I love alpine wine. Whether it is from France, Switzerland, or Italy, the mountain-y crispness never fails to delight me. Last February I had the pleasure to visit my favorite producer working in the alpine region of Valle d’Aosta, Italy. Frères Grosjean is a family run operation based in the village of Quart. Valle d’Aosta is not only the most frequently overlooked state of Italy, it is one of the most interesting. Situated on the border of France, Switzerland and Piedmont, it has something in common viticulturally, and culturally, with all three of those places.

map of Valle d'Aosta

Vincent Grosjean was kind enough to accept a visit from me and my husband one afternoon. We communicated in french, because our french is better than our italian, and Vincent is fluent in both. The Valle d’Aosta is a bi-lingual state, and has had special autonomous status since 1948. Under Mussolini, there was an effort to “Italianize” the state — this is when Vincent was born, and so his official name is actually Vincenzo.

To get to Quart, one has to drive up steep windy road…for a really long time. We eventually found the address, but there wasn’t an obvious front door, or tasting room. Basically, there is no visitor infrastructure. We saw a young boy juggling a soccer ball and asked him where we could find Vincent Grosjean. “Mon pere!” he exclaimed proudly, and ran us over to his father’s office. Vincent first took us around in his mini-van to see the vines and the soil. The different grapes are grown at different elevations — the Pinot Noir higher, Gamay a little lower. In general, the vineyards are about 2500 feet in elevation, but they are on the south-facing slope of the valley so they get a lot of sun, and in mid-February there was no snow on the ground (though 2007 was kind of an odd year, climate wise). Mont Blanc looms over the valley like some sort of wizard’s post, and in general there is a little bit of a Lord of the Rings feel to the area. Grosjean's vines 

We came in from the vineyards to taste wine from the cask. He told us that he ferments the wines for about 10 days with natural yeasts. The 2006 vintage: first, the Petite Arvine in stainless steel was super fresh and cloudy, and very aromatic. If I could have such a cask installed in my house, with chilled, unfiltered Petite Arvine (a white grape also seen in Switzerland) at the ready, I’d be a very happy woman. Next we moved on to the gamay, also in stainless steel. It smelled strange, reduced due to lack of oxygen I guess, but it tasted wonderful. Typical, wonderful Gamay all the way. Then we tasted Pinot Noir, Torrette, and Fumin from large, old oak casks. The Pinot and Torrette (an appellation for red wine made from mostly Petite Rouge, a Valdostana grape not unlike Gamay), were exhibiting similar reduction on the nose, but tasted great. The Fumin, a recently resuscitated indigenous grape, wasn’t even reduced in the cask. It smelled strongly of licorice, and was deep purple in color (the other reds are light, and bright ruby). Only 500 cases of 5000 are brought to the US. We also tasted Pinot Noir in barrique, which didn’t excite me, though it might age well. Grosjean's stainless tanks

Next we moved to another room in the cellar, and sat down at a well-worn wooden table under Vincent’s collection of wine bottles from around the world. He opened a bottle of the 2005 Cornalin, the first vintage he’s made wine from this grape — another indigenous red variety. Somewhere in between Gamay and Pinot Noir, herbaceous and cherry-like fruit.

Next, the 2004 Fumin. This was excellent, more developed than what we’d tasted from the cask, but still deep, dense, and complex. Vincent generously put together a lunch of food made on the farm. Pane nero (bread made from rye flour), boudin (sausage made primarily from beets and potatoes, with a little bit of lard), salsicce (cured sausage), and mocetta (a local version of proscuitto, traditionally made with meat from the chamoix) made from beef. The Fumin went very well with the meat. Next he opened a Pinot Noir from 1997. Now I have to say, I had previously valued the Grosjean wines for their drinkability, for their friendliness towards food, but hadn’t thought of them as candidates for ageing. This ten year old Pinot was astonishing! It had developed into a complicated little thing, full of dried fruits on the nose, and still delicious to drink. Next we had late harvest Petite Arvine from 1994. It was an unusually warm harvest season, allowing them to leave these grapes on the vine until November. The wine was medium dry, with great acidity (I should add that all of Grosjean’s wine, and indeed all of the Valdostana wines in general, have excellent, racy and refreshing acid) to balance that sweetness. It smelled of aged wine, like an old Meursault, hazelnuts and pain d’epices. On the way out, my husband inquired about a stack of sparkling wine bottles in the corner. Vincent said that he made a sparkling wine just for consumption at the house, using the Blanc de Morgex (another Valdostana appellation) grape, Prié Blanc. Being the extremely generous host that he is, he sent us home with a bottle.

It was an unforgettable visit, and a delicious one. I tried to show him my appreciation by giving him an American style hug, but of course he went for the European kiss/kiss, and our good bye ended a bit awkwardly. I smoothed it over with a good old-fashioned thank you note when we got back to the States. The sparkling Prié Blanc? Wonderful, and I drank it a few days later on my birthday after a day of skiing in Cogne.