Of the many autumn celebrations in Valais, Switzerland, none are more prominent than those surrounding the grape harvest. In a country where annual per capita consumption of wine is 48.3 bottles (as compared with 12.9 in America), anything having to do with wine in Switzerland is of huge importance. Unlike those of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa, the majority of Valais' vineyards reside on steep, rocky slopes. In Valais, hands and pruning sheers are the primary picking method employed. It's literally an "all hands on deck" affair.
It's all in the hands
Few things irritate me more than the hijacking of the early Renaissance term, "artisan." Artisanal and its first cousin, "handcrafted," are overworked, unregulated words that are Madison Avenue's treasured misnomers of edible products they want us to buy. The term "artisan" connotes high-quality, low production items made by artisans (craftsmen). I'm finding it a bit hard to believe Burger King's "artisanal bun" or Domino's Pizza's "artisanal crust" fit that description. That's not to say artisans are extinct. They are alive and well in many industries throughout the world. One particular place where artisans are flourishing is in the wineries of Valais. One can find many artisanal wines in Valais, but some of my favorites can be found at Nicolas Bagnoud's winery nestled in the north facing vineyards above the Rhone River valley.
Vigneron-encaveur, Nicolas Bagnoud, is a true artisan whose love of the terroir and the fruit it gives forth permeate every bottle of wine bearing his label. Bagnoud began producing high quality grapes in three vineyards - La Grangiere, Valencon and Tzahe - in 1980. For nearly two decades, Bagnoud sold his production to a local cooperative. But that changed in the late 1990s when Bagnoud decided to vinify his grapes, bringing onto the market a new label of stellar, and yes, artisanal wines. His well-earned moniker of artisan came from years of making handcrafted wines.
Bagnoud is one of 20,000 independent growers and 700 winemakers who own and work the approximately 12,300 acres of land under vine in Valais. Many families own vineyards handed down through centuries. Bagnoud's 15 acres of vineyards yield on average 44 tons of grapes vinified into 40,000 bottles of wine in his modest winery, all done by Bagnoud and two other full-time employees.
Growing the grapes, caring for the vines, harvesting and getting the grapes safely to the winery are labor-intensive tasks that occupy most of Bagnoud's time. And then there are the countless hours in the winery vinifying the grapes, and sleepless nights worrying about pests, weather and economic forces beyond Bagnoud's control. But at what point are his wines truly born? In the vats and barrels of the winery? In spring when the vines are pruned and readied for budding? In early summer during the veraison when the budding grapes begin to take on the color of their cepage (varietal)? Or is it the vendanges when the grape bunches are hand picked? For now, let's focus on the vendanges, the harvest and the time that marks the beginning of winemaking. The vendanges is well underway throughout the northern hemisphere, so it seems appropriate to take a closer look at the harvest of Valais' precious crop.
Under the Valaisan sun
The vendanges usually commences in early September and lasts through October when late ripening grapes such as Cornalin and those for sweet wines are harvested. It is a special time when families and friends gather to spend long - hopefully sunny - days in the vineyards. It's also a time when the daily fluctuations of weather are most challenging. Hail from a passing thunderstorm can destroy an entire crop in a matter of minutes. Rain when grapes are ready to pick can throw off the sugar/acidity balance. Mother Nature's sunshine smile in autumn can help bring about a perfect end to a long, stressful growing season.
Working the vendanges is a special experience, but one not to be taken lightly. Handling crates of grapes on steep slopes is hard labor. One wrong slip and a season's production in the crate can be lost. Accordingly, Bagnoud employs seven skilled workers for the three weeks of continuous work. But in some, very small family-owned vineyards, sometimes consisting of only a few rows of vines, family and friends are the primary sources of labor during the vendanges.
In 1992, I had the fortune of working a few days of the vendanges. Not much has changed since. It was a cold, overcast October and we worked in vineyards near Salgesch, one of the prime Valais appellations. My neighbor in Bluche, Fabianne Siggen, invited me to help a recently widowed friend bring in the harvest. Women ranging in age from early teens to late 70s were handed pruning shears and plastic crates. The men were there to do the heavy lifting as each full crate had to be carried down the steep slope to the half ton barrels on the vineyard road below. From there, the barrels were loaded onto small trucks - these are narrow, often steep roads so small is good - and taken to the cooperative in Sierre.
We picked fat, juicy Fendant grapes that are also tasty table grapes and made for yummy snacks during the hard work. If you think the women had it easy, we didn't. I had to climb the steep 200 feet to the uppermost part of the vineyard. Starting at the top, I sat on the rocky ground - that was the most painful part of all - clipped grape bunches, tossed them into the crate and slid down the next vine all the while clinging onto the crate filed with grapes. I was terrified to let go of it, fearing that, like a sled, the crate would take off and crash onto the road. I'm certain over the course of the two days I cut a half-ton of grapes, never losing a crate.
We were all treated with warm, Valaisan hospitality in gratitude for the long, arduous hours in the vineyard. Delicious lunches were served along with bottles of crisp Fendant. Glasses were hard to hold given my cramped fingers from hours of holding shears. At harvest's end, volunteers were feted with a raclette feast complete with dried meats and sausages all washed down with Fendant, Dole and Pinot Noir, a time-honored tradition repeated throughout the region. Not a single food or liquid served came from further than 10 miles of our location. A locavore's dream!
So the harvest, in my opinion, is where it all begins for the wine. The intense high-cost labor component required for hand-picking grapes plus high land values combine to make Swiss wines a bit expensive for the export market. Approximately 99 percent of Swiss wines are consumed domestically. Increasingly the wines are finding export markets and can even be found at the Swiss Chalet at the Sonnenalp in Vail. But for now, the best Valais wines, including those from Bagnoud and Simon Maye et Fils, are best enjoyed in the alpine paradise of their birth, paired with all the epicurean treats it has to offer. More on that next week!
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her "Behind the Scenes" series, go to www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.