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Swiss Wine Regions
Located in the mountainous south western corner of Switzerland, Valais used to be very remote - an island between mountains, really - until the arrival of railroads. It was part of Savoy then joined Switzerland.
Valais is a paradise of mountain sports with its long main valley along the Rhone and 13 side valleys.
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).
In 2020, over 5,000 hectares of vineyards were planted, representing 40% of Switzerland's white vine plantings and fractionally less than its reds. This has been stable.
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. 700 or so growers now produce and bottle their own wine and these are the people we are interested in here.
The terroir is noted as one of the world's most dramatic.
Valais has 125 appellations, the most prestigious of which (from west to east) are Fully, Chamoson, Vétroz, Saint-Léonard and Salgesch. Though there are really no weak areas.
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 and sunniest in the Alps. Even better, it also benefits from the autumnal foehn wind, which blow dries grapes and protects from rot.
Most vines grow at between 460–760m (1,500 and 2,500ft). Most need to be terraced and you will see pulley and rail systems to get things and sometimes people up and down the vineyard. The gradients are steep, in some places up to 90%. 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 soil is generally light, well aired, with only a little clay. Every area has limestone but the conditions of the soil vary widely, as the formation of the Alps churned a lot of different layers, and the glaciers added and removed them. There's a mosaic of local variations. For example between Balavaud is moraine hillside, but further north is an area where the mountain fell down millenia ago with more limestone- and on the other side towards Chamoson we're on primary rock.
The vines need irrigation from time to time. Valais has a centuries old hillside irrigation system redirecting glacier melt to vineyards and fields, called "bisse".
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.
Our main Valais producers
Valais' isolation has meant that rare indigenous red and white varieties have survived - exotic names like Humagne Blanche, Petite Arvine and Amigne, Gwäss (Gouais Blanc), Himbertscha and Lafnetscha, Rèze (or Resi), Plantscher, Durize and Eyholzer Roter grape, also known as Hibou. Diolinoir, (a cross between almost lost Rouge de Diolly and Pinot Noir) and Rouge du Pays/Cornalin are less known red varieties rarely seen outside of Valais, while Humagne Rouge is only now getting replanted in Aosta.
Chasselas is still the most planted white, and Pinot Noir is now the most widely planted red grape in the region - although with climate change this could have to change. The Pinot is blended with the ever popular Gamay to make the classic Dôle.
some of the most typical varieties in Valais:
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 with fantastic walks.
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. Occasionally there are flights to Sierre.
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. But the journey is stunning, and is the only way to get to the centre of Zermatt, as the village is car free.
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, gherkins, pickled onions and dried meat such as jambon cru/cuit and viande des Grisons.
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.
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 most other breeds, 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.
In addition to these spontaneous clashes, there are also organised enounter to determine a regional and cantonal queen.
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