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- ITALY Italy is a geographical expression. Prince Metternich VALLE D’AOSTA
- A MORNING WITH THE DI BARROS
Perceived convention is the curse of interesting wine. Take Chianti – once upon a time in this country it was viewed as low-grade quaff-
juice, a fiasco in a fiasco, no more than rough-and-unready red wine. Then Tuscany was given the kiss of money and the DOCG pulled
itself by its bootstraps (or rootstocks) and multidimensional, complex, relatively extractive and increasingly expensive wines were
produced. Modernity, in the guise of expert oenologists, cleansed the wines; lashings of new oak transformed them into the safe
international style that we recognise and – ahem – applaud today. All to the good, of course, but… reconfiguring and overcomplicating
wine in the winery suppresses any whiff of individualism or sniff of unorthodoxy and has had a knock-on effect. Now when we taste
rustic Chianti we think it somehow “incomplete”. Unfortunately, notions of correctness condition our palates & colour our critical
judgement, and we succumb to the great intentionalist fallacy of wine criticism by assuming that we know the grower’s purpose better
than they do, and that it must be inevitably to manufacture perfectly balanced, fruitfully fruity, clean-as-a-whistle, commercial wines. In
this respect, as Voltaire observed: “The best is the enemy of the good”.
Imperfection can be a kind of truth and variability is an intrinsic quality of so many interesting wines. Mascarello’s Nebbiolos, for
example, are full of challenging contrasts: tough yet delicate; full yet soft; fruity yet mineral. Their colour, an orange-tile red, and earthy-
truffly aromas, deter drinkers who are searching for “melonosity” in their wines. That Valentini’s wines from Abruzzo excite even more
debate (amongst the privileged few who have sampled them) is a rare quality in itself: to some the wines are a testament to passion,
obsession, individuality and purity, a reconnection to terroir, to others they are “quasi-defective”. One journalist told me that the
Trebbiano gave her “goosebumps”. (Good goosebumps!) The great thing about Valentini’s wines (red, cerasuolo and white) is that they
are constantly changing in the glass, shyly revealing then retreating into the shell, always suggestive, never obvious, inevitably very
mineral, certainly very strange – and, because they are released with bottle age, they exhibit intriguing and offbeat secondary and
reductive aromas. We are inculcated to respect transparent cleanness, and to accept the notion that a wine that is not clean must, ipso
facto, be faulty. This view is an immaculate misconception. Some of the greatest wines are borderline mad and downright impertinent.
The genius of the wine that does not surrender its secrets in the first aromatic puff is also often missed; I suppose if people want absolute
consistency they won’t venture beyond the tried and trusted; if they want to be touched by greatness they will risk drinking something that
defies easy categorisation.
We tend to search for exactitude in wine that does not exist in nature and evaluate it by a pernickety sniff and a
suspicious sip. Wines, however, can evolve, or change in context; you can no more sip a wine and know its total character than look at
one brushstroke of a painting or hear a single musical note in a symphony and understand the whole. In other words, with certain wines,
we have to drink the bottle, to see if our initial judgement was correct. And the truth can be hard to drink.
People are still fixated with labels and reputations and ignore what lies within the bottle. It is not so difficult, for example, to sell sherry
any more – the brand recognition facilitates this – but try to suggest a solera-style Vernaccia di Oristano from Attilio Contini or Vecchio
Samperi from Marco de Bartoli and you will startle a veritable herd of bewilderbeest. No wonder Marco says: “Marsala is dead. No one
drinks it”. These wines don’t transcend the genre – they are the genre. On the one hand critics claim to be utterly objective, but objectivity
per se can be utterly conformist and lead to what Keats called a “pale contented sort of discontent”. Sometimes we need a leap of faith (or
understanding) to appreciate recondite or reserved wine styles. The fault is occasionally not in the wine, but in the taster and
contemporary arbiters of taste. Dedicated followers of fashion – journalists – often write for their audience and a common denominator of
taste; they are primarily interested in what is widely available and consequently what can be sold commercially. It is patronising to
assume that a wine that has been made for centuries in a particular old-fashioned style is an irrelevant frivolity.
No one ever said that tasting Italian red wines was a doddle. Obduracy is a caricature of Italian reds and although we shouldn’t brush all
reds with the same tar, so to speak, their very identity nevertheless rests on a familiar sour bite, that peculiar astringency that makes
perfect sense with food. Flattering wines rarely possess the edge and drive to challenge hearty food, therefore what’s tough for the palate
–in this case – is definitely sauce for the goose. Even the grape names romantically suggest the style of the wine: Sangiovese (the blood of
Jove) or Negroamaro (bitter-black). A bloody bitter wine with edges is a wine that challenges the palate; there are enough denatured
beauties and vacant models in the world of wine. Italy’s contrasts are manifold: the classic and the modern; the north and the south; the
raw and the cooked; the bitter and the sweet. There’s a charm in contrariness, in being capatosta.
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Italy is a geographical expression. Prince Metternich
There was an Old Man of
Who possessed a large Cow, but he lost her;
But they said, ‘Don’t you see,
she has rushed up a tree?
You invidious Old Man of Aôsta!’
LES CRETES, COSTANTINO CHARRERE, AYMAVILLES, Valle d’Aosta
The vine has been cultivated in the Aosta Valley since the Roman period or perhaps even earlier, if various legends can be
believed. According to those stories, the Salassi, who lived in the region before the Romans conquered it because of its
strategic value, were already making wines from grapes grown in their own vineyards.
It is known with certainty that in 23 BC the Roman legions crushed a rebellion by the valley’s inhabitants and celebrated
their victory by looting all the cellars of their wine.
It was during the Middle Ages, however, that the wines of the Aosta Valley established a widespread reputation. And they
acquired something of a “sacral” character as well because, according to numerous reports, they were used in the rite of
exorcism. The physical layout of the valley favours the cultivation of vines because the mountains tend to block or turn aside
the coldest winds, thereby creating suitable microclimates in which grapes have flourished since the remotest times. In the
second half of the 19
century, the phylloxera epidemic devastated the Aosta Valley vineyards over a period of many years.
Fortunately, although the devastation was enormous, destruction was not total. The vineyards slowly revived and flourished
anew. The only lasting setback was the disappearance of several vine varieties.
Donnaz was the valley’s first DOC wine, receiving that recognition in 1971. The following year, it was the turn of Enfer
d’Arvier. Although other wines were in line and qualified to receive the DOC designation, all further movement was halted
until 1985 while a plan was worked out to place all regional wines of fine quality under the common denomination of Valle
d’Aosta. Costantino Charrère is the driving force in the region. In the manner of Robert Plageoles he is the archivist and
grape detective, seeking out native grape varieties on the verge of extinction and preserving their peculiar qualities in a host
of wonderful wines made at his family winery and the famous Les Crêtes venture that he runs in partnership with other well
known figures from the region. Firstly, however, we start with a Chardonnay which unveils delightful pear, apple and
vanilla aromas and a long finish with mineral notes. The Petite Arvine, resident in Switzerland, provides here a lovely dry
white with aromas of spring flowers. The wine displays a brilliant straw yellow colour; the nose reveals intense, clean,
pleasing, elegant and refined aromas beginning with elder and pineapple followed by banana, hawthorn, apple, broom, pear
The Torrette is made from the fruit of autochthonous Petit Rouge vines (70%) with the remainder Mayolet, Tinturier and
Cornalin – grown on sandy moraines at an altitude of 550m close to the commune of Aymavilles in Valle d’Aosta. These
vines, the oldest on the property on various locations and exposures confer strong connotations of the territory upon the
resulting wine. Aroma is fruity and floral expressing ripe raspberries, myrtle, blackberries, blueberries, perhaps some wild
rose, too. Warm, consistent and smooth in the mouth, surprisingly lush peppery, spicy warmth.
The stylish intriguing Fumin displays good colour with sweet ripe fruit and would go well with the local motsetta, a dry
meat from the thigh muscle of the cow, sheep, or goat. Once upon a time deer and wild goat’s meat was available as well,
but nowadays is extremely rare. Drying the meat was a necessity, so that the family could use meat throughout the long,
freezing winter months. The taste is reminiscent of the aromatic herbs used for the seasoning, along with salt, garlic and
juniper berries. The ageing can last from one to twelve months.
Made exclusively with the back and shoulder of adult pork, Lardo d’Arnad is considered a true delicacy. It must be cut and
laid in custom-made containers called doils within 48 hours of the killing, alternating a layer of lard to one of salt and
spices until the doils are almost full, then covered completely with salted water, brought to the boil, and finally allowed to
The lard must mature inside the doils for at least three months. The final product has variable shape and is not less than
1.18 inches (3 cm.) tall. The colour is white with meaty highlights on the surface, while the inside has a continuous pink
It is excellent with black bread and honey and is quite sublime perched atop just roasted chestnuts.
It pairs well with fresh, perfumed, soft wines with a good balance, such as Petite Rouge. Being an Alpine region gorgeous
cheeses abound, notably Fontina, Toma di Grassoney (made in the meadows) and Fromadzo, a mixture of cow’s and a little
goat’s cheese, semi-sweet and very fragrant when young, saltier and richer with age. This goes beautifully with a crisp
Chardonnay. However, it is the pig that provides the poke in superb boudin, the aromatic herb-seasoned Jambon de Bossed
(from animals raised on the mountains), and various types of sausage.
VALLE D’AOSTA CHARDONNAY
VALLE D’AOSTA PETITE ARVINE VIGNE CHAMPORETTE
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LA CAVE DU VIN BLANC DE MORGEX ET DE LA SALLE, MORGEX, Valle d’Aosta
Vin de Morgex, also called Bianco dei ghiacciai (glacier wine), is cultivated at an altitude of 1300 metres, at the foot of Monte
Bianco (or, as the French call it, Mont Blanc – a mountain named after a fancy biro) in the heart of Valle d’Aosta. This is the
highest region from which wine is produced in all of Europe something which I may mention repeatedly in this discourse.
Blanc de Morgex is an extremely old grape species. Legend states that it was imported to Italy by Vallese share croppers who
arrived in the Aosta Valley half way through the seventeenth century to repopulate the area after an epidemic.
Even today, it is cultivated under the characteristic stone pergolas that are a legacy from Roman viticulture. Low and
supported by wooden poles, the pergolas scale the sides of the mountains just a few kilometres from Aosta, between the areas
of Morgex and La Salle. The vine owes its strength and extraordinary qualities to its resistance to cold temperatures and
snow. Indeed, it is not unusual for the typically bright green grapes to be covered in snow and ice at harvesting time.
Furthermore, this capacity to adapt itself to the harshest of climates has protected it from the phylloxera epidemic.
The tiny town of Morgex is only a few kilometres from the trendy alpine resort area of Courmayeur. Its vineyards produce the
self-styled “highest white wine in Europe” (there – told you I’d mention it again). The Dora Baltea river is the region’s only
sliver of non-mountainous terrain and is the life-blood of Valle d’Aosta’s viticulture. Its flow keeps the air moving and the
clouds away; the gorge traps summer heat enabling the grapes to ripen. They call it “heroic viticulture,” a justifiable epithet
given the vines precariously perched on steep terraces.
This wine has all the unexpected charm of an upturned apple-cheeked Heidi figure being pursued across a fragrant alpine
meadow by a malevolent Renault Mégane.
Straw-yellow in colour, with pale green nuances, its bouquet evokes mountain herbs with notes of fresh hay. Hawthorn,
broom, lemon, almond, apple, pear and peach jostle delicately on the nose. The palate tracks the aromas; a crisp attack is,
however, nicely balanced with intense and agreeable flavours. The finish is persistent with lingering flavours of apple, pear
and citrus. The grape variety is called Blanc de Morgex, although is more technically known as Prié Blanc (and in
Switzerland’s Valais region as Bernarde). Chalk another one up to the grape detective!
The sheer beauty of these soaring mountain vineyards is made even more arresting by a time-honoured system called
pergola bassa, or low pergola, where the vines are trained near the ground in trellised arbours with stone columns
surrounded by stone walls. According to La Cave’s winemaker Gianluca Telloli, “The low pergola has been used for
centuries here because it protects the vines from wind and heavy snowfall, while allowing them to benefit from heat
accumulated in the ground during the daytime.” Yet the low pergola presents many difficulties, too. Harvesters must pick
the grapes on their knees and, in some cases, while laying flat on their backs.
Telloli explains that the stone walls surrounding individual plots and the enormous piles of rocks heaped in a seemingly
haphazard manner among the terraces have a function beyond aesthetics. “Centuries ago, the peasants realized how
important the heat conducting capabilities of the stones were. We’ve kept the ancient stone walls and rocks because they
really help retain heat during the cool nights, which is crucial for the grapes’ maturation.”
An ice wine from Valle d’Aosta? From the Prié Blanc grape harvested in December when the vineyards are swathed in
snow. Unusually, it is the wine that is the vehicle for the wood rather than the other way round, and, in this case, cherry,
juniper and chestnut amongst others lend their subtle tones to the finished product. It has a delicious burnished apple
flavour, not dissimilar to a Tokaji. Throw a servant on the roaring log fire and sip this elixir with some hot roasted
chestnuts whilst humming a few bars of “Edelweiss”.
Each year, in August, Morgex and La Salle are united in celebration: the venue of the festivities alternates from year to
year between first one town, then the other. What better occasion for tasting the “highest wine in Europe” as well as
savouring other specialities typical of the valley, among which the most famous is the fontina fonduta…
Try also with raclette and Arnad lard, or drink it with a delicate first course dish, accompanied by white vegetable sauces
with radicchio or artichokes.
VALLE D’AOSTA BLANC DE MORGEX ET DE LA SALLE “RAYON”
VALLE D’AOSTA BLANC DE MORGEX ET DE LA SALLE “VINI ESTREMI”
“CHAUDELUNE” VIN DE GLACE – 50cl
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CANTINA DI BARRO, ELVIRA STEFANIA RINI, VILLENEUVE, Valle d’Aosta – Organic
In local dialect ‘di Barrò’ means ‘of the barrels’. The name is formed from the first syllables Barmaz and Rossan, the former
owners as well as parents-in-law of the current owner, who grew wine in the family vineyards in Monte Torrette back in the
1960s. The Torrette itself is made from 90 per cent Petit Rouge with Mayolet, Vien de Nus, Neblou, Cornalin and Fumin
making up the remainder. All are grown with great respect for the environment in the municipality of Saint-Pierre at a height
of between 650-850 metres above sea level. The Torrette Superiore has well-focused aromas and palate. Ruby red, it has a
nose of blackberries and pencil lead. The palate is full-bodied but nonetheless delightful and well-balanced, and mellow,
lingering tannins lift the finish. This would go well with the traditional Carbonade.
Touvien is a cuvée where all the red grape
varieties on the estate are included. The word Touvien is taken from the local French dialect. In French “tout” means
everything and the verb “venir” means to come is conjugated as je viens (I come) tu viens (you come)....etc the imperative of
come is “viens”. Hence “Touvien” is everything that comes (i.e. grows) in the vineyard. The grape varieties are Petit Rouge,
Cornalin, Fumin, Mayolet, Premetta, Vien De Nus et Villermen. Everything is destalked followed by a long maceration /
fermentation period of in between 20 to 30 days according to the vintage. Indigenous yeast, no oak, classic use of sulphur (a
little bit at harvest and at various stages during elevage) but restrained. Bottled early for drinking young. Imagine Fleurie
with a tad more grip. Fumin is a somewhat meatier grape, darker in colour, and akin to Syrah in style.
3-Mercaptohexanol: An Aroma Impact Compound of Petite Arvine Wine (could this be the most boring and unromantic piece of
trivial research ever?)
“The characteristic aroma of Petite Arvine, a local white wine
specialty prepared from the autochthone grape variety Petite
Valais, Switzerland, is described as intense in grapefruit
and rhubarb flavours. In sensory evaluation by a triangle-test,
the impact of thiol
compounds on the wine aroma was demonstrated.
In gas chromatography-olfactometry and gas chromatography-mass
analyses, 3-mercaptohexanol was identified as one
of the key aroma compounds for the wine aroma. The concentration
mercaptohexanol in 11 Petite Arvine wines was in the range
between 210 and 6100 ng/L; all values being above the odour threshold
in aqueous ethanol solutions for this compound.
A MORNING WITH THE DI BARROS
What you really want to wake up to is a refreshed blue sky and dazzling mountain vistas. This is the classic shortbread tin box scenery
that you could just crunch forever.
Valle d’Aosta, to pinpoint the pinprick on the map, is a tiny autonomous region bordered by France to the west, Switzerland to the north
and Piedmont to the south and east. It is divided into 74 communes. The population measuring around 120,000 is swelled in the winter
by ski-folk who flock to the resorts and in the summer by hikers and other tourists.
First stop was Andrea and Elvira di Barrò’s tiny winery. We stood on the south facing hill of Torrette from which the cru of Torrette is
named. The vineyards are between 500m-900m (the Mayolet grape grows at the highest altitude). As usual when you are in Italy or
France you receive a short historical lesson about the region. Understanding wine, it seems, is not about simply tasting the product
(reductive word!) in the bottle. It starts with the geography, the geology, the peculiarities of the micro-climate, the soil, the sub-soil, the
health of the soil, the plant diversity, the insect life, the way the vineyards are laid out, the training and trellising. The people who live in
the region and have given their lives to viticulture are an essential part of the dynamic and it is not beyond fancy, when you taste the
wines, to experience something of the personality of the growers. Scientists would scoff at these whimsical notions, because all wine
flavours to them are about bottled molecular exchange and transformation.
The valley was originally inhabited by Celts and Ligurians before being conquered by the Romans who founded Augusta Praetoria (from
which derives the name Aosta) to secure the mountain passes and to fortify the region. After the fall of Rome it was loosely held by a
succession of Goths, Lombards, then the Burgundian kings, but was essentially a series of independent fiefs. In the late 12
Thomas of Savoy granted a charter of liberties that preserved the autonomy, and though this was revoked centuries later that energy
towards independence was never far from the surface. It was during the Middle Ages, however, that the wines of the Aosta Valley
established a widespread reputation. And they acquired something of a “sacral” character as well because, according to numerous
reports, they were used in the rite of exorcism.
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