WITH ROB NELLIS

SOMMELIER

 

It was dark as we drove into the Aosta Valley. Lights sparkled from houses and the odd streetlight on darkened slopes. There was a full moon, but it was barely visible through a shroud of clouds. You could sense the mountains around you and see dim outlines of the peaks, but it was tough to tell how high they were. Our ears popped slightly as we continued to climb past Donnas in the Bassa Valle. Soon, the town of Aosta appeared on the side of the autostrada, a whole constellation of stars against the backdrop of darkness. Perched on a hill overlooking the valley were a couple of illuminated fortresses, watching the mountain passes for an eon or more. Still we climbed and the road narrowed. At the top of a hill, we came upon the small village of St. Pierre, our destination for the night. I had just left Carmignano, in Tuscany. I had stayed at a breathtaking hotel, a former residence of the Medici family, the iconic vineyards of Tuscany and its rolling hills visible from every direction. The beauty of Florence, the high-speed train ride across Northern Italy to Torino – all was part of the great adventure I had looked forward to for decades. This was all bucket list stuff. None of this prepared me for what I was about to see in Aosta.

Rewind a decade: I was working as a sommelier at a renowned Ottawa steakhouse and teaching the Wine and Spirits Education Trust at the Vendange Institute. A young man, originally from Italy, took my class, then took a shot at becoming a wine importer. He came to sample with me at the restaurant with the usual assortment of Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Pinot Grigio. He also had a cheap-looking bottle of wine made from a grape called “Fumin”. It was by far the most interesting wine I tried that day, fruity and spicy. There was a salinity and mineral character that I had never experienced before. I tried to get my hands on a few cases but the agent simply could not find enough people to get an order together. I set about attempting to find wines from this obscure region, but there weren’t any available in Ontario and I gave up. A few years later, I came across a New York Times article from Eric Asimov about the wines of Aosta. He and the sommelier for Le Bernardin had sampled a whole lineup of wines from Val d’Aosta. Again, my interest was piqued. On a subsequent trip to New York, I tried a bottle of Les Crêtes Chardonnay. It was spectacular, but I couldn’t get access to any where I lived. I became an instructor of The Northern Italian Wine Society and when the unit on Aosta came up, we would simply substitute more Piedmontese wines…not the same thing at all. This region became my “Unicorn”. I had to go find it.

Fast forward to the present: I have a fantastic little agency of my own and I was bound and determined to get some Aosta wine! We checked into the hotel, a quaint little B&B run by a lovely older couple that spoke fluent French, Italian and decent English (which we discovered was the case across the whole region). French was the predominant language, but almost everyone spoke conversational English as well. We were exhausted from the travel, but famished. At a tiny restaurant half a kilometre down the road, under the shadow of yet another ancient castle (there are more than 15 scattered throughout the valley, some several thousand years old), we were treated to a meal of rustic mountain food: huge slabs of cheese, boiled potatoes, sausage and cured meats, a decadent ham-stuffed crêpe smothered in melted local Fontina cheese, all accompanied by a range of Aosta wines, happily poured by our enthusiastic servers. They willingly opened random bottles so we could try an assortment. Stuffed, tired and happy, we headed back to the hotel. Just before retiring for the evening, I opened up the shutters to my room and snapped a picture of the most amazing full moon setting over what turned out to be the Matterhorn. The air was crisp and fresh. I slept like a rock.

I woke groggily in the morning to the sound of bells and a pungent aroma. Looking out my open window, directly below me was a herd of cattle, the bell cow happily wandering past. I looked up and gasped. In the light of day, I could see the size of the mountains around me. I hurriedly rushed downstairs and went outside. In every direction were iconic, massive mountains. We were sunk down amongst snow-topped giants. Right behind my hotel, a few hundred yards away, was a small vineyard, clinging to the side of a mountain – a tiny patch of vines with no visible access. There were several of these all along the rock face of the nearest mountain. As they were on the north face, it was obvious they were attempting to grab as much daylight sun as possible with southern exposure. I later found out almost all the plantings in Aosta are arrayed this way.

I spent the day excitedly tasting my way through the wines of the region – beautiful autochthonous varietals that exist nowhere else in the world, like the aforementioned Fumin, an exciting, spicy red with decent tannic structure and gorgeous supple fruit. They were still harvesting these reds in late October, with some of the longest hang time in the world. There’s the light and refreshing Petit Rouge, the main constituent of the gulpable Torrette wines; the crunchy, mineral-laced white Prie Blanc; the floral and unctuous white Petite Arvine; as well as other interesting reds like Mayolet, Cornalin, Neyret, Vien de Nus, Gamaret, Vuillermin and Gamaret. They also do amazing work with Nebbiolo (particularly in Donnas of the Bassa Valle), Syrah (very Northern Rhône in style, grown at elevation), Chardonnay (some of the best in the world), Moscato, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Müller-Thurgau and Gewürztraminer. All shared the same minerality and balance. These wines were definitely not thin, many creeping above 14% alcohol due to the extended levels of sunlight and hot, dry summer days. I was hard-pressed to find any I didn’t like, and most I loved. This is the smallest region in Italy in terms of population, size and wine production, but what wine they do make is all of exceptional quality. This is not a bulk wine production area at all. Most wineries sell out their entire production within a couple of months. Not an area to go looking for bargains!

We were tasting wines in the Valle Centrale, “only” 2300 feet up in the mountains. The viticulture here is described as “heroic”, requiring workers to climb up and down mountains, hand harvesting, occasionally at incredible heights. None of the vineyards are contiguous, with plantings wherever they could find a little sandy soil or loose gravel, many planted continuously for a few thousand years. Because of the elevation, distance from other plantings, cool temperatures and lack of rainfall, there is little need for intervention in the vineyards, aside from vine training, green harvesting and canopy management. Sprays and pesticides are unnecessary. We decided to head up higher, to the towns of Morgex and La Salle to try the elusive Prie Blanc wines, grown at the highest elevation in Europe, some of the highest in the world. From the dizzying heights of Mont Blanc, at an elevation of almost 3900 feet, nestled in amongst the ski villages and craggy outcroppings, are the low pergola-trained vines. Sitting on 3-feet high slate stones, these vines are trained to gather as much sunlight as possible during the day, with the ground and surrounding slate absorbing the heat and radiating it back during the frosty evenings to help ripen the grapes in this inhospitable setting. The wines are nervy and taut, with laser-beam acidity. These make brilliant patio sippers, but gain complexity when aged sur lie. Where these wines really shine, though, are as sparklers. Their Methode Classique wines are world class – yeasty and fresh, biscuity and mineral-laced, elegant and refined. The jaw-dropping beauty of the region came through in the bottle.

The town of Aosta itself is entrancing. Formed as Augustus Praetoria in 25BC, it began as a Roman Fortress city, protecting the passes through the Alps. The city is built on top of the ruins, with a great many of its buildings millennia-old. The cobblestone streets, the warren of narrow alleyways, the ruins of the Aosta Colosseum, the massive town center are all ancient, with spectacular views of the Alps in every direction. I had just visited Florence, Siena, Carmignano and Torino, but this city was something different altogether. Rome gave way to the Franks in the 6th century and the French Provençal language was introduced, the dialect of the region to this day. In the 11th century, the House of Savoy wrested control of the region and held on to it until 1861, when Aosta joined the Kingdom of Sardinia and became part of the newly formed Italy. The region has always acted autonomously, fiercely independent and proud. In the 1920s, the National Fascist Party forced “Italianization” on the region and attempted to strip it of its heritage and language, but after WWII the Valle d’Aosta was granted special autonomous status. It is truly like no other place in Italy, or the world for that matter.

The wine regions of Val d’Aosta are broken up into: the Bassa Valle (Lower Valley), with towns like Donnas and Montjovet, where Nebbiolo is the specialty; the Valle Centrale (Central Valley), where Amayvilles, St. Pierre, Chambave and Arvier produce balanced, fruit-driven reds from Fumin, Petit Rouge and other varietals as well as ripe, aromatic whites; and the Alta Valle or Valdigne (Upper Valley), where the towns of Morgex and La Salle make the invigorating Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle from Prie Blanc. More than 60% of the region lies above 6900 feet of elevation, unsuitable for wine production. Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc) is the highest peak in the Alps, at a height of 15,780 feet, but there is also the Monte Rosa, Matterhorn and Gran Paradiso peaks. There are giants in every direction. The glacier-fed Dorea Balta river runs through the middle of the Valley, splitting it in half. The majority of vineyards are planted on a narrow band on the north side of the river, on steep slopes, utilizing dry stone terraces. The entire region is completely mountainous, with Piedmont to the east and south, France to the west and Switzerland to the north. Val d’Aosta is in the rain shadow of the French side of the Alps, so most of it receives about 20 inches of rain a year. As the Alps also stop clouds, the area experiences over 2200 hundred hours of sunshine during the growing season.

I wasn’t expecting the effect the region would have on me. I stood in the tasting room at Les Crêtes, sipping on a beautiful fresh Torrette, gazing out at the mountains, castles and clear blue skies. I vowed to bring the wines and the story of Aosta to Ontario. I try a lot of wines – spend a lot of time chasing the new and exciting – but these wines are actually old and forgotten. They aren’t rustic or sloppy; everything I tried was pretty and alive. We are incredibly pleased and proud to bring the wines of the Aosta’s most iconic producer, Les Crêtes, to Ontario and let people (outside of intrepid mountain climbers, adventure hikers and ski buffs that may have visited) experience this classic region.

On Les Crêtes:

In the mid 1700s, Bernardin Charrère moved from the Haute Savoie in Southeast France to the Aosta Valley and established Les Crêtes, a mill and farm in Aymavilles. This was in the middle of the 21 square mile valley and in the heart of the wine region. In 1810, the family planted 2 hectares of vinifera grapes and the winery was born. The family still continues to craft wines from those vineyards to this day. It  is the largest privately-owned winery in the region, but would be considered “boutique” in most other regions around the world.

Les Crêtes has been at the forefront of searching out rare, indigenous vinifera varieties and helping protect them from extinction. Grapes like Prie Rouge, Mayolet, Cornalin, Premetta and Fumin exist nowhere else in the world and Les Crêtes, along with the rest of the tiny vignerons in the region, have worked with the Italian government to preserve them. Les Crêtes is also spearheading research and innovation in the Aosta Valley. The extreme elevation, heroic vineyard work and particularity of the ancient, autocthonous vines make bringing in outside help difficult. This is one of the most challenging regions on earth to work for wine, with vineyards non-contiguous, planted frequently on ledges on the side of steep Alpine mountains where they can find a little sandy soil.  Les Crêtes has consistently been recognized as the finest producer in the region and a destination spot for wine lovers to the Val d’Aosta.

At Buyers & Cellars, we are proud to be the first to offer this exciting, high quality winery in Canada and some of the only Aosta wines available in all of North America. We have been allocated small amounts of their finest bottles and look forward to sharing these rare Italian beauties with you.

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