I am walking the southern part of a walk called the Francigena; a path which originates from the 9th century, if not older. I am starting this portion from Martigny, Switzerland, crossing
the Swiss Alps through the Gran San Bernard Pass, and down into the city of Aosta, Italy. From Geneva, my friend and colleague Ron Mills and I took a train through Lausanne to Martigny, arriving in time to do a tasting at Cave la 5e Saison, a small producer of wines in the region.
The you see at the very bottom of the map, Valais, is where the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) lies in Switzerland. Politically, for good or ill, but certainly for good in the area of grapes, Switzerland lies as an intersecting point for influences from France, Germany, Austria, and Italy, as well as having developed its own varietals. One of the first grapes, attributed to the Valais Region of Switzerland, is Petit Arvine, a lovely aromatic, high acid white grape. It is considered possibly the best white grape of the region. We tried a Fendant white as well (called Chasselas everywhere but in this area), which is as close to the technical term, “summer porch pounder” that I use to describe a less complex wine. The Petit Arvine wines we tried were an excellent, and particularly the one that was a reserve from higher vineyards in the Martigny region.
There were some enjoyable other wines, but one that I would pick out as another amazing native wine is the Humagne Rouge. Once thought to have originated in Aosta Italy, it is now attributed to the Valais region, and even thought to be extinct in Aosta (a fact pointed out with some pride at the winery we visited). It also seems to grow particularly well in Martigny – the slopes in Italy seem to have too much cold and rainy weather, and Swiss vineyards in neighboring villages seem to have a bit more wind than those on the slopes of Martigny.
As we walk through the valley on our way up from Martigny, you can’t help but note the ways in which climactic and topographic factors are maximized to make sure the grapes get ripe. South facing vineyards on small terraces maximize aspect, the intensity of the sun. Virtually no vineyards are on the north facing slopes, which get little sun, and almost nothing on the fertile valley floor. Closer to Geneva, grapes are also planted similarly, but additionally, close to the lake, as a way to maximize the winter heat sink of the lake, along with the cooling aspect of the summer waters.