La Guérite 1814: summer dining in among the Valais vines

Nina Caplan takes to the Swiss mountains for an unforgettable experience at La Guérite 1814, an unconventional, wine-focused summer dining terrace overlooking the vines of Cave Corbassière

Words by Nina Caplan

saillon village and church in swiss alps
Rows of vines sneak up slopes in the Swiss village of Saillon, where Nina Caplan finds a seat at seasonal restaurant La Guérite

In French, Robin Hood is Robin des Bois – Robin of the Woods. But in Switzerland, there is also a Robin of the Alps. Joseph-Samuel Farinet was an outlaw whose stealing from the rich was more creative than Robin’s: he forged money and gave that to the poor. He died, possibly shot by the police but certainly pursued by them, in 1880, aged 34, and is buried in the absurdly pretty Swiss village of Saillon. I am there, one hot summer Sunday morning, waiting to be escorted to a very unusual lunch. It turns out that 11.15am is too early to visit the Museum of Counterfeit Money – and some would say it’s too early for lunch, but I prefer to keep an open mind.

So, clearly, does Nicolas Cheseaux of Cave Corbassière, who guides a group of 22 diners up into the vineyards for ten steep but scenic minutes, then pauses at several upended barrels: ‘It’s time for the apéro!’ Amid the ripening Syrah vines, he tells us about his vineyards and about the collaboration with chef Pierre Crépaud that is in a sense a celebration of 40 years of winemaking, a change his father made after generations of growing and selling the grapes.

la guerite switzerland farinet
(Photo: William Craig Moyes)

Because we are standing in a Grand Cru vineyard, he also explains the system here in Valais: each municipality can nominate four varieties with the right to become Grand Cru, and here in Saillon it is Petite Arvine, Humagne Rouge, Syrah and Cornalin – three of them indigenous. The annual verification process is exceptionally rigorous: a wine can be refused its Grand Cru status in the vineyard or during obligatory tastings later on. It’s like a Michelin system for wines. A few more minutes’ walk and we are taking our seats on a terrace enclosed only by a fence made of barrel staves, with a sumptuous view down onto the Rhône plain and back up to more mountains. Here, clearly, is at least one person defying convention as doggedly as Farinet, if to very different ends.

Two people, as it turns out. Delphine Gillioz doesn’t look like the tattoo type – she is soignée, elegant and wearing the most beautiful black-and-white dress accessorised by hot-pink nail varnish – but there are roses crawling up her arms, and while this initially startles me, the longer I spend in La Guérite 1814 – and I do, I spend an amazingly long time there – the more appropriate they appear. This place is such an interesting blend of the traditional and the unusual that it seems right for my server to reflect that.

la guerite alps switzerland
The dress code and service is casual at La Guérite, but the food, wine and vistas are far from ordinary
(Photo: William Craig Moyes)

Not that she is simply a server. Gillioz is Crépaud’s partner and collaborator, and La Guérite 1814 isn’t exactly a restaurant. It’s a former vineyard hut that still doesn’t have electricity or a kitchen – just solar panels, a couple of gas jets and a prep area, surrounded by that terrace which is in turn surrounded by vineyards. I am lucky enough to come here on a glorious summer’s day, so hot that I’m surprised not to see the remnants of snow on the peaks trickling down to join the Rhône.

‘Between heaven and the vines’ announces the blackboard, where the nine courses are listed: choice, here, is restricted to the wines, and even there they are all by Cheseaux, whose hut this is, and whose seven hectares of vineyards surround us. Fortunately, they are excellent, especially but not exclusively the two Grands Crus, a Petite Arvine (the local white grape) and that Syrah.

grand cru switzerland wine
Cave Corbassière's Grand Cru Petite Arvine impressed Caplan during an expansive lunch
(Photo: William Craig Moyes)

We had been told to dress casually, in part because of the walk but also, I realise, on seeing Gillioz’s tattoos and Crépaud’s eye-wateringly fluorescent green top, because there is a point being made, about lifestyle and fine dining.

Crépaud, who is French but has lived in Switzerland for 20 years, had a Michelin Star at his restaurant LeMontBlanc in Crans-Montana, 45km from here; he quit during the pandemic to live a different sort of life. La Guérite is lunch only, every other weekend Thursday to Monday between May and October, depending on the weather. In the winter, he and Gillioz cook privately for the many wealthy individuals who come to the Swiss Alps to ski. There are personal choices here that are as interesting as anything on the plate.

I am drinking wine while looking out at the vineyards the grapes came from, and what could be simpler than that?

And what is on the plate is truly amazing. Veal tartare is served in a glass bowl, the better to admire the way the violet flowers offset the dark meat and white cubes of Serac cheese from nearby Balavaux; an accompanying 2019 Johannisberg is as elegantly rounded as that glass bowl. Johannisberg is the local name for Sylvaner and the Swiss version is fuller and richer than its lean German cousins; later, I’ll try a Heida, more familiar to me as Savagnin, and again it will be recognisable – yeasty and textured – but somewhat different from those in the nearby Jura. Which is as it should be – or what does terroir mean? Vines alter according to their circumstances, just as much as people do.

When I wrench my gaze from the view to look at the little hut behind me, a tattooed arm in a fluorescent sleeve is reaching out to snip thyme for the next course from a planter in the hatch.

heida wine switzerland
A 'yeasty and textured' Heida from Cave Corbassière
(Photo: William Craig Moyes)

It seems ludicrous to contemplate the simple life when being served a multi-course meal by a Starred chef, but I am drinking wine while looking out at the vineyards the grapes came from, and what could be simpler than that? Effort here is expended strictly where needed: the plates change, but we keep our cutlery; the dishes are highly sophisticated, but never for sophistication’s sake. There is bright colour, beautifully harmonised, everywhere: langoustine with rhubarb and white peach in a shellfish reduction is an arrangement of apricot and pale pink jauntily accessorised by that thyme plus a pansy, all presented by fuchsia-tipped Gillioz.

La Guérite has many elements that more formal restaurants lack but perhaps the most important is fun

Crépaud has said that, having won a Star, he had no desire to chase a second. ‘I love my work but I also love my life, and I wanted to find a balance between the two,’ is his explanation. He has hardly taken the easy route – but then a good life is not necessarily easy, and money is a means not an end: call it the lesson of Farinet. La Guérite has many elements that more formal restaurants lack but perhaps the most important is fun. Pierre and Delphine are working hard but also enjoying themselves. And so are we. Mid-meal, she brings over a game of ‘guess the flavour’: mystery concoctions, each wittily enclosed in a hollowed-out ice cube. I get one: no child of Australians can fail to spot passionfruit, although I miss its accompanying banana. The other is basil and Sichuan pepper – absolutely impossible, but who cares?

On our way back down to Saillon, we detour into the world’s tiniest vineyard, owned by the Dalai Lama, the wine bottled each year to be sold for charity. Usually, a celebrity agrees to lead the harvest, so exchanging the glittering currency of fame for something a little more altruistic. It seems entirely appropriate that the vineyard is called Farinet.

La Guérite 1814 is open for lunch in the summer (May-Oct), and every other weekend (Thu-Mon); lunch costs €155 or €200 with wine matches.

Nina Caplan
By Nina Caplan

Nina Caplan is the Lifestyle and Travel columnist for Club Oenologique online and wine columnist for The New Statesman and The Times’s Luxx magazine. Her award-winning book, The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, came out in 2018.