Location: Whitby, Ontario, Canada

Born in Malta but in Canada since age 5. Has written three books and presently does several columns about wine and food for various magazines.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Destination: Switzerland August 31st to September 6th

A Country of Many Trains and Four Languages                   
It was a long and tiring trip from Toronto and I was somewhat apprehensive upon arriving in Geneva. However Swiss host Alicia Mettler showed her lovely face at the gates to welcome me to Switzerland. Soon the rest of the Circle of Wine Writers from parts around the Globe appeared and off it was on the first of a number of train rides. So many trains!
The train took us through some magnificent scenery of Canton, Vaud and Lavaux which was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Names that I had known only through geography classes such as the Jura Mountains, Alps were there before my eyes. The Rhone River which we so associate with the South of France showed its beginnings here as did the Rhine. Everything was so surreal. Then of course were the villages and the vineyards. Could anything get any better than this! It did!
Welcome To Chateau Mercier
Our final destination was to be the grand Chateau Mercier! Situated atop of Pradegg Hill, high above the town of Sierre in the Valais region of Switzerland, the turreted Chateau Mercier was an imposing building which seemed more like a castle which easily could have come from an Alexander Dumas tale of the Three Musketeers in the Loire Valley.   
It was over one hundred and fifteen years of age----being built sometime between 1906 and 1908 by the Mercier de Molin family. The family donated the Chateau to the Canton of Valais in 1991 and the in turn the management of the Chateau was entrusted to the Mercier Foundation in 1992.  The mission of this foundation was to make the Chateau Mercier a cultural centre and meeting place. To that end part of the estate called Villa Ruffieux established an interdisciplinary residency for professional artists of all types as well as scientists and researchers working in the fields of conservation, natural heritage and wine!
Apparently Lausanne architect Francois Isoz was employed by Jean Jacques Mercier to design his Chateau D’Ouchy. I wonder if Isoz also designed Chateau Mercier.
The Chateau scale was grandiose in style that combined the finest of intricate architecture inside with superb English style outdoor flower and water gardens outside.
Two large statues of what seemed to be Great Dane canines guarded the massive pond in front of the arched Chateau entrance.
Our hosts guided us through the main entrance into a ultra spacious foyer which focused on a massive fireplace and a “Tara” southern plantation style staircase that climbed up four levels each housing guest rooms and suites.
My spacious lodging (one of 22 rooms) featured a magnificent panoramic window view of the village below. A distant mountain provided the perfect backdrop.
Next to the foyer were two dining areas separated by French style doors. These, in turn, led back to main entrance which was large enough to easily encompass chateau guests wishing to sit and enjoy the evenings while having a drink or coffee.
Just off the main dining room was an impeccably kept kitchen used for special occasions which included cultural, political and religious events and special presenters.
Chateau Mercier lent itself to many special events and seminars---two of which were attended by the Circle of Wine Writers. The first was with 2013 World’s Best Sommelier Paolo Basso and his introduction of fifteen iconic wines from Switzerland. The other was a dinner held at the Chateau itself which included the writers plus several other traveling guests.
In addition to the English style gardens the chateau grounds featured a miniature aviary complete with pheasants and peacocks. Song birds fluttered through many of the four hectare estate’s trees. Next to the aviary was another large room (one of four conference rooms) complete with technical equipment and used for group meetings.
My brisk early morning walks never failed to find something new to see whether it was a terraced vineyard, a stone bridge, magnificent flowers or interesting song birds. It was such a pleasure to be alive!
The Chateau Mercier definitely was one of my travel highlights but there was so much more to come!
The VINEA Foundation
VINEA was founded some 20 years ago with the intent of raising awareness of Swiss wines both nationally and internationally. It does so by organizing events such as the Swiss Wine Fair which was held recently, staging national and international competitions and disseminating information that raises awareness of Swiss wines everywhere.
Its Mondial series of events which features a specific wine variety such as Merlot and/or Pinot Noir competition from as many as 24 countries is held in Sierre. This year they were held in April and August respectively.
The leading international wine competition in Switzerland is the six day Grand Prix Du Vine Suisse with some 3,000 wines by 550 producers.
The Circle of Wine Writers attended the Swiss Wine Fair which featured over 80 exhibitors from Swiss wine regions in a two day tasting affair.
The one thing that amazed me in the Swiss Fair event and in all the tastings such as the one in Ticino was that the wines tasted were in the great to superb range. The Merlot, Syrah, Chasselas, Petite Arvine, Chardonnay, Savagnin Blanc, Pinot Noir and Cornalin to name a few were utterly amazing!
Discovery was also there since my knowledge of “new” grape varieties and wines was greatly widened. Species such as Garanoir, Humagne/Cornalin and Diolinoir were unknown to me and that, plus the fact that the styles of “traditional” varieties can be so unique, reinforced the reason why wine keeps me involved. It is a continuous learning process that does not stop. There is always something new around the corner. Thank you VINEA for that opportunity.
Of course a by product of VINEA’s Swiss Wine Fair was the opportunity to see the Swiss Town of Sierre. Apart from the grandiose scenery and a powerful mountain backdrop, it has many attributes.
Sierre is the capital of the district of Sierre within the canton of Valais. The quaint buildings lining impeccabley kept floral draped streets certainly made sure that one knew he was not in “Kansas” any more.
The town had other things to offer such as a wine museum and a museum dedicated to the memory of poet, novelist and philosopher, Rainer Maria Rilke! My thanks Brigitte Duvillard, curator of the Rilke Foundation for the superb tour of the museum and-----for saving my pictorial life by giving me her camera memory card when mine refused to work!
Sierre definitely left me with an impression and desire to return for more! 
VINEA of course has to be given kudos for organizing so many events and workshops that publicized and promoted their product-----Swiss Wine! From the initial welcoming experience to the wine fair to the special presentations and VINEA “after party” at the Hotel de Ville garden the main focus was on the exhibition of Switzerland’s Wine.
VINEA Association
A meeting was held at Chateau Mercier between VINEA Director Elizabeth Pasquier and the Circle of Wine Writers’ Group. At this meeting was discussed the main philosophy and mission of the association which also houses the secretariat of VINOFED (World Federation of Major International Wine and Spirits Competitions).  
As described previously and generally speaking VINEA is a multidisciplinary association specialised in the organisation of wine competitions and organises events to promote Swiss wines.
It obviously will be successful when one takes into account the quality of wine that is available and also the huge amount of energy and funds that are being accounted to this venture.
I did have one question that still “dogs” me! It is well known that Switzerland consumes almost all of its wine production. This is quite evident when one takes into account the amount of Swiss wine available to the Canadian public which is not much. The only province that has anything more than a meagre supply is Quebec.
My question is if the World suddenly discovers the quality of Swiss wine will that not create a demand which will invariably result in higher prices? Will this not rebound onto the Swiss consumer? The answer was that the whole idea was to increase the level of reputation of Swiss wine but it should not affect prices. Somehow I am not certain though I hope it is true!
VINEA’s new President David Genolet who has much experience in the event’s sector will undoubtedly have that issue in mind when he deals with enhancing the reputation of Swiss Wine even more so!
Success of Swiss Fair
A media report mentions that the 24th VINEA Swiss Fair was a major success with over 6,350 persons attending with a larger group of younger tasters and a very successful work shop attendance. At other VINEA sponsored tastings Switzerland walked away with two thirds of the Pinot Noir Gold Medals.
A Train Ride Through The Alps  
The Hogwarts Express had nothing on the Steam Locomotive that we were introduced to on our final venture through Switzerland’s Alps on our way to Lugano in the Ticino Canton. The weather and sunshine seemed to cooperate making the trip doubly enjoyable.
On our way to the Steam Train I noticed the village of Munster-Geschinen. I immediately thought of Munster Cheese.
The trip started in Oberwald where we boarded a restored 100 year old a steam locomotive and train. There were no modern conveniences and the vintage cars were as they were at the turn of the century. Seats were wood hard and windows could be opened. This meant that we could take some phenomenal pictures. 
Throughout the trip through the Central Alps the names of unique towns and villages----some named for their products came into view; Gletsch, Neiderwald, Muttbach-Belvedere and Tiefenbach. At Furka which name the Steam Train adopts, we stopped for a brief lunch and drink. There I tasted a very refreshing white Chasselas wine from the Vaud Canton. The Fleshy village wine commemorated the Furka-Bergstrecke. Being a light bodied wine it went well with the cheese, sausage and bread we enjoyed prior to our continuing the trip.
The train passed through some unbelievable scenery: snow covered mountains, deep green cow filled valleys and hiker usable meadows.
We did come across some areas where glaciers were supposed to be but global warming has also affected their appearance or should I say their disappearance.
Some bridges that we went over were so high that rivers looked like little streams of water upon a glass. The whole scene was majestic and breathtaking.
I can honestly say that I experienced different types of climate during the full day on the trip. The climb proceeded to a maximum of over 2100 metres and while we started out with mild temps, they slowly became cool and then turned frosty as we approached the summit.
My excitement grew when I actually saw the beginnings of the Rhone and Rhine rivers here in the Alps. So many times had I heard the names of these iconic rivers and never really thought about the fact that they originated in the high mountain Alps.
Through this whole experience my mind played and replayed the haunting music from the film “Harry Potter” as one fabulous scene replaced another. It was a very apropos thing to imagine as the views unfolded.    
The trip ended at Realp and soon we were off to the almost tropical area of Lugano in the Ticino Canton.  However the memories of this trip will keep it alive for many years to come. It was not just about wine or scenery but it was about the people that were with me and those friends that I had already made and was about to make! Most of all it was the time I had to share with a wonderful group of wine colleagues who were proved to me that wine was more than just a beverage. It was a total style of life! A good life at that!
Post Script! My daughter recently signed up as a working student at a world known horse stable. In a discussion with the stable manager the word “travel” and “Switzerland” came out.
“Have you heard of Sierre,” he mentioned, “That’s where I’m from!”