When Nathan Conway and his partners were brainstorming a follow-up project to their celebrated Metzger Bar & Butchery, they didn’t have to look far from the restaurant’s Germanic roots. Brittanny Anderson, the Blue Hill Stone Barns–trained chef, wanted to experiment with more French and Italian food, while Conway, the manager and wine buyer, was looking to try something a little different. “High-acid whites are my thing and Riesling is great,” he says, “but there’s also other cool stuff.”
They asked themselves, “What ties Europe together?” And in Brenner Pass, which opened in Richmond in mid-2017, they found their answer: the Alps, Europe’s massive mountain range. Named for the mountain pass that serves as a gateway between Italy and Austria, the restaurant carries a menu that spans from fondue to diot (a French sausage from the Savoie region) and omble chevalier (Arctic char). And Conway set up a smart wine list to match, drawing from a range of high-altitude regions that dot the Alps, such as the Savoie, Valle d’Aosta, Valtellina and the Neuchâtel.
The European Alps are almost impossibly gigantic, soaring to 15,781 feet at their highest point and running through multiple countries, from France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland into Austria and Slovenia. And while snow-capped mountains and rustic ski chalets may be the first things that come to mind when picturing the Alps, Conway says the reality—at least when it comes to wine—is “more Sound of Music than abominable snowman,” with plenty of green agricultural land. “The name ‘Alps’ comes from alpage, which means ‘the pasture land,’ ” he says.
By virtue of their high altitude and cooler climate, the small wine regions that run through the Alps seem to have more in common with each other than they do, perhaps, with other wine regions in their respective countries, with plenty of overlap with indigenous grapes and winemaking styles. But Conway was surprised by the diversity Alpine regions offer. “It’s been cool to see that every little valley has its own thing going on,” he says. Some warmer valleys can grow weightier varieties such as Cabernet or Lagrein, though Conway says most Alpine wines could be characterized as high-acid whites and lighter-bodied reds—which helps explain their growing popularity.
That particular signature slots right into the current wine zeitgeist. And because these styles are a little off the beaten path, these wines also typically represent good value. Which means Alpine wines are pitch-perfect for year-round drinking, but especially during summer, when warm-weather picnics and outdoor grilling call for something fresh and fun. Word is clearly getting around: While other restaurants and stores may not be as explicitly Alpine-focused as Brenner Pass, wine lists and retail shelves across the country are proof of high-altitude’s appeal.
At Verjus, a European-style wine bar that opened in January in San Francisco’s Jackson Square neighborhood from the owners of Quince, wines from the Savoie region make up a small but noticeable part of the list. Managing partner and beverage director Matt Cirne says the region’s wines are a natural fit with the larger trend toward fresh, vibrant wines. “People are far more interested in wines that are a little more linear,” Cirne says. “The cool climes of the Alps are traditionally in that [range.]”
Located in southeastern France, the Savoie nudges up against Switzerland and Lake Geneva. Vineyards are maintained in tiny pockets of hilly agricultural land situated between tall mountains. While the altitude and surrounding lakes and rivers keep the climate cool, the region benefits from long hours of daylight, which means grapes can ripen well. Cirne says white grapes dominate in the area, and points to Altesse, also known as Roussette, as a particular highlight. The grape tends to make high-acid, elegant wines with notes of citrus, herbs and stone fruit, and when aged well, honey and flowers. Though generally pricey due to the costly nature of their production, these wines offer an option for people looking for wines similar to Chablis or crisper styles of White Burgundy, Cirne says.
On the red side, Cirne says Mondeuse has its own following. “People get hooked on the grape—it’s quite distinct,” he says. Mondeuse comes in two main styles; the first is light, and the second is darker and medium-bodied. “It can become a little meaty in the way a Northern Rhône Syrah can, but it’s not full in terms of structure—it’s not as broad, or as tannic,” he says. On the other end, Cirne says he sees people enjoying lighter Mondeuse styles as they would Gamay, with a slight chill for fresh, easy drinking. “It always seems to be spicy, whether it’s a darker style or lighter style,” he says. “It’s peppery, and has a snap that I think is really fun.”
You probably wouldn’t think of a Korean steakhouse as an obvious place to encounter Swiss wines, but sommelier Victoria James finds them a natural match at Cote, a trendy new restaurant in New York City’s Flatiron district where she is the beverage director and partner. “The whites are super versatile with things like kimchi and fermented food, and fresh summer and spring vegetables,” she says, noting that the reds tend to be very clean, as well. “The great thing about Alpine wines is that you have freshness from high elevation, but you also have a good amount of sunlight. These daylight hours allow for ripeness,” she says. “You have this perfect balance in between old- and new-world style.”
With around 1,200 bottles on her overall list, James says that Swiss wines don’t make up a huge part of the program—just 20 or so selections—but that’s still enough to make the restaurant one of the country’s top procurers of Swiss wine. James says that the lack of Swiss wine in the U.S. isn’t necessarily related to quality or price. “The Swiss don’t care about growing their export market because they don’t need to. More than 90 percent of the wine is consumed in-country,” she says.
James says a few factors are changing the perception of Swiss wines. For one thing, more wine consumers are traveling to offbeat wine regions: She herself tries to go to Switzerland every year to get a feel for what’s happening with the country’s wine. Perhaps more importantly, increased exposure and better importers mean higher-quality wines at lower prices are helping to shake off stereotypes from the 1990s, when Swiss wines were considered expensive and rare. Now, James says Swiss wines represent some of the greatest values on her list, with most coming in under $100 a bottle. “They’re not regions with a huge budget for PR and marketing,” she says. “These [winemakers], the ones we work with, are small farmers and growers. There’s a lot of value transferred through that.”
For James, three regions stand out when it comes to Alpine wines from Switzerland: the Neuchâtel, the Vaud and the Valais. Neuchâtel is more westerly, just over the border from France, close to the Jura region and almost directly north of Vaud, which sits on the shore of Lake Geneva, while Valais rests across the Alps from the Aosta region in Italy, which has similar steep-sloped viticultural areas. “In the French-speaking portion of Switzerland, you see a lot of French influence in terms of grape varieties, in the south they are influenced by Italian grape varieties, and then in the east more Germanic varieties,” James says. One of her favorites, the Château d’Auvernier Pinot Gris 2013, comes from the Neuchâtel, and at $56 is also one of the most affordable on her list. With six years of age, she says, “It’s a little honeyed and has almond tones,” which helps pair with a wide spectrum of dishes.
At Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado, wines from the Italian Alps have long been an essential part of the list, matching the restaurant’s culinary focus on Northern Italy. But wine director Carlin Karr, who also oversees the list at Tavernetta in Denver, expects that we’ll be seeing more from these regions in the future.
Karr says the Valle d’Aosta, which shares borders with Switzerland and France, may be Italy’s last under-the-radar wine region; it produces the smallest amount of wine and also is the country’s least populated. But Karr says those qualities also make it ripe for exploration. “There’s still a lot to be discovered there,” she says. The limited production means these wines can be particularly hard to find outside primary wine markets in the U.S., but they’re worth searching out. In the northernmost subzone Morgex et de la Salle, for example, where Prié Blanc is the dominant variety, high-altitude growing sites prevented the spread of phylloxera, the blight that wiped out as much as two-thirds of European vineyards by the end of the 19th century. This means many of the area’s vineyards are planted on original rootstock—catnip for sommeliers and wine geeks.
Red wines, mostly made from indigenous grapes, dominate the region. “There’s a through line in all the red wines from the Valle d’Aosta, which has a crunchy, cranberry-fruit quality and black-pepper aromatics,” Karr says. “These are fun reds for sure. Especially in the summer, I think they’re great with a slight chill—really fun.” Petit Rouge tends to be peppery and savory, but with a light to medium body. When served at room temperature, it can take on an almost gamey quality, Karr says, but she recommends serving it with a chill, to be paired with pizza or charcuterie. Cornalin d’Aoste, also known as Humagne Rouge in Switzerland, has notes of cranberry and black pepper, and tends to be even paler.
The Alto Adige, Italy’s northernmost region, slots well into warm-weather drinking, too. “The whites are almost always aged without oak—really crisp, bright, and with a green character that’s alpine and fresh,” Karr says. On the red side, Schiava is usually very pale and watermelon-like.
The Valtellina, in Lombardy, may be farther from the central Alps, but it still has mountainous terrain, with steep vineyard sites that Karr likens to Germany’s Mosel. Reds shine here, usually in the form of Nebbiolo, also known as Chiavennasca. The high altitude, soil types, intense summer sun and cool-climate sites, however, change the character of the grape from what’s more typical in the Nebbiolos from Barolo and Barbaresco. “They have a crisp, ethereal sensibility that lends itself to a summer red,” Karr says. And we should be seeing more from the Valtellina in the future, she says, as the demand for Nebbiolo continues to rise. “They offer a great approachable alternative to Barolo and Barbaresco. The greatest producer without question is ArPePe, who, for a long time, has been leading the charge for the region.”
Alpine wines are pitch-perfect for year-round drinking, but especially during summer, when warm-weather picnics and outdoor grilling call for something fresh and fun.
For sommelier Jessica Hereth of Olympia Provisions in Portland, Oregon, minimal-intervention European wines and their Northwest counterparts had been the focus since she joined the restaurant group in 2010. But last year, Olympia Provisions converted its Division Street bratwurst eatery to an all-Alpine theme renamed Olympia Provisions Public House, wanting to get back to the roots of founder Elias Cairo, who’d spent five years training in the region. Hereth decided to overhaul the concise wine list at that location to match. “It’s been so fun to look at a map of the mountains as my guide and ask, ‘What’s around that—what are the wine regions impacted by that mountain range?’ Looking at it from that angle, there’s so much more diversity. I can work with wines from northern Italy. I can work with wines from Austria, Germany, western Slovenia, eastern France and, of course, Switzerland,” she says.
And Hereth has taken that mandate in directions closer to home, including hunting down the diaspora of Alpine-style wines made in the U.S., such as Oregon producer Johan Vineyards’ Blaufränkisch and bottles from Teutonic Wine Company. “I have been looking at producers locally who are inspired by similar traditions to Alpine wines, think cooler more challenging climates, mountain influences and varieties traditional to Alpine regions. It’s cool to see what connections there are between Alpine traditions and what they’re doing here,” she says. “We’re in Oregon and we’re working with local farms. So as much as I can, I bridge the two and say this is what’s similar between [the wines from the Alps and the U.S.] and embrace them both.”
Come summertime, Hereth especially likes to frame Alpine—or Alpine-influenced—wines as an alternative to ubiquitous rosé. “I love the delicate fruit and floral notes balanced by the zingy acidity from Alpine wines on a hot summer day,” she says of the light-bodied reds. “Put it in an ice bucket, let it cool down, and you almost have something between a red and a rosé, with more structure and flavor but a light freshness. It can make the wines come alive,” she says.
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