In the northwest corner of Italy is the Aosta Valley. The region, known in Italy as Valle d’Aosta, borders France to the west, Switzerland to the north and the region of Piemonte to the south and east. This Aosta Valley is a part of the Alps mountain range. The Valley first was inhabited by the Celts around 900 B.C. The Romans moved thru around 25 B.C naming the land after Augusta. Today, Valle D’Aosta is better known as a tourist destination for hikers and skiers.
Like most of Italy, the wine history of this mountainous region goes back to at least the Roman times. By the end of the 1800’s there were more than three thousand hectares under vines. Phyloxera then devastated the vineyards, followed by the World Wars, almost eliminating the wine industry. Sadly, many indigenous grape varietals were lost. At the start of this century, there were only 635 hectares under vine with about 400 acres are producing DOC wines. Only 10% of this is white wine. That ranks Valle D’Aosta last in wine production among the regions of Italy. That trend is now changing back as the world is slowly discovering the wines from this area. The number of wineries is growing as is the area of vineyards under production. Still, most of the growers are small family run farms. Nearly all of the wines are made by about a dozen producers. Between the tourists and the locals, almost all of the production is consumed locally.
It is the geography that shapes the wines from this region. The soils are glacial moraine; quite rocky and lacking in nutrients. The vineyards are on steep slopes and at high altitudes. In fact, altitude, more than anything else, determines which grapes are grown in which locations. Red grapes are grown at lower elevations (around 300 meters), and at the upper levels (1200 meters) more whites are planted. The later altitudes are among the highest vineyards in Europe. As a general rule, the higher the vines, the more acidic the wines will be. Although one might think the mountains would make it hard to grow grapes here, that is only part of the story. The mountains provide some protection from the winds and the steep gravelly soils can make for some exciting mineral driven wines. Many of the wines found here come from varietals that are rarely used elsewhere. According to the local enology school, the Istitut Agricole Règional, there are 13 grapes which have been identified as indigenous to the region. The other grapes grown reflect the influence felt from their neighbors from France, and Switzerland.
Actually, the valley received its first DOC wine designation as far back as 1971 for a wine known as Donnas which is made from Pecotendro, a local version of Nebbiolo. One year later, a second DOC was created for another red wine, Enfer d’Arvier, made from Petite Rouge grapes. Since that time a few more DOC’s have been created but most of the wine comes from the more encompassing Valle D’Aosta DOC. The list of allowed grapes is extensive and includes red varietals of Cornalin, Fumin, Gamay, Mayolet, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Novello, Petite Rouge, Pinot Nero, Premetta, and Syrah. Some Rose is also produced. For me, however, the most exciting wines come from the white grapes including Bianco, Chardonnay, Muller Thurgau, Petite Arvine, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Petite Arvine.
It is the last grape, Petite Arvine, which is getting recent buzz from the wine cognoscenti for the wonderful crisp white wines that reflect its sense of place. Petite Arvine is, as far as anyone knows, native to both Valle D’Aosta and Switzerland. In Switzerland it is sometimes known as Valais. The grape ripens slowly on the vine. It excels in the mountains when they can wait late into the harvest to pick the grapes. Wines made from this grape exhibit crisp flinty qualities with tangy grapefruit and sweet mandarin orange flavors. Some producers also make a sweet late harvest version.
There are a handful of wineries, many of them co-ops making wines in Valle D’Aosta. Interestingly enough, the labeling laws allow for the use of varietal names in addition to DOC or geographical information. While this can be confusing, it helps to stick to the better producers. All of the Petite Arvine’s that I have seen carry the grape name on the label. From my experience, the best of these seems to be the Petite Arvine vigne Champorette from the winery of Les Crètes. The owner/winemaker Constantino Charre makes six different whites and seven different reds. If you can, try to find their Petite Arvine. In their youth, the Les Cretes has a superb texture with crisp minerality which is quite refreshing. Yet, the wines can be aged for about 8 to 10 years during which time they get a bit rounder and more complex. The most recent vintage on the store shelves are the 2006’s which cost around $36. If you should see any from older vintages back to perhaps the 2001, don’t be afraid to grab a bottle. They are also probably a bit less expensive.
Find Valle D’Aosta Wines
The other producer who I have tried is Grosjean Frères. Their 2005 and 2006’s are on the store shelves now. They should cost between $20 and $30. There are about a dozen or so producers in the region though it is rare to find any of their bottlings. If presented the opportunity, I would certainly like to try another maker as well.
Readers of this column know I advocate matching wines to food from the region. If not available, then look for foods consistent with the region. Petite Arvine is a white wine, and although they can be hearty, it is their crisp, citrusy minerality that makes them their best. Valle D’Aosta is famous for their local Fontina cheese. It is often served as a fondue with hunks of day old bread. Also Fontina based soups are very popular. Either of these would go well with Petite Arvine. The region is also a large producer of apples and pears. While these might not match as well, perhaps a soup combining some of these fruits would work well.
The wines are Valle D’Aosta are not easy to find. Should you run into one, I would urge you not to miss the opportunity. If you do, please let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.