The “First” Rhône Valley

Just about everyone knows the fabled and famous Rhône valley stretching from just south of Lyons to the Mediterranean by Marseilles, with its vineyards of Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, Cornas, the ubiquitous Côtes-du-Rhône vineyards and the more exclusive Châteauneuf-du-Pape, crossing the most important line of demarcation in France. I am speaking of the invisible border between the cooler parts of France cooking with butter, and the Mediterranean France centering on olive oil.

So, what about the First Rhône Valley, you ask. It certainly is first as the water flows. It is not French, although they do speak French in the Valais. Upstream from Lyons, in Switzerland, much wine is made. If it weren’t for the Valais, there would be no Rhône. Starting in Gletsch, at the Rhône glacier, the river flows southwesterly to Martigny, where it makes a 90-degree northwesterly turn to empty into Lac Leman, a.k.a. lake Geneva. The highest vineyard in continental Europe is located in Visperterminen, at 3,600 feet. There are some 22,000 vintners, most of them part-time, who cultivate about 13,000 acres of vineyards located between 1,500 to 2,800 feet. There are 2,090 hours of sunshine, and only 23” – 32” of rainfall per year. The dearth of rain led to an elaborate system of wooden irrigation canals known by the locals as bisses. The Valais enjoys about 300 sunny days per year. It is also where the first minimum requirements for quality wine were formulated in Switzerland.

The Valais is a traveler’s paradise and it is famed for its many landmarks. Take Zermatt, accessible only by train, with its iconic Matterhorn. A visit to Saas Fee is among the most memorable impressions of the Alps. Glaciers, mountain passes like the Great St. Bernhard and its fabled dogs. Fondue and Raclette are world famous and have a long history in the Valais, as have skiing, mountain climbing, hiking, and mineral baths. The Valais is segmented into three sections: The Oberwallis, upper Valais, is German speaking. The central Valais is French speaking, as is the lower Valais.

There are 59 varietals grown in the Valais; 26 are reds and 33 whites, but three produce over 80% of all wine. Chasselas (Gutedel) (31%) are grown for the white Fendant, and Pinot Noir (35%) alone or blended with Gamay (18%) for the proprietary Dôle du Valais. The real trouvailles (discoveries) are found in the indigenous grapes of the Valais, some dating back to Roman times. Let’s look at some of the wines produced from the grapes.

The white grapes of the Valais.

Amigne (Oh-meen-ya). This ancient white grape variety dates from the Roman era and can be found only in the Valais. About 50 acres remain, mostly in the village of Vétroz. It is late ripening and demanding in location and viticulture. It is of the difficult-to-grow variety. It tends to be higher in alcohol and ranges from elegant and delicate to sweet due to botrytis and aromas of tangerine and orange.

Gwäss (Gouais blanc) dates to 1823 in France. There is nothing extraordinary about this: a mediocre and ordinary grape often referred to its produce as the laborers’ wine. Its principal role was to hide and protect the valuable vineyards hidden behind plantings of Gwäss, thus distracting would-be-thieves.

Gewürztraminer a.k.a. Traminer, dates back to the Südtirol (Alto Adige) around 10th Century our time. It is the easiest wine to identify. Golden to copper-toned in color, it is vinified in Valais from dry to sweet and shows aromas of roses and lychees. The wines tend to a lack in acidity.

Himbertscha (him-burt-sha) from the latin im bercia (Pergola). This formerly extinct grape was discovered by accident by an oenology student in the 1970s. He is the world’s only known grower of Himbertscha in the village of Varen. The Himbertscha wine is known for its nutty aromas of lemon balm and mango. It is well-suited to accompany fish and the Valaisan specialties Fondue and Raclette.

Humange Blanc (ooh-man-yah blan). Another vitis vinifera from Roman times, know for its supposed legendary restorative properties. The first documentary evidence dates from 1313 and it is a sought-after specialty wine. A delicate acidity balances the fruitiness. It is a late-ripening grape with only one cluster per shoot. Aged for a few years, it develops nuances of fur trees.

Marsanne, in Valais known as (H)Ermitage, (sic) from where it was introduced to the Valais in the 19th century.  A very demanding grape for location and water, it produces a relatively full-bodied wine with fascinating aromas of berries. It also can be found in late-harvest versions with aromas of honey and wax.

Muscat (a petit grains) known all over the world, is grown in the Valais since the 14th Century. Its unmistakable typicity should be enjoyed young as aperitif.

Petite Arvine (petite Ahr-veen) is a native to the Valais and can also be found in the Italian Valle d’Aosta. This grape has all the right stuff to make big aromatic whites from full-bodied dry to late-harvest semi-sweet wines. A mark of distinction is the slightly salty taste.

Resi (La Rèze). The ancient uva raetica survives in the German-speaking Oberwallis and is noted for its slightly bitter, resin-y aromas of bitter almonds and its long finish. It is ideally served with chipped Valaisan cheese.

The red grapes of the Valais.

Cornalin (Corn-oh-lun) is unfortunately a disappearing grape found only in Valais. With proper site selection, it produces deep-colored wines with delicate aromatics. It often appears as rustic and impetuous in its youth. It is a late-ripening variety and needs severe limits of production in order to ensure good quality. It dates back to Roman times as “rouge du pays” and it was re-named in 1972 to Cornalin.

Diolinoir (dee-oh-lee-nwar) is a cross between Diolly and Pinot Noir. The wines are deeply colored, complex, with good structure and age-ability. This is definitely a keeper.

Gamaret (gah-mah-ray) is a cross of Gamay and Reichensteiner and produces good-structured wines of dark color with low acidity. It is resistant to grey rot

Humagne rouge (ooh-man-ye rouge) is, in spite of its similar sounding name, not a relative to the white Humagne blanc. It is another very old variety, which has been rediscovered for its deep-colored wines with power and body. It can do very well in ideal locations.

Syrah does very well in the Valais. It is late ripening and produces excellence in the best locations when low in yield (2.3 t/acre).

There are some noteworthy sites in the Valais. The Domaine du Mont d’Or was started in 1848 by François-Eugène Masson. 220 terraces were built manually with almost 10 miles of supporting walls. The vineyards are irrigated and the southern slope—from 55-75 degrees–is packed with grapevines. Its produce, Fendant du Mont d’Or, is legendary.

Gletscherwein, The “Sherry” of the Alps. It comes from the Val d’Anniviers. It is mostly Fendant and some Ermitage and Malvoisie. In spring, last years’ new wine is carted up to Val d’Anniviers and aged in large natural cellars within 2 miles of the glacier. There it is aged in an elaborate barrel system akin to the Sherry Solera aging. In the vats, which never are completely emptied, it will age some 15 -25 years and be blended with previously aged wine. It is maderized and high in alcohol. Its aromatics are reminiscent of turpentine. Vin du Glacier is a veritable specialty.

When wine lovers talk about the Rhône Valley, you are among the few who know that there is more than Syrah and Grenache, northern and southern Rhône. The first, lesser-known part of the Rhône flows through alpine valleys, past steep slopes planted with grapes, combining countless tributaries from glaciers to empty into lake Geneva. The wines of the Valais are unfortunately very hard to find. We are planning a trip to the Valais next year, to sample its wines and visit its landmarks. Let us know if you are interested.

In my next article, we will visit some of the famed grape growing areas on the Swiss side of lake Geneva.