An old wagon rests at the far end of the track, near the pulley system that once hauled crates of grapes up the mountain. Mules were employed back then to pull the crates and wagon through the 66-metre-long tunnel to a waiting van, which would complete the short journey to the winery.
The mules have long gone. So have the cables for the pulley system – as they pose a threat to the method now deemed the most efficient and economical in this region: helicopters.
I have come to Valais, the canton of southern Switzerland, for the climax to my #harvest19 tour through Europe’s lesser-known wine regions. On the tour, which has taken in northern Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia and Austria, I have seen a wide variety of winemaking and harvesting techniques – but nothing quite like a helicopter-assisted harvest.
The tunnel is the entrance to Maison Gilliard’s most famous vineyard, Clos de Cochetta.
Fendant (Chasselas) and Petite Arvine grapes grow on vertiginous terraces above the picturesque medieval city of Sion. The mosaic of terraces extend from 550 to 680 metres in altitude. It’s a landscape that defines Valais: a formerly hostile environment tamed by Cistercian monks and local labourers, who constructed drystone walls reaching heights of more than 20 metres in places.
Valais has more than 3,000km of these drystone walls, built between 1860 and 1904 under the guidance of monks from nearby Savoy in France.
The 3ha Clos de Cochetta (pictured above) has some of the highest drystone walls in the world. The largest is 22m high in places and 280m long.
The vines, 50-60 years old, are goblet trained and drip-irrigated. There are also the occasional olive, almond, apricot, peach and pomegranate tree to attract vermin-eating birds.
The estate was bought in 1957 by François Gilliard (above), grandson of company founder Edmond Gilliard, who settled in Sion in 1885. When François expanded the estate, there was no tunnel at Clos de Cochetta, just a simple irrigation channel. He enlarged it and added the cable cars and the rails for the wagons.
But, for the past 12 years, a helicopter has been used for the harvest. The company says it’s the fastest, most efficient and most economical method.
When I arrived, they were picking Fendant grapes into 15kg crates, which were then tipped into large metal buckets. These buckets carry 500kg of grapes and are gathered from the terraced vineyards by an Air-Glaciers helicopter and transported to a pick-up truck or 4x4/trailer combo, which takes the bunches to the winery. The helicopter is not allowed to fly over roads with a metal bucket dangling 50m underneath.
The helicopter firm charges $80-$120 (€75-€110) per metal bucket. I saw it collect and deliver 10 buckets in 15-20 minutes.
Maison Gilliard uses helicopters for 10-15ha of its highest vineyards. It owns 38ha and rents another 25ha to produce 62 wines from 22 different grape varieties. The wines cover six levels, including high-end gastronomy, retail, local specialties such as Fendant and Dôle (‘Les Classiques’), barrel-fermented wines (‘Les Tonneliers’), and the top line – single-vineyard varietals. One of its brands, ‘Les Murettes’ (a Fendant), will celebrate its centenary next year.
The wines are sold throughout Switzerland, and only about 3% are exported. Chief oenologist is Hansueli Pfenninger.
Maison Gilliard also uses helicopters to spray the vines.
Maison Gilliard’s director, Grégory Dubuis, told Canopy: “It’s the best solution for us.”
Canopy's #harvest19 tour: A snapshot of Europe's lesser-known wine regions
- Canopy’s #harvest19 tour from northern Greece to Switzerland started with the Assyrtiko harvest at Ktima Ligas. Thomas Ligas and daughter Meli explain how their ‘hands-off’ approach was influenced by a Japanese farmer called Masanobu Fukuoka.
- At the historic Tikves Winery in North Macedonia, it’s all about control – especially when it comes to making white wines in a hot climate.
- In central Serbia we visit Lastar, a new winery using different winemaking protocols for different Pinot Noir clones.
- In north Serbia, we stop at the Šijački winery, in a beautiful location on the banks of the River Danube. There, we find a brother and sister in charge for the first time…
- At Romania’s largest producer, Cramele Recas, we discover a dedicated follower of fashion. That means natural wines for supermarkets and low-alcohol wines that “taste of something”.
- In western Romania, Hungarian winemaker Géza Balla has found a way to tame high sugar levels. He also has some unusual marketing ideas…
- In Hungary, biologist turned vintner Csaba Koch has developed a new method of managing his vineyard. He calls it ‘happy grapes’ – and it saves him €700 per hectare a year in labour costs.
- In Slovenia, we discovered a new tool for winemakers – night-vision goggles. They were being used during the picking, pressing, riddling, bottling and packing of a new sparkling wine called ‘Untouched by Light’. Gimmick or intriguing experiment?
- In Slovenia’s second city, Maribor, we witnessed the record-breaking harvest of the world’s oldest vine. But should a 450-year-old vine be pushed to its limits?
- Across the border, in Austria, we visited the stunning Weingut Tement – a family-run winery with a great reputation for long-lived Sauvignon Blancs.
- In Austria’s Kamptal, we met the women behind the IWC’s Champion White Wine – the mother and daughter running Weingut Birgit Eichinger. What’s the secret behind their amazing Riesling?