Friday, June 8, 2018

Finale: Aosta and Its Wines

This post picks up where yesterday's left off about our last day in Italy on Monday. As much as we were enjoying our time in Carema and would have liked to stay longer, we needed to move on to the rest of what we had scheduled for that day.

By the time we left the Carema cooperative's winery, the heavy rain that had occurred while we were inside had stopped, and the few sprinkles that remained dissipated as we headed on toward Aosta. On either side of us were towering peaks enshrouded in clouds that occasionally parted to give us a sense of what we might be seeing on a clear day.

As I drove, Piermaria noted some of the many castles that dot the mountainsides of the valley, and I made a mental note that, someday, I'll come back and see them. One such is the reconstructed Fort Bard, pictured below, above the Dora Baltea river. Previously referred to as Bard castle, it had been flattened by Napoleon in 1800 after 400 Piemontese soldiers had held off his army of 40,000 soldiers for two weeks, thus destroying the element of surprise of his invasion of the Po River valley.

The strategic location of the Aosta Valley was evident as long ago as Roman times, and indeed there was an important Roman settlement in the town of Aosta, and remnants of this settlement remain today--something I didn't realize prior to our visit.

The Arch of Augustus in Aosta, built in 25 B.C.

Ruins of a Roman theatre, also built around 25 B.C.,
that could accommodate up to 4,000 people.

The romanesque bell towers of the 1000-year-old cathedral in Aosta.

Our time in Aosta was limited, but Piermaria did her best to show us as much as possible, including the Church of Saint Orso/Ursus and nearby cloister which date back to the 10th century, though the church was expanded and remodeled in the 15th century (being, thus, practically new).

Remnants of a "Black Madonna" fresco in St. Orso's

I've seen a number of depictions of Saint Sebastian, but this fresco in St. Orso's kind of stands out.

My favorite part of the Saint Orso church was the Renaissance-era choir, which featured beautifully carved stalls.

We had lunch on the square in front of the cathedral. Piermaria had chosen it in part because it offered traditional Aostan fare as well as other dishes. I opted for the Tartiflette, a Savoyard dish prepared in Aostan style that features cheese, potatoes, onions and more cheese. Basically, it could have been called "Cholesterol Bowl." Yes, I ate the whole thing.

The cathedral in Aosta, parts of which date back to the 11th century (the facade being less than 200 years old).

Mountains above Aosta

After lunch, it was time to head a few more miles up the valley to Sarre to Feudo di San Maurizio, the small winery of Michel Vallet. My introduction to Vallet's wines had begun, really, with my first class in my Northern Italian Wine course, which covered Valle d'Aosta.

Two months later, while in San Francisco, I visited Enoteca Vino Nostro and purchased a bottle of Vallet's Mayolet--a variety basically only found in Aosta. Later, I read some articles about Feudo di San Maurizio, including this one written by Matt Kramer for Wine Spectator, and I felt we had to go there after our Piemonte wine tour, primarily because Michel Vallet has made it his mission to preserve local varietals and produce quality wine from them.

Michel Vallet

Matt Kramer very aptly described the person we met on Monday afternoon in Michel's subterranean winery, the entrance of which looks like an underground garage. We squeezed past a parked van and stacks of folded cardboard shipping boxes to enter a room that looked like a huge party had just been held there. Chairs were scattered around a large table that was littered with empty wine glasses and a number of partially-drained wine bottles.

Michel, the winemaker, looked as though he had just come from the football pitch, dressed in gym shorts and a tightly-fitting tee shirt. Our guide and translator, Piermaria, introduced us as Michel dashed back and forth. Eventually, we learned that a group of sommeliers had just left from a tasting. Michel had forget they were coming and was working in the vineyard when they arrived. As Matt Kramer mentions in his article and as we heard directly from Michel, he really doesn't use email or for that matter, in his exact words, "anything modern."

We were shown into an adjoining room and took our seats around another large table. Michel's wife and son cleared a spot for us as they cleaned up the remains of the sommeliers' visit. Then the tasting began. As he has no doubt done dozens, if not scores, of times before, Michel told us a bit of his story. How, without any formal wine education at all, he began making wine in the late 80's from local varieties to sell in his bar. Little by little, he expanded, acquiring small plots of vineyard here and there all over the area. His energy and passion for his work would have been evident in his eyes even had he not said a word. Intense, almost frenetic, energy exuded from him.

Michel talked about low yields, about his project of planting Nebbiolo vines in a vineyard enclosed by stone walls below a local castle where his godfather had tended cows years before. He decided to seek the lease to the ground and to plant the vines because he read in an old history how members of the House of Savoy had commented that the wine produced on the castle grounds tasted like wine produced in the Langhe. He assumed from this comment that Nebbiolo must have been grown at one time there, so he decided to try it again.

The vast majority of Vallet's production is consumed locally. Only occasionally is wine shipped to the States. And we could forget about having a case shipped to us privately. Wasn't happening. Fortunately a number of his wines are available in San Francisco. One that we tasted, however, is not:  his "XXII Settembre," made from Prié blanc, one of the oldest indigenous grapes of Valle d'Aosta and found almost exclusively there.

The wine is named after the feast day of San Maurizio, from whom Michel's winery takes its name. I couldn't resist bringing a bottle home with me, and I'm looking forward to drinking it on some future special occasion.

It seemed somehow appropriate that our last day in Italy ended where my Italian wine adventure had begun with that first class in my Northern Italian Wines course going on two years ago: Valle d'Aosta. Our last wine in Italy, however, was not from Aosta but rather Asti. Piermaria presented us with a bottle of Albugnano, a Nebbiolo produced near her home, as a parting gift, and we happily drank it Monday night at our hotel near Turin airport (since none of us had any room left in our luggage for one more bottle of wine).

Of course, as these things sometimes work, on the day that we left, the sun rose to reveal the Alps in all their glory after a week of rain, cloudy skies and haze. As we took off, I looked at those mountains, reflected on all that I'd experienced in the previous 10 days and thought: "I will be back, Piemonte and Valle d'Aosta. We have unfinished business. I will be back."

No comments:

Post a Comment