From Ivrea to Mt. Blanc, the A5 highway twists though deeply torn canyons. The language is influenced by the French, though it has never been part of France. This is Italy with sauce and butter, and Italian grapes with French names. It is the smallest region in Italy with the lowest population. But this is not a drive-through kind of place.
My first contact with the wines of the Vallé D'Aoste was back in 1982. We were importing the wines of Ezio Voyat, through the Enoteca de Rham. The red, Chambave Rouge, was a hit. We had the 1961, and it sold, wholesale, for about $20. It was rich and acidic and deep and full and gorgeous. I remember it like it was yesterday.
My last bottle of '61
The white was a Passito, and it reminded me of a cross between a Vin Santo and an Oloroso Sherry. The Italians went crazy for these wines. A few clients still ask me about them. I wish we had some more.
This is a place to spend two or three days and amble the 100 miles from Courmayeur to Donnas. While summertime is a great period, the harvest time of September-October is rich with the bounty. Along the country roads, little stands display the mushrooms, the honey, the artisanal pasta, the infusions of berries and fruits with the grappa. Wood crafts are especially enticing. It is impossible to resist something like a one-of-a-kind wood turned Coppa dell' Amicizia for the famous Caffè alla Valdostana. Bring on the cool nights for this fortified treat.
This all started when I was doing research on the difference between Donnaz (now called Donnas) and Carema. Two wines from two regions, but really neighbors. Nebbiolo-based wines, though the grapes are called by other names, some say Picoutener, others say Picotendro.
This from the Italian Trade Commission: “A region wide DOC known as Valle d'Aosta or Vallée d'Aoste covers 23 categories of wine whose names are given in Italian and French, the official second language. These include the longstanding DOCs of Donnas and Enfer d'Arvier, as well as the white wines of Morgex and La Salle, whose vineyards in the shadow of Mont Blanc are reputed to be the highest in continental Europe. Valle d'Aosta has no IGT.
Valle d'Aosta grape varieties range from Piedmontese (Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Moscato) to French (Chardonnay, the Pinots, Gamay), to the teutonic Muller Thurgau called in for mountain duty. But the most intriguing wines of Valle d'Aosta stem from varieties it calls its own. These include the Petit Rouge of Enfer d'Arvier and Torrette, the Blanc de Valdigne of Morgex and La Salle, the Petite Arvine of the varietal white of the name, the Vien for the red wine of Nus and the Malvoisie (apparently a mutation of Pinot Gris) for the rare dessert white of Nus.”
So this is an interesting region for the wine lover, Italian and French alike.
Wine Trail-From north to south
* Cave du Vin Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle (tel. 0165800331) is located in Morgex at the foot of Mont Blanc.
* Aymavilles has two wineries: Cave des Onze Communes (tel. 0165902912), which is the most important cooperative winery in the valley, offering wine sales, tastings and walks through the vineyards; and Azienda Les Cretes (tel. 0165902274), which has a cellar with a view of four castles and the vineyards.
* Aosta's main vineyard is the Institut Agricole Regional (tel. 0165553304). It is run by the monks of St. Bernard, and is known for its table wines. You can tour the cellar, the vineyards and the farm museum.
* Chambave's winery, La Crotta di Vegneron (at Piazza Roncas 2, tel. 016646670), produces Chambave wine as well as several other DOC wines.
* In Donnas, visit the Caves Cooperatives de Donnas at Via Roma 97 (tel. 0125807096) that offers tours of the cellars and wine tastings. Donnas is the only wine town in the region and is noted for its wine production.
Aosta Valley typical food:
Capriolo alla valdostana: venison stewed in red wine with vegetables, herbs, grappa, cream.
Carbonade: salt-cured beef cooked with onions and red wine in a rich stew.
Minestra di castagne e riso: thick soup of rice cooked in milk with chestnuts.
Polenta alla rascard: cornmeal cooked, cooled and sliced, then baked with layers of Fontina and a ragout of beef and sausage.
Risotto alla valdostana: Fontina, toma, Parmigiano Reggiano and butter make this one of the creamiest of rice dishes.
Seupa de gri: barley soup with potatoes, onions, seasonal vegetables, salt pork.
Verrès: Historical Carnival Pageant and Parade: Thousands of people come for this delightful presentation, which recounts the inheritance disputes between the beautiful daughters of Francesco di Challand, a local aristocrat. On the Saturday before Carnival, a costumed procession winds its way through the streets to Town Hall, where the Mayor hands a gold key to Caterina, thus making her Lady of the Manor. Her first official act is to invite the crowd to celebrate in her castle. The festivities last for three days, culminating in an incredibly colorful (and noisy!) carnival parade on Tuesday.
Pont-Saint-Martin: Roman Carnival: This is probably the only place in the world where a host of toga-clad tribunes, senators, legions, guards and nymphs celebrate Carnival with a real chariot race! The origins are lost in time, but don't date as far back as the town bridge (pictured at left), an engineering feat built 2000 years ago by the imperial legions. The festivities end on Tuesday, when a straw devil is burned in effigy under the bridge.
Courmayeur: Carnival: Traditional folk dances welcome the arrival of spring during this very popular pageant, which features the bear (whose early appearance has the same meaning as our groundhog's), the mule (whose tail sweeps away evil winds), and loads of tiny mirrors (to frighten off evil spirits).
Nus: Historical Carnival: A large procession of costumed villagers follows the municipal band throughout the entire city, accompanied by colorful floats and hundreds of masked figures. Free soup for all at the end of the day.
Saint-Vincent: Children's Carnival: The festivities begin with the investiture of the Little Mayor, and for the next eleven days the grade school kids rule this spa town. Watch how you behave around them too: the squad of “little guardians” is allowed to administer fines (all proceeds are donated to charity).
Pila: Snow Carnival
Brissogne: Rebatta Competition. This popular local game features a large spiked ball balanced on the end of a pipe and tossed up to 600 yards.
Pollein: Tsan Competition. Local farmers probably invented this game, which resembles a rudimentary folk version of baseball.
Nus: Vien de Nus Festival celebrates the two local wines, Rouge and Malvoisie. Performances by local folklore groups are followed by a costumed parade and an outdoor banquet for one and all, featuring fritters, salami and other tasty dishes washed down with the new vintages.
Gressoney-Saint-Jean: Festival of St. John. It begins the evening of June 23rd, when a crowd of residents and guests walk from one neighborhood to another to witness a series of bonfires. Each little burg offers its visitors wine and snacks, and the next day everyone puts on their very best Walser costumes and attends high mass to witness the blessing of the sheep.
Saint-Rhemy-en-Bosses: Ham Festival, featuring the renowned local varieties.
Gaby: Polenta Picnic. Everyone is invited to participate in the cooking and the eating.
La Thuile: Bataille de reines and Shepherds' Festival (Sunday after August 15th). The hillsides of the Little Saint Bernard come alive each year for this festival, celebrated by folklore groups and local bands. The crowning moment comes in the afternoon when the farmers pick the “festival queen”: the most valuable milk cow. The lucky winner gets to participate at the finals in Aosta, one of the most enthusiastically awaited events of the year in this rural region.
Chambave: Grape Festival (last Sunday of the month). Folklore groups and local bands perform while everyone attends a huge outdoor banquet. At the end of the day the local authorities choose the year's best variety of grapes.
Donnas - Grape-Harvest Festival
Gressan: Apple Festival (second Sunday of the month), featuring the local cider and a vast assortment of apple desserts.
Aosta: Bataille de reines Finals (next-to-last Sunday of the month).
Aosta: International Hot Air Balloon Encounter. One entire week of events (including public excursions over the city), culminating in the spectacular (and dangerous) ascent of 13,000-foot Mont Blanc.
Almost everywhere: Living Nativity Scenes (December).
Cervinia: Torchlit Procession on Skis (December).
List of festivals courtesy of http://www.hostetler.net/
For my part, I am looking forward to the Fontina cheese festival in late autumn in the town of Aosta. The farmers will be bringing their cheeses down from the higher altitudes for this fête. Hope to see you there, with a hunk of Fontina in one hand and a glass of Donnas, or Enfer d’Arvier, in the other.