Posted by Keith Wallace

Winemaking in Valle d’Aosta almost disappeared due to the upheaval brought about by both World Wars. At the end of the 1800s, there was over 3,000 ha of vineyards; however, by 2005, there were less than 800. After the Risorgimento of the 1860s, cheap bulk wine made it’s way up from Southern Italy. This forced many winemakers in Valle D’Aosta to seek other means of living, including dairy, potato, and fruit farming.

Following World War II, Joseph Vaudan – a Swiss-born Catholic priest – founded the Institut Agricole Regionale (IAR). His work with local farmers gradually improved the agriculture and viticulture in the area tremendously. In the 1970s, the IAR began nursing old and abandoned vineyards back to commercial production. During this time, they researched and revived indigenous varietals such as Fumin, the “native grape of the future” (Vino Italiano p. 120). This varietal was once in danger of disappearing entirely.

Fumin’s mature berries are covered in cloudy, waxy layers, which give them a smoky appearance. Thus, one of the possible origins of its name is the French word fumée. Fumin could also have gotten its name from its tertiary smoky notes on the nose and palate. DNA testing has revealed it is the parent of a rare Valle d’Aostan varietal, Vuillermin, as well as the sibling of Petit Rouge, one of the most planted varietals in the valley. It was long speculated that Fumin and Freisa were the same grape, but recent DNA research proved this wrong.

First mentioned in 1785, Fumin is one of the oldest recorded varietals in Valle d’Aosta. Despite the region’s high elevation, 90% of wine production in Valle d’Aosta is red. The IAR has identified 13 native varietals and the other Italian and French varietals grown here. The wines are mostly light, fruity, Beaujolais in style, and made with local grapes. 

Fumin traditionally blends with Petit Rouge and French varietals such as Syrah. In these blends, Fumin adds color and body. Standing alone, Frumin is ruby-colored with hints of purple. Complex and exhibiting intense aromas, the predominant flavors are ripe and dried red fruits, smoke, spice, leather, graphite, and alpine florals. 

Tertiary aromas and flavors develop as Fumin does very well with oak and bottle aging. Typically fermented in stainless steel, the wine requires a further minimum of 1 year in oak per Valle d’Aosta DOC. Recommended bottle aging is between 7 to 10 years. Acidity is high, and the tannins are medium to high but smooth in character. The ABV tends to be elevated, and the finish is juicy.

Fumin buds late and ripens early, which helps ameliorate the extremely low temperatures at the beginning and end of the season. The berries are dark and small to medium-sized while forming compact cylindrical bunches. The berries are resilient and disease-resistant; however, the skins are very thin and susceptible to sun damage. 

The high elevation and reflection from the Dora Baltea River make avoiding the harsh sun challenging. For these reasons, growers practice careful canopy management and prefer the guyot method over traditional low pergolas. With steep slopes reaching 70 degrees, many growers harvest by hand. Terraces are carved out on the hillsides flanking both sides of the river. Fumin favors northeast exposure to avoid too much sun exposure. Carved out by receding glaciers, the valley’s soil consists mainly of glacial moraine, alluvial gravel, and sand. A little schist and limestone are mixed in as well. 

Some recommended Fumin producers in Valle d’Aosta are: Grosjean, Les Cretes, L’Atoueyo, Di Barro, and Chateau Feuillet. Grosjean Winery stands out as one of the region’s oldest wineries and a pioneer in Fumin’s renaissance. Les Cretes produced various goods from the 1700s until the 1960s when the market changed and started to support wine made with native varietals. 

Most wine in Valle d’Aosta is produced by cooperatives. There are six currently listed on Valle d’Aosta’s tourism website. In recent times, they were joined by an association of local producers that focus on reviving ancient local varietals and practices.

Today the valley is making a comeback. However, there are the combined challenges of the extreme steeping terrain coupled with a small and aging population. Immigration is helping offset the negative birth rate, as many young people have moved to Valle d’Aosta for the tourism industry. Due to small production, the region does not export a great deal of wine, with a majority of the wine being sold to the local ski and hiking tourism industry. 

With more research coming out of the IAR, an increase in tourism, and a change in population demographics, the future of viticulture in Valle d’Aosta looks promising. Fumin, once threatened to the point of disappearance during the upheavals of the early 20th century, has been saved by the efforts of the local winemaker, who are justifiably proud of their region’s long viticultural heritage.

Victoria Neifert

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