A few days ago I realised that there is a small European wine region I’ve visited several times, whose wines I love, and yet I’ve never written about it here. Back in 1990, when Burton Anderson’s Italian Wine Atlas was published in a short lived Mitchell Beazley series, Aosta was the first region you came to. I was intrigued. Later, on so many trips to Italy, it has been the first I’ve driven through. I’ve often stayed up in the Gran Paradiso National Park at an Auberge with (at that time) an excellent Italian wine list, but under its owner’s knowledge and tutelage, I soon gravitated away from Barolo and Brunello to the local wines. Over the years I guess I built up an above average appreciation of them, for we have seen so few in the UK that hardly any British wine writers have had much experience of them. But that is changing, and when Jancis commented on one via Twitter, in reply to a post by Jane Parkinson the other day, I thought maybe it’s time to pull my finger out.
Aosta is usually cited as Italy’s smallest wine region with somewhere around 1,000 hectares of vines, most up on high terraces. These vines, commonly pergola trained, are equally often cited as the highest in Europe, at between 900 to 1,300 metres for the Vin Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle (although the Swiss often claim that same prize for the vines above Visp in the Valais, those reach only 1,100m). What we do know is that Aosta (the town, the region and its vines) is surrounded by the highest peaks of the Alps, and from the north and west is only really accessible via the Mont Blanc and Grand Saint-Bernard Tunnels. All the regional sub-zones are located along the Dora Baltea River, which flows by the town, and if you enter the valley along the Autostrada which follows it you will miss the vines, along with some spectacularly perched castles, as you speed along the Aosta region’s fifty or so kilometres.
If you take the time to stop you will find the unspoilt valleys of the Gran Paradiso National Park, filled with wildlife (chamois and marmots especially) and more or less devoid of ski pylons. In Aosta itself, you will find abundant remnants of its Roman past, and along the route don’t forget to look out for those imposing castles like Fénis, Montjovet, Brusson, Sarre and Saint-Pierre, among many defending this essential trade and military route between France and the Italian states.
Aosta has a catch all DOC which, given how little wine is made from a diverse array of grape varieties, at least gives the region some sort of profile. But in truth, Aosta is better described through seven sub-zones. The furthest west of these, nearly as far west as Courmayeur, is Vin Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle, made from a regional variety also called Blanc de Morgex, or Prié Blanc in local dialect. This is a wine I was famously mocked for elsewhere when I described it as tasting like licking a rounded pebble from a cold glacial stream. But in my defence, I’ve tried that taste test for real in the Valgrisenche, on a short trek up to the refuge there.
Close to Morgex, travelling eastwards, comes the little village of Arvier with its ancient stone houses, twisting medieval streets, and Roman bridge. You will often read that the wine made (mainly) from the Petit Rouge grape variety, Enfer d’Arvier, is the region’s best red. That is in my view outdated, and you will find more interesting reds along the river. But that’s not to discount the wine’s appeal if you have never tried it.
Torrette, around the communes of Sarre, Saint-Pierre, Introd and Aymavilles, is capable of some very attractive wines today. Again, Petit Rouge is the mainstay variety, but there’s Dolcetto, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Gros Rouge and Fumin, along with other local relics. Fumin is especially worthy of exploration as a single variety, capable of making long lived reds of medium weight.
To the east of Aosta itself we find the sub-zones of Nus and Chambave. Although you can find decent red wine here, the two villages are more famous for their sweet wines, by no means the only dessert style wines benefiting from the alpine sunshine, shelter, and surprisingly low rainfall (averaging 500-600ml/year in the valley). Nus has Malvoisie Flétri, made from Pinot Gris/Griggio, whilst Chambave has Moscato Passito. Both are vinified from semidried grapes, flétri being the local francophone dialect word for the more common Italian passito.
After Chambave, the Dora Baltea river and the Autostrada which follows it, turn southeast, towards Piemonte. The two remaining sub-zones fit into the broadening valley here. First is Arnad-Montjovet, and then, by the regional border, Donnas/Donnaz (known widely by both its French dialect and Italian names). Nebbiolo is, perhaps not unsurprisingly, the red grape of choice here, often going under its local name, Picutener. I’ll be honest and tell you that I’ve had very few Arnads, but I’m quite a fan of Donnas. These wines are lighter than those of the Piemontese zones around Barolo (Carema is just over that border), and they can also be leaner. But the wine I will be recommending below is capable of long ageing and shows off the potential delicacy of Nebbiolo when it is on form.
It’s probably a good time to recommend some producers, and their wines. Although I said at the beginning of this article that we see few of the wines of Aosta in foreign markets, small independent wine merchants, who can accommodate a few intriguing cases in their stores, are starting to catch on to the fact that the region’s best winemakers do crave some international recognition for what can be very attractive, and in some cases world class, wines.
I shall keep this list of recommended producers relatively short, so don’t think there are not many other names to check out. Keep an eye out for the Gambero Rosso wine awards each year – the Aostan section is of necessity small, but a good pointer to the best addresses.
Cave de Morgex et de la Salle – The Blanc de Morgex of choice is the Cuvée Rayon here. Along with the wet pebble, look for hay, herbs and stone fruit…but mainly stone. A pale wine, like Evian but more interesting (and alcoholic). The Cave’s Cuvée “Vini Estremi” does what it says on the bottle. Interesting, but more extreme. They also make a very worthwhile sweet wine from the same grape variety, a vin de glace called Chaude Lune, if you can find it.
Cantina di Barro – One of the first producers of Aostan reds that I began getting to know in detail. Their estate sits on the slopes above Villeneuve, and they produce several cuvées of Cru Torrette, including two Superiore (Clos du Chateau Feuillet and Vigni di Torrette). The main variety is Petit Rouge, with the addition of a multitude of both the familiar and unfamiliar: Mayolet, Vien de Nus, Fumin, Cornalin (of Swiss Valais fame) and Neblou. Even better, perhaps, is Di Barro’s Fumin. With more body than Petit Rouge, or Mayolet, it is often likened to Syrah. As with Trousseau in Jura, Mondeuse in Savoie, or perhaps Cornalin and Humagne Rouge over the border in Switzerland, Fumin is a truly distinctive regional grape of quality, in the right hands.
Les Crêtes – On the international stage it is arguable that Les Crêtes, founded by Costantino Charrère with other local partners, is pre-eminent in Aostan viticulture. This producer saved many of the local varieties from extinction, but also makes a famous Chardonnay, an estate which combines tradition and innovation. At 25 hectares in production, this is also the largest private wine estate in the province. My choices here, two whites and a red: Chardonnay “Frissonnière” Cuvée Bois (a perennial Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri Winner), the Petite Arvine “Champorette” (as good as almost any version you will find in Switzerland’s nearby Valais) and the Fumin “Vigne La Tour“.
Lo Triolet – A good range topped by a famous Pinot Gris, which comes with or without oak. Another wine you’ll find every year in many of the Italian wine awards.
Elio Ottin – The subject of the Tweets which prompted this article was Ottin’s excellent Pinot Noir, but he’s even better known for his Petite Arvine.
Anselmet – This house has vines from Torrette to Chambave, but is well known for varietal Fumin and Torrette Superiore. Good wines if you find them locally. Their Pinot Noir “Semel Pater” 2013 won a Gambero Rosso Three Glass Award for 2016, but I’ve not tried this wine.
La Crotta di Vegneron – This co-operative makes a wide range of wines, about 200,000 bottles per year, and has around 70 members . But they make the most accessible versions of the excellent sweet wines mentioned above, the Nus Malvoisie and the Chambave Moscato from semidried grapes. I’ve had Moscatos which have been aged for a decade and more, and they are concentrated, brown, wines, more like a passito from Pantelleria, off Sicily, than anything you might find in the Alto Monferrato an hour or two further south. They are open to visitors at Chambave.
The Cave des Onze Communes (you can certainly get away with using your French in Aoste) is at Aymavilles, at the start of the Val di Cogne, which is the most spectacular (but also most popular with tourists) valley of the Gran Paradiso, narrow in its lower reaches, but broadening towards Cogne, the main village surrounded by rising meadows and glacier encrusted mountain peaks. The Cave, in its own way, has quite a spectacular hillside setting, its modern building set off by the spruced up castle opposite. This co-op makes another wide range of wines, including possibly the best value, cheap, Pinot Noir in the valley…in a good vintage, along with a good Fumin, both aged in barricati.
Cave Coop de Donnas – This is the place to come for a different experience with Nebbiolo. They make a range, many with a label depicting the famous arch on the old Roman road which Napoleon followed on his return to France from Elba in 1815. The best of these is the Cuvée Napoléon itself, a selection, aged for 12-18 months in assorted wood. It’s so cheap you really can’t go wrong.
On the Tourist Trail
There’s a lot to do in the valley, or should I say valleys, including spectacular walking, from easy to extreme. For an easy day trek, start beyond the dam in Bonne, at the end of the lake, above the village of Valgrisenche in the valley of the same name, and walk up to the Rifugio Bezzi. You can get food there in the summer and walk back in less than a day, or you can climb higher to the other refuges which ring the Gran Paradiso. It’s not a long walk, but you will notice the altitude (just under 2,300m), so take care.
Visit some castles. Some prefer Sarre, others Fénis. The latter is a fairy tale medieval edifice, the former a hunting lodge of Vittorio Emanuele II. There’s a funny story that VE wanted to buy the castle at Aymavilles, the one near the cooperative, opposite, but his agent went and bought the wrong one. Both Sarre and Fénis are open to visitors, but there are many more castles, keeps and towers, including a large number of ruins of all sizes, which you will stumble across if you spend a few days in the region.
Spend a day, or at least a morning, in Aosta. The centre of town is the Place Chanoux. North of here is the Cathedral (the inside is much older than the facade) and the Archeological Museum. Walking east from the Place, you will pass the medieval Torre Fromage and through the Roman Porta Prettoria, and it is just north of here where you will find the ruined Roman theatre. At the far end of the Via Sant’ Anselmo you’ll find the Arco di Augusto and the Roman bridge. But in between, don’t miss the churches of San Lorenzo and Sant’ Orso. The latter has 10th Century frescoes (if you can gain access up there to the walkways), and a very attractive small romanesque cloister.
There are plenty of decent restaurants in Aosta, and wine shops too. But another place to look out for in the region is one of the branches of the local produce stores, Pain de Coucou. The store above Saint-Pierre (you’ll need a map but they have a web site) is the best stocked with local meats, cheeses, wines (mainly from the cooperatives, but a good selection from those mentioned above) and grappas (the grappa di mirtilli is worth checking out).
Fontina – this cheese has been devalued in its industrial version, yet the genuine mountain version, made from Valdostana cows, and made from a single milking, ranks alongside the famous French hard Alpine cheeses for flavour, being sweet and fruity but quite strong. It’s also a chewy cheese not dissimilar in some respects to Abondance. Good for fondue too, and it goes well with the local red wines, including Pinot Noir.