Valais with the largest wine growing area and range of grape varieties shows the possibilities and risks of Alpine wine growing like no other region. Most vineyards are located on slopes between 400 and 800 metres altitude, high on the upper reaches of the Rhône. The sites are up to 70% steep, often also terraced. Due to the tectonic activity, the Valaisans have to expect a moderately serious earth quake every 60 to 100 years. The last earthquake was in 1946.
Vineyards can almost only be worked by hand. This makes it doubly hard in a high wage country, and you notice it in the prices of every wine shop. For foreigners they are astronomical. The average bottle price is €7. In Germany it is slightly over €2. Wine has been in Valais, as so often in Europe, since ancient times. Even the Celts tasted wine around 700 BC, which they probably made themselves. Yet imported wines from producing countries in Southern Europe were the more comfortable alternative. It is similar today. Italy, France and Spain dominate the import market.
Many of the local grape varieties have been growing here since Roman times. Petite Arvine (link05) is one of them. After around three years of storage time, the white varieties develop the most delicate notes of bees wax and blossoms, grapefruit and lime, and a typical salty note in the finish. Botrytis versions have an aroma of truffle and saffron. In spite of the medium value, the acidity is fine, and it feels creamy in the mouth. The wines are highly elegant and age for several decades.
However, the negatives can also be seen. The varieties make almost every demand that a vine in a vineyard can make: Only the very best, sunny sites, protected from the wind, good irrigation, poor soil, early budding, late harvest - and therefore a significantly increased harvest risk in the usually uncertain weather cycle. In addition they are allergic to herbicides. When people concentrated on mass-yield in the whole of Central Europe after 1945, the mass producer Chasselas almost wiped out the varieties. Today, thanks to winegrowers, who had simply had enough of the neutral wines, the stocks have recovered from 14 hectares to 166 hectares. Still microscopic but decent in Switzerland.
Humagne Blanche, which appears in the first certificates at the beginning of the 14th century, is no less rare. Susceptible to disease, low yield, and with a fluctuating harvest quantity, it is not really a winegrowers’ dream. The wines can taste wonderfully of flint and pinecones, but also blueberries, violets and plums. Due to its high iron content, postpartum women used to drink the "vinum humanum" against blood loss. The effect is unlikely today. But its soft and fruity style was obviously well received.
Last but not least is the white Heunisch, the genetic father of many varieties that appear in Switzerland. It becomes the German Gwäss, called Gouais in French, which can both be understood as an expression of disgust in Latin. The variety produces such gruesome wines that it is sometimes forbidden to grow it in France. "Thereby, it is the Casanova of grapes", explains Vouillamoz, who has decrypted the genetic contexts. "Hardly any grape varieties have passed on their genes for natural cross breeding so often". Further down in the family tree are Gamay, Chardonnay, Riesling, amongst others.