Local Top Quality in the Vallée

Learn how wine-makers in Valle d’Aosta make local characteristics reflect in their wines. See why local wine-makers here are wine-making trail-blazers.

By Lele Gobbi
Dec 01, 2020
tagAlt.Valle d'Aosta mountain chalet Cover

As we attempt to understand the concept of modern alpine travelers, it’s helpful to take a closer look at Swiss geologist Horace-Benedict de Saussure.  During his travels in the second half of the to 18th century century, Saussure contributed decisively in spreading a new perception of the Alps.  He was the first to associate knowledge with experience in the field: walking in the mountains, for him, was a primary method of understanding the panorama of the heights... And so, I wonder, and as I quote Saussure, will be true that in the mountains of Valle d'Aosta, the wine is better?  Well, certainly the allure of the mountainous stones surrounding us here is disarming - it’s so calm and peaceful that I’m inclined towards bouts of meditation much more so than other territories I have visited. Welcome to the Valley of Aosta, the smallest Italian region in surface area and population sizes, and the land of "rouge et noir," the colors of both the national flag, and fortune.

Fortune favored the area in the past, with the presence of roulette, when the famous casino of Saint-Vincent counted amongst its visitors crowned heads of state, local and Hollywood actors and important industrialists of the huge economic boom of the ‘90s.  After all, the Saint-Vincent casino was one of the first in Europe, a giant in its day.  Today, the region is kissed by a different fate, one favoring its spontaneous natural beauties that every valley offers its visitors, and none of these magnificent sites remain undiscovered for long.  The Vallée is thus infamous and riddled with both negative and positive histories, but that magically offers us the opportunity to assist as privileged spectators in the daily transformation of the region’s green valleys and magnificent expanses under waning sunset lights into startlingly beautiful flowerbeds by the first light of dawn.  Where does this magic happen?   

The Vallée offers a bumper crop to select from, ranging from Sant'Orso in Cogne, in the municipality of Emarèse to the valley of Champorcher, from Barmasc, Chamois to the Conca di By. All these ares are united by their inherently, spectacular circumstances.  The Vallée is filled with these Alpine communities all in complete harmony with nature: rural houses, small churches, terraced stone houses of medieval origin, and countless irrigation canals called ru in the patois valdostano, to convey the water of the torrents in the agriculturally active zones.  A water table that extraordinarily exceeds that of Vichy and Sangemini, and that creates a rich hydrogeological heritage conspicuous, and gives birth to its network of renowned spas. In the Valley or in the Vallée, viticulture began thanks to the prehistoric tribe of Ligurian-Gallic origins called the Salassi.

From the 2nd century B.C., with the Romans, grapevines become elements of primary importance.  This relevance continues up to the Bishop of Ivrea, Federico Front, so that a decree released in 1272, indicates to all the most desirable areas, and obliges all residents to take the utmost care of the existing vineyards. The region’s wines will be recognized for their immense top-level quality only in the ‘60s of the last century, thanks to the great economic commitment made by the Autonomous Region of Valle d'Aosta, and by the will of Canon J. Vaudan, who, for the purpose of educational, training and wine orientation, created the first "experimental quarry" within the Institut Agricole Régional

Rows of vines were literally ripped from metamorphic rocks, with brittle, even porous roots were able to eventually take advantage of the abundance of moisture and salty minerals present in this terrain.  The local soil has a substrate that is largely morainic-sandy acidity, with important percentages of silt and very little clay thanks to historic glacial movement. The materials used by local winemakers are properly authentic and reflect the notion of 0KM: stone as a fundamental basic element, with wood, chestnut, and willow on all, to tie the screws. These principles allow us to confidently affirm that the wine-growing landscape of Valle d'Aosta, lying on the slopes of the Graie Alps, represents an authentic litmus test for how man interacts with his territory.

What’s not up for debate here is whether mountain viticulture can be described as extreme, or heroic.  The pitfalls and harshness that await the vigneron are objectively stronger than elsewhere. The imposition of delicate manual work is not enough, because stubbornness is not enough, and the wisdom in controlling erosion on slopes with gradients well over 30%, as highlighted by the Cervim research group has released surprising studies related to mountain viticulture.  Additionally, the terrible phylloxera blight left an interesting calling card: it devastated European vineyards at the end of '800s, but it did not take root in this area.  This allowed wine makers to preserve native vines, often treated by winemakers as if they were planting vines in their own private gardens.  This is quite the coup for this pocket-sized piece of land, measuring no more than 400 hectares planted with vines.

The indigenous Prié blanc, the Helvetic Petite Arvine, the transalpine Pinot gris, (also known locally as Malvoisie) and Chardonnay dispense whites rich in personality, freshness, elegance and juice. Red wines are produced with excellent autochthonous grapes like Fumin, Cornalin in the High Valley, and Nebbiolo (or better Picotendr) in the Lower Valley.  These grapes are taking a more central role, thanks to their as-to-date uncharted local character moving away from fleshy models of the past and moving in the direction of a more nuanced wine.  The newer models are still tonic and incisive, and frequently spicy, and highly refreshing.  

Yes, the Aosta Valley offers tremendous wealth and depth of experiences, with an enchanting range of nature, history and traditions.  Here, the art of conservation and seasoning become indispensable cornerstones, resulting in wines of "extreme” quality and distinction.  Although we’re no longer living in the era of Saussure’s great enlightenment, I personally maintain a great deal of curiosity for this region.  Simply by raising or lowering my eyes, the area’s altitude and gradient are a gift to me.

For a peek at another extraordinary Italian region, head over the Mamablip's Video series of Montalcino, one of Tuscany's premier wine regions.  While you're here, check out the Chianti region too - compare which you want to visit the most as Filippo Bartolotta guides you through these visits!

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