Discovering World-Class Wine on a Journey Through Switzerland’s Valais Region
Switzerland has something for everyone. Whether you like the glitz and glamour of Zurich or the world class skiing available in the renowned Matterhorn region, you can enjoy yourself any time of year. If you are an oenophile on a lifetime search for unique wines that are not widely available, or an avid hiker, the Valais region is the place for you.
We spent a day exploring terroir, quaint restaurants, wine, and winemakers of the area, and our itinerary included a 17-kilometer (10.5-mile) jaunt up and over steep inclines, through fragrant mountain forests, along creeks, and over suspension bridges. Our trail dated back centuries (it was originally built as a mule path and vineyard trail) and was just part of over 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) of sign-posted hiking paths that anyone can explore. We took the high road through lush alpine meadows and up mountains where the reward for all of our hard work was a magnificent view of the valley and vineyards below. The wine trail runs along quiet tracks, passing by wine-growers’ homes, through vineyards, and into the impressive Gorges de la Raspille, a site of outstanding natural beauty. On the journey, encountering wildlife like marmots, chamois, or mountain goats is a definite possibility. Our mission (which we eagerly accepted) was a search for rare wines and interesting winemakers, so off we went on foot from Salgesch to Sierre in pursuit.
Our first stop was the German-speaking Caveau de Salquenen, founded in 1913 by Alfred Kuonen and the first winery in the village of Salgesch. You could feel the history as we walked back in time through this ancient village to the winery. There is also a Musée du Vin, a museum of wine in the village, for those interested in further wine education and history. Today, however, we were greeted by the young and beautiful local winemaker Larissa Kuonen. She spent years studying wine engineering at the School of Viticulture and Oenologie at Changins, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. After graduating, Kuonen began working with her family at the winery, and in 2009, she became oenologist of the winery.
Sitting down with her was a master class on the wines of the region. As she poured the first of many wines, she explained that the Grand Cru de Salquenen is produced only in the municipality. The winemakers in Salquenen are extremely strict and the label requirements are rigorous. Chaptalizing (adding sugar), blending, and maturing in wood are forbidden, and the wine must rest in the producer’s cellars for at least 15 months before being presented to a national wine-tasting commission. A wine can be called Grand Cru only if it is awarded 18 out of 20 points, after which it will be decorated with the golden label of Salquenen.
When looking at Swiss wines, certain varietals demand attention. Heida (as it is called in Upper Valais) or Païen is the name given in the Valais to the savignon grape (not to be confused with sauvignon blanc) also known as “Traminer”. We first tasted this varietal on the slopes of one of Europe’s highest vineyards, in Visperterminen, up to 1,100 meters (3,600 feet) above sea level. Make sure to stop at impressive St. Jodern Kellerei winery and retail shop to purchase a bottle or two. The wine is very impressive with an extraordinary range of citrus and exotic fruit flavors.
Of course, we just had to taste petite arvine, too. This is the Valais white wine, without question, and has been considered exclusive to Valais since 1602. It’s delicate, hard to grow, sensitive to the wind, and the longest and last to develop. The varietal is very picky and requires only the best exposures, preferably not too dry. But when it’s right, it's right, producing a distinctive wine with grapefruit flavor and notes of rhubarb.
Moving on, we eventually found Cave Caloz and yet another young winemaker, Sandrine Caloz, someone wine lovers will hear from for years to come. She has winemaking in her blood, as her grandfather, Fernand, was the founder of the winery way back in 1960. We spent an entire afternoon and evening with Sandrine (who graduated from the School of Viticulture and Oenologie at Changins herself in 2013), tasting through vintages dating back to 1984. “This wine was bottled by my grandfather and is older than me,” she said laughing. After these lessons, we even had a meal together at Chef Didier du Courten’s namesake restaurant in Sierra, where we paired Swiss wine with world-class cuisine from the region.
Our day fully complete, we returned to our room at the splendid Castel de Daval to contemplate our next day’s journey. Castel de Daval, a charming rendition of a miniature castle, is absolutely the best place to stay while visiting the Sierre region. The Caloz family (distant relatives of the winemakers previously mentioned) will make you feel at home at this lovely bed and breakfast, with glorious mountain views nestled within a vineyard. The family-owned accommodations will charm your soul as well as your wallet, and is easily the best value in the area. The Valais region deeply affected us, changing our lives by experiencing its charm, cuisine, and, of course, wine. This area is the perfect escape for a few days, weeks, months, or even a lifetime. No matter what the duration of your visit, there is something for everyone to enjoy.