The most unexpected decoration in Verbier wasn’t inside wine club 67 Pall Mall’s new outpost, nor on the bright white ski slopes outside. In the town centre, the streetlamps have been transformed into magic lanterns, their pale shields decorated with silhouetted skiers who, at night, skim and snowplough against the dim setting of actual mountains beyond.
This lovely shadowplay was visible from the club’s dining tables, where an education in local gastronomy was on offer to those who wanted it. I wasn’t sure I did. I’m not keen on cheese, and last time I visited Switzerland, in 2020, I was subjected to a dinner that may have traumatised me for life. I was writing about summer in the mountains: beautiful hikes to a high-altitude chapel or an awesome, if rapidly receding, glacier; hair-raising mountain-biking across the scree, past fields deliberately denuded of trees to minimise avalanche danger; a steep and lovely train ride up from Zermatt to the moonscape beneath Matterhorn, the peak that inspired the shape of Toblerone. It was gorgeous… except for the food. Raclette – from racler, to scrape – involves applying heat to hard cheese then transferring the gooey top layer to boiled potatoes and cornichons. Fondue – well, you know about fondue. There is even a cheesy meat pie, a speciality of the Valais canton, called cholera. Accounts differ as to the name’s source, but I have my theories.
I was, however, keen to know what the Swiss drank with these dishes: cheese demands slicing acidity, and its strong flavours can drown any fruit notes. And it turns out that those steep hillsides aren’t all covered in ski lifts and well-fed cows. With around 15,000 hectares under vine, Switzerland isn’t exactly a mighty player, but the country produces 148 million bottles a year, and has made wine for a very long time: as Blaise Duboux pointed out, when I visited his estate above Lake Geneva, the Cistercian monks arrived within years of the order’s founding in 12th-century Burgundy – and in both places, they were improving vineyards that were already there.
We walked past their drystone walls, which have helped make this a UNESCO world heritage site. ‘Here, we say there are three suns,’ said Duboux, because the lake and those walls also reflect heat onto the clay-and-limestone Valais soil which make the Chasselas grown here so interesting. ‘Chasselas is the soil revelator!’ said Duboux in charming Franglais, and while I’ve tasted a fair bit of Chasselas that didn’t revelate much, here he’s right. His Villette, Epesses and Calamin cuvées were all remarkably different from one another, the first more saline, the second fruitier and the third richer, spicier and a great match for a procession of meat-filled pastries – not cholera, in fact entirely cheese-free – that appeared while we tasted.
‘Hardly anyone knows that over 250 different wine grapes are grown in this small country,’ write Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson in the 8th edition of their excellent World Atlas of Wine, although 67 Pall Mall Verbier may change that. The list has 25 local wines by the glass and far more by the bottle; there are Syrahs and Pinot Noirs but also Cornalin and Petite Arvine, Heida (which is actually Savagnin Blanc), Hermitage (another name for Marsanne) and Johannisberg (better known as Sylvaner). My extensive après-ski research made clear that the wines’ lack of international recognition is only down to availability. ‘The Swiss drink them all,’ said Gilles Besse of Jean-René Germanier, another excellent Valais producer, and I don’t blame them.
I had fallen for Swiss wine, and was busy calculating how many wineries I could visit next time
Of course, the 67 Pall Mall Verbier list is hardly short of other nationalities. Head Sommelier Lucy Meza Ortega is a particular fan of northern Rhône wines, by which she means Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Condrieu, although Switzerland could take issue with that: the glacier-green stream burbling beside us as we drove in from the airport may not look much like the broad flat Rhône below Lyon, but it’s the same river.
In the elegant, wood-lined club, with its wing-backed chairs and marble-topped bar, I drank Hermann Schwarzenbach’s lime-scented Räuschling (an ancient Rhine variety, grown near Zurich) – but also a 1998 Mas de Daumas Gassac, wine older than my stepchildren (and nearly as old as Meza Ortega, who is only 27) from one of my favourite Languedoc wineries; Château-Chalon, glorious, sherryish vin jaune by Domaine Macle; and Blanc du Castel, Chardonnay from Israel, served in specially made short-bowled Zalto glasses because otherwise, says Head of Wine Ronan Sayburn MS, releasing the bouquet requires too big a pour and the wine gets warm.
I expressed surprise at Zalto making glasses to his specifications, and he grinned. When preparing to open the original 67 Pall Mall, in a former bank just beyond St James’s Park, founder Grant Ashton asked Sayburn what he needed to make this the best wine club in the world, other than carte blanche on buying wine. The best wine glasses, he replied, so they ordered 8,000 Zaltos. (His other answers were ice machines – ‘you should never run out of ice’ – and many teaspoons, because when somebody orders coffee and the bill at the same time, they clearly want to leave, and shouldn’t be delayed by staff waiting to recoup, then wash, the necessary cutlery.) Given that purchase – the company’s entire production for about six weeks – if he asked for a glass in the shape of a dragon, said Sayburn, he’d probably get it.
That perfect measure of Middle Eastern Chardonnay was an unlikely success with Valais perch and shrimp from Reinfelden, north of Zurich, but I had fallen for Swiss wine, and was busy calculating how many wineries I could realistically visit next time I travelled between Geneva and Verbier. Domaine de la Maison Blanche, built in the 15th century as a fortified house then repurposed for wine production in 1528, is on my list after trying their superb Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs at 67 Pall Mall London, and so is Cave Benoît Dorsaz, because Meza Ortega recommends his Cornalin.
The cheese plate arrived, and I ostentatiously ignored it, looking out of the window at the shadow skiers spinning as merrily as tipsy holidaymakers. Nobody cared. Those clever monks, constructing walls to harvest sunlight, could have told me that there are places to expend your energy, and others where it is ludicrous to do so. My glass is empty and the Swiss are reliably thirsty; let the cheese take care of itself.