Traveling far to find the perfect 'little' white wine

"Full bodied, oak-ey, buttery, hints of anise and blackberry with an abrupt finish ..." BLAH!

The self important and mostly ridiculous descriptions on today's wine labels provide sniggering entertainment, but they seldom have anything to do with what's really in the bottle. One's forced to read the wretched things in order to find out the exact degree of the "full-bodied" headache you'll get.

Personally, I find that anything 13 percent alcohol or above will provide a real doozie of a head-throb, especially since the law gives one-and-a-half percent leeway.

My quest to find a good "little" wine took my family to our local wine country - Yakima. I reasoned that somebody must be producing a small quantity of low-gradation grapes for personal use. Hopefully they would be willing to share the bounty with some like-minded folk for a price.


A wonderfully pleasant weekend took us along miles of perfectly straight vineyards beautifully braiding the hillsides, but our quest was unfulfilled. There were good people practicing serious winemaking with an average of 100 acres per vineyard, but we found not even a hint of a wine under 12 percent.

The closest we came to an explanation as to why we couldn't find a sub-12 percent wine had to do with needing to win a competition in order to make the sales. Apparently the only way to have your wine leap out at the jurors is to load it up. Alas, we came home empty handed.

Recently, during my family's European vacation, I went to the original source where I was first introduced to the beauty of the underrated "little" wine: Il Blanc de Morgex e La Salle - D.O.C. (denominazione originale controllata) - Europe's highest altitude wine produced in Italy.

The grape comes from the Prie Blanc, a weed-like self-propagating variety traced back to the 1600's. The locals are certain of the date and point to the church archives for proof. There reads a description of the Santa Barbara Confrerie who served a lunch of chestnuts and white wine to the poor every Dec. 4.

Unlike most of the European vines, Prie Blanc has never needed to be grafted to "l'americaine" and remains true to it's original stock. The vine is unusually hardy and can survive the harsh Italian winters and mild summers that automatically come with growing grapes at 3,300 to 4,000 feet above sea-level.

Ettore Requedaz, whose production is representative of the average producer in Val d'Aosta, Italy, has a plot of land equal to a Seattle house lot. Small. Very small, but as Requedaz points out, "E' solo per gli appassionati, Jacq!" (It is a job only for those who are passionate about it.)

Most growers take advantage of the town's collective system - the 'Cooperativa' (Co-op) - allowing the 85 members to harvest their grapes and then press them at a centralized location. The juice is then returned home and poured in tanks where they mature in the owner's cantina: an earthen floor, damp, but not too damp, and generally windowless room. Because the cantina dedicated to maturing a wine must be particular, it's not suited for hanging sausages or keeping a good cheese. Therefore, every self respecting Val d'Aostan has a cantina or two depending on your needs, or passions.

A certain percentage of the Val d'Aostan Co-op's grapes are sold to the Cave de Morgex e La Salle to make three types of wine. The bulk of it goes to making their classic white wine, which can be found in Seattle's boutique wine shops. It is well suited to light meals and goes especially well with fish. I recently found bottles selling for around $10.

A smaller portion is used to make their second wine, the Champangnois Method. It's a light sparkling wine used traditionally as an aperitif.

Cave de Morgex e La Salle's newest wine called "Chaud de Lune"(warmth of the moon). It starts with a hand-picked harvest, globe by globe, under the stars with the first frost still clings to the grape clusters. The harvest happens just before the first snow appears in late November.

The risk is ever present that rain, or a severe frost, will damage the grapes before they're taken off the vine. Only the best grapes in a good year will be left on the vine and dedicated to this sophisticated wine. While not particularly sweet, Requedaz described it as "amabile" (lovable). It is usually served as a dessert wine.

Even within Italy the Blanc de Morgex e La Salle is considered a small production wine and relatively unknown, but definitely worthwhile seeking out. We should reconsider the beauty of smaller wines where the taste of the grape lingers without the pungent, fruity aftertaste of grapes bordering on becoming raisins.

The intrepid Jacqui James may be reached at[[In-content Ad]]