If you are looking for fine Italian wine and food, consider the Aosta Valley region of northern Italy. You may find a bargain, and I hope that you’ll have fun on this fact-filled wine education tour.
The Aosta Valley is a tiny corner of of northwestern Italy bordering on France and Switzerland. This valley is surrounded by high mountains, including Europe’s highest peak, Mount Blanc. This was arguably the last region of Italy to be populated, because it was covered with ice until relatively recently. Over time it was occupied by Celts, Romans, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards, and Franks. It is bilingual, Italian and French. The Aosta Valley is by far the smallest region of Italy with a population of only 120 thousand.
Agriculture is not particularly important, with the exception of cattle raising. There is substantial forestry and some industry, in particular hydroelectric power. The region is one of the wealthiest in Italy, with a highly developed tourist sector.
This region has no single capital. The largest city is Aosta, with a population of about 35 thousand. It was a Roman garrison over two thousand years ago, and is the best example of Roman city planning in Italy. Among the Aosta Valley’s tourist attractions are the remains of a Roman amphitheater said to hold 20,000 spectators. Other tourist attractions include medieval fortresses and churches, the Matterhorn, and Mount Blanc.
The Aosta Valley devotes only fifteen hundred acres to grapevines, and ranks 20th among the 20 Italian regions. Its total annual wine production is about six hundred thousand gallons, also giving it a 20th place. About 90% of the wine production is red or rosé (only a bit of rosé), leaving about 10% for white. The region produces a single DOC wine, that is divided into 23 categories. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin. Almost 23% of this region’s wine carries the DOC. The Aosta Valley is home to almost three dozen major and secondary grape varieties, with somewhat more red than white varieties.
Chardonnay is the most important international white grape variety in the Aosta Valley. Muscat and Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris) are also grown. Local white varieties include Blanc de Morgeux and Petite Arvine, also grown in Switzerland.
International red grape varieties grown in the Aosta Valley include Gamay, Grenache, Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), and Syrah. Local red varieties include Picotendro (called Nebbiolo in neighboring Piedmont and arguably Italy’s finest red grape), Petit Rouge, and Fumin. In the unfortunate absence of any Aosta Valley wines, I am reviewing a DOCG Nebbiolo-based wine from neighboring Piedmont. If I am ever in the Aosta Valley, I promise to drink and review a few local wines.
Before reviewing the Aosta Valley-style wine and Italian cheese that I was lucky enough to purchase at a local wine store and a local Italian food store, here are a few suggestions of what to eat with indigenous wines when touring this beautiful region.Start with Jambon de Bosses; Uncooked Ham. As the second course try Carré D’Agnello Gratinato Alle Erbe; Grilled Loin of Lamb in a Pastry and Herb Crust. For dessert indulge yourself with Crema alla Panna; Pannacotta from the Aosta Valley (a sort of crème caramel without eggs.)
OUR WINE REVIEW POLICY While we have communicated with well over a thousand Italian wine producers and merchants to help prepare these articles, our policy is clear. All wines that we taste and review are purchased at the full retail price.
Wine Reviewed Travaglina Gattinara DOCG 2001 13.5% alcohol about $28
As stated above, little if any wine from the Aosta Valley region is available in North America. We had to settle for a Piedmont wine produced only a few miles away from the Aosta Valley. For some reason I can’t get out of my mind the 1905 George M. Cohan Broadway title tune (Only) Forty-five Minutes from Broadway, think of the changes it brings. Given that this is a DOCG wine made with Italy’s best red grape, I really don’t feel that I made a sacrifice. It is perhaps a fitting way to treat the last of Italy’s regions.
Let’s start with the marketing materials. “The winery has other jewels in its crown, as the fabulous base Gattinara 2001 so eloquently proves in the best version we can remember. A pure, austere nose expresses the Gattinara territory, with licorice and crushed roses from the Nebbiolo grape and elegant streaks of eucalyptus, menthol, and even acacia blossoms. The long lingering palate is lively and tangy, slightly held back by assertive tannins.”
Let’s talk a bit about the bottle. As a DOCG red wine, there is a lavender ribbon at the top of the bottle. The bottle itself has a unique curve that fits in the palm of the hand. It was designed by a glassmaker for the 1952 vintage, and proved so popular that the producer has been using it ever since. The grapes are grown on steep slopes at 900-1300 feet in iron-rich soil with traces of Calcium and Magnesium Carbonate. The wine is aged a year in French oak barriques, 18 months in Slovenian oak casks, and then for six months in the bottle. It has been called an affordable Barolo, (one of Italy’s finest red wines that starts at about twice its price). Wine Spectator Magazine has listed a previous vintage as one of the year’s 100 best wines.
My first pairing was with a cheeseless meat lasagna. Frankly the wine was wasted on this meal. It was mouthfilling, long, and powerful, but yet delicate. I felt that the wine was great on its own. A few ounces kept my mouth satisfied for a very long time.
The next pairing was more suitable, grilled rib steak in my spicy, homemade barbeque sauce that included ketchup, sweet and sour mustard, fresh garlic, and black pepper. The meal also included potato patties, and caponata, an Italian-style eggplant and tomato salad. This marriage was made in heaven. The wine was mouthfilling and powerful. A little bit went a very long way.
The final meal was with slow-cooked, boneless beef ribs and potatoes. Once again, the wine was very powerful, tasting of leather and dark fruit. It is easily the most powerful wine of the series, and probably one of the most powerful wines that I have ever tasted. However, I did not find the tannins assertive; they blended perfectly with the fruit and other flavors.
It might have been best to try this wine with a Piedmont cheese such as Gran Padano or Gorgonzola, or with an Aosta Valley cheese such as Fontina. I had none of the above, so I settled for the ends of my Italian cheeses, coincidentally at more or less the end of this series. The Gattinara took on a pleasant acidic character to deal with a Montasio cheese from the Veneto area that was past its prime. It also went well with a Sicilian Isola. I liked it the best with an Asiago, also from the Veneto region. But once again the wine was somewhat wasted on these cheeses.
Final verdict. I don’t think that this wine should be cellared for a dozen years, but I would love to find out. If I had the money, I’d buy a case, drink a bottle a year, and then decide what to do. Not going to happen. This wonderful wine will have to go into my once a year category. I’m already looking forward to savoring and comparing the 2002 vintage with this excellent 2001.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would
rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario
French-language community college. His wine websites include
www.theworldwidewine.com and http://www.theitalianwineconnection.com
Visit his website devoted to Italian travel www.travelitalytravel.com
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