In a tiny wine region of Italy, one very French-sounding grape is being saved from the brink of extinction: Prié Blanc. Prié Blanc is also known by the even more French-sounding name of Blanc de Morgex. Despite the name, however, winemakers cultivate this grape in Italy’s northwestern Valle d’Aosta region. This region does border France, which helps explain the name. At the foot of Mont Blanc are the Italian villages of Morgex and La Salle, where Prié Blanc thrives in the Protected Designation of Origin (“DOP”) of Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle. It is a mouthful. This fruit contains even more contradictions than its French name and Italian locale; people debate how it came to Valle d’Aosta and who saved it from extinction. One undeniable fact is that Valle d’Aosta has a passion for Prié Blanc. The ambiguities in the history of this grape, plus its unusual growing conditions, underscore why Prié Blanc deserves a more significant following.
While the grape is now firmly associated with Valle d’Aosta, how it got here is up for debate. Unsurprisingly, the official tourism website claims that Prié Blanc is native to the region. It is the only white grape that the area claims as indigenous. Others argue that the grape came to the region in the 17th century. Either way, Prié Blanc is now primarily associated with Valle d’Aosta. Tiny amounts of Prié Blanc are also grown in Valais in Switzerland, known as Bernarde, but Valle d’Aosta is the grape’s undisputed hub.
Prié Blanc may be associated with this region, but vineyard plantings in the area shrunk with Italian unification in the 1860s, and this particular grape was on the brink of extinction. Like the disputes around the origins of Prié Blanc, there are also differing opinions on what saved it from extinction.
Some credit Alexandre Bougeat, a former parish priest of Morgex, for the resurgence of Prié Blanc in the 1960s. Now run by his son Piero Brunet, the family farms just under a hectare of pergola-trained vines. Others claim that cooperatives are to thank for rescuing Prié Blanc. F
ounded in 1983, the Cave Mont Blanc de Morgex et La Salle cooperative comprises around eighty artisan grower members who control a combined total of eighteen hectares of land. The individual growers do not produce enough Prié Blanc to bottle their wines, but they come together to produce wines that vendors describe as “racier and more brisk than other whites.” Common terms used to describe these wines are “minerally, floral white[s]” with “searing acidity.”
If that does not sound appealing enough, one company uses more flowery language and compares experiencing the wine to “drinking a glacier.” While tasting notes on a vendor website or blog might be marketing tools, the consensus is that Prié Blanc is a crisp, herbaceous wine perfect as an aperitif or refreshment after a day in the mountains.
Yet one of the most interesting things about Prié Blanc is its growing conditions. These grapes grow in some of Europe’s highest vineyards, which range from about 3,300 to 4,300 feet above sea level. Grapes that need a long, warm growing season will not thrive here. Because this variety is known for its late budding and early ripening, winemakers use “low pergolas to avoid damage from wind and winter frost and to take advantage of the heat from the ground.” These low pergolas buttress against the wind and help protect the grape from the frigid nights at that elevation.
The passionate growers can also use ungrafted vines since the elevation is so high and the sandy soils; thus, phylloxera is not a threat. Since these grapes grow in a DOP, growers must also contend with legal requirements to qualify for the DOP label. In this DOP, the minimum alcohol concentration is nine percent, and the mandatory aging is two months. These winemakers rise to the challenge.
Although some grapes saved from extinction have become increasingly popular among the larger public, Prié Blanc remains an underdog: this is not a huge surprise since the yields are so low that winemakers only produce 12,000 bottles on average each year. It also does not help that a majority of the wine from this region is consumed within its borders. However, its uniqueness is one reason for many to seek it out.
The winemakers in this region may be small, but they strive to “completely express the uniqueness of [the grape’s] characteristics.” While there is no consensus on whether this is a native grape, some may credit a single man while others thank a cooperative, Valle d’Aosta takes great pride in Prié Blanc and saving it from extinction.