Vallée d'Aoste. Holy shit.
In all of my years of visiting viticultural regions, Aoste just might be the most visually remarkable. You can't take a picture here without it looking majestic! Proof's in the pudding: the picture above, is the view from Franco Noussan's front yard.
Speaking of Franco, he lives in the commune of Maillod, which itself is part of the town of Saint Christophe. If all these names sound kind of French to you, that's because they are: Aoste used to be part of the Royaume de Savoie, and only became part of Italy in the aftermath of World War 1. In such, Franco speaks a local dialect called Patois with his wife and daughters, but is fluent in French and Italian.
"We are not French, we are not Italian. We are people of the Alps."
Though vines have been planted in Aoste since Roman times, the idea of terroir driven viticulture is a recent one, dating back to the 70's. This is because more traditional, rural ways of living were abandoned and forgotten during the Industrial Revolution.
As locals began working in the metal industry to build railroads, Aoste wine became for family consumption, while the more established viticultural region of Piedmonte began providing them their every day wine.
"Our tiny micro vineyards could not compete with our much more established neighbors in Piedmonte."
The first vineyard we visited was young Pinot Gris planted in 2007.
The vines are planted in very high density and in Cordon to reduce yields.
The elevation here is 1300m! As we walked through the vines, Franco started breaking down some of his viticultural practices.
In a new plantation, he always uses a small amount of herbicide along the rows for the first three years of their growth. This is because the area has a ton of cereal production, and the grains fly into vineyards because of the wind, then start growing wildly. This creates too much competition for young vines. He also irrigates the first three years, because Aoste only gets 500ml of annual rainfall.
"If the young vines don't get water in their infancy, their roots don't dig deep enough into the soil and won't fully express the terroir."
If the vines are over 3 years old or acquired at a later stage in their growth, Franco never uses herbicides or irrigation.
"After this initial step, I work organically."
Franco's "estate" consists of 1.5 hectares of vines, spread over 13 parcels in 3 communes. 7 different grapes are grown: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Vien de Nus, Mayolet, Cornalin, Fumin and Petit Rouge. He rents all of his parcels, but has fixed them up himself.
"Everything is small production here. You can't make a "commercial" wine in the sense of volume; the numbers just aren't there. The best you can do is produce a great wine of terroir that expresses its place."
Most of the people who currently live in Franco's commune are residential habitants who work in the nearby city of Aoste. Almost no agriculturalists are left.
The next plot we visited was some 20 year old Pinot Noir.
A tiny part of this parcel is a 90 year old field blend. Though he likes the current results, Franco believes it will take at least 20 more years before these vines produce "really great" grapes.
Driving to Franco's main site, we passed a 12 year old, very low yielding vineyard composed of 70% Petit Rouge, 30% Fumin.
Our final stop was Franco's main vineyard site, where 6 of his 13 parcels co-exist amongst his neighbors' vines. It is one of the most stunning vineyards I've ever seen.
The vines that produces Franco's Torrette are located here, and stand tall at a whopping 710m elevation. The soils consist of sand, and it was abandoned before Franco gave it new life.
The highest parcel here 800m elevation planted in Pinot Gris. In the same area, there is some very old Petit Rouge.
"I'm not sure how old these vines are, but they are definitely older than me."
Unlike the earlier parcels we visited, which were trained in Guyot, the much older vines here are trained in gobelet.
The soils in this particular section are very light clay that breaks up like sand.
The sun was beginning to set, so we decided to head back to Franco's house to visit the cellar. Unsurprisingly, it is tiny. So small in fact that Franco is forced to vinify all of his wines at different times. The wines ferment off of their native yeasts for 12 days.
Along with some incredible local charcuterie and cheese, we tried a bunch of wine. Each bottle features the date of harvest on the label, and looking at the lot number is the only way to identify the vintage, since it is not listed.
Blanc de Tzanté: means "little hill" and is all Pinot Gris. We tried 2012 and 2013, and both had a lot of Alpine Charm™. I'm trademarking that because it sounds like the name for a Febreze or Old Spice odor, and you never know with these multi-national corporations! I need to keep my creative endeavors safe!
Torrette 2012 had a dark nose, with a smoky, Mountain Freshness™ and herbaceous character. The blend always consists of 70% Petit Rouge, but the rest varies vintage to vintage.
11 Torrette had a fruitier nose which also marked the palate. It was the fresher of the 12.
Cuvée de la Cote is a blend of all his red grapes, all co-fermented. Both 12 and 11 were super glugable, easy drinking wines.
"You have to want to drink the wine. If finishing a glass seems like a burden, you haven't done your job correctly."
The tasting ended with a 2011 Pinot Noir that was my favorite of the night. Why?
Tune in next time...
When you've travelled all the way from another continent to visit an estate, the last thing you want is getting rained out. It really dampens the mood!
This was unfortunately the case as we pulled up to Casa del Bosco to visit father and son team Odilio and Mattia Antoniotti; in the winter it's not the end of the world since the vines are hibernating and it's cold as shit out. But when you've just landed in Italy in early May and the vines bursting full of vigor and life, you definitely want to spend as much time as possible outside. Alas, the rain was coming down hard, and it looked like it was going to be an "inside only" visit...
Luckily, the Antoniottis have some nice inside stuff to visit. For example, their really old cellar:
The cellar is directly under their family house, divided in two parts and dates back to the late 1700's. What you see here is the vinification area.
Grapes come in through this window:
All of the wine ferments in these large concrete vats from 1910.
There used to only be a single huge vat, but Odilio split it in 2 to focus on more precise vinifications. The grapes are de-stemmed, and fermentations take about 3 weeks, with 2 to 3 remontages a day. The wine then clarifies (decants) in stainless steel before being racked to barrel about a month later to age. Many of their barrels are made from oak chopped down on their own land.
The Antoniotti family produces two D.O.C wines: Bramaterra and Coste della Sesia. Both are micro-appellations, with 8 producers bottling Bramattera and 20 for Coste della Sesia.
"And each producer has a tiny annual production."
Factoid: the tiny village of Casa del Bosco was originally built as a lord's hunting resort. The historical reason vines were planted in the area is because the lord and his crew naturally needed wine to celebrate after the hunt!
Moving on, Mattia showed us their labeling room, which is literally just a room where they hand label EVERY SINGLE BOTTLE ONE AT A TIME WITH GLUE AND A PAINT BRUSH!
That's what I call attention to detail!
From the cellar, we trekked upwards to the Antoniotti's semi-formal tasting room. Old bottles were proudly on display, including this 1964 produced by Odilio's grandfather.
From the tasting room, a large window faces a large hill right by the house.
While sitting down, Odilio explained how this entire hillside was planted in vines just 50 years ago.
Before getting to down to business, Mattia busted out some local cheeses.
There was also some Prosciutto thrown in for good measure.
Finally, there was some wine to taste!
We started the tasting with a first time experiment, a delicious Rosato made from 24 hour saignée. It follows the same blend as the Bramaterra: 70% Nebbiolo, 20% Croatina (also known as Bonarda in Emilia-Romagna) 7% Vespolina and 3% Uva Rara (which literally translates to rare grape). My notes said it was "super good" with "super purity".
Next up was the Coste della Sesia 2011, which is always 90% Nebbiolo and 10% Croatina. It was dark and fully bodied but super fresh, with bright acidity and nice finish.
"This is the best Coste we've ever made."
Conditions were perfect in 2011: cool winds, no illness, no hail.
We ended with the Bramaterra 2010, which is aged 3 years in barrel before release. It showed more structure than the Coste della Sesia, and even though there is less Nebbiolo in it than the Coste, I felt the wine to be more marked by the Nebbiolo than the rest.
Someone asked about the lesser planted and known grapes used at the estate, and Odilio answered:
"Having many grape varieties balances the vineyard and ensures that if something goes wrong (with one of the grapes), you have the luxury of a back up plan."
By the time the tasting was over, the rain had majorly subsided and we decided to brave the elements to visit some nearby vineyards. Incredibly, Odilio had eight million umbrellas handy and was able to lend one to each of us.
Well, everyone but me. I actually had a broken parasol.
The first vineyard we visited is 450 m elevation and produces Coste della Sesia.
In better weather conditions, you can clearly see the Alps and the Sesia river in the background.
The vineyard is and isolated clos, exposed full South and is planted in Nebiollo and Vespolina. The soils here consist of volcanic Porphyry, which is a type of granite. Odilio decided to grab a huge chunk of it to break it down.
"Every different color you see in a different mineral, which adds much complexity to the wine."
Here's another, smaller piece to give you an idea.
The next vineyard we visited took us through a crazy, slippery and very uneven road that I have no idea how anyone could access without a 4x4 truck.
This is their main vineyard; the current vines were planted in 1978, but the Antoniotti family purchased the land in 1860 (Odilio still has the contract papers stashed somewhere!) The soils are also Porphyry, but much finer and pebbly.
The site is a proper viticultural amphitheater, and as such the exposition spans from South to South-West.
The Antoniottis have never used herbicides.
"We till the grass, and that becomes a natural compost."
How the wonderful Mayr-Nüsserhof Blatterle became a "B......." wine
When the Mayr family bought the Nüsserhof farm in 1788, Tirol was a country, France hadn't had a revolution yet, Andreas Hofer (trans. note: the future commander of the Tyrolean insurrection against Napoleon) had just traded his first horses, sold his first barrels of wine and the view from the Nüsserhof extended all the way to the church. Today, the Nüsserhof is the only original piece of land hasn't been devoured by the expanding town of Bolzano, and is all that remains of the once green Bozner land.
Surrounded by walls and bordering the Eisack Dam, the Mayr's family estate resembles a French "clos": an enclosed vineyard. But while such a thing is respected, even venerated in France, Germany or Austria –countries where old traditions and old vines are being defended against the fast moving Zeitgeist– the quiet, stoical Heinrich Mayr-Nusser and his entrepreneurial wife Elda remain quaint outsiders in the South Tyrolean wine landscape. This despite the fact that the Blatterle grape was the most common variety in the Bozen area as recently as the 19th century! An indigenous vine that, one would assume, would mean protecting the last remaining Blatterle area like Noah's Ark (note: Nüsserhof is one of only three remaining producers growing Blatterle, and has the highest holdings of the three)
But Saint Bureaucratus sees things differently: no large conglomerate cared for the Blatterle, so it fell to the wayside and doesn't have DOC status, just like the real Weißterlaner by the way, which still yields a few bottles thanks to the steadfast Waschtl Stocker. If you sow bureaucrats, a North Tyrolean grouser once remarked, you will reap insanity!
In the case of the Nüsserhof Blatterle, that means that Saint Bureaucratus doesn't allow the word Blatterle on the label of a wine made from authentic Blatterle. So the brave Elda and Heinrich quickly chopped off a "t" on their labels and bottled their "Blaterle" for years without being challenged. Until somebody recently pressed charges and accused Mayr-Nusser of fraud because "Blaterle" sounds much too close to the real, formerly important varietal Blatterle...
It's hard to believe: the last South Tyrolean vintner producing a 100% Blatterle from real Blatterle isn't allowed to put Blatterle on the label. If you sow bureaucrats, you will reap insanity. A "fantasy" name would be possible, said the magistrate: Tom, Dick and Harry wine or so. That's how Elda and Heinrich finally came up with the idea to salvage at least one last letter, and from 2011 vintage on the labels just say "B.......".
"Nüsserhof's Blatterle was one of the most intriguing whites I encountered... it is surprisingly full of flavor considering its light to medium-bodied texture", wrote wine pope Robert Parker enthusiastically, giving it 90/100 points. For friends of good taste and healthy opposition to bureaucrats, we are including the Mayr's address:
Elda and Heinrich Mayr, Weingut Nusserhof, Josef-Mayr-Nusser-Weg 72, Bozen – Tel/Fax 0471 978388 or mobile: 335 6207558
Cascina Degli Ulivi will always hold a special place in my heart. You see, when I was 19 years old, I felt a need to distance myself from my social scene (Montreal), and after an initial plan to "move to Vancouver", Joe proposed I go work in vineyards somewhere. I'd never been to Italy, and Joe, knowing that Stefano Bellotti runs a poly-cultural farm and there would be plenty for me to do there, proposed Ulivi. After a quick chat with Stefano, it was agreed I would get room at board at the Cascina in exchange for manual labor. I could (and probably should) write an entire entry on the 5 months I lived and worked there, but this is neither the time nor place. Suffice to say, my time there was -whether I was aware of it or not at the time- the catalyst in finding a personal connection with the traditions of peasantry and wine. Also, working in the fields gave em the only legit tan I've ever had in my life. But I digress...
After landing in Milan, we drove straight to the town of Novi Ligure, where Ulivi is located.
Though Novi Ligure is actually a modestly sized town (28,500) with a bustling urban core, the Ulivi farm is about ten minutes out, completely surrounded by woods and only accessible via a small road. Chickens, ducks and geese are just hanging around everywhere.
Love was definitely in the air.
Because of all the animal fornication going on around us, we assumed it was mating season. Later, Stefano confirmed we were wrong:
"It's like this all the time. They never stop."
As I mentioned earlier, the farm is completely self-sufficient. For example: 23 cows!
These are almost exclusively used for dairy: fresh milk, delicious homemade cheeses, and yogurts/panna cotta,etc... On average, only 2 male cows are slaughtered a year for meat, which is served exclusively at the restaurant/agriturismo within the farm grounds. That's right people: two cows last an entire year!
A lot of fresh fruits and vegetables are also planted throughout.
Look, a goat family!
As you can see, there are all types of animals at Cascina degli Ulivi! But Stefano's favorite, of course, is his Maremma sheepdog Guantanamobai.
You may recognize this big guy from the Filagnotti labels:
Well, that's not actually the same dog; Stefano has loved this breed for as long as he can remember, and owned many since his early 20's.
But beyond farming, restaurants and animals, the real bread and butter of Cascina Degli Ulivi is, you guessed it, WINE!
We started our tour by checking out Stefano's brand new experimental vineyard.
Planted last June, these 3 hectares are all planted in franc de pied aka un-grafted roots. Stefano explained that these 4 varieties were historically considered "shit", but that have also been historically proven to resist mildew and odium over the long term.
Stefano's discovery of these "shit" varieties stems from research dating back to 1910. A pépinièriste (whose job involves growing young vines in a nursery for future use) in Südtirol based his life work on this, and was able to find 25 hybrid grapes that resist the two of the most damaging fungal illnesses in viticulture. Stefano picked the ones that made the most sense for his soils and micro-climates, but also the flavors he liked.
"I didn't want anything aromatic."
Interestingly the soils here are not sand (where the phylloxera bug cannot survive) but heavy clay.
"They are already very alive."
Next, we headed over to the beautiful Filagnotti vineyard, which produces the aforementioned bottling of the same name.
The village you can spot in the background is Tassarolo.
In this vineyard, Cortese is planted on very acidic red clay that is rich in iron. Stefano has been working this vineyard since 1984, which coincides with his first year practicing biodynamics.
Looking in the distance, then back at the budding vines, Stefano proclaimed:
"This is my favorite time of the year. I love looking at individual buds and thinking: This will soon be a glass of wine!"
As with most of Piemonte, a lot of Stefano's vines have been dying for from Flavescence Dorée (read more about this lesser known disease here).
"The best way to fight this is franc de pied, but this directly confronts you with the problem of phylloxera. Still, I believe fighting a bug is easier than fighting a disease."
"The problem is that all funded research is geared towards "fixing" these problems through chemical treatments. Any alternative means always falls on our backs, through our own independent experiments. In the end, their is not one magic solution. It will be a combination of many factors that will lead us to an answer."
Speaking of individual experimentation, Stefano has planted an entire portion of Filagnotti in Franc de Pied.
He feels that these much younger vines already have much more vigor and life than their grafted siblings.
Last but not least, we visited Cascina degli Ulivi's most prized vineyard, Montemarino.
Holy shit that's beautiful!
The soils here are clay and limestone. Standing in Montemarino, the difference in micro-climate between Filagnotti was clear: a constant wind sweeping through the vineyards (as opposed to Filagnotti's much dryer nature) creates a cooler, more elegant wine.
Though the vast majority of Montemarino is planted in Cortese, the oldest vines in the estate are planted here (94 years old, planted in 1920), and consist of Nibio, the local name for the region's indigenous strand of Dolcetto.
Stefano acquired the vast majority of this lieu-dit, which consists of 6 hectares, in 2000. To do so, he had to purchase individual plots from 39 different owners!!! Montemarino is exposed full South, at 310 meters of elevation.
After walking through the vines, it was time for Stefano's self-admitted "schtick I do every time": The Shovel Experiment™
"Of all my vineyards, Montemarino is the only one were I have a neighbor. And of course, he works more chemically than anyone I know!"
The Shovel Experiment™ consists of shoveling a hunk of land from Montemarino as well as his neighbor's to compare and contrast the amount of life in both. Here's a side by side pick to give you an idea of what a vineyard heavily treated with herbicide where one doesn't work the soils looks like versus that of a biodynamic pioneer.
Keep in mind those are less than 50 meters apart!
At the top of Montemarino, Stefano's vinification cellar hosts all his future releases. He works almost exclusively with large wood vessels.
"I like using wood because it keeps the wine alive. This is because it is constantly dancing with oxygen. But it not's oxygenation I look for; it's so that the wine is in constant contact with something alive (air)."
We tasted through a range of 2013 wines, which were a solid vintage for Ulivi. By the time we were done tasting through the current releases, jet lag had started seriously kicking in so we sat down for an early dinner at the agriturismo which naturally consisted of all the meats, vegetables, dairy and fruit of the farm.
It was good to know that 8 years after my time there, Cascina degli Ulivi is still as magical as ever.