Viticulture in Valle D’Aosta region

Author: Simonetta Padalino

In the mid-19th century, Canavese physician and researcher Lorenzo Francesco Gatta offered insights into the viticultural landscape of Valle d’Aosta in his essay ‘On the Vines and Wines of the Valle d’Aosta.’ Gatta noted, ‘Among the primary sources of sustenance for the people of Valle d’Aosta, the vine takes a prominent place. It is cultivated along the entire stretch from Ponte-San Martino to Prato-San-Desiderio, particularly along the coasts to the right and left of the Dora, serving as a support for the Alps. However, the outcomes differ because the right bank, exposed to the north wind (tramontana), is less conducive to cultivation.’ Scholar Rudy Sandi revisited and expanded Gatta’s essay in 2014, enriching it with additional insights and notes. Gatta’s work is invaluable for understanding the historical development of viticulture in Valle d’Aosta—a history that experienced its zenith during Gatta’s era, followed by a challenging period. The region, which once spanned over 3000 hectares, has seen a significant reduction to about 500 hectares today, attributed not only to the phylloxera outbreak but also to the abandonment of agricultural life by the younger generation. Fortunately, there has been a positive shift in the last decade, indicating a generational turnover. Young individuals, determined to reclaim their family lands, have chosen to enrich and cultivate them. This commitment is evident, particularly in regions seemingly detached from the mountains. These young individuals serve as guardians of their territory—an inherently challenging landscape where agricultural practices are predominantly carried out by hand. In navigating this demanding terrain, they emerge as heroes dedicated to preserving and revitalizing the agricultural traditions of Valle d’Aosta.

Vigneti terrazzati in Val D’Aosta

The viticultural landscape of Valle d’Aosta currently comprises 6 cooperatives and over 50 private wine estates. It boasts a singular Designation of Origin (DOC), namely ‘Valle d’Aosta’ or ‘Vallée d’Aoste’ which can be further distinguished by one of the 7 subzones: Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle, Enfer d’Arvier, Torrette, Nus, Chambave, Arnad-Montjovet, and Donnas. Additionally, wines may carry the indication of one of the 19 grape varieties, namely Chardonnay, Cornlet, Merlot, Müller Thurgau, Nebbiolo, Petite Arvine, Petit Rouge, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Prëmetta, Syrah, Vuillermin, Moscato bianco, Traminer aromatico, and Gamaret. Furthermore, the region recognizes the suitability for cultivation of other grape varieties, including 13 indigenous ones: Bonda, Cornalin, Crovassa, Fumin, Mayolet, Ner d’Ala, Neyret, Petit rouge, Premetta, Prié blanc, Roussin, Vien de Nus, Vuillermin.

The history of Valdostan viticulture

Discussing the historical presence of grapevines, a recent discovery of grape seeds in the archaeological area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans in Aosta traces back this cultivation to the Bronze Age. However, it is with the Romans that tangible evidence of vineyard cultivation emerges. Amphorae, jugs, and bottles dating back to the 1st century AD have been uncovered at sites near Aosta, presumed to be used for pressing grapes. The earliest documented record dates back to 1032 A.D., in the form of a deed of gift for a vineyard. Over the centuries, grape cultivation gained increasing significance, reaching its zenith during the Napoleonic period and the 19th century, with an expansive coverage of over 3,000 hectares.

Terrazzamenti di antica origine in Val D’Aosta

Subsequently, a decline ensued, as previously mentioned, attributable not only to the devastating phylloxera but also to other maladies such as powdery mildew and downy mildew. Additionally, socio-economic factors played a role, exacerbated by the repercussions of the two World Wars and the migration of rural populations to urban centers. Wine, once a staple for self-consumption, ceased to be a caloric enrichment of the often modest diet. The tide began to turn in the 1950s, marked by collaborative efforts in research, technology, and policy aimed at fostering the industry’s growth and enhancing wine quality.

A pivotal player in this resurgence is, and continues to be, the experimental and research work of the Institut Agricole Régional in Aosta. In its early days, under the leadership of Canon J. Vaudan, the institute not only supported Valdostan viticulture but also made significant contributions to the broader agricultural sector.

Valdostan wine production is still characterized by micro parcels, by small or very small producers, which is why in the 1970s the need was felt to join forces and thus the first cooperatives were born, which allowed the growth and spread of Valdostan wine, thanks in part to the leadership of enlightened presidents now retired such as Mauro Jaccod in Morgex, Mario Dalbard in Donnas and the late Dino Darensod in Aymavilles. The first cooperative was that of Donnas, the Donnas DOC was also the first to be recognized in 1971, the following year it was the turn of Enfer d’Arvier. In 1985 the “Valle d’Aosta” or “Vallée d’Aoste” DOC was born.

Viticultural associationism was later expressed with the birth of Viticulteurs encaveurs, and in 2006 the VIVAL Association of Winegrowers of Valle d’Aosta was born, bringing together all the souls of Aosta Valley viticulture, becoming the point of reference for the sector. Natural evolution of the association was last year, in March 2022, the birth of the Aosta Valley Wines Consortium, which aims to protect and promote Aosta Valley DOC wines.

Vigneti con castello di Sarre in Valle d’Aosta

Speaking of a single Valle d’Aosta viticulture may be reductive because environmental conditions, exposure or otherwise to the sun, and cultivation as well as plantings and forms of farming can change from area to area. But in general, Valle d’Aosta has a harsh and dry continental-type climate with little rainfall, strong temperature ranges especially in the central valley. The soil is of ancient origin, with outcrops of crystalline and sedimentary rocks; the slope is significant, so terracing was necessary.

Vigneti a pergola in Valle d’Aosta

To take a journey into Valdostan viticulture, let us start from the north, from Morgex and La Salle, where in the view of Mont Blanc we find some of the highest vineyards in Europe. This subzone is characterized by a very special grape variety Prié Blanc, the only native white grape variety and the only one still free-footed having been saved from phylloxera. It is cultivated with a low pergola training system with wood and stone scaffolding. From this grape comes a dry, soft and delicate white wine, Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle, also ideal for sparkling wine making. There is also a Late Harvest version: grape bunches are harvested while still frozen in the early morning.

As we continue our journey southward, we reach ‘l’inferno’—Enfer di Arviera name derived from the morphology of the terrain, forming a natural amphitheatre bathed in sunlight. This location experiences warmer temperatures compared to its nearby areas, and the vineyards, cultivated using the Guyot method, are arranged in rows along the rocky slopes. The vines are either trained in ‘rittochino’ or terraced. The primary grape variety here is Petit Rouge, a red berry, and the most widely cultivated throughout the region, including a ‘Supérieur’ version. The same Petit Rouge grape is used for Torrette, a DOC that covers the most extensive area in the region, encompassing eleven municipalities: Quart, Saint-Christophe, Aosta, Sarre, Saint-Pierre, Charvensod, Gressan, Jovencan, Aymavilles, Villeneuve, and Introd. The ‘Supérieur’ version is obtained from vineyards exposed to more sunlight, with limited yields per hectare.

Moving beyond the capital in the southward direction, we arrive in Nus. This subzone presents three types of wine: Nus rouge, produced from the local Vien de Nus grape and Petit Rouge; Nus Malvoisie, a dry wine made from Pinot Grigio; and finally, Nus Malvoisie Passito, a sweet wine.

Vigneti e castello a Aymavilles in Valle D’Aosta

Immediately after that we have the Chambave area, here we find both Muscat, which despite its name is not a sweet wine but is dry, very aromatic of which there is also a raisin version made from the best grapes left to dry in special airy environments, and Chambave rouge produced using Petit Rouge (min 70%), Dolcetto, Gamay and Pinot noir grapes.

Approaching the south of the region we find in two neighboring areas a great expression of Nebbiolo, here called picotendro, which in local dialect means “black skin”, l’Arnad-Montjovet and Donnas.

L’Arnad-Montjovet is made mainly from Nebbiolo grapes, 70%, and a maximum of 30% from other grapes from vineyards located in the territories of Arnad and neighboring municipalities, Hône, Verrès, Issogne, Challand-Saint-Victor, Champdepraz, and Montjovet.

Finally, on the border with Piedmont we find Donnas, produced from Nebbiolo grapes grown in the vineyard areas of Donnas, Perloz, Pont-Saint-Martin and Bard, in terraces that have strongly characterized the territory and where the slope is close to 120%; the training system is the high pergola, called topia in the local dialect.

24th April 2023,

Simonetta Padalino

original in Italian published in Barolo&Co nr II-2023 / courtesy of Barolo&Co

translation by Barbara Fassio

Picture of Simonetta Padalino
Simonetta Padalino
A journalist who is passionate about wine and cooking, She likes to tell the story of Valle d'Aosta region, outside the valley.
Picture of Simonetta Padalino
Simonetta Padalino
A journalist who is passionate about wine and cooking, She likes to tell the story of Valle d'Aosta region, outside the valley.

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