Northern Lights

In the shadow of the Alps and sparsely populated, Valle d’Aosta has been described as Italy’s forgotten corner. French and Swiss cultural influences reinforce the perception among outsiders that it is even less Italian than Alto Adige, a seldom traveled outpost that attracts intrepid hikers, skiers, and culinary adventurers seeking a plate of ibex prosciutto.

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There is little wine tourism, no well-marked strada del vino per se. The region ranks last in vineyard acres and volume produced, about 165,000 cases a year. There are single estates in Tuscany and Sicily that surpass that number. Nor is there much external demand for that small amount of wine that does cross provincial borders. Valle d’Aosta wine is not an oxymoron, but the words fail to register for most wine drinkers.

It is a place where vineyards cling tenaciously to terraced hillsides at altitudes ranging from 900-3900 feet. Conditions tax not only grapes but the determination and skill of winemakers coaxing Chardonnay, Nebbiolo and obscure local varietals from glacial soils. Every phase of viticulture requires intense manual labor. To avoid wind damage and absorb heat retained by the ancient stone walls that surround them, many vines are planted close to the ground in the pergola bassa manner.

Though 90% of Valdostana wine is red, it was a white singled out for high praise by the late Luigi Veronelli, regarded as a pioneering figure in Italian gastronomy and viniculture. Asked if only one grape could be saved from extinction, he surprisingly selected Blanc de Morgex (also called Prie Blanc; those unfamiliar are not in the minority). I posed the same question to a widely respected Tuscan winemaker, who averred that arriving at one answer was simply impossible. When I informed her of Veronelli’s choice, it elicited both a quizzical shrug as well as the admission that she had no knowledge of it.

Originally known as Prie, it is the oldest grape of record in Valle d’Aosta, and all of the sixty or so acres dedicated to it are DOC designated. It is the only grape able to withstand the cold air that descends on the communes of Morgex and LaSalle in early autumn, which explains its alternative labeling. And while I’m not inclined to second Veronelli’s testimonial, or even include it on a personal Mt. Rushmore of grapes, the two Prie wines I’ve come across are both distinctive and pure expressions of the Morgex-La Salle sub-zone.

The crystalline, almost watery color of Cave du Vin Blanc Vini Estremi is an indication of the aromatic lightness of pear, pineapple and spicy minerals. A blast of gum-chilling lemony acidity is as refreshing as diving into a mountain lake, and cleanses the palate for sharply defined flavors of mint, pear and apple. There’s also an unexpected, kinky hint of pine nuts. This dose of high altitude clarity and energy is like nothing I’ve encountered.

Ermes Pavese Blanc de Morgex et La Salle, on the other hand, offers slightly more color, a pale yellow. The nose exudes a mild earthiness, with a brief but curious vegetal scent mingling with flowers. Crisp white stone fruit becomes livelier from waves of mouth watering acidity that holds a bite of white pepper. Though not as direct or refreshing as the Cave du Vin Blanc, it still represents Prie from the Alta Valle with aplomb.

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Prie isn’t the only Valdostana white wine worth discovering. Petit Arvine has been grown since 1600 in the Valais of Switzerland and has fared well in the unfiltered sunlight of Aosta, at lower elevations than Prie. Discovering a bottle at a trattoria in Sorrento, on a long-ago trip to a far-more-southern locale, was an incongruous bit of good luck. I’d heard of the grape, but this was my first chance to try one, in this case from Constantino Charrere’s Les Cretes, one of the few commercial producers that can be found in America. This wine offers intense aromas and flavors of flowers, melons, pineapple and mandarin, yet there’s a mild surge of salinity toward the end for balance. I’d describe it as zesty, light and flinty, with a little more body than Prie yet without the eye-popping acidity.

Fast forward a decade to my next encounter with Petit Arvine, this time a 2011 from La Crotta di Vegneron. It could not be more different then the Les Cretes, possibly because it came from lower lying vineyards near Chambave. Despite the expected charge of acidity, this version is warm and inviting, with a texture that’s tart at first but evolves into a lush, mouth-coating blend of exotic melons, apricot, citrus and herbs. A balancing and cleansing dose of minerals perks up the long aftertaste.

A review of Valle d’Aosta wine without mention of the legendary Ezio Voyat of Chambave would be a disservice. I was lucky enough to taste Voyat’s final vintage of “La Gazella” — named for his daughter, an Olympic track star — in 2003, just before he died. Unlike Chambave Muscat Fletri, the region’s version of passito, Voyet vinifies this 100% Moscato Bianco vino di tavola bone dry. Featuring the same crisp acidity of the other whites, it’s also somehow fuller and more round. This results in a cider-like sensation that suggests apples dipped in a mineral bath.

Unusual, yes, but not unexpected in Italy’s northwest frontier.

Images via Les Cretes