hot spring thermal spa resort lies in a side valley.
Martigny - old Roman town at the bend in the valley with museums and great views.
Monthey - a town located near skiable pistes (Champery, Morgins), but not so far from the Geneva lake (45 minutes from Lausanne, 1 hour and a half from Geneva).
Riederalp-Bettmeralp - car free holiday resort on a sunny high plateau at nearly 2,000 metres.
Saas-Fee - possibly the best place in the world to go snowboarding.
Saint-Maurice - a small town in the valley between the Lake Geneva shore and the alpine peaks.
Sion - the economic centre of the Valais with the landmark high towers of Castle Tourbillon and the Castle of Valeria.
Verbier - a first class ski resort with English and Australian visitors throughout the ski season.
Visp - the second major Swiss-German speaking town and an important centre of industry.
Zermatt - lies at the foot of the Matterhorn offering skiing with stunning views.
Champex-Lac - a lakeside village known by nature lovers as 'little Canada'.
Les 4 Vallées - A single lift ticket covers this huge ski area in French speaking Valais.
Simplon - a high mountain village and a pass through the mountains to Italy.
Turtmann - a nice little village with traditional houses with several themed walking trails.
Lötschental - an imposing mountain landscape with pristine surroundings, far from the large tourism centres.
The nearest international airport is Geneva. From there you can take the train to Valais.
If you want to visit the upper part of the Valais, the nearest airport is Zurich with a travel time of approximately two hours to Visp or Brig. Trains depart directly to the Valais from both airports (direction Brig in both cases).
Swiss railways (SBB-CFF) in the main valley. Buses leave from the many train stations in the valley and go to almost every part of the region. The main interchange station for the region is Brig where trains from the north (Basel, Berne, and Zurich) meet trains from the west (Geneva, Lausanne, Sion) and Italy (Milan).
The train from Brig to Zermatt is run by a private company and is expensive. The journey is stunning, and is the only way to get to the centre of Zermatt, as the village is car free.