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