History and Traditions
The region was not populated until the 9th millennium B.C. — long after the rest of Italy was populated. The Celts were among the first inhabitants of the area in the 9th and 8th centuries B.C. and some signs of this period are still recognizable in a few place names as well as the local dialects. The Romans followed and, in 25 B.C., gave the region its current name, composed of the word Valle, or valley, because of the configuration of the land, and Aosta, originally in Latin Augusta Praetoria, from the great roman emperor Augustus. In later times it was a colony of Piedmont, the home place of the Savoy house that ruled over Italy until the end of WWII and the birth of the Italian Republic.
The traditional Aosta Valley way of life reflects the geographic quality of the region and still deeply affects popular festivities and celebrations. Some traditional ceremonies are deeply entrenched in the stark isolation brought by long snowy winter months high on the Alps, while others borrow traditions from across the mountains. The badoche for instance, a festival celebrated on the 14th and 15th of July in La Salle, has tight ties with similar events in French-speaking areas of Switzerland as well as in communities in the French Alps. By contrast, the German ritual songs performed in Gressoney and the Lys Valley are remnants of the ancient Walser colonization that established a German-speaking community in an area where the locals are usually bilingual Italian and French.
Another aspect of the social life that has traditionally set Aosta apart from other Italian regions are the mixture of skills that the inhabitants were forced to develop, lacking regular trade routes to the outside world in the face of the impassibility of winter bound alps. Thus, a traditional valdostano, or inhabitant of the Aosta Valley used to be part farmer, part animal breeder, and part artisan. Small communities were forced to be as independent as possible. Through the centuries this contributed to the development of multiple ways to take advantage of many agricultural and animal products such as hemp, leather and wool in addition to abundant natural products such as wood, stone, iron and copper. The local craftsmanship suffered a strong setback in the 1800s with the mass introduction of industrial products at cutthroat prices. Fortunately, this did not decimate the traditional skills and today the traditional artisans are producing artistic crafts with strong local connections and nuances.
The Aosta Valley grapes and wines are primarily determined by the characteristic predominant soil composed of a rocky, gritty, semi-fertile mixture and by high altitude. Overall, the region’s wines are as singular as its dialects and traditions. The Institut Agricole Régional has catalogued thirteen grapes considered native to the region and most of them are used as blends in the majority of local DOC-labeled wines. The most widespread among the “indigenous” grapes are the red Petit Rouge, or Little Red in French, and the Fumin, a somewhat meatier, Syrah-like grape anticipated by some local vintners as the future number one native red.
The main regional grape however, is the Picotendro, a local version of Nebbiolo that gives the DOCs produced in Donnas and Arnad a resemblance to Barolo. In addition, both the Moscato Bianco, here known as Muscat Chambave, and the local Pinot Grigio (confusingly called Malvoisie in the Chambave and Nus areas) are made into exotically fruity wines that can be either dry or sweet.
The region has a single DOC denomination that covers a total of 25 styles of wine, both varietals, such as the Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, and seven geographically designed sub-zones: Arnad-Motjovet, Arvier, Chambave, Donnas, Mergex / La Salle, Nus, and Torrette.
Because of the mix of grapes, language and place names on the Aosta valley wine labels, sometime it can be a little confusing figuring out what’s inside a bottle. However the 25 styles of DOC wines produced here are listed in the following categories.
Blanc de Mergex et de La Salle Spumante, Blanc de Mergex et de La Salle, Chambave Muscat, Nus Malvoisie, Valle d’Aosta Chardommay, Valle d’Aosta Müller-Thurgau, Valle d’Aosta Petit Arvine, Valle d’Aosta Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, Valle d’Aosta Pinot Blanc or Pinot Bianco.
Valle d’Aosta Prëmetta and Valle d’Aosta Rosato.
Arnad-Motjovet, Chambave Rouge, Donnas or Donnaz, Enfer d’Arvier, Nus Rouge, Torrette, Valle d’Aosta Fumin, Valle d’Aosta Gamay, Valle d’Aosta Petit Rouge, Valle d’Aosta Pinot Noir, Valle d’Aosta Nouveau or Novello, and Valle d’Aosta Rouge or Rosso.
Chambave Muscat Flétri and Nus Muscat Flétri.