Valle d’Aosta: Micro Productions, Mega Quality


There is good and bad news about Valle d’Aosta and its wines. The good news is that, as I have said and written before, when it comes to Italian wine, the Valle d’Aosta is Lilliputian in size and quantities made, but veritably Brobdingnagian in terms of quality. The region is a treasure trove of cool-climate, high-acid, food-friendly wines made mostly from rare local grape varieties that boast a plethora of unique aroma and taste profiles. And as if that weren’t enough, Valle d’Aosta also features a number of very good Italian wines made with international varieties; the whites, especially, rank with the country’s best. For example, no region in Italy makes better Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio (called Pinot Gris in Valle d’Aosta in honor of the region’s French roots); certainly, Italy’s most interesting Chardonnay wines are not the generally bland, dilute versions churned out in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, or the over-oaked bombs of Alto Adige. And don’t miss the many other standout whites made in the region with Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Müller-Thurgau, Petite Arvine and Moscato Bianco, all of which also rank with the best made in Italy and the world. In fact, the Valle d’Aosta produces some of the country’s most delicious Pinot Noirs too, easy-drinking charmers aged in stainless steel (as elsewhere in Italy, local oaked versions of Pinot Noir rely too much on spicy vanillin nuances to impress, offering very little in the way of fruit).

The scenic view from Les Granges

Before you start getting too excited, though, here’s the bad news. Unfortunately, as Valle d’Aosta is a small region (at 3,261 km2, it is Italy’s smallest; the next smallest region, Molise, is 4,461 km2) with limited vineyard land, its wine production is small too; consequently, most of the better wines are quickly scooped up locally. But don’t let scarcity discourage you from trying to get a taste of what are by far Italy’s most interesting and fun wines, and quite unlike those made anywhere else.

Valle d’Aosta is also one of Italy’s most beautiful places and great restaurants and trattorias abound – and that’s saying something, given that the country is not exactly short of either of those things. However, if you can’t visit the region and its wine estates on a vacation or work trip, make a point of searching out the best wines at home, as many are exported as well.  

La Crotte di Vegneron and its vineyards

Viticulture and Winemaking

Wine in the Valle d’Aosta is produced in an area that runs roughly east–west, surrounded by a ring of mountains that are well over 4,000 meters high in places. The region’s wine production zone is divided into high, central and lower valleys (the Alta, Media and Bassa Valle, respectively), all of which (but especially the Media Valle) are very dry, generally recording less than 500 millimeters of rain per year. The area is also windy, and while temperatures tend to be high during the day (at times topping 30 degrees Celsius in the summer), they drop precipitously at night; consequently, huge diurnal temperature shifts are the norm. The soil and subsoil are mostly moraine in origin (the topsoil does not run especially deep), rich in minerals but poor in organic matter, and mostly made up of fine sand, while the rest is small to medium-sized gravel. Overall, very little clay is present, so water retention is a challenge (compounding the problem of low rainfall). It follows that the region’s wines are characterized by freshness, resulting from relatively low total acidity values heightened by high salinity.

Lo Triolet is arguably Italy's best address for serious Pinot Grigio

Of course, with encroaching climate change assuring the production of fresh, zingy wines, Valle d’Aosta’s viticulture has evolved over the last two decades. For the most part, it has had to climb steadily upward. So while 20 years ago producers would tell you that, for example, Moscato Bianco could not be planted more than 600 meters above sea level because it would never ripen fully, today they say the variety can and should be planted above 600 meters only. In fact, the amendment of production guidelines so as to allow growing Moscato Bianco above 1,000 meters is in the works. For the same reason, Müller-Thurgau is also planted at higher altitudes than ever before. (It is encouraging to see this historic grape of the region finally making a comeback after years of decline, and over the last three years plantings have been increasing.) By contrast, at 400–650 meters above sea level, everyone is now planting the likes of Petit Rouge, Syrah, and Fumin, all of which were once found only at much lower altitudes.

The bucolic Valle d'Aosta countryside

The Valle d’Aosta boasts some of Italy’s most interesting grape varieties, cultivars that essentially grow only there. The two best red grapes are undoubtedly Mayolet and Vuillermin (Cornalin is a close third), though everyone in the region prefers to speak, somewhat understandably, of Fumin and Petit Rouge, which are both much easier to grow, if not to make wine from. Mayolet’s extremely compact bunches make it a rot magnet, and Vuillermin’s low productivity is not exactly an endearing quality to farmers either (and there you have an explanation of why the hectarage devoted to these grapes is small); but the fact remains that it is these two red cultivars that really offer something completely different and speak of the Valle d’Aosta to the world. By contrast, Cornalin is relatively easy to grow and its popularity has boomed of late, prompting many producers to jump on the bandwagon. It doesn’t hurt Valle d’Aosta that these three cultivars yield completely different, easily recognizable wines: Mayolet gives light-bodied aromatic wines, Vuillermin produces full-bodied aromatic wines, and Cornalin gives medium- to full-bodied wines that are non-aromatic.

The entry to Feudo di San Maurizio

Much as with the region’s white grapes, Valle d’Aosta producers are remarkably adept at making wine from international red grapes (though not every international grape has proved a smashing success). Gamay and Pinot Noir are by far the grapes best adapted to the region, and the lovely wines made with both are proof of this. It’s also good that many in the region choose not to oak their Pinot Noir wines, which means that unlike other regions of Italy where over-oaked, drying Pinot Noirs are the norm, Valle d’Aosta’s versions are usually fun and cheerful to drink. By contrast, Syrah has performed well only in a few parts of the region and the truth is that most wines made with it need to rely on air-dried grapes, partly or in whole, to be interesting. Merlot, which should never have been planted in the Valley at all for myriad reasons (a lack of soil clay is only the start), is now being quite correctly phased out. I trust you will agree that in a panorama of world wines all made essentially with the same 15 grapes or so, and oftentimes a nondescript panorama at that, it is good for wine lovers to know that the Valle d’Aosta offers something not just different but also suitable for a diversity of palates. For a full description of the region’s grapes and wine denominations, please see my previous Vinous article on the Valle d’Aosta: Mountain Magic: The Wines of the Valle d’Aosta.

A lineup of bottles at Di Barrò including the rare Mayolet

The Vintages

The 2018 vintage was a much better one than the extremely difficult 2017, when crippling late-season frost episodes destroyed much of the region’s viticulture, cutting production volumes at some wine estates by as much as 90%. By contrast, in 2018 only the Bassa Valle recorded production volumes that were lower than usual, with roughly 30–40% less wine made, mostly as a result of heavy springtime rain. For example, more water fell in the Bassa Valle in May 2018 than in all of 2017, leading to heavy disease pressure. By contrast, the season was dry and warm in the rest of the region. Producers in the Media Valle reported practically no rainfall in October, and just one period of rain from the end of September to the end of November. For the most part, the 2018 Valle d’Aosta white wines are perfumed and fresh, and will make for excellent early drinking. The 2018 reds are mostly fresh and juicy, but less structured than in recent vintages such as 2016 and 2017. They too will provide early appeal and enjoyable drinking over the short term.

The wines in this report were tasted during winery visits in July and September 2019 in the Valle d’Aosta and in my office in Rome.

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Mountain Magic: The Wines of Valle d’Aosta, Ian D'Agata, June 2018