As you know, finding truly great Pinot under $30 a bottle can be quite difficult - there's simply not enough juice to satisfy worldwide cravings.
As the quality/price ratio decreases in traditional regions like California, Burgundy and even Oregon, we are finding some of our favorite value Pinots in unexpected places like the Jura, Austria, and today, Italy.
My previous experiences with Italian Pinot have been from Tuscany, and most have been lackluster. So when I heard about Pinot being grown in the mountainous region of Valle d'Aosta, better known for its skiing, I was a more than a bit skeptical.
However, years of French influence and a difficult terroir work to the wine's advantage. Grown in impossibly steep vineyards of 30-60% gradient (note: "Cat Hill" and "Harlem Hill" in Central Park are 3.7% and 4.4%, respectively), the harsh environment makes the vines work and coaxes incredible flavor and balance from the grapes that make the selection.
The blend of French and Wadenzwil (Swiss) Pinot grapes offers a beautiful nose with some minerality and high-toned floral aromas. The palate has superb concentration, with a pure and sexy texture.
The Gros Jean family set up their operation in 1956 but the vines have been there for much longer. The family-run estate practices totally organic fertilization (insecticides have been banned in the area since 1975) and makes wine in relative obscurity mainly for the consumption of local residents and skiing tourists.
Where in the World?
The skiers and hikers out there have probably heard of Valle d'Aosta, but wine enthusiasts and foodies may be left scratching their heads at the mention of this Italian province.
The extremely mountainous region is bordered by France to the West, Switzerland to the North and sister province Piedmont to the South and is the home to famous slopes Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and Gran Paradiso.
Originally inhabited by Celts and Ligures in the pre-BC years, Valle d'Aosta has had a number of rulers throughout the years due to its great strategic importance: the upper Valley is the starting point for major mountain crossings that separate what we now know as France, Switzerland and Italy.
The many rulers had their impact, but none more so than the French. French is still used as the official language of the regional government, and Arpitan, a Franco-Provençal dialect, is the most widely spoken despite Mussolini's "Italianization" program that included a forced location swap of Valdostans with Italian-speaking Piedmontese.
The cultural confusion is reflected in its main grape varietals which are a mixture of the famous Nebbiolo, Moscato, Pinot Noir and the obscure and indigenous Fumin, Petit Arvine & Petit Rouge.
Fontina cheese also originated in the region in the 12th century. A cow's milk cheese with a milk content of ~45% and a semi-sweet taste that is great on its own, melted, or whipped with eggs and cream to form the traditional dish Fonduta.