By Frank Cipparone
December across the northern tier of Italy is marked by Christmas markets, traditional pageants and the traditional presepio. In Valle d’Aosta, obvious French and Swiss influences make the holiday feel even less Italian than Alto-Adige. Shadowed by the Alps, the sparsely populated region draws few visitors aside from intrepid hikers, skiers and culinary adventurers.
From mid-December through January, foodies who journey to this northwest frontier can savor a hardy Alpine cuisine that blends the familiar – polenta, fontina and toma cheese – with local specialties like cured meats made from horse and ibex or a cham- ois stew. Thick soups are a staple, served with pan ner (black bread). Minestre di castagna’s chestnut and rice filled texture is similar to porridge. Seepa di gri combines pork and barley, and capriale di Valdostana is a wintry mix of venison and vegetables in an herb and grappa sauce.
Valdostana’s wine is as unique as its food. The region ranks last in acreage and volume produced. There is no wine tourism to speak
of and not much demand for the trickle of bottles that make their way out of the valley. In this unheralded corner of Italy, the highest vines in Europe have a precarious hold on terraced hillsides at altitudes ranging from 900 to 3,900 feet. This is winemaking at its extreme limits. Every step requires intense manual labor.
The payoff is mountain wine unlike anything in Italy. The grapes themselves are sound bites of a culture more continental than Mediterranean – Cornalin, Petit Arvine, Fumin, Vuillerman, Prie. That last one is the oldest Valdostana variety on record, and was singled out by the late Luigi Veronelli, godfather of gastronomy and wine, as the one grape he would save from extinction. While I’m not inclined to second that notion, Prie wines I’ve had are unusual but certainly not unexpected in Italy’s remote frontier.
Given natural conditions that seem friend- lier to whites, it is surprising that 90 percent of the wines are red. Comparisons have been made to Beaujolais and Cote du Rhone, but that doesn’t do justice to Valdostana’s northern lights. Generally, they have a rustic edge, a sort of nervous energy and aromas that can
seem a bit “off.” They are fresh, lightweight and highly acidic, a perfect balance to the heaviness of the cuisine. Some are quirky examples of field blends that throw together whatever vines are on the property. Small wineries and larger co-ops also make mon- ovarietal wine, mostly from Gamay, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah, grapes that are recognizable and easier to sell.
The one-of-a-kind native wines are hard to come by, even in other parts of Italy. The only familiar grape is Nebbiolo, called Pic- otendro in Aosta. A far cry from Barolo and Barbaresco, it grows around the town of Don- nas and is lighter and more aromatic than its cousins in Piemonte. Four other obscure reds stand out among isolated patches of nearly extinct grapes found around the region. Mostly used in blends, some winemakers are bottling them on their own.
Cornalin is not a charmer or a spur-of- the-moment wine. It needs time to age and lose its youthful austerity and tightness before refined flavors of smoky, spicy red berries come across and make it pleasurable.
Mayolet is so tough to grow that few wineries are willing to devote time and labor for its production. The few acres left are used mostly in blends. But like other finicky grapes, in the right hands it can be excep- tional on its own, with aromas and flavors of blackberries and cinnamon.
Fumin also needs time to develop and usually reaches its peak in seven to 10 years. It’s so enticing and full of red fruit, black pepper and jazzy green herbs that some producers feel it will be Valdostana’s premier wine of the future.
Petite Rouge is the most cultivated. Somewhat like a young Beaujolais, it’s useful for the high acidity and crispness it brings to blends. It won’t blow you away but is valued by growers and winemakers for its depend- ability.
Joyeaux Noel or Buon Natale? Either way, it’s Christmas in Valdostana, a time to eat, drink and be merry.
Note: Valdostana wines aren’t easy to come by. In Pennsylvania there are a couple to be found at finewineandgoodspirits.com. Astor Wine and Flatiron Wines have a good if limited selection on their websites.