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Taste of the highest vineyard in Europe?

To start with I will just say that I will address the question mark in the title later.

The journey I am about to describe started back in the late Italian winter of 2013. I had made my way to Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet, and VinItaly – one of the world’s largest wine exhibitions with literally several hectares of exhibitors displaying literally hundreds and thousands of wines. I was working for the renowned Barolo producer Elio Altare at the time and had scored 2 days free entry to go and taste whilst his full-time staff manned the his stand, and taste I did. In a little over one and a half days I tasted and took notes on over 200 wines. It was wine tasting heaven!

On my last day I had tasted through my target list of regions and was checking out some other lesser known wines when I found myself tasting at a sommelier stand that was pouring wines from small producers in the Aosta Valley. He told me about a tiny producer who had just arrived at the event and who apparently had the highest vineyard in Europe, situated around 1200m ASL at the western end of the valley under Mt Blanc. It was so high apparently and the soil so thin and sandy that the phylloxera louse which wiped out practically all European wine grapes through the 19th century (estimates are that between two thirds and nine tenths of Europe’s wine grapes were destroyed) could not survive. This meant that most the vines were still ‘pre-phylloxera’ i.e. some of the oldest in Europe. Well this I had to taste!

So it was that I first met Mario Vevey of Maison Vevey Albert. Mario is a quiet, unassuming guy who is a Veterinarian by IMG_3900trade. His father established the winery in 1968 and now he and his brother Mirko (whose job is the Italian equivalent of a national park ranger) look after the winery, wine making and the vines in their ‘spare’ time. He confirmed all that the sommelier had said, but went further in telling me that some of the vines they used were closer to 1300m in altitude. Perhaps most incredibly of all he informed me that the vine, Prié Blanc, had a growing season of just 90 days from bud-burst to harvest. This is in stark contrast to most of the popular wine varieties which take around 150+ days for the same to occur. The label is very ‘Sound of Music’ but the wine is profound, with such a delicately crisp mineral freshness that I swear I could smell and taste the mountains in the glass.

I was smitten and had to find out more. Skip forward to the January of 2014 and I found myself in Aosta snowboarding. After a memorable day on the slopes of Courmayeur I had the opportunity to visit the tiny cellar in Morgex et de La Salle where the 4,000-7,000 bottles are produced each year. It was as low-key and humble as Mario was. We met in the snowed up parking bay on the street near the cantina and stumbled our way indoors to sit in the freezing cellar with our jackets, gloves and beanies on and drink a bottle of the wine whilst talking about the wine, the vines and his other work – cows. Unfortunately on this trip, it was impossible to visit the vineyards he told me, as there was just too much snow and ice about. I made loose plans to come back to see the vineyard as he was helping to push my now snowed-in Fiat 500 out of the iced up parking lot.

IMG_3898So now we skip forward to mid-September of 2014 and I found myself enjoying a late summer weekend in the Aosta Valley with my wife and kids. This was the time, the moment was now. We had gone for a hike to see some cows and buy some Fontina Alpeggio DOP, we had caught up with friends for lunch, the kids had had a play, surely now it was time to get to see these incredible vineyards up close. My call to Mario didn’t get me in the mood though. He was over the border in Chamonix, France, acting as chief vet at the annual Bull Battle (I won’t go into this crazy traditional event but if you are interested Google cow/bull battle Aosta). However, soon after I received a text message telling me to head up and see his mother who would meet me at the cantina. At least I would be able to buy a few bottles.

Mario’s mother Adriana is as gentle, quiet and unassuming as her son. She has the look of a woman who has spent her life living and working up amongst some of the highest mountains in the world. We talked of the history of the valley, the work involved in planting and looking after the vines, and of the wine itself. Whilst I was trying to string enough Italian words together to describe what I was tasting to her (delicate white flowers, alpine meadow grass, stoney/slatey minerality, freshness of palate etc), she held up a hand and said, “I understand what you are trying to say, you are tasting the mountains in the glass.” “How interesting,” I thought, remembering that exact thought and tasting note coming out of me a couple of years ago over at VinItaly.

So it was that Adriana told me the directions to get to their vineyards. Basically it was a short drive and a decent hike that switched between steep up-hill and almost vertical up-hill. We passed some families picking the fruit from their small parcels of vines. These must have been the real ‘low-landers’, those vines couldn’t have been more than a mere 1100m ASL thought I! I asked the grandfather where the Vevey Albert vines were. He just smiled and pointed what seemed like almost straight up to a steeply terraced vineyard which looked like it was almost super-glued onto the mountain side. Having come this far I was not going to miss out now, so I left the wife and kids with the pickers and headed up, up and up some more.

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I soon found myself in amongst this block of vines that I had waited what seemed like an eternity to see. The sandy soil seemed more than half composed of dark grey/blue mountain slate and granite. The air was crisp and clean up here and the whole rich, green valley stretched out below me. I was having a little moment when I was brought back to earth by a voice beside me. My 5 year old daughter Lilly had decided to ditch her sister and mum and ,unbeknownst to me, had followed me up. So I had a unique father-daughter moment in that special vineyard. I don’t know if Lilly fully appreciated the wine and vine lecture I told her but I told it anyway.

We came across a rocky stairway built into the top wall of the terrace and the two of us were like bugs to the flame as we were drawn upwards onto what revealed itself to be another newer even higher terrace with a newly planted small vineyard which could not have been any older than 1-2 years. And thus we witnessed the Aosta Valley vineyards increasing in altitude yet again.

 

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Since this visit I have read fair a bit about Europe’s highest vineyards and it appears that this one is not THE highest, it might be in second or even third place depending on which article you read, hence the question mark in the blog title. Wherever it ranks, it is definitely one of the most unique vineyard terroirs I have ever seen and produces a truly unique wine. It is not the best wine in the world, it is not the best wine I have ever tasted, but it is a wine which speaks clearly of the extreme place where it is grown. For a wine-nerd like me, to be in that place and to drink that wine whilst breathing the air and seeing and smelling the soil, stones, trees and grass of the mountains around the vineyard was a real ‘Graceland’ moment. A moment which started a couple of years and several hundred kilometres away with my first experience of ‘mountains in the glass’.

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