The vineyards continue to pile up to right and left along the valley towards Martigny, occupying every conceivable space as well as many apparently inconceivable ones. At the edge of the village of Vétroz is Domaine Jean-René Germanier, one of the big players in the valley with around 160 hectares of vines, 45 of which are wholly owned by them and the rest rented.
The estate was created by Urbain Germanier, a carpenter by trade, who decided in 1896 at the tender age of 23 to exchange cabinet-making for winemaking. During most of the 20th century, the Germanier name was associated more with the Williams pear brandy pioneered by the family than with the wines that nowadays distinguish it. Today the estate is run jointly by Urbain’s grandson Jean-René Germanier and Jean-René’s nephew Gilles Besse. In the 1990s, when Switzerland took its great leap forward in the wine quality stakes, Germanier shifted its focus to producing the best wines their multiple terroirs could possibly deliver. They farm some sites that amply qualify for truly breathtaking status, and produce an artist’s palette of wines, some of which slumber in their splendid, 200-year-old vaulted cellars beneath the winery.
As befits a winery situated in the Amigne heartland that is Vétroz, this luscious grape is a bit of a queen in the hive. My two standouts here are the elegant Amigne de Vétroz Grand Cru (their Mémoire des Vins Suisses wine), which grows in the scrappy slate and glacial moraine of the steep Balavaud hillside close to the village, and the legendary Mitis, a golden nectar (and naturally sweet, ConfidenCiel Grain Noble wine),
which is meted out by the drop from slender halfbottles.
Fendant is also well represented, ranging from the screwcapped, entry-level village wine to three more from named vineyards. A fine idea, and a good way to get a feel for how Fendant reflects faithfully the site in which it is grown, is to settle down at one of the scrubbed wooden tables in the subterranean caveau and try each of them with a plate of raclette with cured meats and potatoes, served at weekends or on reservation during the week.
Their best-known wine by miles is Syrah Cayas. The celebrated grape, while not indigenous to the Valais, nevertheless has a long history in the region, having made its way upstream to Switzerland in 1921 from its homeland in France’s Rhone Valley (think Côte Rôtie and Hermitage). The famously hot, dry climate of the Valais suited Syrah just fine, and it soon got its feet down and started producing sizeable quantities of decent, drinkable wine, mostly designed for prompt consumption rather than long ageing.
Germanier, in common with other key local producers, had long been aware of the grape’s potential here in the Valais to produce not just easy-drinking but grand, long-lived wines. In 1991 they planted four hectares on a number of different plots around the village. The wine’s name, Cayas (the final “s” is pronounced), refers to the loose stones or caillasse in French, which are a feature of the terroir. The wine shows clear signs of the relentless alpine sun, combining leathery spiciness with richness and elegance while managing most years to remain fresh and elegant. It’s a complex wine that wins many awards, both local and international, and an impressive tally of Parker points.
Two further favourites of mine among Germanier wines are Heida and Pinot Noir, specifically those grown in the grandiose Clos de la Couta vineyard high above the village of Vex in the wild and beautiful Val d’Hérens. My intense enjoyment of both wines is certainly influenced by the fact that I first tasted them in situ in this magnificent vineyard. Carved into the mountainside, it’s cradled in a sort of natural amphitheatre at between 650 and 800 metres where 1.7 hectares of vines somehow find a precarious footing. “They’re our closest vineyards to the Matterhorn”, claims Gilles Besse with his trademark grin.
I also share Gilles’ fondness for Cornalin, a typically Valaisan variety which, as he freely admits, is a complicated grape to grow, like a wayward child needing careful supervision. Cornalin Chamaray (formerly known as Champmarais)
comes from the eponymous, gently sloping vineyard above Conthey, which they planted in 1999. Robust and delicious with terrific attack, it’s a wild child of the Valais, unlike any other red you’ve ever tasted.
WINES TO LOOK OUT FOR:
Wines are available from their online shop. Visits and tastings
welcomed Friday and Saturday evenings, or by appointment.
Raclette, fondue, cocktail dinner or brisolée served on request in
the vaulted cellar.
Chemin du Vignoble vineyard trail, Stage 2, Sion to Saillon
Sue Style / Bergli Books