Italy's Aosta Valley (Valle d'Aosta): Regional History & the Buzz About Petite Arvine

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. 

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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. 

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.