(Spoiler: we did not see Ibexes, only their hoof prints – or maybe they were just plain old goats – in the sand along the Rhone. But you can see photos of Ibexes here!)
A visit from Allison’s brother inspired our second trip to the Swiss wine region of Valais, this time during the beautiful autumn colors. We had learned on our last trip about the myriad wine that is grown, aged, and almost exclusively enjoyed in this area, and knew that this type of experience would be a treat for Nate.
We started out on our journey a little late this Saturday morning because we first had to pick up supplies for our trip. This meant taking Nate on a tour of the fantastic local Saturday market in Ferney to pick up groceries for the weekend’s meals. The market showcases at least 100 food vendors lining the main street and another 50 or so vendors selling clothes and other items. We discovered that this time of year is apparently clementine, persimmon, and mushroom season. The mushrooms were laid out in huge piles of all shades of black, brown and orange, including several types that we had never seen before. We knew we wanted to use them for pasta, and when we asked for expert advice we were directed to the trompette de la mort (French for trumpet of death) – apparently a baby step towards cooking with truffles. This vendor was also selling fresh truffles behind a little glass case – there are two types – black and white. A typical black truffle will cost about 50 euros (€550/kilo) while a white truffle will cost about 300 euros (€3300/kilo). There were two people in front of us that each bought white truffles and a line of others waiting their turn. We settled on the black truffle caviar and cheese instead; a diluted flavor for an affordable price.
Set with pasta for one evening’s dinner, we continued the search for the rest of our meals. On the way to the market, we had passed a man nonchalantly carrying a shopping bag with beautiful tail feathers and feet sticking out of it. As we rounded the next corner of the market, we found the source – a table full of game. This seemed like the perfect weekend challenge, so Nate bought a pheasant.
The menu complete, it was time to celebrate the beginning of the trip with champagne and oysters, one of the more popular stands at the farmers market. The two types of oysters we tried were deliciously fresh – one briney and delicate, the other smooth and plump.
Finally, with a grocery bag full of fresh ingredients, a pheasant – tail feather sticking out of the bag – and a corked Champagne bottle in hand, we boarded the bus and then the train to take our journey to Sierre, a quaint wine town in the middle of the Valais region. Somehow it did not feel all that out of place to have these items with us on public transportation. The other passengers were not staring at least. From platform 3 we started our trip from Genève and took the train north and then east around the lake.
The Jura mountains that surround Genève to our West and the distant French Alps on the other side of the lake to the South gave way until we were riding directly on the lake and surrounded once again by vineyards. So many vineyards, it’s obvious that no parcel of land will be wasted in such a small country. We passed the terraced Lavaux vineyards, a UNESCO world heritage site around Lausanne, where Nate would depart on the way back for a small day trip to Montreux and Gruyeres (here a few pictures of this sidetrip).
For now though, we continued on until the we saw the milky-blue waters of the Rhone in the middle of the valley surrounded by tall Swiss Alps. The Rhone bends and curves through Valais carrying runoff from the mountains to Lake Geneva. Some of the taller mountains had been covered in a dusting of snow since we last saw them in summer, and the river was a little lower this time of year. Following the river downstream, the green vineyards that we came for last time had all been converted into the most brilliant shades of yellow and red.
The relatively small Valais region produces 40% of Switzerland’s wine and is one of the most beautiful valleys in the Alps. Most of the grapes grown here are not on the valley floor, where the Rhone has deposited rocks and soil in the plain of the river and orchards of apples, pears and apricots now thrive. The vineyards are grown at a higher level, strung about on the steep slopes of the mountains. The angle of the slopes is good for growing wine because it maximizes the exposure to the sun. The stress of the minerally, chalky, gravely soil also helps to produce fantastic flavors. Above the belt of vineyards are pine trees and above the tree line are the grassy areas (“Alps”). This region is the sunniest and driest in Switzerland — the tall mountains block the clouds on either side of the valley and a west wind blows through the valley (called Foehn after the Roman god of wind: Favonius [or Zephyrus in Greek]) helping to push any clouds aways.
These vineyards have a fantastic history as indicated from their ancient name for wind. A region of winemaking immemorial! The Gauls harvested the wild grapes that grew here and when the Romans came over the Alps and pushed them out in 50 BC, wine making began. A millenium and half later during the middle ages, many Swiss left to become mercenaries (and in particular, served as a pike-army) in various conflicts of the French and Italian Kings. The Swiss Guard at the Vatican is still an example of this today. Upon their return to Switzerland, they brought back new varietals of grapes that grew in isolation until the mid 1800s when the railroad connected this area to the rest of Switzerland. Because of this history, several native varietals from this region are still only found here such as: Humagne, Cornalin, Diolinoir, Petite Arvine, Amigne, Arvine, Reze, and Muscat. The Valais government began preserving these diverse varietals about 20 years ago to ensure the diversity of plants remains in this area.
It gets dark early these days, so we arrived just in time to take a quick hour hike up the hill behind Sierre and see the soft light bringing out different yellows and oranges. The setting sun cast a pink hue on the glaciers and snow-capped mountains to the south and east as we climbed back down the hill and introduced Nate to his first taste of the local wine at Chateau De Villa.
The magnificent Chateau houses and serves 650 varieties of local wine. Its purpose is mainly to showcase all the wines of the area, so they only mark up the bottles 2-3 franks from the price at the vineyard. Most of these are not sold anywhere else in the world. The staff are excellent – so far their recommendations have been spot-on and introduced us to some of the most delicious wine we have ever tasted in any country. We all split the tasting of a 0.5 ml pour of wine and tried all of the local varieties that are found in this region. Humagne rouge, diolinoir, and petite arvine were all of our favorites. We got a bottle for dinner, thinking it would pair well with the pheasant, our next order of business. And it did.
Nate was tasked with the plucking duties. A quick youtube video and skype call to the Goldstein parents provided all the information we needed: boil and pluck (not pull). Then burn off the remaining down with a lighter if necessary. An hour later the floor was covered in a soft dusting of gray down, and the pheasant was no longer recognizable as an animal that might be running around in the bush, but now looked like food. Levi Strauss describes this important process, and the further act of cooking, as turning nature into culture, allowing us to separate ourselves from the rather inhumane act of killing.
We decided on an orange butter sauce for the pheasant, and a side of brussels sprouts with roasted chestnuts and pancetta. With only three pots and a convection oven to work with, cooking took a bit of juggling, but ended in a very satisfying dinner.
We started Sunday morning early, ready for a long hike through the terraced vineyards. We took the official wine hiking route from Sierre to Salgesch that started just behind our apartment and led up the hill behind us.
A quick detour took us to a castle for a view of the vineyards from above, but the only one home was this gentle giant of a dog, guarding his own castle.
We hiked 16.4 miles (not a typo) in total, over the sides of hills and through the valley. About three hours into our journey, coming into the town of Salgesch we noticed that the “Chemins” (French for “road) had all changed to “WanderWegs”, marking the transition between the French speaking part of Switzerland and the German speaking part. Salgesch is a quaint, beautiful town mostly made up of wine caves. We grabbed a quick glass of wine and a coffee while we planned our next stage of the hike. We were intrigued by the ibexes that can sometimes be seen in the nearby Pfyn-Finges Nature Park and thought it would be worth a try to see these creatures, not knowing at the time that a trip to this park would be an additional 4 hour commitment.
As we hiked, we found a few plots of land that still had grapes on the vines. They were either a lush dark purple or golden green, and when sampled, were clearly being saved for late harvest dessert wines. But a few stolen bunches gave us a great sugar-filled boost.
We passed up the opportunity to stop our hike at the last train station in town and ride home in comfort, and instead continued on to Pfyn-Finges to find our ibex. However, after a pretty but ibexless hike through the woods in the park with Nate summarizing all of the Game of Thrones books for us, we were ready to head back. Google maps took us along the highway and down a back road to a trail that appeared to lead to the main road home. We were impressed with the fact that google recognized this trail, but we’d learned that most trails here resemble goat paths, so decided maybe this would work. When the path ended at the banks of the Rhone, we cursed Google Maps for the detour. We should have known better. But with the light fading and an hour still remaining in our walk home, we had no other option but to cross the river. The Rhone river carries the snow melt from the glaciers in the east of Switzerland over to Lake Geneva. We quickly discovered how that feels on bare feet (notice the look of fear for the inevitable crossing on Chris’s face). As we were walking along the bank looking for the shallowest and narrowest part of the river, we did see hoof prints. A small consolation for this detour.
A quick crossing (Chris got the wettest, if you’re curious, because he tried to run), finally led us to the road towards raclette and Petite Arvine at the Chateau. Raclette, a cheese made from the local cows of the valley and served hot over potatoes, is a great way to warm up after a long day of hiking. Our waiter convinced us that they only proper way to enjoy it, especially on a Sunday, was with a glass of nice white wine. After this appetizer, we headed home for good to cook our mushroom pasta.
After dinner and while settling in for the night, Nate learned from a friend about a rare local wine. Grimentz glacier wine is a legend that can only be tasted in Grimentz village wine cellars, which requires a trip to Sierre and then a small post bus up the mountain to Grimentz. The story behind glacier wine is extremely simple: the casks are never completely emptied and each year new wine is added to the old. The oldest drops can be over 125 years old!
Nowadays glacier wine (Le Glacier) is produced mainly from Ermitage. The wine is usually aged for 10 to 15 years in a series of larch-wood barrels.The “Vin du Glacier” cannot be bought, only savoured in the cellars of the Anniviers, drawn directly from the barrel.
We read that unless you know a resident of the Val d’Anniviers who is prepared to share a glass from their personal reserves, there is only one solution if you want to try it: organized visits through the Grimentz Tourist Office at 5pm every Monday. BUT, at 10:45pm on Sunday night, just before closing, Nate ran back to the Chateau Du Villa just to check if there was ANY other way. As it turns out…
One man, Michel Savioz of Château de Ravire, actually does bottle and sell the Glacier wine from larchwood casks belonging to his great grandparents. And Chateau Du Villa just so happened to have a couple bottles in the cellar, which Nate bought. So now there is one bottle of this ancient tradition in Madison, and one in Geneva, and we have the arduent task of deciding when is ever an occasion special enough to break them open. Weekend successfully accomplished, we boarded the train back to Geneva the next morning having once again traded the space in our luggage that was filled with groceries for bottles of our new favorite Swiss wines.