The Valais is the largest wine region and appellation in Switzerland, responsible for around one third of the country's total wine production. The main vineyard area covers the southeast-facing slopes of the dramatic Rh?ne river valley as the glacial waters run southwest between Leuk (Loeche in French) and Fully. The river changes direction at Martigny and then runs northwest to exit the valley and empty into Lac Léman (Lake Geneva).
Vineyard area here comes to around 4,800 hectares (11,800 acres) and is generally located on (often steep) slopes and terraces between the flat, fertile, heavy soils at the bottom of the valley - often given over to fruit production, industry and urban development - and the bare rock of the mountainside that towers above.
The Valais terroir is one of the world's most dramatic. The valley benefits from its sheltered position below the high alpine peaks, with the most obvious bonus being the fohn wind, which keeps the area unusually warm and dry considering its altitude (most vines grow here at between 460 and 760m - 1500-2500ft).
The fohn effect is also enjoyed by Ticino, although there, mountain weather systems bring sporadic, heavy rainfall.
Vertiginous alpine topography also gives the vines in Valais the advantage of emphasized vineyard orientation and many are planted on steep gradients of up to 90% (42 degrees). This steepness, although making it markedly harder to manage and harvest the vines, brings the significant benefits of excellent drainage and increased exposure to sunlight.
Production is centered around the towns and villages that run along the 50km (30 mile) section of the valley from Martigny in the southwest to Leuk, northeast. It is not unusual to see labels mention both variety and town, such as "Amigne de Vétroz" or "Fendant de Sion".
This commune-based labelling convention is a reasonably widespread Swiss quirk as most appellations in the country follow broad, cantonal boundaries yet allow the name of the commune (sometimes even cadastral names and "lieu-dits") on the label.
In the case of the Valais, a commune or local name can placed on the label so long as at least 85 percent of the grapes came from that area. The remaining 15 percent or less must come from a neighbouring zone. This convention is often confused with an appellation title.
The only exception to this is the Grand Cru system which operates in a few Swiss regions, including Valais. Valais boasts 12 Grand Cru vineyard communes, or areas, each with specific grape varieties and restrictions on production (the Grand Cru title is not conferred geographically by vineyard as in Burgundy). These communes are:
- Chamoson - Sylvaner (Johannisberg), Petite Arvine, Pinot Noir or Syrah
- Conthey - Chasselas (Fendant), Savagnin Blanc, Pinot Noir or Cornalin
- Fully - Petite Arvine, Ermitage (Marsanne), Gamay or Syrah
- Leytron - Chasselas (Fendant), Humagne Blanc, Humagne Rouge or Cornalin
- Saillon - Petite Arvine, Humagne Rouge, Cornalin or Syrah
- Saint-Leonard - Chasselas (Fendant) or Pinot Noir
- Salgesch - Salquenen - Gamay, Pinot Noir, Cornalin or Syrah
- Saviese - Chasselas (Fendant), Pinot Noir or D?le (Pinot Noir & Gamay)
- Sierre - Petite Arvine, Ermitage (Marsanne), Cornalin or Syrah
- Vetroz - Amigne, Chasselas (Fendant), Pinot Noir or Gamay
- Ville de Sion - Chasselas (Fendant), Ermitage (Marsanne), D?le (Pinot Noir & Gamay) or Syrah
- Visperterminen - Savagnin Blanc (Heida/Paien)
Grand Cru wines tend to be relatively rare, however.
In total, Valais produces an annual average of around 45 million liters. It is planted predominantly to Pinot Noir (just under 30 percent) and Fendant/Chasselas (17 percent). The former is sometimes blended with Gamay (over 10 percent of vineyard area) to produce the region's light red "D?le" blend.
Historically, inferior D?le was declassified into "Goron", whose name has historical overlap with the local Goron de Bovernier grape, still grown in minute quantities. The Goron blend remains, albeit more locally, with the proportions inverted and Gamay dominating.
Both red blends can be complemented with other varieties also regularly seen locally and often bottled as single-varietal wines by the region's numerous small, often family-run outfits. These include the Gamay hybrids Garanoir and Gamaret, as well as the local Diolinoir, Cornalin and Humagne Rouge varieties. The latter are little-known red varieties rarely seen outside the Valais (even in the other Swiss regions they are relatively rare).
Indeed, the Valais is home to an array of lesser-known and obscure varieties. Amigne, often mentioned in the same breath as the commune of Vétroz, covers only 40 hectares (99 acres) worldwide, 33 of which (81 acres) are in Vétroz. Petite Arvine is also rarely seen outside of the mountainous region. Humagne Rouge is completely isolated in this ampelographer's haven.
More internationally, both Marsanne and Syrah have climbed up the Rh?ne to the vineyards here, with Marsanne named Ermitage after its ancestral home, Hermitage. Pinot Gris (also called "Malvoisie" in Switzerland) and Chardonnay are also encountered.
Outside of the main growing area, vineyards are dotted around the canton. Further up into the valley beyond Leuk, which vaguely sits on the dividing line between the French- and German-speaking parts of Switzerland, are the vines of Visp - Viege and the vertiginous Visperterminen.
There are also small plantings on the "wrong" side of the valley, on generally northwest-facing slopes in the main area of production and on the northeastern facing side of the valley below Lake Geneva, opposite the Chablais region of Vaud (the Rh?ne here marks the cantonal boundary).
The vines here are owned and tended by an impressive number of independent vignerons – more than 20,000 – most of whom sell their grapes under contract or group together as co-operatives. A growing number make and market their own wines.