CRANS MONTANA, SWITZERLAND — I’m thrilled when my Swiss friend Pierre Henri tells me we’re going to have a wine and cheese party. But first, he tells me, “we must make the cheese and then bottle the wine.”
Pierre Henri delivers the news in the early morning light while we’re trudging across an Alpine pasture that’s mined with giant cow pats (dung).
“Watch your step,” the wise-cracking Swiss guide tells me as we near the Corbyre farm — it produces a high quality version of a traditional cheese called raclette, which this Vallée region of Switzerland is so famous.
If you’ve never had raclette, then you’ve never had good Swiss cheese, the people in this chic Alpine town will tell you.
The semi-hard cow’s milk cheese is fashioned into a wheel — weighing about 5kg each — then heated on a special apparatus and scrapped off onto either potatoes or bread. It’s absolutely delicious and especially popular with the skiers who invade Crans Montana each winter to enjoy the fabulous runs that nature has carved into the surrounding Alpine mountains.
Above: Switzerland's wine routes cut through some of the most breathtaking landscape in the world.
Our arrival at the Corbyre cheese farm is heralded by a symphony of bells — the herd, about 150 black cows, are decked out in traditional collars called treicheln or glocken, which have a giant bell attached. They’re used to keep track of the herd when they roam the far-off mountain pastures. Some of the collars bare the family crests of their owners — 27 different farmers house their cows at Corbyre.
Pierre Henri calls out “Stephane” and a few seconds later a tall, muscular man appears at the entrance to the barn wearing white rubber boots and a white rubber apron. The two men embrace and Pierre Henri introduces me to Stephane Robillard, the cheesemaker whose roots in the business go back generations.
Stephane and his farmhands have been up since 4 a.m. gathering the 350 litres of milk needed to produce eight raclette wheels.
Their job done, the cows are released from the barn and head off into the lush mountain pastures — the surrounding hills come alive with the sound of their bells.
Now it’s time for Stephane to make the cheese.
He pours the milk into a giant copper pot and heats it until it reaches 39C, the proper temperature to make the raclette.
Above: Switzerland's famed raclette cheese is produced by contended cows and artisans like Stephane Robillard.
“It takes about four hours from the time we milk the cows until the cheese is prepared,” says Stephane, who adds: “There’s actually 15 stages to the process.”
The herd is made up of black Héren cows, a hearty variety that produces a high quality of milk. Héren are also known as “fighting cows” and a competition is held each year in Vallée to find the “queen” cow.
“If your cow is crowned queen, then her veau (calves) will bring top dollar at auction,” says Stephane, who has produced two queens.
After the raclette is made, Stephane places the cheese discs in a hut at the back of his farm where it matures for three months.
“This cheese hut dates back to 1755,” Pierre Henri tells me. “Every day, Stephane comes here to turn the cheese as part of the aging process.”
Each raclette disc sells for about 100 Swiss francs ($150 Cdn) and Stephane produces about 600 a year.
“In the winter, Stephane is a ski instructor — one of our best,” says Pierre Henri.
Stephane presents us with a raclette wheel and we head off in the direction of the Rhône River where much of Switzerland’s wine is produced.
Our route to the vineyards cuts through posh Crans Montana, where celebrities like the late movie star Roger Moore (James Bond) and golf notables Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott own homes. The 125-year-old town plays host to the annual Omega Masters golf tournament, one of the European Tour’s top events, at the incredibly beautiful Crans-sur-Sierre Golf Club. Crans Montana is also dotted with Michelin-star restaurants and 5-star resorts and bumping into a Hollywood star is not unusual.
Above: Switzerland produces a small amount of wine but the quality is so high it's in big demand in London and Paris.
A winding road leads us to ancient vineyards that cascade down steep slopes to the Rhône River. The vines flourish here because of a hot, dry climate and the protection offered by the majestic Alpine mountains that rise on both sides of the narrow river.
Most of the wine towns are perched high above the river, because, as Catherine Antille, a local wine expert tells me when we arrive in charming Lens, “the river had a history of flooding in Medieval times so people moved to higher ground.”
As we walk through Lens, Antille tells me grape growing here dates back to 800BC, but it really took off when the Romans arrived.
“The Rhône Valley was the highway to Italy, the main trading route in ancient times,” says Antille, who tells me two thirds of the people in this region speak French and the rest speak German.
The town’s museum is located in a charming house that dates back to 1644 and showcases artefacts left behind by the valley’s earliest settlers.
Here I learn that Switzerland has 15,000 hectares of vineyards and one of the oldest vineyards in the world, dating back 1,500 years, is located at the nearby Abbey of St. Maurice. There are 252 varieties of grapes grown in Switzerland but just four, Pinot Noir, Chasselas, Gamay and Merlot make up two thirds of Swiss wines. While 61 per cent of wine production in Vallée is red, Antille tells me one of the most popular wines here is Petite Arvine, a hearty white grape variety that is considered the “jewel of Vallée wines.”
The vineyards spread out in all directions and wines produced here are highly rated by industry experts, and highly sought after in places like London and Paris.
“Because we produce so little wine, we export very little,” says Antille as we walk through the lush vineyards until we reach neighbouring Vaas.
The guide stops in front of an old tavern — circa 1557 — that has murals painted on its exterior. She draws my attention to a faded sign above the entrance which reads: “If you do not have money, there is no need to stop.”
“The innkeepers back then did not take credit cards,” laughs Antille, who invites me inside to sample some of the region’s fine wines.
Afterwards, we visit one of Vallée’s better-known wineries — Cave La Romaine is a wine co-operative that produces 120,000 bottles a year in a state-of-the-art facility. Some of its vintages are served in the best restaurants of Europe and Angélique Délèze, an oenology student at a local university who works at Cave La Romaine on weekends to “get some hands-on training,” shows me around the modern facility.
The young student is passionate about wine and offers me samples of Cave La Romaine’s better vintages in a reception area that features glass windows cut into the floor so you can see the wine cellar and its oak barrels.
“Wine tours are becoming very popular in this region — we get a lot of tour groups and cyclists stopping for tastings,” says Angélique, who tells me wine and cheese parties at Cave La Romaine are in big demand.
Finally, we have Stephane’s raclette and Cave La Romaine’s wine. Finally, it's time to party!
JUST THE FACTS
• The Fête des Vignerons wine festival will be held July 18 to August 11, 2019, in lovely Vevey in the Lake Geneva Region. The Fête des Vignerons dates back to 1797 and features 20 performances with over 5,000 people taking part, For more on the festival, https://www.fetedesvignerons.ch
• For a summary on all this year's events:
• For more information on Switzerland: http://www.MySwitzerland.com
• Air Canada offers direct flights to Zurich from Toronto and Swiss International Air Lines runs daily service from Montreal: http://www.swiss.com