Built from Langhe stone it features open living with brick vaulted ceilings and is over two floors. All comforts have been catered for, with central heating, wifi, coffee making and laundry, this is your home away from home. The master bedroom has a queen sized bed in a spacious bright room and the second bedroom has two single beds with french doors that access the balcony that runs the length of the cottage.
The apartment is available throughout the year at 90 Euro per night. Minimum stay is 2 nights. (10% discount on apartment when booking a day tour) Feel free to contact us directly for further information.
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 trade. 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.
So 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.
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.
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’.
I’m walking up through the cobble stone lanes of the centro Storico of Monforte D’Alba on a chilly, foggy September morning and already I detect there is a certain familiar feeling in the air. When I arrive at the winery 5 minutes later I can feel this same energy here as well, and it is building… minute by minute…hour by hour.
‘What is this feeling, this energy?’ I hear you say. Well, today is the day that we as winery and vineyard workers wait for 10 months of the year for, that short period of time where the next year’s work in the cellar is largely determined ….it is the time to start picking grapes.
Harvest, vintage, vendemmia, call it what you will, this is the period when our industry cranks up the gears, breaks out of what is typically a Monday to Friday, 8 hours a day rhythm, and we work furiously to get all the fruit, which has been laboured over since pruning the previous year, pick at exactly the right moment and brought to the winery to be transformed into that precious liquid we all know and love.
It is, generally speaking, a lot of hard work. Heavy, dusty, sticky, sweaty and messy are a few words which immediately spring to mind. Throw in long hours, potentially round the clock work, potentially no days off for potentially 2-3 months, the fact that you spend this time with minimal contact with your spouse, children and friends and you draw closer to the reality of this time of year. If you ever want to get a real taste of what life is like being a winemaker and/or viticulturist, and to completely smash the often gilt-edged perception of what our job is really like, come and actually work a harvest and witness the reality.
I am making this all sound a bit terrible, but the fact of the matter is I completely love this time of year and most of the people who work in the industry for any length of time do to, and this is a big part of what is causing this feeling of energy in the air as I push through the fog this early morning.
I am working another harvest in the Barolo zone in Piemonte, northwest Italy. It has been a challenging summer for wineries over here with a very wet July (around 27 wet days out of 31 and several big hail events), a cool, cloudy August, and now a pretty good start to September. Through all of this grape growers are still hopeful for a good quality yet lower quantity vintage, especially for the most important grape of the area, the Nebiolo, which in most sites is a real stand out in terms of how much better these vines look in comparison to the other main red varieties of Barbera and Dolcetto.
This year is the first in the 6 or so years I have been coming to work in this area that I will be working with a white grape – Chardonnay, and it is this early ripening variety which we are heading out to begin harvesting…….. once the fog lifts and the bunches get a few hours to dry off a bit. When we make our way out to the now sun drenched hillside to start picking there is a real feeling of happiness in the air. Your hands get sticky as you begin cut bunch after bunch, your back warms under the sun, the jokes (some naughty some nice) start to be thrown around the Italian vineyard team and then a few of the crew begin to sing some ye-olde sounding harvest and country work songs.
After a few hours of this we get the fruit back to the winery, carefully load the fruit into the press, and then the first flow of 2014 juice begins – vintage has arrived in the winery as well.
By the time the day has finished we have all been at it for around 14 hours. I am a little tired and sore, my work clothes are filthy, my boots are soaking wet, but I am happy to have begun. A bottle of bubbles is popped in the cellar and as we are in Italy the obligatory plate of salami, Parmigiano Reggiano and grissini appears. We toast the start of what we all hope is going to be a great vintage. These are the same hopes we have at this same time every year. It is why we all do what we do and it is why we all feel how we feel today, on this first day of harvest…..Saluté 2014!
Taste of Life in Castelmagno
We are out on a Sunday family drive and we leave the bitumen road on the tight switchbacks as Rob carefully navigates up through the dense forest up the valley of Grana. The car tyres start slipping and I see the rubble of the rocky road spill over the edge and drop just a mere 100 meters below you and I’m thinking that it’s not normal for your heart rate to excelerate to 200 beats per minute whilst on a casual Sunday drive. But I look up and have faith that if this road was used by cars 80 years ago its bloody well going to be safe today!
It is within 20 minutes of sheer nail biting terror that we arrive at our destination, Valliera, a tiny village in the province of Piedmont in a little know commune called Castelmagno, located deep in the forest and perched on a precipitous mountainside (around 1500m ASL) of the Italian/French Alps. It is here that a group of history enthusiasts have, over the past 5 years, started to long process of restoring the original 21 village houses with a view to reclaim the culture of the mountainous farmers.
It is quite a surreal experience to wander about the village and see the transformation from the original buildings that still stand into modernistic yet tasteful reincarnations of the building’s original form. When taking a wander about the village I cannot help but feel moments of nostalgia when I can step inside a house and feel as though the occupants quite simply ‘up and left’ in a day. The evidnce is before us, bedding still remains on the iron cast double bed, and with old medicine bottles left on wooden shelves built into the hand crafted stonewalls. Our local guide tells us that quite literally one day, this community just picked up, walked out, headed back down the valley and never came back. Such was the times of the 1930’s when the families here were no longer able to survive economically and went in search of work in the towns and cities in the valley floor.
We are fortunate to know a few of the people involved here in the group which has helped fund and organise the reconstruction. As well as saving a small piece of history in the buildings, they are also helping to save one of the most unique cheeses in Italy, Castelmagno d’Alpeggio. We are taken on a tour of the where the cheese is made and the aging cellars.
Castelmagno is a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) awarded Italian semi-hard cheese prepared within the administrative region of the communes of Castelmagno, Pradleves and Monterosso Grana in the province of Cuneo, Piedmont. The cheese is made from cow’s milk, often with a small addition of a mixture of sheep and/or goat’s milk. To guarantee the authenticity of the product, it is essential that the milk utilised comes from communes protected by PDO designation. The ageing of regular Castelmagno takes two to five months to get the characteristic traditional flavor, however producers who make the higher quality and rarer Castelmagno d’Alpeggio typically age it for around 1 year before sale. It is a dense cheese with no open holes, and often has a ‘parmigiano reggiano-like’ slightly crystalline/grainy, crumbly texture. The color leans from ivory white towards ochre-yellow depending on the month of milking and production techniques used, often with presence of bluish-green veins of penicillium moulds. The rind is thin and reddish-yellow, which turns wrinkly and brownish-ochre as the cheese matures. The subtle taste of Castelmagno gets stronger, spicier and sharper as it ages, although it can often be much sweeter and less sharp than it’s aged appearance belies.
Castelmagno is a very ancient cheese with origins dating back to 1277. When you hear about how well the wines of Barolo match with the cheese, it is not a surprise to find that the core of the group of friends who got together to get this reconstruction happening are some of the top Barolo producers in the region. With the likes of Claudio Conterno from Conterno Fantino, Chiara Boschis (A.A. E. Pira & Figli) and Elio Altare, all getting behind the project. It is appreciated as a table cheese and used in the preparation of typical Italian.
Descending deeper in the village I can hear music coming from the newly opened refuge where today we are celebrating their official opening with long lunch tables filled with families, young and old. With the token kids and dogs running free we sit down to enjoy a typical mountain dish of creamy polenta made with a very course form of polenta flour, served with a rich, lightly spiced, tomatoe based sausage and meat stew and of course a seemingly endless supply of red wine siphoned directly from a 50L demijohn (the hipsters and last season’s raw/natural wine devotees would be having conniptions over it). Finishing with the dolce of crosstata, which is a light and crumbly apricot tart, and chocolate.
The wines are refilled and we sit back and enjoy as the locals start singing in stunning a capella harmony, accompanied by nothing more than the fresh mountain air. They sang several songs of the local area, in both Italian and local dialect, from lilting bedtime songs to the areas municipal anthem.
It is not until three young teenage boys, i rigazzi, break out their piano accordions that you see at least half of the audience get up and start folk dancing. It is an absolute pleasure to watch and I cannot but help think sitting back from the music with the view of the mountains and village in front of me that if there was ever such a thing as spirits, then right now the ancestors of this tiny stone village in the middle of the alps would be looking down and smiling right now as the future generations enjoy their songs, their food and their homeland.
A visit to this unique mountain region to visit the Refuge and tastings of Castelmagno d’alpeggio can be arranged through Taste of Life Custom Tours.