Really High in Italy

Discovering the mountain wines of Valle d’Aosta

Really High in Italy
Nathan Pavese shows off his family's own-rooted Prié Blanc vines in Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle. (Robert Camuto)
Oct 15, 2019

The Valle d’Aosta is about as extreme as Italian winemaking gets.

Wedged in Alpine northwestern Italy between Switzerland and France, the valley lies in the shadows of some of Europe’s tallest peaks: ice-capped Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. It is Italy’s smallest appellation, with a mere 750 acres of vineyards, and the highest, with vines climbing lower mountainsides to 4,000 feet in altitude.

That’s a lot of wow factor for sure. But what about the wines?

Many have been outstanding in Wine Spectator blind tastings, showing a great mix of fruit, freshness and complexity. Others are quirkily different—“particolare,” as Italians say. But they can also be confusing, mainly due to Aosta’s kaleidoscope of grapes and styles.

Growing alongside Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Nebbiolo (locally known as Picotendro) are obscure local varieties with French names: Petit Rouge or Fumin anyone? How about some sparkling, pre-phylloxera Prié Blanc?

But after a few end-of-summer days in the regional capital Aosta, and its nearby vineyards and cellars, I started to get it.

Most of the valley wine, I learned, is consumed here. Tourists, like natives, tend to ask for something local. Wine meant for export trends to internationally known grape varieties.

A collection of old Valle d'Aosta bottles
A collection of old Valle d'Aosta bottles is displayed in a mill owned by the Charrère family. (Robert Camuto)

Though winemaking thrived here for centuries, the modern history of quality is short. Once part of French-speaking Savoy, Aosta left its old trading neighborhood with Italian unification in the 1860s. Cheaper wines arrived by rail from points south, pushing people into new occupations. Vineyard plantings shriveled from a high of 10 times of what they are today.

The revival began after World War II with a Swiss-born Catholic priest, Joseph Vaudan, who encouraged local farmers and helped found the regional agricultural school. Before he set about studying local varieties, Vaudan advised locals to plant Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gamay—good fits for the valley’s high altitudes, dry clime and thin, sandy, glacial soils.

“Before the renaissance started, everyone was making wine for their families,” says Elio Ottin, 53, a dairy farmer supplying milk for the region’s Fontina cheese, as well as a grapegrower. He started bottling his own wines in 2007 under the Ottin Vini label and now makes six wines from Pinot Noir and local varieties, totaling 4,000 cases annually.

In the 1980s, Ottin studied with Vaudan, and he credits his teacher with revolutionizing cellar conditions and hygiene in the area. “Some of the old timers thought that if you washed a barrel, the water would ruin it!” Ottin says with a laugh.

Among the area’s pioneering wineries, Les Crêtes and Grosjean have taken different paths in shaping the region.

Les Crêtes, now Valle d’Aosta’s largest private winery at 16,000 cases, was created in the 1980s by Constantino Charrère, the founder of a Mont Blanc ski school and the son of a local farmer and winemaker. Inspired by Burgundy, he initially made the winery known for lush Chardonnays.

“Historically, this is a land of red wine, but qualitatively, whites do very well,” explains Giulio Corti, the general manager who has run Les Crêtes with Charrère’s daughters since he was sidelined by health issues two years ago. “The grapes are able to finish ripening but keep their high acidity.”

Elena (left) and Eleanora Charrère
Les Crêtes, founded by Constantino Charrère, is now managed by his daughters, Elena (left) and Eleanora Charrère. (Robert Camuto)

In recent years, the vibrant Petite Arvine variety, imported from Switzerland in the 1970s, has come to the fore at Les Crêtes, with multiple bottlings with its suite of 20 white, red and sparkling wines. The new flagship, called Neige’Or, is an intriguing barrel-fermented blend with Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio.

Vins Grosjean got its start in the late 1960s, when Delfino Grosjean began bottling his own wines. Later, he was on the front lines of selecting local grapes like dark, full-bodied Fumin; tart, mid-bodied Petit Rouge (the area’s most planted grape, which forms the base of the field-blended Torrette DOC red wines) and spicy Cornalin, along with blending varieties like Mayolet and Vuillermin.

“The big selection [of local varieties] was done in the 1980s and 1990s,” says Hervé Grosjean, 30, third-generation winemaker at Grosjean, which now makes 17 wines, totaling about 10,000 cases. “Now we are reselecting the selections.”

On my last day in Aosta, I travelled up-valley to some of Europe’s highest vineyards, in the subappellation Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle, based on one indigenous grape: Prié Blanc. Hundreds of tiny old vineyard plots totaling 70 acres dot two communes in which there are five winemakers and one cooperative.

In La Salle, the white peaks of Mont Blanc come into view, and the air up there feels thinner.

Nathan Pavese, 22, who works with his father at his namesake Ermes Pavese winery, guided me around the vineyards, planted on their own roots instead of phylloxera-resistant American rootstock, the vine louse having never made it to this altitude. Small parcels of vines are laid out in rows on short wooden pergolas that protect grapes from hailstorms and help conserve ground heat during cold mountain nights.

With 17 vineyard acres, the Paveses are the largest grower and producer here, making about 4,000 cases annually. They work organically and, rare for the Valle d’Aosta, without irrigation. Their steepest old terraces, where hundreds of vines were lost this year to heat wave and drought, are hand-worked.

We’re the only ones who do this full-time,” says Nathan, with a blissful grin.

Ermes Pavese, now 45, is a butcher’s son and graphic designer. Most of his family discouraged him from getting serious about making wine in the family garage 20 years ago. Today the Paveses make a range of five wines from fresh, floral Prié Blanc: a traditional-method sparkler, three dry still wines and a late-harvest ice wine. Most of it is destined for export, much of it to the U.S.

As might be expected at these heights, the ups and downs have been dramatic. In 2017, nearly the entire crop was lost in a spring freeze; Pavese released 999 bottles labelled Unopercento (1 percent)—his entire production.

The elder Pavese thought of giving up, but Nathan, who studied enology and viticulture, was committed to joining the winery.

“It’s heroic winemaking,” he says. “Now everybody in the family is agreed—it’s working.”

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