Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Valle d'Aosta and Ermes Pavese Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle Vallée d’Aoste Italy

Summer afternoon, about 2pm on Monday July 5th, Manhattan – New York, 97 degrees Fahrenheit outside or 36 degrees Celsius, and rising, no matter how you see it, it is hot out there, very hot for New York’s standards. It is like a furnace. Difficulty to breathe, rapid dehydration, suffocating hot heavy air, medium to high humidity and only one choice to fight back, stay inside with the air conditioner on maximum.

Yet, you may think that even these pre-second world war brick buildings could keep freshness and moisture inside. Well unfortunately, that is not the case. It is hot as hell and suffocating inside without the AC, and uneven from one room to another due to lack of central air system. May be some of the once-historical-but-forgotten-and-deteriorated-nowadays-turned-into-multi-million-dollars brownstone houses, of what is now view as some of the most sought-after neighborhoods in the Big Apple, might keep a bit of cool air inside. But without a decent amount of “dough” in your bank account, you might as well forget about trying to find out.

However, some may know! The rich and famous living in the many remaining brownstones scattered in the few highly exclusive New York City neighborhoods, like the Upper East and West sides, and more especially in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Fort Greene, Prospect Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant. In Harlem too, the brownstones in disrepair are now getting refurbished, attracting younger and wealthier generations. New York City brownstones are highly desired, and usually cost several million dollars to purchase and quite a few thousands to rent when divided in multiple apartments.

In resume, like for anything else in Manhattan, it is very difficult to get a naturally fresh cool house or apartment at a decent price. It makes me miss my country and the old limestone house of my mother where it is always cool and moist, even during a midsummer day in the midst of a heat wave.

Old houses and estates are the beauties of the old continent. Europe, and more to my own knowledge, France, is full of these stone-houses that can seem a bit unwelcoming, dated, austere or even cold for some of you, but that are jewels representative of our traditions, culture and especially history.

You wouldn’t believe how fresh, cool and moist one of this stone (and concrete brick) houses can become, if you just remember to close the window’s shutters when the heat starts to rise. Not having a car to go to the nearby beach and not having a pool to cool down at home, the house of my mother being in the middle of the vineyards in the northern countryside of Bordeaux in the Côtes de Bourg, I remember spending countless hours inside reading, watching TV, listening Radio, drawing and writing while waiting for the temperature to drop a little to go back to play in the garden.

The house I grew up in was built in the late 1890s with large rectangular limestone rocks from the multiple “carrières” carved along the Gironde river in the limestone plateau that goes down from Blaye to the south of Bourg-sur-Gironde. These 15th-19th century porous limestone caves forming endless galleries and kilometers of labyrinths in the Gruyère-like underground maze, were once used to built Bordeaux and the surroundings communes and villages in Gironde, but also to hide the “resistance” during the two world wars. Due to hazardous collapsing conditions, they are now mostly abandoned yet some have been consolidated and sometimes used, like in Saint-Emilion, as underground natural cellars to stock bottles of wines at constant temperature and ideal moisture to allow perfect ageing.

Indeed, I’m daydreaming in New York of old French countryside houses and limestone caves, and my AC seems not strong enough to fight the heat and cool me down. I could drink an ice-cold soda or lemonade or even a beer (hmmm, I would love a good beer “Blanche” with a slice of lemon…), but it means that I would have to go out and fight my way through the sunny blazing hot afternoon… but I feel to lazy for now to go out and brave out the weather to quench my thirst. What to do? An ice cream may be?

An ice cream… I don’t know why but it reminds me of the mountains, more particularly the Alps and the Pyrenees where I have been many times as a kid and teenager but also in a more recent trip, the Patagonian Andes in the south of Chile, with their fresh and crisp pure air, evergreen pastures and forests, and descending from the glaciers and eternal ice caps, the icy spring water gently caressing the riverbed rounded rocks and boulders before cascading in magnificent falls and slowly calming down when reaching the lacks and/or the bottom of the valley. What a beautiful and refreshing image! Especially when it is that hot outside…

Mountains bring me back to the white wine that I wanted to write about… here is the solution to my heat problem, drinking a nice satisfying glass of cold and mineral white wine from the mountain. What bliss of an idea!

The wine of the day is from “Morgex et de la Salle” in the Aosta Valley… Never heard of it? Well, that is, once again, why, in my quest of introducing you to rather unknown wines and lesser talked about wine regions, I decided to introduce to a lovely, refreshing white wine from this tiny mountainous wine region, perfectly “à propos” for this type of weather.

“Valle d’Aosta”

The Valle d’Aosta (or Vallée d'Aoste in French), is a reclusive area squeezed in the northwestern part of Italy, between France to the west, Switzerland to the North and Piedmont to the south.

With an area of 3,263 km2 (1,260 sq miles) and a population of about 120,000, Valle d’Aosta is the smallest, least populous, and least densely populated region of Italy. It is an Alpine valley that with its side valleys includes the Italian slopes of Monte Bianco, Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn; its highest peak is Monte Bianco (the “Mont Blanc”).

The climate of the region is severe, especially when compared with other places in the Western Alps. This is probably due to the mountains blocking the mild winds from the Atlantic Ocean. Places with the same altitude in France or western Switzerland are not as cold as the Aosta Valley. Despite the harsh climate, vines are grown there at about 1,200 meters above sea level; making the Vallée d’Aoste home to the highest elevated vineyards in all of Europe.

The principal winemaking region of the Valle d'Aosta are found along the eastern banks of the Dora Baltea river with the city of Aosta serving as the central winemaking location. The region is divided into three main vineyard areas: the upper valley “Valdigne”, the central valley “Valle Centrale” and lower valley “Bassa Valley”.

“Morgex et de la Salle”

The “Valdigne” valley is the upper part of the Aosta Valley. It is traversed by the Dora Baltea, a tributary of the Po River and includes the area surrounding the villages of Courmayeur, La Salle, La Thuile, Morgex and Pré-Saint-Didier.

Consequently, part of the Valdigne valley, “Morgex et de la Salle” is a small Italian DOC located in the upper northwestern part of the “Valle d’Aosta”.

“Morgex et de la Salle” DOC is comprised between the two eponymous French-sounding villages of “Morgex” and “La Salle” on the Italian side near the French boundary, about 20 kilometers west of Aosta and about 17 kilometers southeast of the Mont-Blanc, the highest mountain of the Alps culminating at 4,810.45 meters above sea level (15,782 ft).

Both villages, Morgex and La Salle, reside along the road “SS26” running parallel to the infamous road “E25” (also known as “N205” in France and “A5” in Italy), the only and always-stock-with-hours-of-traffic-jam road that goes under the “Mont-Blanc” by the eponymous tunnel to cross the boundary between France and Italy.

This unique and somewhat remote Alpine wine region encompasses the highest vineyards in Italy, where grapes are cultivated at about 1200 meters (about 4000 feet) of altitude. Although some Gamay based reds are also produce in Aosta (like the magnificent Gamay from “Grosjean” described in one of my older post), “Morgex and de la Salle” mainly produces bright, mineral with medium to high acidity floral white wines, crafted with various grape like with Petite Arvine, Mayolet and Fumin, but also and more predominantly the unknown, indigenous “Prié” white grape variety. The resulting whites are sold under the Italian-yet-French-sounding appellation “Vallée d'Aoste Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle” DOC. Fruit agriculture, viticulture and tourism during both summer and winter seasons constitute the main economy of the area, with some handicraft activities.

As stated above, the region’s white wines, either still or sparkling, are made from the delicate “Prié” Blanc grape variety, which is also grown in the Valais region of Switzerland (where it is also known as Bernarde). Prié Blanc is a fine grape that produces a lovely, delicate yet complex white wine that beautifully captures the omnipresent underlying minerality of the mountainous rocky soils. The vines are usually planted and tended with the "Pergola Bassa" method (low to the ground) and surrounded by terraced rock walls built to protect the vines against snow falls and icy winds while allowing the grapes to fully ripen and the vines to absorb the heat released at night by the surrounding stones.

In 1983, the state government of Vallée d’Aoste established “La Cave du Vin Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle”, a cooperative with the primary goal of saving the viticulture traditions that have been practiced for a millennium in the breathtaking Alpine décor surrounding the communes of Morgex and La Salle.

This bucolic wine region counts approximately 90 winegrowers, most of whom supply their grapes to the cooperative, from a patchwork of small individual holdings, and the remaining ones, which are about 20+, produce and bottle their wine at the estate, which is the case for "Ermes Pavese Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle" (imported by Madrose / Rosenthal in NYC).

No doubt about that, Madrose/Rosenthal continues to fascinate me by the quality of their portfolio; I just love their wines. And in my honest opinion, they are part of a handful of Top tier wine importers/distributors in the US markets, which startled me consistently each time I tasted their wines: Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch, Louis Dressner, Peter Weygandt and Becky Wasserman (just to name a few of my favorites amongst the best).

Continuing to explore the mountain passes of the Vallée d’Aosta in search of unique wines of character and class, Neil Rosenthal and its team recently discovered the tiny Ermes Pavese winery and now have the privilege to carry in their portfolio a stunning wine from the highest vineyard site in Europe: the scintillating Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle.

The work with the Grosjean brothers outside of Aosta has paid multiple dividends. Madrose have received an overwhelmingly positive response to Grosjean's carefully crafted wines and through them, they have networked into a relationship with Ermes Pavese.

Ermes Pavese Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle Vallée d’Aoste Italy

Ermes Pavese is a youthful grower in the commune of La Ruine just outside of the town of Morgex in the high Alps just beneath the “Mont Blanc”.

Ermes pavese established his winery in 1999, following the advice and experience of his family. He planted his 1.5-hectare(+) of future vineyards exclusively with the autochthon Prié Blanc grape variety. Protected from the Phylloxera due to the altitude, these vines are free of American roots, and even today cuttings are selected from the vines themselves instead of being grown artificially in green houses.

In 2001, Ermes decided to first experiment the quality of his vines and the wine they will soon produce, supporting the production of Vin Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle DOC.

He produced his first vintage in 2005, with a total production of 8,000 bottles: 6,000 bottles of “Vin Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle” and 1,000 botlles each of 2 other wines that he named after his children: “Nathan” (a Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle aged in oak barrels with great ageing potential), and “Nineveh” (a sweet wine from overripe grapes left to wither on the vines and harvested after the first frost, usually the first days of December).

The 3 wines are produced with 100% Prié Blanc grapes, and if they bear the name of his children, it is because after all, all producers’ wines are usually to be pampered, loved and followed as a child.

Although other growers work with Petite Arvine, but also Mayolet and Fumin grapes, Pavese works exclusively with the native grape known as Prié Blanc, hand harvested from barely two hectares of high elevation vineyards, about 1200 meters above sea level, from which he produces approximately 6000 bottles of this streamlined, mineral white which is the flagship of his winery and the landmark of this tiny DOC.

Since Madrose first purchase of 1200 bottles of the 2006 vintage, this wine has received a huge ovation in the US from wine buyers and connoisseurs like me. I rather precise that, because some people may tell you that this type of wine is not their thing: too light, too crisp, too much acidity, not enough fruit and ripeness, etc.... Ok, it is not your everyday wine and it could be surprising if you are not necessarily acquainted to the vivid light, pure and crispy taste of mountain whites, granted!

Yet, I just tasted and bought the 2007 vintage, which I found extremely satisfying and perfectly suited for the temperatures that we are recently experiencing (like today, 37 degrees Celsius in the middle of the day, melting the asphalt of the already beaten and poorly maintained streets and avenues of Manhattan). It was like drinking the icy water of a mountain spring after hours of trekking under the sun, revitalizing.

2007 Ermes Pavese Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle Vallée d’Aoste Italy
Suggested retail price $22-$25
Imported/distributed by Madrose/Rosenthal in NYC

Made from 100% Prié Blanc vinified in stainless steel tanks, the 2007 Ermes Pavese Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle is very pale, almost transparent/fading yellow color with light gold-greenish reflects. The nose is dry, fresh and mineral, yet quite discreet and delicate with lovely yellow stone fruits aromas and consistent floral and white blossom notes redolent of the mountain meadows. The palate is crisply dry, refined and elegant, subtle and complex, yet super light but with a surprising tenacity. The persistence of the lingering and mineral finish is delightful and inviting for another glass.

Overall a fresh, balanced and greatly approachable vivid white, layered and ultra refreshing. Enhanced by a lively acidity, this pristine wine, like most of the mountainous whites that I adore (i.e. Savoie, Jura, etc..), is one of the perfect summer contenders to enjoy at anytime on its own or with food, more especially sea food like oysters, mussels, clams, shrimps and other Fruitti di Mare and fish in sauce. Boasting only 10% of alcohol, plan ahead to buy a few bottles because it will be too easy to drink, especially if temperatures continue to rise and linger like this ‘til September.


LeDom du Vin

Winery info partly taken and edited from the importer website at www.madrose.com and from www.vievini.it

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