March 22, 2023
Think of the Alps, and your mind probably runs to hiking trails, ski gondolas and dairy cows rather than vineyards. Yet winemakers have been quietly tilling the Alps for centuries, working with the helter-skelter topography to create unique vintages. Alpine areas that have won awards for their wines include the Savoie vineyards in the shadow of Mont Blanc, the Trentino-Alto Adige region of northern Italy and the Swiss Valais. Just over an hour from Geneva by car, the Valais is Switzerland’s leading wine area, with 19sq miles of valley vineyards scattered beneath granite crags, growing dozens of indigenous grapes.
In 2022, the Verbier Wine Festival launched in the ski resort with the aim of shining a light on Alpine winemakers. Only 3% of Swiss wine gets exported internationally, and winemakers can barely keep up with domestic demand, but this also means it’s an enigma for most visitors.
Because grapes in the Valais are planted on precipitous slopes, harvesting them is akin to mountain climbing. It’s traditional for vineyard terraces to use thick, dry-stone walls to shore them up, and one of the fascinating quirks of the region are the near-vertical monorails that scale the road-less vineyard plots. Grapes are mostly hand-picked, which improves the quality of the wines, but also pushes up their price.
Fendant and Pinot Noir are two of Valais’ most important grapes. Try them in Riddes, at Les Fils Maye, one of the canton’s only 19th-century wineries that remains in the original family’s hands. Tastings take place in the cellar’s carnotzet — a traditional subterranean saloon where winemakers of old would’ve retired from their barrelling duties to eat, drink and chat. A contemporary contrast can be found just outside the castle-crested town of Sion at The Celliers de Sion, Switzerland’s first ‘oenoparc’. Built by two venerable winemaking estates that merged in 1992, it offers gourmet wine walks that climb into the Clavau vineyards.
Elsewhere, Musée du Vin has two separate sites, at Sierre and Salgesch, linked by a four-mile hiking trail that winds majestically through vineyard terraces. Along the way, info boards highlight Valais’ grapes, which are used to make wines that are strictly regulated under a Swiss Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system.
The pop-up Hexabar is the festival hub, with 120 wines sold by the glass. The head sommelier curates a daily best-in-class list of four wines from one of the six Alpine wine areas, paired with small plates.
Where to eat
At Verbier’s outpost of London’s 67 Pall Mall members club, visitors can taste a 3,000-strong wine list while savouring dishes such as grilled Bagnes cheese infused with Verbier-brewed stout.
Where to stay
Just outside Verbier, Chalet d’Adrien is a chic country log-cabin hotel with doubles from £245 for two nights during the festival, B&B.
Winemaking wasn’t Marie-Thérèse’s first career choice. At 17, she was on track to become a midwife, but a short spell of hospital work made her think twice. The following year, her father gifted her a small plot of land in Valais and she soon discovered her love for the Alpine terroir.
The dirt was barely under her nails before Marie-Thérèse knew what she wanted to plant. Although her father wasn’t a winemaker, she’d grown up around wine and knew her palate was good.
What started as a half-acre plot in 1978 has now grown a hundredfold — and self-taught Marie-Thérèse has proved herself to be a renegade superstar of the Swiss winemaking community. She has has grown an indomitable reputation, not being afraid to work her magic with native grapes that have fallen out of favour with other vintners.
An early adopter of biodynamic winemaking practices, Marie-Thérèse produces wines you’re unlikely to find outside Switzerland. Of the 70,000 bottles she makes a year, half are sold at her rustic cellar door, where visitors can do tastings among the vines. Her range includes Pinots, one of Valais’ signature cool-climate grapes, and native grape varieties including Petite Arvine, Cornalin, Humagne Rouge and, as of this year, Completer.
Marie-Thérèse uses altitude, shade and soil changes across different vineyard plots to engineer her wines. “For me, the balance is good,” she says.
PHOTOGRAPH BY VALAIS WALLIS PROMOTION/DAVID CARLIER
The star of this traditional Valais charcuterie platter is air-dried beef soaked in red wine and spices. It’s a good foil for the natural acidity of Switzerland’s young reds.
Whether served au naturale or with mushrooms, potatoes or truffles, Switzerland’s unctuous mountain dish works a treat paired with Valais’ mineral-rich whites.
Veal with chanterelles
Meaty dishes using the woodland mushroom and local Hérens beef demand the Valais’ heaviest wines. For this typical dish, locals will usually turn to Cornalin.
The Verbier Wine Festival will take place 1-2 July 2023. Ticketed events include Alpine wine brunches, masterclasses and sommelier-led food pairings.
chappaz.ch, verbier.ch, myswitzerland.com
Published in the Alpine 2023 guide, distributed with the April 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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