This post (the third of a three-part Switzerland travel series) was written by Deborah Grossman from the San Francisco Bay Area.
There’s no denying that Lausanne and the Montreux Riviera of Lake Geneva offer many attractions. But the charming wine country and mountain area of Valais is a short drive or train ride southeast of the lake. The name is derived from the Roman word for valley. The Rhone River begins in the Valais Alps and flows through the plains, meandering south to the celebrated wine region of France.
With a similar terroir to the French Rhone Valley, the Valais is the largest wine-producing region in Switzerland. Though much of Swiss wine is produced by smaller wineries and consumed in-country, some wineries present creative and alluring tasting rooms and a few export to the U.S.
In addition to oenophiles, skiers and hikers will also be at home in this Alpine region. The spas of Leukerbad and other villages are famous for R&R of the water-plunge sort. As for gastronomy, the specialty is raclette, the warmed Alpine cheese served with accoutrements.
Sion: The sunniest Swiss town
I reveled in the emerging beauty of the Alps as the train edged higher from Montreux to Sion, the capital of the Valais. Arriving in Sion an hour later, the air felt fresher and the sun, brighter. The sun shines here more than other towns in the country. Unlike the Lake Geneva area where everyone speaks French (and English), here about half speak French and the others, German—and most speak English.
Wine has been produced in the Valais since Roman times. In the Valais, I was told by several locals, people don’t ask where you are from. They say, “Where are your vineyards?” In Sion, vines dot the surrounding landscape and border the Old Town. In the Valais, wines tend to be richer due to the warmer weather. Apricots are another major agricultural product, and saffron is also grown here.
In this pedestrian and bike friendly city, red tiles mark the Old Town streets. The city sponsors excellent wine tours with a visit to three monuments—including a “haunted” tower and a church with roman ruins below—and a total of five wines with charcuterie and cheese at the finish.
For wine tasting, Domaine du Mont d’Or, at the western entrance to the town, delivers an outstanding introduction to chasselas, a local grape which can be described as a more flavorful chardonnay. In the Valais the wine is called fendant.
Vineyard tours at Domaine du Mont d’Or include an overview of grapes grown and cultivating practices, plus stunning views of the ancient, terraced walls as the vineyard rows crawl up the mountain. The Romans grew grapes on the winery’s vineyards, and the 19th century cellar offers a historic glimpse of the property. The modern tasting room, built into the cave, presents a fascinating cheese and wine pairing with fendant, Johannisberg (sylvaner) and pinot noir with more gourmet treats from La Fromateque next door.
Varen: Home to the “Butterfly Vineyard”
After a 20-minute train ride from Sion to Leuk and a short drive, I arrived in the picturesque village of Varen. Responding to growing wine tourism in the Valais, several local vintners have established a sparkling bed and breakfast spot, B & B Zum Scheif, in the center of the village. The accommodations afford splendid views of the Alps and Rhone valley, breakfast is plentiful, and you can taste local wines in the cellar.
There are beautiful hiking trails in the vineyards behind the B & B. Here you can appreciate the natural and sustainable philosophy of Varen winegrowing. Vintners explain that butterflies love their vineyards because they are attracted to the feast of succulent flowers in the cover crops between the healthy vines.
Near the village church overlooking the Rhone River, C. Varonier & Söhn winery presents a unique wine tasting experience. Most farmers in Varen have always sold their grapes, but Andy Varonier’s grandfather started the first Varen winery in 1955. As Andy Varonier pours your wine, he shares stories about his family and the butterfly vineyards.
Insider’s Tip: Ask for the Varonier Gold Range pinot noir, chardonnay, and (chasseslas) in the Valais region. Call ahead for delicious charcuterie and platters to pair with the wine.
Leukerbad: Thermal baths and more
Not far from Varen is the village of Leukerbad, known since Roman times for it hot spring baths. With over 65 thermal springs—eight are currently used with four designated for public use—visitors can relax and rejuvenate with classic spa experience or a range of services from Ayurveda to typical Alpine treatments.
For cultural experiences, consider one of the many events such as Roman-Irish night at the Walliser Alpentherme & Spa. There are also over 30 miles of ski slopes accessible to the village. Hikers can explore many trails or the Gemmi Pass by taking the cable car, rising up to 3,000 feet in only six minutes.
Raclette, warmed Alpine cheese, presented on a plate with accouterments of boiled potatoes and onions and mustard, is a specialty of the area. According to legend, a Valais winegrower warmed his cheese over an open log fire on a cold day. The name derives from the French racler, to scrape.” Raclette is a communal, convivial meal where much beer and many stories are exchanged.
Insider’s Tip: Restaurant Sterner in Leukerbad offers a fine presentation of raclette in the village with friendly bar and patio.
Vispertiminen: Europe’s highest vineyard
Start your elevated wine journey in Visp, the larger village below Vispertiminen. Head over to the winery Johanneli Fi Weinkeller and ring the bell at the unassuming front gate. With a friendly greeting, owner Rainer Zimmermann escorts you down a long hall ending at murals of the mythical woman on the wine label. You soon learn that the inspiration for the winery name came from a legendary vintner who made wine from glacier water.
When Zimmermann inherited the family vineyards, he switched careers and delved into winemaking. His philosophy is simple: “All you need to live is friends, wine, cheese and bread.” His wines, especially heida, another name for savagnin, a grape better known in the French Jura region, pinot noir, riesling, and merlot are excellent.
Zimmermann’s grapes come from Vispertiminen, home to the highest vineyards in Europe at 3,755 feet. The nickname for Vispertiminen is Heidadorf—Heida Town. You can hike through thes awe-inspiring vineyards on the new Heida Trail. Meandering through these unique vineyards for 2.6 miles, many markers along the trail depict Vispertiminen history and viticulture. The steep vineyards are awe-inspiring.
Directly below the vineyards is the St. Jodern Kellerei. A co-op winery, grapes from the 500 St. Jodern members are processed at the modern facility. At the tasting bar and bistro tables, you can sample wines such as their 2012 Heida Barrique that won top wine at a London tasting in 2014.
The tiny village of Vispertiminen has several historic houses which documents local life. Vispertiminen also hosts a ski lift at Mont Rothorn. Next door is Hotel Rothorn with comfortable rooms, bar and restaurant.
During the bus ride down the hill from Vispertiminen to the Visp train station, residents from nearby villages hopped on. The bus driver gave a rhythmic, three-horn salute as he rounded especially severe curves on the mountain, a musical ode to the Valais’ beautiful geography
Deborah Grossman is a freelance food, drink and travel writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find samples of her travels at deborahgrossman.com.