If I had to pick a second favorite wine region in all of Italy, it would be Valle d’Aosta. It’s not because of any one reason in particular but all things taken together. To be honest, not all of the wines are good and I wouldn’t say many have the capacity to change your life — although there are a few out there. The characteristic that I love the most about the wines of Aosta is that they all express a purity and freshness that I haven’t experienced so ubiquitously in any other wine region. (Not to say there isn’t another one; I just haven’t yet discovered it yet.) On top of that, Aosta intrigues me because of its grape diversity. So many varieties thrive in such a small, steep, majestic, and enchanting geographical area. French varieties do well, along with some of the German whites. Beyond that, Italian grapes that flourish in other regions have success. But Aosta doesn’t just borrow from neighboring regions. Aosta, as small as it is, has no problem maintaining its identity as well through its autochthonous varieties.* In general the indigenous whites have a pronounced minerality, vigor, and a balanced fruit tone (citrus, pomme, or rock fruits) ranging through a variety of successful styles. The reds range in style from light and almost rosé to dark and hefty like a serious Cabernet or Syrah. Regardless, the reds all share “mountain wine” traits of notable herbs, pine, spice, and a healthy dose of acidity and/or tannins to support a graceful fruit component. The food is … well, I don’t know what the food is. I’ve certainly had a few decent meals there but in general it is not that good. Or maybe I’ve spent too much time in Piemonte (bestemmia!). I’m still not sure how they identify their own food scene but I’d say, given the locale, you can feel confident about the quality of the meat and dairy you encounter. They do a good job with grilled meat, which I love (coming from California).
The people in Aosta are mostly laid back mountain people. They remind me of Californians in their dress and general easy-going and carefree approach to things.
There’s also a splash of refined yuppies. You’ll see them shopping at the high-end stores downtown Aosta on Via Edouard Aubert/ Via Jean Baptiste de Tillier/ Rue Porte Pretorienne /Rue St. Anselme. (That’s all one street. It has even more names as well, and also goes by its Italian equivalents: Via Porta Preatoria, Via Sant’ Anselmo, etc.) You’ll also find all types of people in between. But there is a lot that isn’t easy to find. Part of the allure of Aosta is how remote everything really is. It’s a deep valley and most of the towns are scattered up the mountainsides so it’s not uncommon to drive for half hour to an hour just trying to get some crazy place that seems like it should have been closer. (Maybe there are good restaurants hiding up there? Some of the wineries are!) Finding the hiking trails is challenging as well but I’ve actually had more luck finding these than anything else. (Maybe because there are so many!?) Looking at all of these things together, I realize that what really makes Aosta the place it is are the mountains: a place with bright and expressive wines, a diversity of historical varieties, high quality free-range meat, laid back people, epic hikes, and other hidden gems. I just adore these mountains. If you go, do yourself a favor, and get to the top of a peak. You’ll feel like you’re getting close to heaven up there. The last thing that I like so much about Valle d’Aosta is its proximity to Piemonte. You can drive there in exactly two hours! In the fall of 2011 I visited two new wineries; my husband came along with me to one of them. I speak about them below and then about my other favorite producers of Aosta, whom I visited in 2010. After that I recommend some hikes and restaurants. — Les Granges, Nus produttori: Liana Grange & Gualtiero Crea In the fall of 2010 I completely failed at finding this winery. All I found was a herd of cattle with loose bowels crossing the road, which admittedly was entertaining, but not really what I was in the mood for that day. In 2011, I tried again, but was presented with many challenges. Google maps and GPS instructions show roads that do not exist, and some of the roads that do exist, are not shown on any maps or in any instructions. The winery doesn’t have a sign out front, nor is a number visible, and it’s in such a small village that its address is practically self-referencing (Loc. Les Granges, 1). These types of unclear addresses are common in rural areas of Italy. I’m never sure if the address is a road name, or a borgata name and the house is the only thing there so you can’t miss it — or maybe you can miss it and you’ll drive through the borgata, never knowing you’ve done so. When I got to Nus, I knew I must have passed it and called. Last year I didn’t have the language skills to take directions over the phone in Italian but this year I did and so somehow, after deciphering the instructions, I found it. Liana was expecting me and she was so kind to stand outside and await me so I wouldn’t get lost again. She said she remembered my email from last year. Sigh… These challenges are always worth it. Liana and her husband Gualtiero own this small winery, Les Granges, near the village of Nus. They are currently renovating the winery and house and will provide lodging as an agriturismo in the future when it’s complete. They produce about 18,000 bottles per year from 3 hectares of land in and around Nus. I felt good about all the wines and I look forward to trying them again. But with no prior knowledge of this winery it was difficult for me to assess such young wines. I will seek them out again and I do have one bottle of Cornalin stashed away for a future date. Nus Malvoisie 2010. Vallé d’Aoste DOC. Malvoisie 100%. Lemon yellow in color. A light and fresh wine with crisp tropical fruit. Refreshing. Made only in stainless steel. (Malvoisie is a synonym for Pinot grigio.) ★★ Pinot noir 2010. Vallé d’Aoste DOC. Pinot noir 100%. Pine, herbs, and spices. A succinct wine with a crisp acididty and noticeable tannins. I love the mountain Pinot noirs from Italy (Aosta, Alto Adige, etc); they always have an herby/pine oil character. It’s common in Aosta that winemakers do not age their Pinot noir in oak. This choice results in a genre of tight and spicy Pinots. This one seemed a little young yet, for sure, but I feel it will open up nicely in the next 6 months to a year or beyond. I’d have to try more vintages at later dates to know the true aging potential of this one. I bought one and gave it away as a gift. Maceration on skins 20-25 days. ★★ Nus 2010. Vallé d’Aoste DOC. Viene di Nus 60%; Petite rouge, Premetta, Fumin, and Mayolet together at 40%. A blend named after their village. Also a little early — very spicy, enriched with dark fruit of all sorts: blackberry, blueberry, plums. Strong tannins and acidity. ★ Cornalin 2010. Vallé d’Aoste DOC. Cornalin 100%. Cinnamon and smoke on top of plums and blackberry. Also tart and spicy and more brooding than the previous reds. ★★ Fumin 2009. Vallé d’Aoste DOC. Fumin 100%. This wine and the last are the only ones aged in oak barrels. This one sees one year in French oak. With a strong black pepper component and tannins, my assessment is that this wine needs a few years on it. Has great potential in my opinion. ★ Nus Malvoisie, Flétri. Vallé d’Aoste DOC. Malvoisie 100%. The French verb flétrir means “to whither.” In other words, this wine is made from grapes which were allowed to partially dry before pressing. For a sweet wine, yes this one is quite dry: a balanced acidity creates for a harmonious and embraceable dessert wine. Smoke and flowers in the bouquet with flavors of apple, golden raisin, fresh figs. Honey and caramel in the finish but lifted with a spritz of lemon rind. ★★ – Didier Gerbelle, Aymavilles produttore: Didier Gerbelle I found out about Didier Gerbelle via a comment on my blog from a reader who discovered my blog via Expats in Italy. What a great way to discover a new wine maker! I was very glad to make the visit. Didier is a young wine maker who studied in Alba and started his own winery in 2006, although his family has been involved in viticulture for four generations. Currently from his three hectares of vineyards, he produces two whites, four reds, and one passito (over 15,000 bottles per year, a number that continues to grow). It is common in Valle d’Aosta to own very small plots of vineyards, which are spread out into different borgate and villages. Didier’s case is no different. Le Plantse 2010. Vallee d’Aoste DOP. Pinot gris 100%. Maceration on skins for 6-7 hours before pressing. The wine stays in French oak until April of the following year, at which point it is transferred to stainless stell tanks and bottled in July. On the nose caramel, honey, and Granny Smith apple. Perfectly balanced ripe fruit with a touch of complexity, soft texture, and a fresh minerality. Love it! ★★☆ Both the Torrette and Torrette Superiore were bottled about four weeks prior and thus were still going through a bit of bottle shock. I totally understand this from working in a tasting room myself for three years. It’s really frustrating to pour a wine you know was great in the tank but after being forced into a bottle, it’s just not in the right mood yet to pull through for the client. Patience is the key. Nevertheless all of the previous vintages of his reds were sold out and I could tell he really wanted to be able to pour some nice new samples for us. Vignes des Ancêtres, Torrette 2010. Vallee d’Aoste DOP. The Torrette has a fabulous bouquet of black licorice and cherry, with a beam of autumnal and Indian spices, along with an earthy component. It is aged for about 6-8 months in 10HL French barrels (about four times the size of a regular French barrel), which are 50% new and 50% second passage.
Vigne Isancognein, Torrette Superiure 2009. Vallee d’Aoste DOP. Torrette 80%, other autochthonous varieties 20%. The other varieties are planted among the Torrette in the one vineyard, Vigne Isancognein, making this wine a field blend. It’s a more complex wine, made from older vines (20 & 40 years old), and needs time. Maceration is 10-15 days and malolactic fermentation and aging occur in French oak barrels. Didier offered to take us to see the vineyard from where these grapes come in Aymavilles. It’s always a richer experience when you can see the vineyard as well. It was too early and too soon after bottling for me to assess this wine but I will look for it again. Jalousie. Vallee d’Aoste DOP. Moscato bianco 100%. Passito. Vino da uve Stramature means “wine made from overripe grapes.” Smokey and fresh; not too sweet. Una bella dolce! ★☆ — I would like to point out three other commendable producers of Aosta. I was disappointed not to be able to catch up again with them this past fall. But I know I’ll be back! Les Crêtes This winery consistently produces quality wines. I’ve sought them out since 2010, when I was introduced, and always been pleased. As for the wines I’ve tried, I enjoyed their 2009 Petite Arvine but actually preferred the Grosjean more (below). I ordered the Les Crêtes Petite Arvine (2009? 2010?★) at La Bocca Buona in Bra last September while at dinner with friends after the Cheese festival. Everyone loved it. Their Cuvée Bois Chardonnay consistently wins the Tre Bicchieri award but it is too oaky and creamy for me — reminds me of a California Chardonnay and I’m mostly over that style. It’s fermented in barrique, sur lees, and then aged in French oak barrique. I have tried the 2007. It was fine but not my style. I love their Torrette (2009★★☆)! It’s 70% Petite Rouge and 30% other grapes. The bouquet is fresh and spicy with strawberry, mint, violets, roses. Red-hot spicy with cran-raspberry, a touch of gylcerin and a frsh minearlity in the finish. The 2009 Pinot nero★★☆ was a winner with me as well because of its floral-spicy-herbal temperament, supported with a ripe sottobosco (think wild strawberry) fruit component and a fresh lime/pine finish. The Fumin 2007★ impressed upon me that they can make a successfully hefty wine in this region (flavors of black pepper, green bell pepper, cassis, juniper, plum, blackberry, vanilla) but I appreciate the other varieties of Aosta better. Les Abeilles (“the bees”) 2007, their moscato passito, is a fine dessert wine but not my favorite one. – Grosjean Another of my favorite producers is Grosjean. Their Petite Arvine 2009★★☆ was my favorite last year. I consistently love their Torrette★★☆. I’ve had multiple vintages. My friend also shared a bottle with me that she found at a shop in New Hampshire last year, — a 2007 I believe — and it was great. They also make a Torrette Superieur, Vigne Rovettaz, (2008★★) which is aged in French barrels (whereas the regular Torrette only goes into stainless steel). I prefer the fresher style. The Cornalin (2008★★) expresses mint, blackberry, figs, tobacco, pulls through with nice tannins but has a touch of bitterness I’m not sure about. Finally the Fumin, Vigne Rovettaz (2007★) is dark black purple with blackberry and cedar characters, and very smooth tannins. – Feudo San Maurizio Valet Michel makes about a dozen different wines, with a production of about 50,000 bottles per year. His vineyards are spread thorughout Aosta as well but he is based in Sarre. The day I met him he took me up the mountain to where his harvest crew was working. The vineyards are so steep everything must be carried in and out by hand. It was a gorgeous sight to see but I unfortunately forgot my camera. After that he invited me to have lunch with him, his crew, and his wife and son (pictured above in the photos with the “garbage can” grill and the Grolla di Amici). We had a blast! I’ve tried his sparkling Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay (2009★), Mayolet (2009★), Cornalin (2009★), Torrette (2009★), Torrette Superiore (2008★★), Saro Djablo, and a dessert wine called Pierrots, similar in style to a reccioto. I’ve found a few of these wines in the states (at Enoteca la Storia in Los Gatos and K&L Wine Merchants) since 2010 and I continue to enjoy them. — Hikes. Le passeggiate. As for hikes, the panormas you see in the beginning of this blog entry are from a hike I did above the village of Sarre in 2010, called Becca France, reviewed in my entry called Got to keep on moving. Another really gorgeous spot is above Saint-Marcel. After a drive up what feels like 1,000 tornanti (“switchbacks”), you’ll arrive at a park called Les Druges. If you’re lucky, you’ll be greeted by la guardia (“the guard”) who will give you a sample of his home made génépi and organic apples! Jeff and I figured he’d either poison us, or we’d discover something new, and luckily the latter was the case. Jeff had to seek out a bottle of his own after that. We tried a few here and there but the best was certainly the first taste I had from la guardia at Les Druges. From the park, head up the trail to Le Servette, an old copper and iron mine. — Restaurants. I ristoranti During my 10-week stay in Italy in the fall of 2010, I took a week sojourn in the Rhone. I reentered Italy via Valle d’Aosta and happily encountered once again l’ospitalità Italiano at Aux Routiers . Some of the French people are nice but you’re never going to walk into a restaurant you’ve never been to before and have the waiter offer to open up a bottle of whatever you want. No, that happens in Italy only and that happened here. Two winebars I can recommend, downtown Aosta are Ad Forum and La Vineria, which is at Via St Anselmo 121 in downtown Aosta. They’re both quaint and have a good by-the-glass selection. Also in Aosta, Pizzeria Grotta Azzurra at Via Croce di Città 97 makes great pizza. Osteria da Nando was expensive and annoying. I’m used to European service but this place had incredibly horrible service. It was as if it was everyone’s first night in training. And finally, Trattoria Praetoria at Via St Anselmo 9 was okay. While the service was on queue, the waitstaff was totally unfriendly. — * The autochthonous varieties of Valle d’Aosta include for whites: Petite Arvine and Prié blanc (Blanc de Morgex). For reds: Fumin, Cornalin, Mayolet, Petit Rouge, Premetta, Vuillermin, Neblou, and Vien de Nus. French ones that do well are Gamay noir, Pinot noir, Syrah, Grenache, and Merlot, along with Chardonnay and Pinot gris (confusingly called Malvoisie in Aosta but it is not related to Malvasia). German whites like Müller Thurgau and Gewurztraminer do well in this cold climate as well as Italian grapes: Moscato, Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo (Picotendro), and from farther away, Ciliegiolo.