SARRE, Italy—Anyone who has lived in Italy, and has visited its many wine producers, knows that Italians love being idiosyncratic, or at least playing at it. So I was not in the least disturbed when I contacted winegrower Michel Vallet—the owner, winemaker and dreamer of Feudo di San Maurizio in the village of Sarre in Italy’s alpine Valle d’Aosta region hard by the Swiss border—and found yet another such artist of Italian play-acting.
First, I sent him an e-mail. Niente (nothing). After a week’s silence, I sent another. Again, nothing. Finally, I telephoned. I introduced myself (in Italian), saying that I was an American wine writer for a publication called Wine Spectator, that I had tasted his wines in San Francisco and liked them very much, and that I would like to visit him and see his vineyards. And by the way, I had sent two e-mails, but received no reply. Had Signore Vallet not received them?
“I don’t like wine writers,” he replied. “And I get so many e-mails that I don’t bother to look at them. I don’t have the time.”
This was said with a certain mock ferocity, which allowed me to laugh. “Surely you know that we wine writers are the center of the world,” I said.
Now it was his turn to laugh. As I knew it would, the faux idiosyncrasy melted—at least a bit, anyway—and he allowed that, yes, I could come to visit.
“I’m thinking either Wednesday or Thursday, whichever is better for you,” I proposed.
“It doesn’t matter when,” he replied. “I’m here all the time. You call me one day before you want to arrive, and tell me what time, and I’ll be here.” With that, he hung up.
As I knew would be the case, in person Michel Vallet, 48, is all charm and affability. Far from idiosyncratic, he is instead more an exemplar of someone who is “crazy on the side of the angels.”
“I have 10 hectares [24.7 acres] of vines,” he says. After a pause, he then adds, “In 44 different vineyards.” He lets the arithmetic of that sink in.
“As you can see,” he says, waving his arm to emphasize the alpine sweep of the steep, terraced vineyards surrounding his village, “none of these vineyards is very big. I have so many different plots, all of them tiny, that sometimes during the growing season I actually forget some of them while making my rounds.”
Just what possesses Mr. Vallet to pursue his dream is not easily, if at all, understandable—unless you love wine, of course. A native of Sarre (“I have cousins everywhere here”), he does not come from a winegrowing family. So not only did he not inherit any vineyards, he knew nothing about making wine, either.
“I’ve owned three bars here in Sarre for 20 years,” he says. “At first I thought, ‘I’ll make some wine to sell in my bars.’” He laughs while remembering his beginnings back in 1989. “I had just 700 square meters of vineyard.” How small is that? It’s a bit more than one-sixth of an acre. One good dinner party could consume all the wine produced from such a minute plot.
It bears repeating here that Mr. Vallet knew nothing about growing grapes or making wine. “That first vintage, in 1989, well, it wasn’t very good at all. And the 1990 wasn’t much better. But, slowly, slowly ….” With neither a hired winemaker nor even a consultant—except for occasional advice from the publicly paid municipal winegrowers’ advisor, who serves dozens of the producers in the area—Mr. Vallet has come into his own as a gifted winemaker. Everything he now issues is superbly produced, with clean, pure, precise flavors, excellent acidity and refined tannins.
But it’s not the winemaking that marks Mr. Vallet as someone special. Rather, it’s the grapes he painstakingly grows in all those many vineyard plots.
“I wanted from the start to produce what we traditionally grew here,” he says. His visitor asks the oh-so-American question: Was there a market for such wines? The answer came in the form of an oh-so-Italian gesture that said “Who cares?”
It’s one thing to grow the commercial likes of Cabernet, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. But how about such indigenous varieties as Vuillermin, Fumin, Petit Rouge, Mayolet, Cornalin, Petite Arvine and Premetta?
In fairness, these grape varieties were not unknown in his area, but they hardly spelled success either. Today in Valle d’Aosta they have become both more widely grown and sought. And in neighboring Switzerland, the red grape Cornalin and the white Petite Arvine are enjoying a renaissance.
But Mr. Vallet was certainly ahead of his time and, for an international audience, surely still is. Then again, he’s not especially concerned about outsiders. “I sell 90 percent of my production here in Valle d’Aosta,” he reports, although his wines do get exported to the United States, among other countries. With a total production of about 80,000 bottles divided among 12 different grape varieties, he says that he sells out of everything he makes every year. “I’m not the most expensive producer here in Valle d’Aosta.” Why not? “Because I want to sell everything I make, that’s why. I need the money to buy more vineyards. Really it’s a sickness (È una malatia).”
Mr. Vallet recently outbid others to lease a sought-after 8-hectare (19.7 acres) unplanted site surrounding a village castle. He is slowly planting vines in a portion of this leased property. And he continues to eye choice parcels elsewhere, owned, he says, by old people who resolutely refuse to sell. But he persists, happily so, regardless. "You never know," he says.
With business matters out of the way, we climb into his van to careen around the hillsides and inspect plot after plot after plot. Seemingly, dozens were visited, all terraced and all with vines rooted in dry, rocky soil composed of schist and sand (really, granulated particles of schist). Although his vineyards display drip irrigation, thanks to a generous subsidy from the European Union, Mr. Vallet says that he doesn’t irrigate. “There’s no water,” he exclaims. “But we have irrigation equipment anyway.” He shrugs eloquently at the absurdity of it all.
Surveying the vineyards, it appears that the soil is untouched, with scrubby weeds and such growing between the rows. Is he biodynamic or organic? “I am nothing,” he replies. “I have no philosophy except to leave the vines alone. Probably I’d spray more, but I’m too cheap. For all 10 hectares I spend 1,800 euros for treatments. Others typically spend 600 to 800 euros on treatments for just 1 hectare.”
Not surprisingly, given the rocky soil, lack of functioning irrigation and minimal spraying, vineyard yields are low. “I get 1 kilo to 1.5 kilos of grapes per vine.” That equals roughly one to two bottles of finished wine per vine.
The wines emerging from this patchwork of 44 different vineyard plots at elevations of between 900 feet and 3,000 feet are revelatory. One is reminded, yet again, of the spectrum of worthy grape varieties that have been crowded out by a relative handful of heavily marketed, and thus reassuringly familiar, commercial varieties. You know which those are, of course.
But then you taste a red wine such as the 2011 Vuillermin from Feudo di San Maurizio, and you find yourself thinking “This is like a premier cru red Burgundy,” and you realize just what we’ve been missing.
Mayolet, another indigenous variety, elicits a similar reaction. A medium-weight red, the 2012 and a barrel sample of the 2014 deliver an enchanting berryish scent that reminds this taster of mulberries. More important, it has real finesse and a mouthwatering savoriness that makes Mayolet one of those high flavor impact wines that makes some other red wines seem ponderous and bullying.
Arguably, the prize red is called Torrette, which is an authorized Valle d’Aosta brand name for a red wine blend rather than a grape variety. It must, by law, be a minimum of 70 percent Petit Rouge. The balance traditionally is composed of the red grape Fumin, which is what Mr. Vallet uses for his version of Torrette.
Surprisingly dense and rich, Torrette is likely Val d’Aosta’s strongest red wine statement and is memorable in its detailed austerity and capacity to age. The Petit Rouge grape has a long history of production in the area. Decades ago I enjoyed another such Petit Rouge wine, called Chambave Rouge, from the now-gone producer Ezio Voyat. I bought a case of 1971 Chambave Rouge, and it was exquisite more than a decade after the vintage, so much so that I remember it quite vividly yet today.
Are the various wines of Feudo di San Maurizio similarly memorable? I think they are. While not all are profound, they all are rewarding to drink. His prices in the U.S. are far from excessive, ranging between $20 and $50 (Torrette is his most expensive wine). Above all, when you sample these wines you are reminded not only of what we’ve been missing, but also of why dreamers such as Mr. Vallet are so vital.