Mountainous, Magical, Microscopic
We at Rosenthal Wine Merchant have always relished working with small producers. Over the years, we have grown our portfolio not through assimilating big brands, but by continuing to forge alliances with people who work their land on an intimate, human scale. A significant number of our 115 winegrowers work with fewer than ten hectares, and although it is typically impossible to keep these wines in stock year-round, we love the fact that each new vintage is an occasion to look forward to—something to be enjoyed by those fortunate few who are in the know.
Even among our family of modestly landed growers, however, Nadir Cuneaz in the Valle d’Aosta stands apart. With less than a single hectare’s worth of family holdings, Nadir qualifies as our very smallest domaine, and the handful of cases we buy from him each year are true homemade wines in every sense of the word. His vineyard situation is not uncommon in the Valle d’Aosta, our beloved Alpine enclave whose total production is the smallest by far among all Italian winegrowing regions (less than a third of the next-lowest-producing). It’s no surprise that co-operatives still predominate here, given the scant amount of land most families own; it’s simply easier to sell fruit to the local co-op than to go through all the painstaking work required to bottle such a tiny amount of wine.
However, like his good friend Danilo Thomain (whose Enfer d’Arvier we buy with great enthusiasm, and who introduced us to Nadir several years back), Cuneaz would rather see his viticultural efforts through to the end—to create something upon whose label he is proud to put his own name. And, like Danilo, he does this in a small room in his modest home. To even call his operation a “winery” is to stretch that term past its breaking point, but there’s plenty of room for the few thousand bottles Nadir produces each year. And, little by little, he is enlarging his footprint—buying minuscule parcels here and there, planting indigenous varieties, etc.—and we are excited to introduce a brand-new wine among this round of recent arrivals from Nadir.
Nadir has only been commercializing his wines since 2009, but he has made immense progress since his earliest days. While he always farmed his vineyards without the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides, he has made notable adjustments in his cellar work over the years—adopting spontaneous fermentations, refining his oak sources and barrel regimen, and abandoning his earlier occasional use of passito in order to enhance purity of expression. The three wines we have just received from Cuneaz unquestionably represent his best efforts to date. Furthermore, they are heartwarming reminders of just how intimate the scale of our beloved beverage can be.
2015 “Badebec” Rosso Vallée d’Aoste
This wine—the first we purchased from Nadir—takes its name from local lore, the “Badebec” being a monster of fearsome stature who roams the vineyards after the sun goes down. (Life in these Alpine extremes involves constantly confronting the ruthlessness of the elements—a reality that manifests itself in a multitude of mythical beasts.) Composed of 90% Petit Rouge and 10% Fumin and Vien de Nus, “Badebec” comes from the family’s oldest holdings around the towns of Gressan and Jovencan, with vines up to 100 years of age. These towns flank the south bank of the Dora Baltea river which bisects the region, and their north- and northwest-facing vineyards make ripeness a greater challenge than in the more-often-encountered vineyards on the opposite bank. To compensate for the wines’ innate leanness, Nadir formerly employed the passito technique on a portion of the harvest, thereby adding a bit of juiciness and concentration. However, he has moved away from that approach over the past few years, and this 2015 was his first “Badebec” without any dried bunches at all. It’s a welcome change, as this vintage displays a remarkable improvement in purity of fruit, as well as a beautiful lifted spice character absent in previous versions. Furthermore, the barrels used for the elevage (a mixture of small- and medium-sized French-oak vessels) are now older, thus marking the wine less noticeably than several vintages back. Lovers of tension, scintillating acidity, and livewire mineral intensity will find much to appreciate here, and a wine of this character could come from nowhere else but the dramatic altitudes of the Italian Alps.
2016 “Grandgosier” Pinot Nero Vallée d’Aoste
Moody Pinot Noir, as we know, speaks most floridly in areas where it’s forced to struggle. Appropriately, the variety has been planted here since the late-18th century, benefitting greatly from the dramatic diurnal temperature shift and extended ripening cycle of these cool Alpine climes. Fermented in stainless steel and aged in used small French oak barrels, Nadir’s “Grandgosier shows gorgeous varietal character in its pure, taut, pretty red fruits and whiff of underbrush. It’s a far cry from being a rich wine, but there’s a certain succulence at its core that offsets the high-toned acidity and gently herbal edge in appetizing fashion. Sourced primarily from the family’s traditional holdings in Gressan and Jovencan, this 2016 also contains the fruit from a small newer planting in the fabled town of Chambave, on the north bank of the Dora Baltea. Known as “Badeun,” this south-facing vineyard contributes welcome ripeness to the final product, and this is a lovely, spice-drenched Pinot Noir of tremendous character.
2016 “Les Gosses” Rosso Vallée d’Aoste
The only one of Cuneaz’s wines not named for a local monster, “Les Gosses” derives from a French term for “little children” (monsters in their own right, to be sure!)—of which Nadir has three. Coincidentally, this wine contains three local varieties: Vien de Nus (which comprises the majority), Petit Rouge, and the little-seen Vuillermin—the father of Fumin, in fact. In contrast to the two wines above, “Les Gosses” comes entirely from south-facing vineyards: “Badeun” in Chambave and “Creta Platta” (a newer acquisition for Nadir), both of which are more sun-blessed and lower on the slope than those sites which comprise “Badebec.” Made entirely in steel, this is a classic Vallée d’Aoste lip-smacker, stuffed with juicy black cherries and crunchy plums. With electrifying acidity and a complexity-contributing edge of woodsmoke, this is perhaps the most delicious and complete wine Nadir has ever made; it’s too bad there are only 60 cases to go around!