Working the high mountain passes of the Valle d’Aosta

It’s thrilling to work the high passes of the Valle d’Aosta searching for wines in places that are home to the chamois and mountain goat as much as they prove to be fertile ground for a fascinating array of local grape varieties.  Our love affair with this area started 35 years ago in January 1980 when we first made contact with Luigi Ferrando whose Piedmontese vineyards in Carema lay within a few hundred meters from the border with the Valle d’Aosta and encountered the formidable Ezio Voyat, the man who put Chambave Rouge on the wine map.

This massive valley that tumbles south from the peaks of Monte Bianco is cut in two by the Dora Baltea River and there are terraced vineyards perched on both the eastern and western sides of this ravine. Over the last two decades we have picked our way through this region, humbled by its beauty, partnering first with the Grosjean family in Vineyards of CuneazOllignan, a tiny hamlet on the eastern side overlooking Aosta, the principal town, then delighting in our partnership with Ermes Pavese, whose Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle highlights the joys of the elusive Prié Blanc grape.

Recently, our “grapevine” has yielded two new sources of wonderment: Danilo Thomain’s unique rendition of Enfer d’Arvier and Nadir Cuneaz’s duo of reds named for the goblins and spirits that haunt these mountains: the “Grandgosier” and the “Badabec”.  This trio of wines from the 2012 vintage has just arrived Stateside and merits a mention before the tiny quantities of each get swept away on the tide of enthusiasm the prior vintages has engendered.

Thomain owns one hectare of vines within the 5 hectare appellation known as “Enfer d’Arvier”.  He is the largest landowner and the only one who bottles his own wine commercially.  Production at the estate ranges between 2500 and 3000 bottles (750ml)of wine each year.  Approximately 60% of the production is dedicated for our use in the USA. The “Petit Rouge” (the “little red”) is the dominant grape (95%) and it shows its brilliance in this wine of wild berry notes and spicy flavors and lively tannins.  The mountain air is manifest in this wine, its vibrant structure and fresh feel on the palate proclaiming its Alpine heritage.  This is a joyous wine in its youth, strong but not at all intimidating, athletic and graceful.

Nadir Cuneaz lives in Gressan, about twenty minutes south of Thomain’s place in Arvier.  Nadir works an even smaller plot of land, a few parcels set into the steep slopes of the western side of the mountain, that amount to about seven-tenths of an hectare.  This year brings the first “Grandgosier” (that is the name of a mythical giant who is said to reside in these mountains), entirely produced from Pinot Noir which, after the alcoholic and malo-lactic fermentations (done in stainless steel), spends about three months in three year old barrels to add a touch of refinement. Eight hundred bottles were produced, 450 of which are now Stateside – an elegant, fine, playful wine.

The “Badabec” (another mountain goblin) from Cuneaz is composed 90% of Petit Rouge and 10% of Fumin.  This wine, treated in fashion similar to the Grandgosier, has more structure, braced by tannins that are more firm, with a flavor profile marked by a hint of pine resin from the Alpine forests that surround this area. Ah, to be so blessed as to have the privilege to acquire 720 bottles of this mountain liquid.

Each of these three wines is its own small ode to the stark beauty of this magnificent valley.