By Peter Hulm
The icy weather of 19th of April 2017 launched catastrophe week in Switzerland’s finest wine growing region. The Valais “wine village” of Salgesch/Salquenen will probably lose 80-90% of its harvest, growers predict, as a result of frost damage to the vines (and apricot trees).
Nevertheless, the canton’s wine cellars will be open to visitors on 25-27 May, the weekend of Ascension. So this might be the best time to take a trip and grab the good wines they have on offer. 2016 provided a bumper crop.
If I had to pick one cellar to visit, I guess it would be Hans Bayard’s Soleil de Varone in the nearby village of Varen. It offers raclette and access for the disabled.
The house bio Pinot Noir Pfyfoltru (“butterfly” in Valais dialect) won the 2016 gold medal in the Pinot World competition though costing less than CHF 20 (sorry, all sold out). But its speciality is the Balmgasse Pinot Noir, which won a “vinea d’or” at the Mondial but sells at an amazing CHF18.50 a bottle.
Hans was a hobby winegrower who started his business in 1984 with two varieties. The firm now produces 11 different wines from seven vineyards. In 2014 he handed over management two his sons Bjorn and Devid. Their 2015 and 2016 Pinots have gathered silver and gold commendations.
In contrast to the Sierre and Sion wine cellars, Salgesch is not part of the shuttle bus services organized for the weekend, though it is holding an open-cellars events.
The other public transport options enable you to visit 28 cellars, each with its own story.
But my second choice, also off the main track, would be to visit Saillon, the medieval village voted the most beautiful in Suisse romande in 2013. The tour of the vineyards starts at 10a.m. and lasts about 1 1/2 hours.
If you go, don’t miss the smallest vineyard in the world. It has three vines and belongs to the Dalai Lama. It was bequeathed to him by Abbé Pierre. Celebrities come to the tiny plot and work on it every year to raise funds for charity.
As for 2017 several Salgesch growers fear they won’t have any wine this year because the cold has made the vines more susceptible to disease as well as being badly damaged.
The farmers stayed up all night to fight the cold, using warm-air blowers powered by gas to protect their vines, and these are still there in the fields. But at CHF 8,000 per blower, CHF 100 per gas container, and five or six used each night, this is not a cheap option.
François Kuonen distributed 16 across his 25 hectares and had to keep them going for six nights, the newspaper RZ reported on 11 May. But even the blowers could not do much against temperatures that dropped six degrees below zero.
Others used paraffin candles, as did Kuonen. These last for 12 hours and cost CHF 12 each. But one hectare needs 400-500 candles. For materials alone, the bill easily amounted to CHF 10,000 during the cold snap.
The wine-growers’ main hope now is from robuster Johannisberg and Gamay grapes — and some help from the government to keep them in business and visible on the market. So this years’ Open Cellars Weekend is of major importance.
In case you miss the weekend, Wein & Natur, which organizes (guess what?) wine and nature hikes in the Valais, is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a CHF 10 demo-tour of Salgesch including “apéro” on Sunday, 4 June. Sign-up by 1 June.
The group also holds information/tasting tours in Varen, Leuk (Switzerland’s oldest producing vine), Raron (the Rilke village), Visp and Visperterminen (Europe’s highest vineyards at 1000m).