Graubünden’s busy wine harvest season
Bright sunshine, the leaves turning colour on the trees and lots of activity. A hike through Graubünden’s Rhine Valley during the “Wimmlet”, or grape harvest, is particularly exciting.
A whistling sound is heard close by. That can’t really be a bird, can it? “No, it’s a fake sparrowhawk call,” chuckles Bernhard Lamprecht as he cuts one grape after another from the vine. He lends a hand on Irene Grünenfelder’s Eichholz wine-growing estate in Jenins “when they call for help” – or at times like this: the harvest. The wine-growers use the fake bird sound to chase away small birds like starlings, whole flocks of which descend on the vineyards to nibble on the grapes. The artificial bird call seems to work. Barely any of the grapes have been touched. On the contrary: they look pretty as a picture.
And so picking the grapes will be a relatively fast process this autumn. However, vintner Irene Grünenfelder is not entirely satisfied: “The quality of the grapes may be very good, but the amount is not high.” It has been too warm and if the dry, warm foehn blows too often there is the added danger that the grapes will dry out. An autumn with cool nights and not so high temperatures during the day would be perfect – “that’s when you get good aromas”. The estate owner backs a small tractor loaded with yellow boxes full of grapes into a large shed. She first has to weigh the harvest before the berries can be separated mechanically from the stems. The remaining flesh, skin and seed will later be turned into Pinot Noir.
Meantime, those helping out with the harvest have gathered at the edge of the vineyard. Behind them, the main building of the estate stands out against the 2,367-meter peak of the Vilan, the sun reflects off its windows and the cool, dry bise blows through the rows of vines. Ten helpers have come all the way from France and a couple are employees of the Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina working here on their day off. The rattle of the tractor grows louder; Irene Grünenfelder brings the empty boxes back and tells the harvesters where the “Wimmlet” will continue.
Sunny terrace with a view
So much for the theory, now comes the practice. The Alter Torkel wine tavern is situated a few vineyards above the Eichholz estate. The wind carries the clink of cutlery out through the vines – interrupted by the low rumble of another tractor chauffeuring harvest workers from a different estate on the back of its trailer. But the terrace of the Alter Torkel is sheltered from the wind. The last petunias stretch their stems towards the sun before winter arrives and the guests, who have taken up almost every free space, chatter away busily. Someone has written “Fresh new red wine from C. Obrecht, Jenins” on the blackboard that leans against the wall of the brand new extension. There is still free space on the plain wooden benches at one table on the sleek new concrete terrace. Fantastic views stretching all the way to Chur, vineyards and a fascinating mountain landscape as far as the eyes can see.
Susanne Bucher and her team are rushed off their feet. But the woman in charge makes time for her guests to tell us about the tavern’s gentle facelift. The kitchen is now situated in the new part of the building in which the Graubünden Wine Experience will open in 2016, and the terrace has been made bigger. But otherwise things are as they always were. There’s local wine and good food. However, the run of visitors is unlikely to abate when the new Wine Experience area opens.
The new presentation room run by Graubündenwein, an association uniting 96 per cent of all grape producers, vintners and wine traders in Graubünden’s Rhine Valley, is scheduled to open in spring 2016. The association also owns the building in which the Alte Torkel is situated. When it was decided to renovate, Graubündenwein came up with the idea of using the extension as a presentation room to showcase local wine. In addition to an exhibition, visitors can tour the vineyard and taste the wines. A local wine-maker or grape producer will conduct the tours, lending the enterprise a stamp of authenticity.
Through the grapevines to Europe’s oldest wine estate
It’s difficult to say goodbye to the lovely terrace and move on. But the dish of seasonal vegetables accompanied by new red wine needs to be digested and worked off. On the far side of the car park, the wine hiking trail heads off in a northerly direction, passing through the grapevines to Rofels. This part of Maienfeld is also known as the “Heidi village”. But Heidi’s house lies somewhat off the hiking path and is certainly worth a separate excursion in its own right. Instead, we plan to visit another wine-making estate. We cross the Rofelsergasse and Lurgasse to reach Maienfeld on whose north-western edge the Schloss Salenegg estate lies.
An archway dating back to 950 AD leads into a small inner courtyard, then comes another gate leading to the south side of the castle. Palm trees and oleander bushes welcome visitors and immediately conjure up a Mediterranean ambience. It’s quiet at Schloss Salenegg today. The grapes at Europe’s oldest wine estate won’t be ready for harvesting until tomorrow. Which makes it easier to explore the tasting room. Wine bottles are arranged by size – like so many organ pipes – in front of the wine press from the year 1658. And there’s a table with small bottles of vinegar; highly unusual varieties such as mint, verjuice, ginger and horseradish have become a major sideline for Schloss Salenegg.
As quiet as things appear today – Helene von Gugelberg never stops thinking about the future of the castle and estate, which has been in the ownership of her family since 1654: wines, vinegars, sparkling and dessert wines, distilled products and innovative alcohol-free drinks, furniture made from old wine barrels and, in 2011, the expansion of the wine cellar. But the grapes, which have been pressed at Schloss Salenegg since 1068, remain at the heart of it all. On the other side of the road, a small red wooden door opens onto the estate’s vineyards. Dirt tracks lead up the hillside, the top of a flight of steps is a nice spot to once more enjoy the view out over the Rhine Valley. The tower of Salenegg Castle and the spire of the church at Maienfeld loom up from the vineyards. And we can even hear the fake call of the sparrowhawk again. His work will soon be done. But, unlike his real-life counterparts, he won’t have to fly south for the winter. Someone will simply have to recharge his batteries.
You can find a detailed description of the wine hiking paths through Graubünden's Rhine Valley at:
All the information about the upcoming Wine Experience exhibition will also be available at www.graubuendenwein.ch.