A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Petit Rouge - Enfer d'Arvier, Valle d'Aosta, Italy

Today marks Fringe Wine's first foray into the wild and wonderful Valle d'Aosta, the smallest region of Italy.  What the region lacks in size it more than makes up for in its wide array of native grape varietals, though.  While you may see familiar northern Italian names like Nebbiolo and Dolcetto or familiar French names like Gamay and Pinot Noir on the lists of approved varietals for DOC level wines, you're much more likely to see things like Premetta, Cornalin, Prié Blanc, Fumin, or today's grape, Petit Rouge, just to name a few.  The Institut Agricole Régional, a local agricultural school (who also makes wine), has identified thirteen indigenous varieties in the Valle d'Aosta.  The region is positively tantalizing for me and should, in theory, provide me with a ton of material to write about on a regular basis except for one thing: the wines from the Valle d'Aosta are really hard to find.

Out of the 20 regions of Italy, the Valle d'Aosta ranks dead last both in vineyard area and total production (though they are seventh in percentage of of DOC wines as about 26% of all production in the region is at the DOC level).  As of 2000, the region had just over 500 hectares of land under vine and produced about 27,000 hectoliters of wine, which is enough to make about 300,000 cases of wine.  By contrast, Piemonte, one region over to the east, produces nearly 3 million hectoliters of wine, and that amount is only good for seventh highest in Italy (first place belongs to the Veneto with a whopping 8.8 million hectoliters produced). E&J Gallo, the largest wine company in the USA, has an annual sales total of 76 million cases, meaning that this single company sells more than 250 times more wine than is produced in all of the Valle d'Aosta each year.

The point being, very little wine is produced here.  To compound matters, the region is a tourist hotspot, as it is located in the Alps on the border with France and Switzerland.  Lots of tourists means lots of demand for local wine so very little of the already miniscule country makes it out of the Valle d'Aosta even to other regions of Italy, much less to places farther afield than that.  While it's certainly not easy to track some of these wines down, it's by no means impossible and I've managed over the past year to stockpile quite a few interesting bottles from this region which I hope to be able to write about over the next few months.

The first grape I want to consider is the most planted native red grape in the region, Petit Rouge.  Somewhat surprisingly given its high altitude, almost 90% of production in the Valle d'Aosta is red wine and Petit Rouge plays a fairly large role in red wines throughout the region.  The grape is thought to be native to the Valle d'Aosta, though it also may or may not be the same grape as Rouge de Valais in Switzerland, which is probably not a big deal to most people as you're not likely to trip over many Rouge de Valais wines in your lifetime.  The variety ripens fairly late and the berries can have a dusty, gray appearance on the vine.

The bottle that I picked up is from a sub-zone within the Valle d'Aosta called Enfer d'Arvier which is apparently a whopping 5 hectares in total.  The winegrowing areas of the Valle d'Aosta are in the valley of the Dora Baltea river as it flows down through the Alps and into the Po River.  The town of Arvier is on the western end of the valley and apparently it can get pretty warm there as the name Enfer d'Arvier suggests (it means literally "Hell of Arvier).  The DOC regulations for this area dictate a minimum of 85% Petit Rouge, but this particular wine clocks in at 100%.  The producer is Danilo Thomain who farms about one hectare of land in this region and is the only independent producer in the area (everything else is vinified and bottled by co-ops).  His total production is a miniscule 2400 bottles per year.  I was able to find the 2008 bottling of his Enfer d'Arvier for $35 from my friends at the Wine Bottega.

In the glass, this wine had medium saturation and was a nice ruby color.  The nose was very aromatic with plummy fruit, wet leather, and stewed berries with a bit of sweaty funk to it.  On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with no tannins but surprisingly high acidity.  This grape typically isn't very acidic when fully ripe, but given the relatively light color (the grape can be very dark and is frequently used in blends to deepen the color of the finished wine), it may have been picked early enough to keep some of that acidity around.  There were tart red cherry and wild raspberry fruit flavors with a bit of bitter funkiness on the end.  It may have had just a touch of residual effervescence to it...I wasn't able to make up my mind for sure one way or the other.  It definitely had a kind of prickly sensation in the mouth that made me think there may be a little CO2 running loose in there.  Overall, it was a nice, tart and zingy red wine with bright juicy berry fruit and a touch of red plum.  On day two it started to pick up some grape soda flavors, odd enough.  This was a very cool, very different kind of wine.  If you have a zero tolerance policy on funk in wine, this won't do it for you, but I thought that it was mild enough and well-integrated enough to add something interesting rather than completely taking over.  The acid here makes it great for a wide variety of foods and the wine itself is light enough that it won't dominate more delicate meat dishes.  If you can find a bottle of this, it's definitely worth your time, especially since you might not get another chance to try it given the production numbers.

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