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.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Petite Arvine - Valle d'Aosta, Italy and Vétroz, Switzerland

Today's post is hardest kind of post to write.  I've this really cool, rare grape to write about and my research keeps coming up with nothing.  Sure, there's a sentence here or there about Petite Arvine, but there isn't all that much of substance.  Sometimes I get lucky with these things and find out that there's some kind of controversy or interesting mystery about a grape, but with Petite Arvine, there just doesn't seem to be anything like that. I could, of course, just ignore the grape and move on, but I bought two bottles of this stuff and am going to find some way to make use of them.  So, without further ado, here's what I was able to find about Petite Arvine.

Petite Arvine's origins are mysterious, but unfortunately that's all they are.  The grape is thought to be native to Switzerland and one source claims that it has been grown in the Valais regions of Switzerland since 1602, while another source dates it to 1878.  The 1878 date is important, as it is when the International Ampelographic Society met in Geneva and decided that Petite Arvine was a unique grape not found anywhere else in the Valais or in the world.  It is this article that people point to when trying to establish a Swiss origin for the grape, but without knowing exactly how thorough their search was, it's hard to say how credible their statement is.  The grape is also known today in the Valle d'Aosta of Italy and some source say that the grape is actually named for the Arve valley around Savoy where the grape is thought to have entered the Valais region, possibly from the Valle d'Aosta.  In either case, the grape almost certainly has Alpine origins and today is found virtually nowhere other than the Valais and the Valle d'Aosta.

The grape's parentage is a mystery as well.  Petite Arvine was thought to be closely related to Amigne for some time, but recent DNA testing has shown that they may not be that closely related after all.  It does seem to be distantly related to Prié Blanc, Premetta and possibly Chasselas.  The grape is commonly known as Arvine these days, though the Petite Arvine name was necessary for many years to differentiate it from another grape known as Grosse Arvine (or sometimes Arvine Grande) which has larger berries and which makes wine of a much lower quality.  Today, Grosse Arvine is practically extinct (it does not exist in cultivation but only in grape collections) so the distinction isn't as important. The two grapes are related, but not as closely as their names might have you believe.  Confusingly, both Arvine and Arvine Grande are synonyms for Silvaner, which is not related to either Petite Arvine or Grosse Arvine.

Viticulturally, Petite Arvine is a very late ripener, sometimes ripening a full month later than Chasselas.  As a result, the vine needs a lot of sun to ensure that it gets completely ripe and it also needs to be protected from the wind as the clusters can be fragile.  Wines made from the grape are highly esteemed, and though the Oxford Companion to Wine doesn't have much to say about Petite Arvine, it does say that it is "the finest of the grape specialties of Valais."  Despite it's high critical esteem, Petite Arvine is not very widely grown, occupying only about 150 hectares of land in Switzerland, though this figure is up significantly from the 65 hectares planted in the year 2000.  I couldn't find any numbers on the Italian acreage devoted to the grape, but you can be sure that it is extraordinarily small.  Wines made from the grape run the gamut from bone dry to sticky sweet.

I was fortunate enough to find a bottle of Petite Arvine from both Switzerland and Italy.  The first bottle I found was the 2007 Romain Papilloud Cave du Vieux Moulin Petite Arvine from the Vétroz region of Switzerland (home to our old friend Amigne).  The wine came in a 500 mL bottle and I picked it up for about $39.  In the glass, the wine was a fairly deep lemon gold color.  The nose was very shy with a little bit of peaches and honey and something a little flowery, but it was mostly a blank and never really opened up.  On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with fairly low acidity and was surprisingly dry.  Given the size of the bottle, I was expecting something a little sweet, but this wasn't it.  There were flavors of honeysuckle flower and under ripe peaches, but it was mostly metallic and hollow tasting.  I don't say this very often, but this was an awful bottle of wine.  It tasted like chemicals and was just bitter and mean.  It was so bad, I was only able to get through one glass and had to pour the rest down the sink, which I almost never do.  I don't know if this was just a bad bottle or if this wine always tastes this way, but for $39, I won't be running the experiment twice.

The second bottle that I picked up was the 2005 Grosjean Petite Arvine which I got from my friends at Curtis Liquors for about $30.  In the glass the wine was a yellow gold color that was so vibrant it almost had a kind of neon tinge to it.  The nose was very aromatic with ripe apple, butterscotch, pineapple tropical fruit, lees and a biscuitty, pastry-like kind of thing going on.  On the palate, the wine was on the lighter side of medium with high acidity.  There were flavors of ripe apple and pear, pastry dough, and a distinctive leesy, cheesy kind of flavor to it (the wine is fermented and held on its lees, which are stirred, for a month).  I thought I was picking up some oak, but this wine is stainless steel fermented, so it was probably just from the lees contact.  The wine not all that fleshy, but the flavors seem very decadent and rich.  Nearly everything I've read about Petite Arvine says that the wines characteristically taste like grapefruits with a touch of salinity, but that wasn't my experience with these two bottles.  While I wasn't a fan at all of the Swiss bottle, the Italian bottle was excellent and very enjoyable.  The price is pretty high here, but the quality is too.  I'd especially be interested in a more recent bottling from this producer, as I got the impression that this may have been starting to fade, though it wasn't dead yet.


Craigk8 said...

Wow - sorry to hear about the Swiss bottle of Petite Arvine. Have a bottle in the fridge to try (another Swiss brand) and will be reporting whether it's swill too. As always, thanks for the very informative post!

Fringe Wine said...

Hi Craig:

I'd be very interested to hear how your Swiss Petite Arvine turned out. I can't for the life of me figure out what was going on with mine. It wasn't corked or obviously flawed in any way that I could tell. It was just a dud, I suppose.

Thanks for reading,


Emily Schindler said...

Hi Rob-
We just started importing a Petite Arvine from the Valle D'Aosta-- it's from the Institut Agricol, which is dedicated to making wines from these types of "fringe" grapes. I'll be curious to see how the market takes to it....
Cheers, Emily (winemonger imports)

TiffS said...

I was just in Valais (in Switzerland) yesterday for the uncorking of the 2011 vintage in a little town called Leytron and tried 3 kinds of Petite Arvine. Two of them were fanstastic (from Cave le Bosset and Jo Godard)--full bodied, honey colored, mix of fruit and bread, surprisingly dry. Wonderful. Purchased. The third was sweet and so, so gross. Took a sip and threw it out, tasted like pineapple (Gilbert Devayes). Some people love sweet whites, but I was expecting a dry so it made me doubly mad.
I think that Swiss wine exportation is really hit or miss (worst ones go out, best ones stay). Sometimes just better to go get it yourself!