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From the heights of Mont Blanc to the depth of Inferno

Published:  23 July, 2008

Italy's smallest wine-producing region, Valle d'Aosta, an autonomous Alpine province where French-style architectural features predominate, is not only the site of Europe's highest vineyards, but also home to a broad spectrum of indigenous varieties that are usually blended to produce distinctive DOC cuves.

Even among Italians, this unique region has only just been discovered as a source of distinctive niche wines. Bordered to the north by Switzerland and to the west by France, viticulture in Valle d'Aosta is not only important to the local economy, but imperative for the preservation of its extremely steep mountain slopes.

Valle d'Aosta is characterised by the medieval castles and aristocratic residences that dot its hillsides, as well as by the stark blue-grey to greenish stone and dark wood of its villages. The valley has one of Europe's driest climates, with extreme temperature variation both from day to night and from summer to winter.

The forerunner of modern oenology here was the Benedictine Canon Joseph Vaudan. From 1959 to 1989, the now 80-year-old monk led the Institut Agricole Rgional, an agricultural school and research centre, introducing international varieties and selecting local ones. A vital resource for the local wine industry, the institute sets trends with its indigenous varietal wines, and is constantly experimenting with techniques of vinification and blending.

Such experimentation is indispensable given the challenge of mountain viticulture. 'The problem in the valle' as Valle d'Aosta is called affectionately by its denizens 'is actually the wine. There is too little,' apologises Erminio Neyroz, smiling as he bluntly describes Valle d'Aosta's current situation. The director of Valle d'Aosta's department of agriculture has long worked to promote viticultural development. With 60% of its 600 hectares (ha) of vineyards densely terraced on steep slopes and an average vineyard size of just 0.25ha, the region's production capacity has always been limited. Only through unified planning, great personal commitment and huge financial expenditure can growers hope to overcome this geographical obstacle. It is for this reason that wine growing in Valle d'Aosta (as in other steep-sloped Italian viticultural regions) is known as viticultura eroica ('heroic viticulture').

The two million litres of wine produced in 2004 could be consumed almost exclusively within the local market, a situation with which many local vintners are content. For Neyroz, though, this is a sign of short-sightedness. However, Aostan wines are increasingly recognised for their excellence across Italy, which bodes well for the future. A journey from west to south-east through the main valley (through which the Dora Baltea River runs), flanked by 4,000m mountains, gives an idea of Valle d'Aosta's viticultural area, which possesses 13 unique indigenous varieties and seven DOC subdivisions, generally named for their locations.

The Italian side of 4,800m high Mont Blanc overlooks Europe's highest-altitude vineyards. At up to 1,255m, there grows a unique white variety, explains Gianluca Telloli, oenologist for Cave du Vin Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle. These Pri Blanc vines average 60 years in age, owing to their partial resistance to phylloxera and, according to Telloli, are only now beginning to produce truly high-quality grapes. They are trained in a traditional system of low pergolas supported by stone slabs, protected against wind and frost by stone walls on the glacier-carved slopes, where soil composition and microclimate vary greatly. In the villages of Morgex and La Salle, the grape is used to make the Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle DOC, a pale white wine with a delicate aroma of mountain herbs, pronounced citrus flavours and racy acidity. Telloli, who delights in experimentation, has also introduced the region's first ice wine, aged in six different local woods (including juniper and chestnut).

His cooperative, the Cave du Vin Blanc, is the valley's only sparkling wine producer, and is one of six co-op wineries along the main valley, which together have 800 members and are responsible for 75% of local production. Their formation was sponsored by the regional government in the 1970s, not only in order to promote quality in winemaking, but also to help preserve the landscape against erosion. After their foundation, explains Elio Cornaz, president of La Crotta di Vegneron, these co-ops began assembling the region's many small parcel vineyards and redistributing them among their members in more contiguous plots. With 350,000 bottles produced each year, says co-op oenologist Andrea Costa, it is one of the largest in the valley, and is renowned for both its dry white Muscat Chambave and its more familiar passito version, Fltry. Pinot Gris is called Malvoisie in the mid-valley, and the Nus Rouge and Chambave Rouge DOC wines are also grown here.

Backtracking to Mont Blanc's glacier massifis the village of Arvier, which has been home to Enfer d'Arvier DOC (a soft, ruby red wine with violet and rose aromas) since 1972. Ironically, the low-lying, amphitheatre-shaped 'inferno' vineyard from which the designation stems (named for its average summer temperature of 40C) overlooks Gran Paradiso national park. Its extreme conditions are ideal for the indigenous Petit Rouge variety.

Danilo Thomain owns a large part of this famous vineyard, which like many others in the region can only be managed by hand. A single-hectare vineyard on such a steep slope requires an estimated 1,200 working hours each year, three times as much as on level ground. The traditionalist Thomain, who produces just 2,000 bottles of Enfer d'Arvier, is opposed by Michel Vallet and Maurizio Fiorano of Sarre, two of the so-called rebels of the Aostan wine scene. At Feudi di San Maurizio and Chteau Feuillet, respectively, they each produce some 15,000 bottles of a modern version of a DOC red called Torrette, based primarily on Petit Rouge and named for the steep, sun-exposed hilltop where it is grown.

A more traditional advocate of this uncomplicated, fruity red is Vincent Grosjean of Maison Vigneronne Frres, founded in 1969, between the villages of Quart and Saint Christophe. With 80,000 bottles, he and his four brothers are Valle d'Aosta's second-largest winery; their father contributed substantially to the shaping of the local wine industry in the 1970s. Torrette is undoubtedly the valley's most popular wine, says Grosjean.

Together with Marco Martin of Lo Triolet and 23 other private vintners, Grosjean is a member of the Viticulteurs Encaveurs association. They possess a strong connection to regional tradition, coupled with modern attitudes toward vinification, and contribute 25% of Valle d'Aosta's wine production. 'The consumer looks for quality, and this consists in consistency alone,' is Martin's perfectionist credo, and the vintner from Introd produces a particularly impressive Pinot Gris.

The standard-bearer of the current Aostan wine scene, though, is Costantino Charrre of Aymaville, who owns two vineyards with different emphases: the family vineyard is planted with indigenous varieties, while the Les Crtes vineyard has a combination of local and international vines, so he can adapt to consumers' constantly changing tastes. His goal is to create 'modern wines with regional character' through a biodynamic cultivation system. His barrel-aged Chardonnay is a personal passion: prudent barrel ageing complements its fruit with toasty elements and adds complexity to its long, creamy and mineral-laced finish. While such international grapes thrive throughout the valley, it is better characterised by the indigenous varietal wines: Petite Arvine, a crisp white with exotic fruit notes and concentrated mineral character; and the up-and-coming Fumin, a blackish-red with wild berry and plum flavours, herbaceous and peppery notes and fine-grained tannins.

Dino Bonin is the son of Cesarino, a pioneering vintner since 1972. Uniquely incorporated into the medieval village of Arnad, his is one of the only wineries in the valley to produce a white Pinot Noir, which is both fruity and elegant.

This is the most northern zone where Nebbiolo is planted, and it is used as the basis of the Arnad Montjovet DOC wine. The Piedmontese variety is also cultivated in the lower Aostan DOC zone of Donnas (320m above sea level), where the climate is milder and the valley's first cooperative winery, Cave du Donnas, was founded in 1971. Its president, Mario Dalbard, explains that the Donnas DOC (a cherry-red, Nebbiolo-based cuve) must mature in the bottle for two years before being sold. As head of Valle d'Aosta's largest Donnas producer, with 100,000 bottles annually, Dalbard is also in the position of selling the valley's 'heroic wine culture', and he clearly knows what he's talking about. He manages one of the area's steepest vineyards, where the vines are pergola-trained and a funicular lift system helps lighten the labour.

Valle d'Aosta's has long been a pioneer in mountain viticulture. Since 1987, it has been home to Cervim, an international consortium of mountain wine regions, which hosts a competition of mountain wines from around the world. Cervim has helped make this small region visible, but it is for its distinctive wines that Valle d'Aosta deserves international recognition.

Matthew Isom contributed to this article.