How Europe’s highest vineyard ended up with 500 owners and Indian connections

Get high on Switzerland this summer, writes Renu Chahil-Graf from her Swiss mountain retreat. There are many reasons to visit, not least its exceptional food and wines and salubrious climate.

The highest altitude vineyard in Europe is known to be in Visperterminen, a village of 1,400 people, nestled in a mountain range just across from the Saas valley in the Valais region of Switzerland. The vineyards stretch contiguously up the mountain, winding upwards from 650 metres to 1,150 metres. The process of cultivation in these vineyards is carried out in a unique manner. Five hundred individuals collectively own the 48 hectares of vines. The smallest holding is 50 square metres and the largest five hectares. The main cellar, Saint Jodern Kellerei, has been established as an Association, with grapes from 45 of the 48 hectares being bought to the cooperative cellar for vinification.

Vineyard views

Vineyard views

No professionals are employed in the vineyards. These are family owned plots for generations and have been passed on to their offspring, sometimes divided into smaller parcels. Each plot is tended and cared for solely by the family, with all pitching in to help, parents and grandparents included. It is all a family affair, says manager, Markus Burgener, and they do it as “a hobby, a passion”.

While wines typical of the Valais are also produced here, such as Johannisberg, Fendant and Pinot Noir, the Heida grape is indigenous to this region. Of the three varieties, Heida Veritas is the most special, with only 3,000 numbered bottles produced annually with the wine aged in concrete “eggs”.

Local Visperterminen resident

Local Visperterminen resident

In 2013, in a surprise to local residents, the Heida Visperterminen AOC 2012 won the gold medal at Expo Vina 2013, best nation-wide wine; and the Johannisberg won the gold at the Vin du Valais 2013 for the best cantonal-wide wine. These wines are also called “glacier wines” and the quality has been improving every year, especially with the arrival of winemaker Alain Helmrich, from Alsace. The annual production of the area is 300,000 litres per year, with one-third being sold directly from the cellar.

Switzerland’s Ambassador to India, Dr Linus von Castelmur, said, “I am a great fan of Heida wine which is made from this very unique and ancient variety of grapes. They are grown in steep terraced vineyards and attract lots of sunshine, which you’ll find again in your glass in liquid form – a fresh, fruity, white wine!”

Swiss wines are high quality products, often produced using organic practices and are best tasted on the spot in Switzerland. India’s wine aficionados will need to travel to Switzerland to taste these exceptional wines, including the award-winning Heida, since production is just about enough for those living in this country. In fact, Heida wines rarely make it out of the Valais!

In addition to Switzerland’s scenic beauty and Bollywood connections, Swiss wine and food is another good reason to visit the region. A popular local event in Visperterminen is the annual, “Walk, Wine and Food Fest”. According to Damian Indermitte, the young and dynamic director at the Vispertiminen Tourist Office, “the tour is sold out within 15 minutes of being posted on the website. Before starting, walkers are given a wine glass placed in a pouch around the neck. At each stage of the tour, they get to taste a food specialty of the region along with a glass of wine”.

Pascal and Roger sampling the latest vintage

Pascal and Roger sampling the latest vintage

Among Indian travellers to the region, Swami Vivekananda was one of the earliest. He came to neighbouring Saas-Fee in 1896 for two weeks for its salubrious climate, clean air and immaculate glacial waters. As explained by MK Lokesh, Ambassador of India to Switzerland, “Swamiji found this pristine mountain village to be spiritually uplifting, akin to the Himalayas. The time spent here played an important role in the life of this sage who was equally a social reformer and educationist.”

Swami Vivekananda statue

Swami Vivekananda statue

In 2013 the village honoured Swami Vivekananda on his 150th birth anniversary by installing a bronze bust outside the local museum. Sunny Saas-Fee, called the Pearl of the Alps, is a small resort, surrounded by a range of mountains, including the gently crested Allalin and some of the highest peaks in Switzerland, known as the Mischabel, with the Dom reaching 4,545 metres (14,911 ft) at the summit.

“From up there, we look down on the Matterhorn!” says Medy Hirschier, owner and manager of the Schweizerhof Hotel, proudly. With one of the best cellars in the region, the hotel offers a Wine and Dine menu, with wines from the Valais, which are the preferred choice of 96% of hotel guests, as well as locals.

Saas-Fee preserves a traditional Swiss village environment while offering all modern amenities. It is unique in its location, cradled in a sunny valley and a mountain-hop across from the Visperterminen wine-growing area. It makes a perfect base to visit the region. Director of Saas-Fee’s Tourist Office, Pascal Schaar, says, “Every effort is made to maintain the authentic nature of this mountain village with old Swiss style houses. Any new construction has to made 33% of wood and the roofs have to be of local slate. If you want a true Swiss mountain experience, head for Saas-Fee!” The village caters to all ages and is active in all seasons. Summer activities include mountain walks and guided hikes at various skill levels. Cable cars operate year round, taking the traveller to higher altitudes to watch the cuddly marmottes, who show themselves only in the summer, visit an ice pavilion and enjoy one of the highest revolving restaurants in the world.

Saas Fee village in summer

Saas Fee village in summer

In the village, popular activities include an outdoor adventure trail for young people, and a sports centre with an Olympic size pool, tennis, table tennis and other games. Saas-Fee has received numerous awards, including Best Hiking destination in the summer of 2012, Top destination for Families 2012/2013 and the most beautiful mountain sports region of the year 2011.

The mayor of the village, Roger Kalbermatten, enthusiastically invites people from India to visit, noting, “It is a welcoming, open-minded village, with a friendly local population and year-round activities. A great getaway and no cars are allowed in the village. Saas-Fee has a special connection with India since the stay of Swami Vivekananda”.

Indian tourists who miss Indian cuisine and vegetarian food, will be delighted to discover Little India in Saas-Balen, en route to Saas-Fee, run by Peter and Helena Bunat-Imhof. For 10 years this entrepreneurial couple ran a Swiss-Italian restaurant in Goa. Returning to Switzerland, they first opened a Swiss restaurant Bellevue, but quickly switched to Indian cuisine, seeing its popularity. “There was a demand for something special,” said Peter, “and Indian food is the best in the world!”

vineyard walk copy

Walking through Europe’s highest vineyard

The success of the restaurant is also undoubtedly due to the eclectic menu, which combines European ingredients with Indian flavours, such as cream of fennel and curry soup. Apart from traditional tandoori favourites, the menu includes dishes from Kashmir to Kerala, making for a fascinating and varied selection, a testament to Peter’s skills as a creative and passionate chef. Many vegetarians come specifically for the “thali”. Cobra beer and Indian wine are served although Sula is the only brand available. Peter misses an Indian bubbly and would like to offer a larger selection of Indian wines for his eager customers. Exporters, take note!

By Renu Chahil-Graf
Renu is a writer, who has lived and worked in the Geneva area for twenty-something years.
This article was first published in Sommelier India.

More information:

Visperterminen Walk, Wine and Food Fest has three different wine walks
WII-GRILL Every first Saturday in September, from Visp in the vineyard to Oberstalden, about
4.5 kilometres. CHF 95 per person.
SOMMER WEINTOUR For the first from Visperterminen by chairlift up to 2,000 metres, then back to Visperterminen, about five kilometres. Price CHF 95.
GSOTTUS WALK Every last Saturday in January and first Saturday in March with snowshoes.
About three kilometres, the walk includes a dining stop with the typical winter Valais dish called “Gsottus”. Price CHF 105 per head.
For further details:

Saas-Fee offers a true mountain experience with exceptional wines from the highest vineyards in Europe. While Indian tourists have visited many of the better known regions of Switzerland, this area is well worth exploring.

Getting there
From Zurich or Geneva airports, direct trains go to Visp, every hour connecting Postbus to Saas-Fee or Visperterminen. Total trip, under 3 hours.

Where to stay
Hotels, chalets and apartments available for all budgets. For the best spas including ayurvedic treatments, check out Hotel Ferienart and Hotel Schweizerhof.

Where to eat
Excellent restaurants for Swiss and local favourites in the village, in the forests and in the mountains, including the highest revolving restaurant – 360 degrees. Italian fine dining, Hotel Allalin. Cosiest, Waldhus Bodmen.

Summer/winter excursions
Wine-tasting, skiing, snowshoe walking, mountain hikes, biking, day trips to neighbouring locales including Zermatt.

The best of skiing and hiking ware. Local crafts and Swiss handiwork. Local wines. Fresh food stores.

Adventure trail, swimming, hikes, day/night sledging, rock/ice climbing, tobogganing.

Useful links:
Saas Fee website
Heidadorf website
St Jodern cellar website

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