Treasures of the Alps

Of the many wrinkles in the Italian wine tapestry, one of the wrinkliest is about as far northwest as you can go in Italy. There, tucked away in the Alps beneath looming Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in the chain, is the smallest Italian viticultural region, brimming with little-known wines capable of offering great pleasure.

The problem is not so much what to call this region, but in which language to express it. Along the entire northern border of Italy, language and culture refuse to respect political boundaries. In Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italian merges with Slovenian. In Tyrolean Alto Adige, it collides head-on with German. And in the Alpine northwest, where Italy kisses both France and Switzerland in a linguistic ménage-à-trois, it’s Italian-French.

On the label of any bottle of these Alpine wines, you may just as easily find the French Vallée d’Aoste as the Italian Valle d’Aosta, two Romance language versions for what would be rendered unromantically in English as the Aosta Valley. As it is technically in Italy, let’s call it Valle d’Aosta, except where contradicted by a French-leaning label.

The Valle d’Aosta is a winding network of vineyards, some on dizzyingly steep slopes at the highest elevations of any in Europe. The wines are by both tiny producers and bigger cooperatives, coming from a few familiar grapes (pinot noir, nebbiolo, gamay) and a whole host you rarely see anywhere else, like fumin and cornalin, petit rouge and prié, which is used to make the lively and floral but wordy Vin Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle.

As much as I enjoy the white wines, I’ve been far more interested in the reds. Though somewhat esoteric and made in small quantities, they have been showing up in the last few years on some of the better Italian wine lists in New York. I had tried more than a few and found them generally to be wonderfully distinctive, and good values.

Short of a visit to the Valle d’Aosta (now on the short list of future journeys), the best way to get a sense of the region was to assemble the wine panel, so we sampled 20 reds from the Valle d’Aosta from recent vintages. Florence Fabricant and I were joined by two guests, Aldo Sohm, chef sommelier at Le Bernardin, and Charles Prusik, wine director at Lupa.

Any tasting like this is mostly educational. The glasses before us encompassed so many different sorts of wines in such a hodgepodge of styles that coming out with a strict hierarchy of selections was difficult. The takeaway was that these wines are well worth exploring.

Without a doubt, many are rustic. By that I mean they tend to lack the polish of more renowned or familiar regions, where possible flaws are eliminated and quirkiness is sometimes ironed out in favor of homogeneity. Some of these wines had detectable characteristics often called flaws, like volatile acidity, which might express itself as an acetone aroma, like nail polish remover, or aromas of brettanomyces, a rogue yeast that can add a touch of what is often described as barnyard aroma. Personally, I don’t object to either in mild doses, when they serve more as accents that add complexity.

Aldo was not as entranced by the wines. From a sommelier’s perspective, he was doubtful their rusticity would meld well with the refined cuisine of Le Bernardin. Charles noted that such rusticity would be expected among a group of mountain wines. Lupa, he said, embraced these sorts of flavors.

What seemed to define the group to me was a kind of nervous Alpine character, a lively acidity, pale color and lightness of touch that made the wines feel fresh and vivacious. They almost demand to be served with food.

You can get a sense of the variety of flavors from the Valle d’Aosta by looking at our top five wines. No. 1 was the 2010 Grosjean Frères cornalin, from the Rovettaz vineyard, a spicy, pleasantly textured, slightly funky wine with intriguing exotic flavors. I don’t know much about the cornalin grape except that it’s also planted in the Valais, in the Swiss Alps, where it’s called humagne rouge. Every time I’ve had this wine in a restaurant, I’ve very much enjoyed it.

The cornalin was also our best value at $28. Most of these wines were $25 to $35, with a few outliers in either direction. No, they’re not cheap, but between the small amount of wine made in the Valle d’Aosta, and the difficulty of farming the region, they do not seem overpriced.

Our No. 2 wine, the 2008 Donnas Rosso Supérieur, was completely different. It came from the town of Donnas, just across the border from Piedmont, where it was produced by a local cooperative. Given the proximity to Piedmont, it not surprisingly is made largely of nebbiolo with a little fumin. It was pure, forceful and modestly tannic, with perhaps a little more polish than the other Donnas wine in the tasting, our No. 6 bottle, a 2007 rosso, mostly nebbiolo with a little freisa.

Nos. 3 and 5 were both 2010 Torrette Supérieurs, which must be at least 70 percent petit rouge. No. 3, from Maison Anselmet, was a little more precise and complex, while No. 5, from Noussan, was spicier and funkier, a gulpable wine that encourages you to keep drinking. That quality seems to be built in to the Noussan wines. Our No. 10 wine, the 2010 Noussan Cuvé de la Côte, a field blend of many different grapes, was simply straightforward and delicious.

The No. 4 bottle, the 2010 Enfer d’Arvier from Danilo Thomain, also made largely of the petit rouge, offered still another expression with its wild, almost exotic fruit flavors. Enfer d’Arvier, by the way, is a tiny sub-appellation, a bowl-shaped array of vineyards that concentrates the light in such a way that it was dubbed enfer d’Arvier, or hell of Arvier. Danilo Thomain produces a minute quantity of wine, so we were lucky to have landed a bottle.

Nos. 7, 8 and 9 were all made with the fumin grape, which seems to offer slightly more structured, earthy wines than the other grapes of the region. I once asked the importer Neal Rosenthal, who brings in Grosjean, Danilo Thomain and Ermes Pavese, which red grape from the region had the greatest potential. He said he thought it was fumin because it had more structure and complexity than the others.

I’m not sure yet whether I agree with him. But I think I now have sufficient motivation to find out for sure.

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