The canton of Valais is arguably the pre-eminent winegrowing district in Switzerland today. Vines are grown along an 80km strip of the Rhône valley, which extends from Martigny to Brig. This is a glacial valley (the Valais still has many glaciers), with a relatively flat valley floor, and in many places extremely steep hillsides. Some vineyards are on slopes of as much as 70°, and construction and maintenance of these are thus very labour intensive and hence costly. Much wine here is grown at quite high altitudes; that from the valley floor and lower slopes is up to around 650m above sea level, but some comes from some of the highest vineyards in Europe, at Visperterminen in the Haut Valais, where vines thrive at altitudes of well above 1000m. The Valais climate is very dry, often bordering on drought; in fact this part of the Rhône valley is of the driest valleys in the Alps, with the surrounding mountains preventing access by rainclouds. Summers are hot, winters and early spring cold, though empered by the warm dry foehn winds blowing up from the mediterranean. A wide range of grape varieties is grown in the Valais, reflecting the varied terrain, historical isolation, a rich viticultural recent past and a vibrant winegrowing culture today. Isolation has meant that the now rare indigenous red and white varieties (Humagne Blanche & Rouge, Petite Arvine, Amigne, Cornalin, Heida, to name but a few) have survived in commercial production. The 19th century saw the introduction of varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chasselas from elsewhere, and more recently other international varieties have been introduced. Valais today produces a superb range of wines - powerful reds from indigenous and international grape varieties rival anything produced elsewhere in Europe, and a range of lovely whites including some lovely Fendants.
"Fendant" is the name used widely in the Valais for good quality Chasselas-based wines; which represent some 30% of Valais output. It is derived from the French verb "fendre", meaning "to split", which is exactly what the golden Chasselas grape does if squeezed between thumb and forefinger, rather than becoming squashed.
Fendant is the Swiss white wine most often encountered by tourists to the Valais ski-slopes; minor Fendants will be found as jug-wine in cafés and ski-chalets, with better versions available by the bottle in local inns and restaurants. If you've been skiing in the Valais, you've probably tried it already.
A typical Fendant is fresh and fruity, with a refreshing C02 prickle, and will normally be quite dry, with delicate fruit and racy mineral flavours, often with hints of smoke and gunflint on the nose, and an exquisite bitterness on the finish. A highly flexible wine, Fendant works well both as an apéritif and with food - a wine for all circumstances.
The Chasselas grape used for Fendant is highly expressive of terroir, and there are some quite notable differences between wines grown in different parts of the Valais. Wines from around Sion are fresh and rich; those from Ardon and Vétroz stimulatingly dry; those from Martigny have a fragrant bouquet. Perhaps the best come from the areas around Sierre, Chamoson, and Saillon, which combine fruit and an exquisite bitterness on the finish; here some truly memorable Fendants can be found, and our range of Fendant wines is strongly focused on those from Chamoson. Good examples age well, and after 5 years or so will lose their youthful character and can develop complex nutty and honeyed flavours.
Ideally, drink a bottle of Fendant on the day you open it (not much of a hardship!). It will keep in the fridge for a day or two once opened, but will lose the slight C02 prickle, an integral part of the character of the wine; this is especially so if you use a wine saving vacuum device - totally "flat" Fendant just isn't the same.
Dôle and its lesser cousin Goron are well-known Valaisan red wines - they are not grape varieties as such - rather they are blends of Pinot Noir and Gamay (and occasionally with a very small percentage of other grapes). To qualify as Dôle, natural sugar levels in the constituent grapes must pass certain levels - if not, the wine is declassified as Goron - a light rustic quaffing wine with which we are not further concerned. However within this simple definition there is a wide variety of offerings; the ratio of the two varieties varies from 51% Pinot Noir:49% Gamay through to 100% Pinot Noir (Goron is permitted more Gamay). Generally speaking, the wines with higher proportions of Pinot Noir are better, and as we follow the river Rhône westwards towards Lake Geneva, the proportion of Pinot Noir gradually decreases. Also, since 1993, growers have been allowed to add 10% of other grape types. There is speculation as to whether this is a good thing - optimists contend that the addition of varieties such as Syrah will improve overall quality - time will tell.
Dôle can vary in quality from a light insipid confected wine right through to lovely complex and long-lasting examples - serious stuff indeed. The best examples are from the area around Chamoson and Sierre.
Dôle and Goron are to Valais reds what Fendant is to white - a staple offering in the region. Skiers in the Valais are equally likely to have come across these wines as they are to have encountered Fendant.
The Heida grape, also known in French as Païen, is closely related to the Savagnin Blanc grown in the French Jura. In Switzerland, it is grown only in the Valais, principally in the vineyards atound Visperterminen, at an altitude of some 1100 metres above sea level, where the Föhn, a warm southerly wine, helps ripen the grapes. This is a truly old variety; the first written records date from 1586, when it was referred to as "Heyda", but it has been in use much longer. Indeed, the name "Heida" itself is local patois for "ancient" or "from an earlier time", and the French name "Païen" descends from "Pagan", i.e. before Christianity.
Plantings today are still limited, with just some 15 hectares in commercial production. In the vineyard, Heida's grapes are small and compact, and are yellowish and aromatic. It ripens mid-season - later than Chasselas, but before Petite Arvine. Heida makes, in my view, some of the best Valaisan white wines; these can be complex and powerful, with exotic fruit flavours including quince. Heida ages quite well, and should last 5 years without problems. They can also be versatile when food matching, going well with many vegetable dishes, cold meats, and fish.
Gwäss is indeed a rare grape; in 1994, a mere 1.35 hectares were cultivated commercially in the Valais. Gwäss is a synonym for Gouais Blanc, a white grape variety that is believed to have originated in Croatia, and which is important as the ancestor of many modern French and German wine varieties. This may have been the grape given to the Gauls by Probus (Roman Emperor 276-282), who overturned Domitian's decree banning grape growing north of the Alps. By the Middle Ages it was the most widely grown white grape in northeast France and in Central Europe. Gouais blanc was the grape of the peasantry - indeed the name Gouais derives from the old French ‘gou’, a term of derision befitting its traditional status as the grape of the peasants, normally growng on flat land next to the better slopes where the nobility grew Pinot. Having been widely grown in proximity to Pinot, the two varieties had many opportunities to cross, and Gwäss is believed to be parent to many other varieties, the better known of which are modern day Chardonnay, Aligoté, Auxerrois, Gamay, Colombard, and Riesling. The name Gwäss was first recorded in 1823. It's a vigorous high-yielding variety, and traditionally produced wines with high acidity.
The Humagne Blanche is the oldest known white grape originating in the Valais. It is cited in a historical document dated 1313, and recording the sale of a vineyard in Sion, which makes reference to the grapes grown - "de Neyrum, de Humagny" and "de Regy" - the first is a black grape, the latter two undoubtedly the Humagne Blanche and the Rèze. It gives a wine rich in iron - 3 times the level found in most other grapes - accounting for its reputed medicinal qualities, in particular in bygone days as a tonic for pregnant women, monks, and bishops! Following the phylloxera outbreak, this variety faced near extinction at the start of the 20th century, and now there is just over 7 hectares planted, making it one of the world's rarest grape varieties. It is a mid-season ripener, with grapes maturing some 7-10 days after the benchmark Chasselas, and produces a moderate yield of grapes with sugar levels which are not particularly high - much of the output is used to make wines of modest alcoholic strength, in the range 10-12% ABV, and which are fresh and drunk young. Better quality wines can give a scented, rich, full-bodied wine with much fruit, a hint of resin, and are of some considerable quality, with excellent aging potential. Humagne Blanche is unrelated to the red Humagne Rouge, despite the apparent similarity in the name.
The Rèze, or Resi, grape is, alongside the Heida and Humagne Blanche, one of the oldest white grape varieties still grown in the Valais. Once, Rèze was grown widely here, but in more recent times has suffered serious decline, with less than a hectare remaining in commercial production, around Sierre, and in the alpine vineyards of Visperterminen. Various factors have conspired to cause this; it's hard to grow, has limited yield, and lesser examples can be thin, acidic, and uninspiring. Much of the production from around Sierre is used to make a base wine for the sherry-like Vin des Glaciers, a highly sought-after rarity. Better quality is available in Visperterminen.