Wining Around the Alps

“Mountain people are…odd.  Not ‘you don’t want to be in a room alone with them’ odd, but odd.”  Eric Hauptmann of Potomac Selections, our presenter for the evening, opened with this statement, and it set the tone for a delicious and interesting tasting.


And, maybe this speaks to our own oddness, but a description like that makes us want to hop on a plane!  The wines of the Alpine regions of Italy and France are not mainstream wines, and they tend to not be made by mainstream people.  Growing grapes at high elevations gives wine a freshness and natural acidity that we love, but it’s also tough work.

Many of the photos Eric showed highlighted how difficult it is to harvest grapes that are grown on steep inclines in rocky, poor soil.  People who choose to make wines in difficult places, from grapes no one has heard of, and in styles that are unlikely to get big scores from the mainstream wine press tend to be as unique as their wines.

Eric described one winemaker who goes out into the vineyard with a bottle of wine and communes with his grapes for hours.  He says they speak to him, and tell him what they need.  Eccentric?  Very.  However, as with some of the kookier-sounding aspects of biodynamics (which many of these winemakers practice as well), even if the specific act of ‘listening’ to your grapes, or burying a dung-filled horn in the middle of your field doesn’t have a direct effect on the wine, anyone who cares that much about their vines is making wine with attention and passion.  That, you can definitely taste.

We started with the Dom Labbe Abymes from the Savoie region in France, made from the Jacquere grape.  This crisp, bright white was the perfect way to start the tasting, as its high acidity and lightness on the palate got everyones’ mouths watering.

Next we headed to the Italian Alps to try Paves Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle 2010, made from the Prie Blanc grape.  We’d never heard of it, either, but for a few of us, it was the wine of the night, with its beautiful aromatics reminiscent of chamomile and honeysuckle.  Interesting and refreshing all at once.

We tried two different wines from France’s Jura region, known for its wines made from Savagnin and Chardonnay that are done in an oxidative style.  They remind many tasters of Fino sherry, and they make wonderful aperitif wines, perfect with nuts, cheeses, and smoked fish.  Lighter versions of this style, like Dom de Montbourgeau’s L’Etoile Blanc, are also fantastic with sushi.

La Mondianese Grignolino, which has become a permanent part of our Italy section and was our first red of the evening, showed beautifully.  Its color can be startling at first – it’s so light that there are probably roses out there that are darker.  But don’t let the color fool you, because it’s got a nice bit of toothsome structure from fruit tannins, and bright acidity.  It perfectly falls into the category of ‘in between’ wines: lighter reds and bolder whites that work with food where you’re not sure if a red or white is the thing to have.

Other standout reds included the Grosjean Freres Gamay Vallee d’Aoste 2010 and the Iaretti Paride Gattinara Riserva 2004.  Despite its French name, the Gamay is Italian, from the Valle d’Aosta, and it was one of the more divisive wines of the evening.  The aromas right now are wild, feral, and a bit reductive.  On the palate, though, it’s a whole different experience: lovely, sweet fruit and a wonderful texture, perfect for game.  The Gattinara was one of two Nebbiolo-based wines we tried, both serious expressions of the Nebbiolo grape that show what lies beyond Barolo and Barbaresco.

We had some delicious cheeses from the northern regions of France and Italy to accompany the wines as well, including Piave from Italy’s Veneto region, and France’s creamy Comte.

There is an important place in the world for wines that make you think a little bit, that don’t spoon-feed you basic, unchallenging flavors.  When you submit to an unfamiliar flavor, let it wash over you, then think about whether or not you like it, and what you would eat with it, you’re expanding your palate and your world.  And, you’re doing it all without leaving your chair, often for not much money!


Thanks to everyone who joined us for this palate and mind expanding evening – if you couldn’t make it, here’s what you missed!

Dom Labbe Abymes Vin de Savoie 2011

Dom de Montbourgeau L’etoile Blanc Jura 2008

La Mondianese Grignolino d’Asti 2011

What We’re Tasting – A Baby Rhone and White (yes, white!) Pinot Noir

White Pinot Noir?  We thought it sounded crazy too, but then we tasted it.  Gugiarlo’s Pinot Nero Bianco from the tiny Oltrepo Pavese region in Lombardy really does smell like Pinot Noir in the glass, but lighter and brighter.  Ripe pear aromas come out first, followed by the aroma of really fresh apple cider.  On the palate it’s got nice richness, but finishes clean.  This is the perfect fall white – we spent several minutes talking about what we’d pair with it, from pork to butternut squash to salmon.  Delicious!

“Good wine needs time” is one of those cliches that exists for a reason, but sometimes the exuberance of a young, fresh wine is really appealing, too.  When we first tasted the new vintage of the Pigeoulet en Provence from Kermit Lynch importers, the product of a partnership between them and Daniel Brunier of Vieux Telegraphe, there was a simultaneous ‘woah!’  The aromas of ripe, just-picked berries almost knocks you over as soon as you put your nose in the glass – but in  good way!  Doug commented that it almost smells like it’s still fermenting.  On the palate it’s juicy and full, with bright, pleasing acidity.

While stately, mature wines have their place, sometimes a big mouthful of fruit is just the thing.  Perfect for grilled sausages or a big, thick sandwich piled with charcuterie.