We hope you enjoy the June Italian Wine Club tasting notes, courtesy of Elio Longobardi of PlumpJack Wine & Spirits. In the northwestern corner of Italy nest a tiny jewel of region. Tucked above Piemonte, surrounded by the Gratian Alps in the north, where it shares a border with France and Switzerland. The Monte Bianco, or Mont Blanc, towers over the valleys’ region at 4,810 meters (15,781ft) making this mountain the highest peak in Europe and the 17th in world. Valle d’Aosta is more renowned for their naturalistic beauty, striking alpine range, bringing thousands of rock climbers, alpine skiers and avid excursionists into the region. Beautiful castles dot the valleys, 72 in the main valley alone, built between the II and the XVI centuries. The castles are one of the principal attractions for tourists. The wine is a pleasant and unexpected surprise, as it is hard to imagine this place suitable for growing vines, but Valle d’Aosta produces some very fascinating and unique wines. Get your hiking boots on, and let’s start to climb up to reach the wine region at the top of the world.
Elio Longobardi, Italian Wine Specialist
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits – Noe Valley
Valle d’Aosta a.k.a. Vallée d’Aoste, was originally a big glacier, when the glacier receded it left a wide valley furrowed by the river Dora Baltea that cut across the region for 100km (62mi). This mountain territory, 3268 km2 (1261 square miles), with a population of 126.000 inhabitants, makes the small and less populate region of Italy. Aosta is the capitol and also the only province, and has been populated since the 4th century B.C. by Celt tribes until the Romans annexed it 25 B.C. Always in constant commercial contact with their neighbors, France, across the Alps made the Valdostani a bilingual ethnic group where French is spoken equally if not more than Italian. The Fascists forbide the use of French language in the schools and in the press, and for this reason Valle d’Aosta was not a fertile ground for Mussolini and his ideology. The opposition to the dictatorship was strong. In 1948 the region acquires the Autonomist Regional Status that grants the right of self-government, though still part of Italy. Nowadays we have a total of five regions in Italy that benefit of the same legislative powers; beside Valle d’Aosta also Trentino-Alto-Adige, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Sicilia and Sardegna are elevated to this status.
Who would have thought you could plant vineyards at 4,000 feet and make wine too? The geography is alpine, high peaks, and temperatures below zero most of the year would discourage any sane vintner. Not the Valdostani. They terraced the steep slopes with walls of rocks and bricks to contain the scars terrain formed by glacier alluvial soil of rock moraine and sand. The vines did the rest of the job, digging deep in search of nutriments they also helped to keep the soil from getting loose and prone to slide downhill. Working the land in this condition requires giving up the support of mechanization and industrial technologies, all the job in the vineyards is up to the farmer’s arms and legs. The terrain often reaches inclines up to 30% requiring you to be more of a climber than farmer. Many call this ‘Viticultura Eroica’, which can be accurately translated as ‘Extreme Viticulture’.
Valle d’Aosta produces 0.1% of the total Italian wine production, making of about 1 million bottles on an area apt to cultivation of 1290 acres. What makes those wines more alluring is their unique peculiarity. We’ve already talked about the many grape varieties of each Italian region, here are even more. Grapes that are limited only to this specific area and you wont find them elsewhere. White grapes: Prie’ Blanc, Malvoisie, Petit Arvine. Red grapes: Cornalin, Mayolet, Petit Rouge, Premetta, Vien de Nus and Fumin. There also other important grape such as Nebbiolo from near by Piemonte, here called Picotendro. Gamay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay are cultivated as well.
Pavese Ermes, Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle, Vallée d’Aoste 2002 D.O.P.
Ermes Pavese is a youthful grower in the commune of La Ruine just outside of the town of Morgex in the high Alps, just minutes from the summit of Mont Blanc. Pavese works with the native grape known as Prié Blanc. This is the old varietal of the region was first mentioned in documents dated in 1691. The name probably refers to the wine’s use in Sunday Mass by priests (priest, in French). Starting with barely two hectares of vineyards, situated at about 1200 meters (~4000feet) a.s.l., Ermes has gradually expanded his holdings in this high altitude zone. He now produces three versions of Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle. Besides the bottle that we’ve selected, Ermes makes a version barrel aged and a dessert wine. Basically an ice-wine, the grapes are harvested in December when temperatures are between 17 and 14 Fahrenheit. Because these vineyards are so isolated, Pavese has been able to work with the original, pre-phylloxera rootstock since that parasite never infiltrated this area, because of the high elevation and sandy soil, when it came sweeping through Europe at the end of 1800. To understand the difficulties and the hard labor required in making wine here, you must understand that in order to plant vines the farmers have to remove all the rocks that cover the terrain until they get to the soil. Removing them manually, one by one. This labor of love produces wines that are the pure expression of this terroir. Nervy, crispy and racy with minerality that speaks of glacier and moraine rocks.
Pavese Blanc de Morgex fruit is harvested between the end of September beginning of October. All the clusters are softly pressed, vinification takes place in stainless steel tanks and then filtered and bottled. This wine in the glass has a bright clear yellow straw color with golden reflections. Aromas are clean, the palate loaded with fresh acidity with a whisper er of aromatic herbs such as thyme and chamomile, floral notes of hawthorn, white fruit tones, pear Williams and yellow plums. The finish is long with accents of white pepper notes. Perfect as aperitif, it also works great with fish and white meat dishes as well with semi-firm aged cheeses.
La Cantina di Cuneaz Nadir, Badebec, Rosso-Vallée d’Aoste 2012 DOP
Nadir Cuneaz is a young and enthusiastic wine maker, driven by a passion for his land, he puts all his energy into the vineyards owned by his family for over a century. The Cuneaz family has a mere 0.5 hectares near the town of Gressan, in the southern part of the region, reflecting a local mix of grape varieties, some of which were planted over 100 years ago. All the work in the vineyards is rigorously maintained and manually done by hand. The harvest usually happens at the end of October to allow plenty of time for the fruit to reach maturation. The grapes harvested earlier are left to dry for a couple of weeks until they achieve the right sugar concentration and then combine together for the vinification. The wine spends then one year in barrels in the cellar, which also serves as one of the rooms in their home.
The wine we’ve selected is composed of 90% Petit Rouge with small amounts of Fumin and Vien de Nus. The wine hints at the passito element, with rich, ripe fruit. Open the bottle, pour a glass and let the olfactory sensations bring reminders of mountain fruits and herbs. There are dark, sweet notes of blackberry, complimented by alpine flowers that reflect the position of the vineyards. The rich, balsamic notes of stone ripe fruits envelopes the palate with a soft, warm alcoholic accent well supported by a fresh and sapid structure. The name of this wine ‘Badabec’, comes from the mythical monster that is said to roam the forests above Gressan and occasionally feast on misbehaving children in the village! The perfect match for this wine is the Soupetta di Cogne (see recipe below).
Soupettas di Cogne (Cogne’s soup)
This dish, as all the Valdostana traditional cuisine are made with the few ingredients available in those remote valleys in the past when long winters made impossible any contact and exchange with the regions around. You may not think this recipe as a summer one but after a long day of hiking in the high elevation I can ensure you’ll be very hungry and something like this will put you in the right mood.
Ingredients (serves 4):
500 g fontina* cheese cut in ¼ inch slices
200 g butter
500 g rice
2 and 1/2 cup beef broth
1 kg stale rye bread
¼ tsp. grated nutmeg
1. Cut the bread in ½ inch slices and fried in 100 g of butter until the bread has a nice golden color.
2. In another pan, with 50 g of butter cook the rice as you do risotto, adding slowly 2 cups of beef broth and a pinch of salt. Cook on medium-high heat until the rice is almost done, 15-20 minutes.
3. Using a baking pan, start with strata of bread, then rice and top with slices of fontina. Repeat the process until all the bread, rice and cheese is used finishing the last top with fontina.
4. Pour now over the half-cup of remaining broth, melted butter and the nutmeg.
5. Bake in the oven at 375F for 4 minutes and serve warm.
* Fontina is the most famous regional cheese. It get its name from the pasture area called Font.