Have you tried the wines of Valle d’Aosta?

Valle d’Aosta, courtesy Wine Scholar Guild

Last night I kicked off the inaugural Italian Wine Scholar class run by my Vermont Wine School. We started with the foundation of Italy – history, geography, wine laws, etc. and then covered and tasted wines from two regions: Valle d’Aosta and Liguria. I’ll save Liguria for another post. Last night the wines of Valle d’Aosta were the hit of the session. We only tasted three wines from the region (there are only about 5 wines from Valle d’Aosta that are stocked in Vermont) but those wines were eye-opening for every student and myself. They were delicious. Only one of the 8 in the class, besides myself, had tasted wines from the region before so I thought I would help spread the word and introduce this wonderful part of Italy to others.

Valle d’Aosta is an alpine region, tucked in the northwestern part of the country in the Italian Alps. To the north is Switzerland. France forms the western border and Piemonte is south and east of the region. It’s mountainous here, with over 60% of the land lying above 6,000 feet. Monte Bianco (Mount Blanc), the highest peak of the Alps, is on its’ western border with France. Snow is present for half the year in most of the region.

Valle d’Aosta is last when it comes to population and wine production of Italy’s 20 regions. Due to Frankish domination throughout its’ history it is the only French-speaking area of Italy. The region is bilingual. Both Italian and French are official languages. Italian and French terms appear on wine labels and you’ll even see the French Vallee d’Aoste instead of the Italian Valle d’Aosta.

As everywhere in Italy, wine is an important part of the economy. Most of the wine is consumed in the region by the many tourists who flock here to take advantage of the wonderful skiing and hiking. Unfortunately for us, only a fraction of the wine produced ever make it out of the region.

This is not an easy place to grow grapes and make wine which makes last night’s tasting even more remarkable. In an alpine region such as this, one needs to take advantage of the landscape to ripen grapes. Fortunately, there are natural features that lend themselves to exploitation.

The Aosta Valley, where the region takes its’ name, winds some 50 miles through the heart of the region on the banks of the Dora Baltea river. The Dora Baltea begins on Monte Bianco and traverses the region from west to east and then south into Piemonte. Rivers are good when the climate is cool or cold. They keep air moving, reflect sun back into the vineyards and moderate the temperature a bit. They also provide slopes where vines can be planted.

The vast majority of the vineyards lie on the slopes of the river. Most of these are on the northern banks to take advantage of the south-facing aspect to capture the most possible sunlight. Only in the warmer, southeastern part of the valley are vineyards planted on both sides of river.

Terraced vineyards in Valle d’Aosta, courtesy Wine Scholar Guild

But the vines are not just planted on the slopes. They are planted on terraces built into the slopes. These terraces are hard to construct and hard to maintain. In the western and central part of the valley they are built of stones. Here, the vines are trained on pergolas about 3 feet off the ground. The stones retain heat from the sun and radiate this back into the vineyard in the evening to help with ripening. The vineyards are small and steep. Workers not only have to climb vertically but also horizontally to get to their vines. This is not easy work!

The general wine style for both red and white wines is lighter in body, high in acidity with vibrant fruit. They are mostly easy drinking, single varietal wines meant for early consumption. Of course, there are exceptions. Still white, red and rose wines are produces as well as traditionally made sparkling wines and sweet wines made from late harvested grapes or grapes that have been allowed to dry and shrivel. Valle d’Aosta is also one of the few places where small quantities of ice wine is made.

Although many indigenous and international grape varieties are grown here, there are two major white grapes and three major red grapes. The whites are Prie Blanc and Petite Arvine. The reds are Petit Rouge, Fumin and Picotendro (Nebbiolo).

There is only one appellation or DOC in the region, Valle d’Aosta DOC, which produces about 80% of the wine. The rest is table wine. This DOC has 7 sub-zones that can appear on labels. The name of the grapes can also appear on the label as long as 85% of said grape is in the bottle.

I highly recommend you seek out these alpine wines. They are perfect as we enter into warmer weather and they are great food wines. Here are three to look for, all from the 2014 vintage. Notice the labels? The Maison Agricole D&D wines have the French Vallee d’Aoste and the Chateau Feuillet has the Italian Valle d’Aosta.:

Maison Agricole D&D is located in the central valley just outside the town of Aosta. They practice sustainable farming and make vibrant aromatic wines. Petit Arvine originated in Switzerland and is considered a traditional grape of the Valle d’Aosta. It is very aromatic with notes of lemon, lime, ripe pear some tropical fruit and white flowers. It had a beautiful golden hue and great texture on the palate with bright acid and ripe fruit. $24

Torrette is one of the 7 sub-zones of the Valle d’Aosta DOC. It is located in the central part of the valley and produces only red wine from a minimum of 70% of Petit Rouge, locally known as Picciourouzo. This particular bottling has 80% Petit Rouge with 20% Fumin and Cornalin. This was a medium ruby with a hint of garnet at the rim and showed nice aromatics with ripe red fruits and spice. This was easy on the palate with soft tannins and a lingering finish. This wine could easily take a slight chill. $20

Maurizio Fiorano, of Chateau Feuillet, grew up outside Turin and moved to Milan for his studies, but his life took an unexpected turn when he married and moved with his wife to her hometown of Saint-Pierre in the Valle d’Aosta. He continued his work as a surveyor, but the long commute became difficult when they started a family. Maruizio eventually left his job for good and moved to the region full-time. His wife had an inn they were running and she had inherited vineyards from her family, about 9 acres. They decided to make wine to serve in the inn’s restaurant. Maurizio headed into their small holdings and started to work the vines and make wine. Production was very small at first but he was proud. So proud that he decided to show his wines at the largest wine show in the world, VinItaly. Little did he know that the four bottles he brought would be lapped up in mere minutes! Production is still tiny and this is one of the producers that makes sure to export a portion of their wines.

The vines are on shallow soils over a granite bedrock with perfect aspect for catching the suns rays. Combine this with the cool climate, high altitude, and drastic diurnal temperature and you get extremely long hours of gentle sunlight. In fact, the vineyards here capture the sun so perfectly that the almond trees scattered over the slope blossom at the same time as those in Sicily, over 550 miles farther south! This gives the grapes an exceptionally long, slow ripening season that in turn offers very unusual red wines with great aromatics, ripe fruits and wines with some heft but are still refreshing and light on their feet. And that is exactly what this wine is.

Chateau Feuillet’s Valle d’Aosta Fumin is made from 90% Fumin with 10% Syrah. Surprisingly, the color was an almost opaque purple that stained the glass. Ripe red and black cherry, blackberry, menthol and black pepper burst from the glass. This is on the verge of full-bodied but still quite refreshing with ripe, soft tannins and bright acidity. This has great length and some time ahead of it. Definitely a favorite of everyone. $26




Don’t forget about Grenache!

Grenache, or as they say in Spain, Garnache (probably where the grape originated) sometimes gets a bad rap. It’s rarely mentioned next to the big grapes like Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir or Syrah. But I think many people would be surprised to find that Grenache makes up a portion, and sometimes a large portion, of some of the most recognizable and famous wines in the world. Cotes du Rhone, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Tavel, Banyuls, Maury, Priorat, Cannonau di Sardegna all have pretty heavy doses of Grenache in them and some are made entirely from Grenache. There are also countless ‘table’ wines from France and Spain made entirely from Grenache that are soft and easy to drink and are usually quite inexpensive. Then there are the Rhone Rangers in California growing Grenache in the central coast and the GSM (Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre) blends of Australia. They all take advantage of what Grenache has to offer to blends.

At roughly 500,000 acres, Grenache is one of the most widely planted grape varieties in the world. In fact, at the end of the last century only the white grape Airen was more widely planted. The largest plantings are in Spain, followed by France and then Italy. This century has seen a decline in acreage in favor of more popular varieties such as Tempranillo, Cabernet and Merlot.

It ripens late, so it needs hot, dry conditions. Spain, the south of France, Italy and parts of California are several places where the grape benefits from its tolerance to heat and drought. The aroma and flavor profile for Grenache is wide-ranging depending on where it is grown. Expect to find candied red berry fruits and cinnamon spice from higher-yielding wines and a bit more dark fruit, white pepper spice from lower-yielding vineyards. From old-world regions such as the Rhone and Sardinia you might find pleasant herbaceous notes. As these wines age they pick up notes of leather and meat.

The grape has thin skins which makes it perfect for light-colored read and rose production. The thin skins also mean lower tannins and a smoother mouthfeel. What the grape lacks in tannins and structure it makes up for in alcohol which is often high, in the 14% range. Wines made from high-yielding Grenache vines tend to produce fruity but simple wines (Cotes du Rhone, Languedoc, Calatayud) while those from older, lower yielding vines produce wines of power and concentration (Priorat, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Roussillon). When added to blends Grenache generally lends a softness and fruitiness along with an extra degree or two of alcohol.

2013 Jean-Luc Colombo Cotes du Rhone ‘Les Abeilles’ (The Bees)                 12.99

Jean-Luc Colombo was studying Pharmacology at the University of Montpellier where he gained an interest in wine. He wound up graduating with degrees in both Pharmacology and Enology. Shortly after graduation he and his wife started a wine consulting firm in 1984. His outspoken views on the future of the French wine industry, winemaking, particularly about maceration times, organic viticulture and other topics rankled some of the traditionalist of the Rhone particularly in Cornas where he had purchased a small vineyard. He saw the potential of this under-appreciated appellation in the northern Rhone and was determined to make outstanding wines from his own estate. The rest is history. He is today considered to be one of the pioneers in the revitalization of the Cornas appellation. He has a thriving consulting business with well over 100 clients and now makes outstanding wines in the northern and southern Rhone, the Languedoc and Provence.

This wine is a blend of 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre. The grapes are grown sustainably around the towns of Cairrane and Gigondas. They are hand-harvested, lightly crushed and then fermented in stainless steel where the wine will stay for 10 months. This is a perfect example of what a simple Cotes du Rhone should be. Fruit forward and soft with dark red fruits and a touch of spice on the finish. This is perfect for the barbecue, salads or pizza.

Les Abeilles translates as “The Bees” after the creatures that inhabit the vineyards where this Côtes du Rhône is produced. Jean-Luc Colombo’s appreciation for the natural environment of living creatures creates an atmosphere in which insects, animals and grape vines co-exist and flourish. This can only be accomplished with sustainable vineyard practices where no harsh pesticides are used. Honeybees pollinate more than 90% of flowering crops – including many of the fruit and food items we eat – so they play a vital role in our food supply. In many places around the world, however, bee colonies are in severe jeopardy. “Colony Collapse Disorder” is a mysterious 5-year-old crisis – and it’s worsening at an alarming rate! The cause is unknown, and it has currently spread to over half of the United States, with similar collapses reported in Brazil, Canada and parts of Europe. BEE HELPFUL is a program started by Jean-Luc Colombo to help fight this bee crisis. A donation will be made to UC Davis Department of Entomology for Honey Bee Research. The UC Davis Department of Entomology is ranked No. 1 in the country by the Chronicle of Higher Education. They have several programs and studies dedicated to the bee crisis. For each consumer purchase of Les Abeilles, a percentage of the suggested retail price will go to research to save the bees with a pledged minimum donation of $10,000 per year.

2011 Alvaro Palacios Gratallops, Priorat, Spain $49

Avalaro Palacios was one of a handful of producers who saved the Priorat region from wine obscurity back in the 1980’s and 90’s. Today, his wines are some of the most sought-after wines coming out of Spain. He makes wines that are true expressions of where the grapes are grown.

Priorat, in northeastern Spain, is an unforgiving place with lots of sun and heat but very little water. Garnacha does very well here. Because the vines are so old the wines are intense, perfumed and complex. This is a ‘village’ wine. The grapes came from vineyards planted in schist in and around the village of Gratallops; the first village to be recognized in the appellation.

Mostly Garnacha with some Carignena (Carignan) this is an intensely perfumed wine with red and black fruits intertwined with leather, smoke, dried herbs and game. The tannins are just now calming down leading to a very pleasant texture to round out the full body of the wine. There is a long finish marked by some peppery spice and a saline, mineral note at the very end. Delicious and should keep for another 5-10 years or so.

Why you should be drinking Bordeaux and 3 wines to try.

St. Emilion

Bordeaux is one of, if not the most, well-known wine region in the world. But it’s suffering from an identity crisis as of late. The region has fallen out of favor with a large swath of the wine drinking public for many reasons. First and foremost is its’ image as a stuffy wine region with its’ grand Chateaus and hefty price tags. Not only that, we’re told that we have to wait a decade or so to truly understand and appreciate the wines. There’s also so much wine out there that is both easier to understand and just as good. Some say it’s also too confusing with all of its appellations and talk of Right Bank vs Left Bank. Oh, and they don’t put the name of the grape on the label. It used to be that if you wanted to drink good wine you only had a few choices: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Napa, etc. Not so anymore. We have access to great wines from all over the world.  These days, sommelier’s are always on the look out for the new and different; something that will ‘wow’ the customer. So, Bordeaux has become pedestrian in a lot of somm’s eyes. That’s a shame because these are still some of the most exciting wines on the planet. Let’s take a look at Bordeaux and see if we can dispel some of these generalizations.

First off, most Bordeaux is actually very reasonably priced. By this, I mean that there is a lot of really good wine in the $12-$20 range (The Grande Mottes and Malleret fall into this range). There’s even some really good wine under $12 (Philao) but you have to look hard. How can this be when all we read about is the greedy Chateau owners raising prices year after year? Yes this is a fact. There are greedy Chateau owners who raise prices, even in not so good vintages. But these are just a small fraction of the 10,000 or so in the region. You read that correctly, 10,000 producers, give or take a few hundred. Only the top Chateau in the Classifications can get away with raising prices every year. They do so because they are fairly certain that their wines will sell as the demand is usually greater than the supply for the top wines. There’s also the way in which the top Chateau sell their wines that buoys prices. It’s called ‘en primeur’ and it’s taken a big hit lately with some Chateau dropping out altogether. Only the top couple of hundred Chateau participate in en primeur. The rest sell their wines through the classic distribution channels and the supply far out strips the demand for these properties. In fact, every year more and more of the lesser Chateau are on the verge of bankruptcy because there is just too much wine flowing out of Bordeaux and they can’t charge enough to cover their costs.

Why are Bordeaux wines shunned these days? Classic things, like cars, planes, boats and wine are called classic because, well, they’re classic. They’ve stood the test of time. The classics have put their time in and others are compared to them, not the other way around. Bordeaux is a classic wine region as is Burgundy, Barolo, Chianti, Champagne and others. Wine fads will come and go but the classics will remain. There is no shame in professing your love for Bordeaux regardless of what others think. And there is just something great about opening a bottle of these Cabernet and Merlot blends with their dark black fruits, cedar, tobacco and a touch of oak along with firm tannins on its medium bodied frame. Bordeaux is rarely as extracted as Napa Cabs and their weight makes you want to take another sip. They are also great food wines. And, no, you do not have to wait years to enjoy them. Look to the larger appellations on the label such as Bordeaux, Medoc, Haut-Medoc and Graves for wines that are ready upon release. Sure, the top wines reward cellaring but most Chateau also make a second and sometimes a third wine from the younger vines or the not so good blocks. These are often wines meant for immediate consumption or can be cellared for a few years. They are also great bargains.

Finally, Bordeaux does not have to be confusing. As long as you know your banks. The wines of Bordeaux are almost always blends of different grapes with either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot dominating. The Right Bank of the Gironde Estuary is home to Merlot dominated wines such as Pomerol, St. Emilion and Fronsac. The Left Bank is home to Cabernet based wines such as Medoc, Graves, St. Julien and Margaux. These are the names you’ll see on the labels. Of course there are always exceptions to the rules when it comes to grape variety and blend. If you have a wine that is labeled Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur, chances are it is Merlot based and comes from the Entre-Deux-Mers region of Bordeaux. Another labelling term to look for is Cru Bourgeois. These are some of the best value wines in the region and most are consistently good year after year. The whites of the region are now usually Sauvignon Blanc mostly with some Semillon added for complexity.

Vintage is very important in Bordeaux. A big reason is the region’s proximity to the Atlantic. It gets wet here. The season can be bookended by frost, summer storms are a problem and there is lots of cloud cover which tends to interrupt photosynthesis. Once upon a time in Bordeaux each decade would have 3 great vintages, 3 bad vintages and 4 average vintages. Now, if you believe the Chateau owners, almost every year is the next vintage of the century. Some of the recent vintages to look for are 2000, 2001, 2005, 2007 (considered not so great but they are drinking really well), 2009 and the fantastic 2010. All of the wines below come from the 2010 vintage, a truly stellar vintage in Bordeaux. These wines don’t need cellaring to be enjoyed and probably would not benefit from it (with the exception of the Malleret). If you like these you may want to look into purchasing some of the commune wines from 2010 for your cellar. There are still some out there at fairly reasonable prices. All of the wines below will benefit from being enjoyed with food. Anything from some soft or hard cheese to a burger or pizza and more elaborate dishes with earthy flavors. Enjoy the wines!

 2010 Chateau Philao ‘La Gravelle’, Bordeaux

A straight up Bordeaux Appellation wine. This 95% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon blend is round and supple with ripe black fruits and soft tannins. No need to wait here. Pop the cork and enjoy.


2010 Chateau Les Grandes Mottes, Cotes de Bordeaux-Blaye, Bordeaux Superieur

This comes from the Right Bank but is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with 20% Merlot. See, I said there were exceptions to the rules. It also come from what they call the ‘Cotes’. There are a series of appellations with the word ‘Cotes’ in them because they are all on the banks of the rivers. They are great values and often overlooked here in the US. This is drinking really well right now with fully-ripened raspberries, cassis and cherry. Just a touch of oak to go along with mineral notes and dried eucalyptus. This is smooth and still fairly youthful. Don’t wait too long for this one.

2010 Chateau de Malleret Le Baron de Malleret, Haut-Medoc, Cru Bourgeois

This quintessential Bordeaux Chateau, with its large, magnificent buildings, was founded in 1597 by Pierre de Malleret and has been home to one of Europe’s most famous horse stables, hence the label. The property covers just over 130 acres of sandy, gravelly soil in the commune of Pian-Medoc which is situated just northwest of the city of Bordeaux. Sustainable pest management control is practiced as well as the least amount of intervention as the region allows due to weather. This wine is actually the 2nd wine of the Chateau. The blend is 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Cabernet Franc and 21% Merlot. All of the grapes are harvested by parcel and fermented separately before the final blend is determined. The wine sees 6 months in oak. There is great structure to this with firm tannins and bright acidity to go with the bold black fruit aromas and flavors with just a hint of vanilla and cedar. This can be drunk now with a good decanting or laid down for another 3 years or so.