Valais: The Lay of the Land

A recently published inventory of vines by the Office Cantonal de la Viticulture in Valais offers some perspective on where the canton stands in its effort to refocus on native varieties. The newest vine register provides a snapshot of the changes from 1991 to 2017.

The first key takeaway is that the surface area dedicated to vines has shrunk from 5266 ha. in 1991 to 4825 ha. in 2017—a net loss of 441 ha. or equivalent to the area under vine in Graubünden. All of that loss, and more, is attributable to white varieties which decreased from 2454 ha. to 1884 ha. Red varieties actually saw a net gain from 2812 ha. to 2941 ha.

Interestingly, the two primary red grapes—Pinot Noir and Gamay—did not participate in the gain in surface area for reds, but, in fact, sustained a significant loss of coverage. Pinot Noir fell from 1732 ha. in 1991 to 1445 ha. in 2017. Likewise, Gamay fell from 984 ha. to 554 ha.

The primary white grape, Chasselas, suffered the most significant loss of all varieties falling from 1875 ha. in 1991 to 849 ha. in 2017—a whopping 55% decrease. Only Muscat and Riesling are modest losers from among the remaining white varieties.

The big white winners are Petite Arvine (39 ha. to 211 ha.); Savagnin (14 ha. to 171 ha.); Amigne (18 ha. to 42 ha.);. Humagne Blanche (6 ha. to 29 ha.); Chardonnay (46 ha. to 73 ha.); Marsanne (35 ha. to 45 ha.); Sauvignon Blanc (1 ha. to 24 ha.); Pinot Gris (52 ha. to 67 ha.); and Réze (1 ha. to 3 ha.). The German transplant, Johannisberg (Sylvaner), remained roughly the same at 270 hectares.

Among the red varieties Cornalin (14 ha. to 149 ha.); Humagne Rouge (44 ha. to 142 ha.); Syrah (19 ha. to 170 ha.); and Merlot (1 ha. to 134 ha.) are the big winners. Cabernet Sauvignon (3 ha. to 27 ha.) and Cabernet Franc (2 ha. to 27 ha.) achieved modest gains.

As one would expect the average age of vines is highest among the legacy varieties of Chasselas, Pinot Noir and Gamay and lowest among the most recent hectarage gainers Petite Arvine, Cornalin, Humagne Rouge and Syrah. The overall average age of vines in Valais is a respectable 26.8 years.

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Courtesy: Office Cantonal de la Viticulture

So what does the data tell us?

First, the sustained trend is toward autochthonous varieties. They are a distinguishing feature of Valais and will serve it well in both foreign and domestic markets.

The most obvious candidates for replacement are Chasselas, which has already lost significant hectarage but could be pared down a bit more; Pinot Noir, which may be too pervasive in some of the less hospitable warmer sites; and, perhaps, Johannisberg, which is somewhat emblematic of Valais but not to the exclusion of other under represented native whites like Réze, Humagne Blanche and Diolle. The three cut candidates are also on the lower end of the value scale and only enhance the economy when produced in volume. Autochthonous varieties tend to be lower-yielding but are higher value.

Second, a few French transplants have proven their worth over the years and deserve an increased presence in Valais. Syrah and Savagnin are two varieties that seem to fare well in Valais and they provide a positive, high-value proposition.

Third, it has become increasingly clear that climate change has arrived in Swiss vineyards. Cool climate varieties like Pinot Noir may be better suited to the north-facing, left bank of the Rhone where there is less direct exposure at the end of the day. This would clear the way for under-represented red varieties like Cornalin, Humagne Rouge and a couple of near extinct varieties Durize and Goron to assume a greater role.

Fourth, while not directly inferred from the data, there is value to matching the variety to the place. Amigne is virtually synonymous with Vétroz, Petite Arvine with Fully and Goron with Bovernier. I believe specialization should be considered in any vineyard configuration as added value.

Take a look at the chart above and the link to the cantonal website for more information.

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