Tiny Vines

Possibly The Smallest Vineyard In The World

What is Dalai Lama doing with a vineyard in Switzerland? He’s promoting peace and charity with it, of course.

Possibly The Smallest Vineyard In The World
View of Saillon, Switzerland

French soccer legend Zinedine “Zizou” Zadane and the Dalai Lama are linked by the world’s smallest vineyard and a spot of forgery in the 19th Century.

His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, owns the vineyard and “Zizou”, the former Real Madrid coach, has helped him with the grape picking. It’s all for a good cause (as was the historical forgery).

The unique “small batch” vineyard is not in India but in the Valais region of Switzerland, a hundred miles from Geneva and 150 miles from Chambery and Milan.

At an elevation of 1,618m and measuring 1.67sqm, the Dali Lama’s notarised Farinet three-vine vineyard in Saillon — in Switzerland’s Salentse valley near Martigny and home of the St Bernard dog kennels — is easily the smallest producing vineyard in the world and is also a part of the “Chemin du Vignoble Trail.”

A plaque identifies the three-vine vineyard belonging to the Dalai Lama

The Farinet Folklore

Joseph-Samuel Farinet, the son of a blacksmith from Laval in the Aosta Valley, was a master forger of coins, rather than notes. “Le Bandit au grand Coeur” (“the bandit with a big heart”) made these coins especially for the poor, giving them away so they could buy food and survive.

He is the “Robin Hood of the Alps” and a Swiss folk hero. Restaurants in Crans-Montana and Champéry are named after him, as are a bar and nightclub in Verbier. His famous fake 20 Rappen (20 Swiss centime) pieces or “Farinets” can be seen at the Musée de la Fausse Monnaie (Museum of Counterfeit, False Currency and Fake Money) in Saillon, as well as a court order for his arrest. There is also a 13-Farinet note, designed with a circle of 13 stars symbolising the Valais flag.

Other exhibits include a casting mould, or “matrix”, used to produce the counterfeit 20-centime coins and a bonnet crocheted by Farinet for his daughter, while he was imprisoned in Aosta. “Legend has it that with the leftover yarn, Farinet wove a rope to escape and return to Saillon,” shares the museum curator, Valerie Dussex.

Musée de la Fausse Monnaie (Museum of Counterfeit, False Currency and Fake Money) in Saillon, Switzerland

“For some, Farinet was a criminal. But for others, he remains a hero. In reality, he was an indomitable and proud man, whom poachers will always consider their brother, and whom one can’t help but admire. He felt a selfless love for all the peasants overwhelmed by poverty and suffering.”

Farinet died in 1880 when he fell into a river while being chased by the police — although many believe he got away. There is now a suspension bridge named after him — the La Passerelle à Farinet — which was built over the Salentze Gorge. It was at the mouth of this gorge that Gustave Courbet painted his famous work, Caverne des Géants (“Cave of the Giants”).

Switzerland’s folk hero also featured in a 1932 novel, Farinet ou la Fausse Monnaie (“Farinet or the Counterfeit Money”) by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz; as well as a 1938 film, L’Or dans la Montagne (“Gold in the Mountain”).

Farinet notes

Last year, to commemorate his altruistic escapades, a group of Valais residents launched an alternative regional currency, similar to the Bristol Pund and Basque Eusko, only for use in the region. 

The bank notes, named after the poacher-philanthropist, big-hearted bandit and Laval altar boy, are also available in 10, 20 and 50 denominations. A 200-denomination “Farinet” note will be made available soon.

A Charitable Vineyard

In 1980, a group called “Friends of Farinet” — led by actor Jean-Louis Barrault who played Farinet in the 1938 film — planted the tiny vineyard commemorating his charitable spirit. The site has a slab with the inscription, “the smallest vine on earth”.

On a hillside above the village, this tiny oenological cadastre (registered plot) has attracted celebrities such as the late Sir Roger Moore, Michael Schumacher, Jane Birkin and Zizou. All have helped with the wine’s rare nouveau wine — each bottle is a collector’s item. Its harvest is at the end of October, with the wines being bottled and sold the following June.

The vines planted here are Pinot, Petite Arvine and Fendant. Several decalitres of wort (the raw grape pressing) are blended with other local grapes to make the charity wine. This year, the wines from the world’s smallest vine will be made by local grape-growers Daniel and Diane Yule. About 1,000 bottles will be sold, with the main beneficiary of Cuvée Vigne à Farinet this year being the children’s charity, Fondation Moi Pour Toit.

Farinet wine from what is easily the world’s smallest producing vineyard

The highest amount that has been paid for one bottle is CHF1,500. Proceeds from sales also go to children’s charities such as Enfants Papillons and Les Enfants du Tibet, as well as Les Restos du Coeur, which distributes food packages to the needy. Young people with drug and alcohol addictions will also benefit.

Says Gérard Raymond, one of the organisers of Vignerons de Farinet, “Cuvée can be made from Pinot Noir, Humagne rouge and Cornalin or any other local grapes. The wine is always long, very fruity and full of tannins.”

Besides a walk called Farinet’s Trail and thermal baths, Saillon is also famous for its asparagus. It even has its own asparagus appellation; some wineries along the vine route above the Rhonetal valley offer wine and asparagus pairings for tastings. Petite Arvine de Fully is said to be good with asparagus gratin, its Chardonnay with tarts and Fendant with asparagus cassolettes. Paien, Heida and the rare Amigne from Vetroz are other local wines.

The first record of a vineyard in Valais was in 1052. The Swiss Wine hiking trail also takes in Switzerland’s smallest museum, the Martigny-Plan Cerisier’s Mazot-Musée. A mazot is a small shelter used by vintners and their families while in the fields tending their grapes. It displays ancient Swiss viticulture tools. Fully’s Musée du Savoir Faire Alpin (“Museum of Alpine Know-How”), has a similar collection of Alpine farming implements.

A Place of Peace

In 2000, the world’s smallest working vineyard was presented to the Dalai Lama, with proceeds from its sales going towards helping disadvantaged children.

Tourists trek around the vineyard to snap photos of the plaque, which identifies who the vines belong to.

It is a place of pilgrimage. Pilgrims bring pebbles and stones from around the world to place at the site. Messages are left around the vines: “Better to go fishing on a bike than to a job in a Mercedes”; “If you view life as rose-tinted it will become so.”

The smallest vineyard of the world also has its own 3.4km walking route. Farinet’s Trail or the Sentier des Vitraux (“Route of the glass sculptures”) is marked by 21 stained-glass panels created by Théo Imbodena, after woodblock prints by artist Robert Hériti. 

The trail starts at Farinet’s bronze statue in the square in Saillon. As your guide may tell you as you prepare to walk it, “The first thing is to ask oneself the essential questions: what are we doing on this planet? What is the key to happiness? One quickly sees that [the key] is in the giving of oneself, in sharing, in taking an interest in others.”

The panels are named and represent eternal themes such as Love (“Life is the time given to each of us to learn to love.”) and Money. It is estimated that in 10 years, Farinet made more than 100,000 20-Rappen coins, all dated 1850.

Other panels along the trail represent ideas including Friendship, Sharing, Struggle, Destiny, Death and Immortality — which carries a line from French philosopher Blaise Pascal, “It is life which is the most important, not death.”

The Dalai Lama has named his vineyard the “Vineyard of Peace”. His favourite piece on the trail is reportedly Silence. When asked what place peace occupied in his life, the Dalai Lama responded, “All”.

Saillon is a peaceful, picturesque place. And it should be on every ampelographer’s or grape treader’s bucket list.

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