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Off the Slopes: A Day in Valle D’Aosta

“[…] the northwestern region is so much more than just its ski mountains.”

Villeneuve, castello di Aymavilles, Maison Anselmet, Petite Arvine, Chalet La Meridiana, Jambon de Bosses, Lard d’Arnad, fondue. Based on these things, where do you think I am? Anyone who thinks they know Italy might assume I’m not even in il bel paese. But where I am is evident to anyone who really knows Italy: the Valle d’Aosta.

Nestled in the Alps north of Piedmont, bordering France and Switzerland, the Valle d’Aosta is the smallest and least populous of Italy’s twenty regions. But its size and population is not reflective of its majesty. Valle d’Aosta vacillated between Savoy family jurisdiction and French rule before joining Italy in 1861: this dual heritage is reflected in the region’s official languages–French, Italian, and Valdôtain, a Franco-Provençal dialect. Influences from Valle d’Aosta’s neighboring countries (and former rulers) have trickled over borders to make for an Alpine experience undercut with an undeniably Italian je ne sais quoi

The mesmerizing landscape includes sinuous streams, which glide gently down jagged mountains crowned with snow-capped peaks–reaching high towards the azure sky. Towers from more than 150 castles constructed between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance peek out at every turn. The quadrangular tower of the Aymavilles Castle, built in the 13th century, is both imposing and awe-inspiring. Owned by the Autonomous Region of the Aosta Valley since 1970, the ex-home of the royal Challant family is now open to the public.

The region isn’t entirely off the tourism radar, however. Many travelers head here to eye bucket-list Alpine peaks like Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, and it’s one of Europe’s most popular skiing destinations. Absorbing the landscape on a ski trip feels sufficient for many. And most people–myself included until recently–are guilty of limiting our adventures in the region to the slopes. We ski and partake in the evening apres-ski scene. Perhaps we down a hot Bombardino cocktail or two along the way. Then we return to the daily grind. 

But the northwestern region is so much more than just its ski mountains. As Valle d’Aosta is in Italy, it should come as no surprise that the region’s food and wine warrants exploration. Here’s how I recently spent 24 hours eating and drinking off the slopes in Valle d’Aosta.

 

Maison Anselmet Winery 

Valle d’Aosta is home to 450 hectares of vines which grow at altitudes of 600 to 1,200 meters–so high that the phylloxera insect that destroyed Europe’s vines in the late 19th century never reached these vineyards. Thirteen indigenous and six international varieties grow here, and most wines fall under the Valle d’Aosta DOC denomination with its 31 sub-denominations. 

Located in Villeneuve, family-run Maison Anselmet is one of the region’s most esteemed wineries. Winemaker Giorgio Anselmet, a third-generation Valdostano, has deep roots: his surname appears on a vineyard deed from the 16th century! Giorgio’s wife Bruna Cavagnet and their children Henri, Stephanie, and Arline chip in at the winery. Henri, also a winemaker, cultivates a separate six-hectare plot, producing natural wine under the label La Plantze

Giorgio’s father Renato inherited vines from his father, a hobby winemaker, in 1978. Renato switched gears, implementing a quality-over-quantity approach and began to produce sellable wine. Over the next couple decades, production grew from 70 bottles a year to 80,000 bottles among the 21 labels today. Maison Anselmet currently counts 10 hectares of vines, which are divided into 64 small, terraced plots. Etched into sunny slopes on the left bank of the Dora Baltea, the plots range from 550 to 900 meters in altitude. 

The Le Prisonnier vineyard, whose vines date back to 1925, lies at an altitude of 760-800 meters. As we approached the vineyard, slush and earth crunching beneath our shoes, snow sparkled in the sunlight and refreshing mountain air blew into our faces. A shadow so opaque that it cloaked the slope on the right bank rendered the Dora Baltea river nearly imperceptible. In this plot, Giorgio cultivates Petit Rouge, Cornalin, Fumin, and Mayolet varieties, which he blends for the vineyard’s eponymous wine. 

Back at the cantina, we tasted 18 wines, three of which came from Henri’s La Plantze label. The highlights included Pinot Gris from 2020, a fresh and lively white, while the 2013, a more complex counterpart, evoked notes of saffron and hazelnut. The Mains et Couer 2019 draws inspiration from Meursault in Burgundy, one of Giorgio’s favorite wine regions. He acquired its particular Chardonnay clone and planted it in St. Pierre, resulting in a superb unclarified wine with pronounced minerality and notes of citrus, vanilla, and butter. 

The grapes from the Le Prisonnier vineyard–Petit Rouge, Cornalin, Fumin and Mayolet–materialized in two different red wines. First, in the 2019 vintage of the vineyard’s eponymous label–a smoky, spicy red with notes of bright red fruits and herbs–and again in Balso–an Amarone-style wine made with sun-dried grapes. 

Lunch at La Prosciutteria Sous le Pont de Bosses

La Prosciutteria sits beside a gas station, under a bridge, along the T2 autostrada in Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosses, one of the last stops before Switzerland. At first glance, La Prosciutteria seems like an ordinary, average rest stop. But there’s nothing ordinary about this epic eatery. Aromas from tabletop fondue pots and a raclette station pervade the cozy wood interior of the restaurant.

Jambon de Bosses, Valle d’Aosta’s DOP ham, made an appearance in the Valdostano charcuterie and cheese course. The raw ham, which has been made since 1397, comes from the hind thighs of three local swine breeds: Large White, Landrace and Duroc Italiana. The meat is spiced with mountain herbs and then aged for at least one year (or up to two) at an altitude of 1,600 meters in Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosses.

Fondue followed, and as I swirled my bread in the glorious bubbling cheese, I couldn’t help but appreciate the alchemy behind the gooey delight. The cheese and wine had fused into a dense concoction that coated the bread without dripping off or splattering. And then came the raclette. This semi-hard Swiss cheese is melted, then scraped off the rind and served with pickles, onions, and jambon. With lunch, we sipped Maison Anselmet’s Petite Arvine 2020, Pinot Noir 2020, and Henri Syrah 2019 before concluding with some house-made genepì, an Alpine herbal liqueur. 

Following the meal, we toured Prosciuttificio De Bosses, where owner Bruno Fegatelli explained the production process. As we entered the aging room where dozens of hams dangled around us, absorbing the local air currents that contribute to its flavor, Fegatelli emphasized that it’s called jambon–not prosciutto. The ham is made from the same cut as prosciutto, but the entire skin isn’t removed, therefore the jambon-making technique more closely resembles that of the northern Italian giamboni, a pork leg covered entirely with skin. In addition, Fegatelli explained that the term “prosciutto” is derived from the Italian past participle of “dry”. And although the jambon is preserved and matured, it’s not dehydrated.

The Fontina Cooperative

For all of the Valle d’Aosta’s gastronomic obscurity, it produces a DOP version of a non-obscure Italian cheese: Fontina. The soft, mild cow cheese is dreamy when melted and stars in a signature local dish: fonduta, the Valdoastan counterpart to fondue. It’s richer, mixing butter, cream, milk and egg yolks to create a dip that takes on a custard-like texture. 

Established in 1957 with just 46 founding partners, Val d’Aosta’s Fontina Cooperative now counts 200 members who produce over 200,000 wheels annually. In the aging grotto, floor-to-ceiling walls of orange wheels stretch as far as the eye can see. To meet the DOP requirements, Fontina must be made of unpasteurized milk collected during a single milking from specific Valdostano breeds. Cheesemakers prepare two batches daily, then age them for 90 days. 

We finished with a tasting of classic Fontina, a smoked version and a Fontina Alpeggio, made from cows that graze on pastures at 600 meters and higher. 

An Eclectic Dinner

Sure, we could have feasted on irresistible classics like sausage strewn over a bed of soft polenta or brown bread topped with honey-drizzled Lard d’Arnad. But instead, we headed to Osteria Due Passi at the Hotel Chalet La Meridiana to sample the cuisine of chef Corrado Michelazzo, who couples refined gastronomic technique with influences from across the peninsula. A foie gras appetizer offered three interpretations of the delicacy: an escalope, a terrine nestled inside a local Gressan apple, and a mousse alongside spiced bread. Next, a beech wood-smoked carnaroli risotto with salmí di lepre (a northern Italian hare stew), finished with pomegranate. Then, Michelazzo’s version of vitello tonnato: tuna, accompanied by both hot veal sauce and liquid nitrogen-chilled tuna sauce. Fried capers completed the dish.

Following dinner, we retreated to our rooms and called it a day–a wonderful day of eating and drinking in Valle D’Aosta.

Maison Anselmet

La Prosciutteria

Prosciuttificio De Bosses

The Fontina Cooperative

Osteria Due Passi