Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The DOC sparkling wine of Valle d'Aosta

Valle d'Aosta (Vallée d"Aoste in French), is a semi-autonomous region in northwest Italy which is bounded to the north, west, and south by the Alps and shares borders with both France and Switzerland. Reflecting its location, and its cultural history and linkages, it is officially bi-lingual. It was inhabited by an ancient people called the Salassi before it was annexed by the Romans in 25 BC. In more recent times, it was helmed  by the French House of Savoy before joining the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. I continue my survey of Italian Sparkling Wine with a discourse on the sparkling wine of Valle d'Aosta.

Valle d'Aosta DOC
According to Ian D'Agata (writing in Vinous), "Valle d'Aosta is the dwarf, size-wise, among Italy's 20 regions, but it's a giant when it comes to quality. Thirteen unique native grape varieties and a half dozen international grapes, the region's complex geology and alpine climate, and the area's many passionate, talented producers combine to produce a selection of white, red, sparkling and sweet wines of remarkably high quality in all but the most difficult vintages."

The climate is continental, with long, cold winters and short, hot summers. There are some moderating influences to the general climate which aid in fruit development. First, Valle d'Aosta is known for its mountains -- Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, and the Matterhorn, among others -- and, while they limit the area available for grape growing, they protect the valley from the coldest winds and provide ample sun exposure for the high-flying vineyards. The mountains also provide a rain-shadow effect, thus keeping excess moisture away from the vineyards. Second, the valley follows the course of the Dora Baltea River and its water flow keeps the air moving and clouds at bay. Grapevines are grown between 300 - 1300 meters, with elevations above 1600 meters being considered Tundra and unsuitable for grape growing. There is significant diurnal temeprature variation in the region..

The Valle d'Aosta geography is simple: high, steep slopes rising from the river valleys. Vineyard soils are composed of rocky, gritty mixtures of primarily sand and broken rocks at the higher levels and alluvial sediments of clay and gravel further down the slopes.

The principal wine-growing areas are found along the eastern bank of the Dora Baltea River with a total of 253 ha (625 acres) devoted to vineyards. The highest vineyards are located in the foothills of Mont Blanc at 1300 meters elevation, the highest vineyards in Europe. The vines are trained on low pergolas (Pergola bassa) in trellised arbors with stone columns surrounded by stone walls. This arrangement helps to protect the vines from wind and heavy snowfall but also allows the vines to benefit from heat accumulated in the ground during the course of the day, thus mitigating the diurnal flux.

The wines have never attained the highest quality (Diego Meraviglia), being low in tannin, body, and color as a result of the poor soil. Ripeness and alcohol levels are adequate however, due to ready access to sunlight. The Donnas sub-region was first awarded DOC status in 1971, followed closely by Enfer d' Arvier. Awarding of additional DOCs was halted until 1986 when the decision was made to consolidate all of the region's quality wines under a single DOC -- Valle d"Aosta.

The wines in the region are primarily varietal and, keeping with the bi-lingual character of the region, are labeled Valle d"Aosta/Vallée d'Aoste plus the name of the varietal (85% of the varietal required). The wines are mostly blends of fruit from all over the region. The region has seven subgroups, each of which is allowed to place its name on the label. The varieties grown in the area and the wines of the subzones are shown in the tables below.

White GrapesRed Grapes
Petite ArvineGamay
Pinot BiancoMayolet
Pinot GrigioMerlot
Prié BlancPicotendro (Nebbiolo)

Petit Rouge

Pinot Nero


Vien de Nus

Table 2. Varieties grown in Valle d'Aoste

Arnand-MontjovetRedPicotendro (Min.70%), Dolcetto, Pinot Nero, Neyret, Freisa, Vien de Nus5 months; 12 most for Superiore
Blanc de Morgex et La SalleWhitePrié Blanc5 months
ChambaveRedMin 70% Petit Rouge, Dolcetto, Gamay, Fumin, Pinot Noir5 months

White (Dry, Sweet)Moscato Bianco

DonnazRedPicotendro (min 85%), Petit Rouge, Fumin, Freisa, Neyret24 months; Superiore 36 mos
Enfer d’ ArvierRedPetit Rouge (85%), Vien de Nus, Neyret, Dolcetta, Pinot Noir, Gamay5 mos
NusRedVien de Nus (50%), Petiti Rouge (30%), other authorized5 mos; Superiore 8 mos

White (Dry, Sweet)Nus Malvoisie, Pinot Grigio

TorretteRedPetit Rouge (20%), Pinot Noir, Gamay, Fumin, Vien de Nus, Dolcetto, Majolet, Prematta5 mos; Superiore 8 mos
Table 3. Subzone wines.

As shown in the table above, Picotendro is produced in the Donnaz and Arnand-Montjovet sub-zones. The Donnaz Picotendro has a higher percentage of the core varietal, and fewer potential blending partners, than does the other. Picotendro is grown close to the border with Piemonte and is not dissimilar to Chiavennasca (Valtellina) in that it is light, delicate, and aromatic with minimal structure and tannin.

Beyond Picontendro, another well-regarded wine is VDA Blanc de Morgex et La Salle. This white wine is made from Prié Blanc grapes grown on south-facing slopes between the municipalities of Morgex and La Salle. The vines grow ungrafted as no Phylloxera attacks have occurred in that specific zone. These wines have good minerality and acidity.

Wine production is primarily by Coop, with the fruits sourced from member growers. A limited number of growers produce their own wine for the market. Annual production is approximately 330,000 cases of which 30,000 is DOC.

Sparkling Wine in the DOC
DOC sparkling wine production is only allowed in the Morgex and La Salle subzone and, as such, is made from 100% Prié Blanc. Hundreds of tiny old vineyard plot -- a total of 70 ha -- dot the two communes and provide fruit to the five growers and the Coop.

Prié Blanc, also known as Blanc de Morgex, is native to the region. It is adapted to the alpine temperatures and the rigors of the growing season: It is late budding so is less susceptible to spring frosts; it is early ripening, a plus in the alpine setting. Ian d'Agata, in the same Vinous article describes Prié Blanc as "a delicately perfumed wine (in both still and sparkling versions) that is not only a great match with many ... fish and vegetable dishes but is also one of Italy's best aperitifs."

Two of the most notable sparkling wine producers in the region are Caves Mont Blanc and Ermes Pavese. Caves Mont Blanc is a Coop that controls 18 ha through its 80 grower-owners. It is the foremost producer of Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle. It produces a Brut and Extra Brut with the difference being a 15-month bottle aging for the former and 17 months of the latter. Ermes Pavese produces between 700 and 1200 bottles of its zero dosage sparkler only in riper years. According to Madrose, this sparkling wine is "as unusual as it is delicious, ... at once rich and quite dry, speaking clearly of its Alpine origin, with delicate smokiness and lemon curd on the nose and full earthy minerality on the palate."

These are small-production wines that are difficult to obtain outside the market.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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