Danilo Thomain’s Enfer d’Arvier

Posted on Posted in Articles, Danilo Thomain, Rosenthal Wine Merchant News, RWM Contributor

At Rosenthal Wine Merchant, the Alps have always been close to our heart. After all, the iconic Carema from Luigi Ferrando—situated at the grand entryway to the Valle d’Aosta—was the first wine Neal ever imported into the United States, back in early 1980. One of the most rewarding expansions of our work over the past decade and a half has taken place in this beautiful valley, first with the rock-solid Grosjean family, and soon after with the indefatigable Ermes Pavese, working in the Valle d’Aosta’s highest-altitude pockets of viticulture.

Ten years ago, Ermes introduced us to the fast-talking, infectiously upbeat Danilo Thomain, a friend of his who lives just “downhill” in the hamlet of Arvier—home of the second-highest winegrowing zone in the valley. Encompassing a scant five hectares, the Enfer d’Arvier is a splendorous amphitheater of steeply terraced vines flanked by the Dora Baltea river below. Given the miniscule vine holdings most landowners in the Valle d’Aosta possess, co-operatives still predominate in the region, and indeed the majority of the Enfer d’Arvier’s output is via the local co-op. With his single hectare in production, Danilo stands as the zone’s only independent bottler of wine. Amazingly, he is currently clearing and de-foresting a hectare’s worth of hillside above his current holdings in order to expand production, thereby reclaiming some of the long-unused but prime terrain of a zone whose viticultural records date back to the 13th century.

Thomain’s Enfer d’Arvier is perhaps the most jubilant, tension-laden red wine we import from the Valle d’Aosta. Produced entirely from the indigenous Petit Rouge, it’s a homemade wine in every sense of the word: these brutally steep terraces must be worked entirely manually; grapes are hand-harvested, carried just down the road to Danilo’s house, and the wine is made right there—fermented spontaneously, and aged in non-temperature-stabilized steel tanks in his basement two stories below the earth’s surface. The just-arrived 2018 pours a deep, black red—a gorgeous, menacing sanguine color. The nose is exuberant, brimming with black cherries, sun-drenched stones, tiny mountain flowers, and a touch of the sauvage. The huge diurnal shifts between Enfer d’Arvier’s scorching days—“Enfer d’Arvier,” after all, means “The Hell of Arvier”—and chilly nights expresses itself in a palate tug-of-war between rapier-like acidity and thick, luscious fruit that vibrates with energy.

NOTE: One of the first questions people tend to ask about the wine is inevitably, “What’s the story with that label?” Certainly, the crude illustration of a trident-wielding demon clutching a bottle stands out in any context, and it’s tempting to chalk it up to quirkiness. However, while we often associate the Alps with clean air, pure water, and industrious inhabitants, those massive mountains harbor a profound darkness—one which suffuses local lore. Stories abound of monsters that lurk in the region’s impenetrable forests, demons who dwell far below the surface of the rock, spiritual descendants of the geological violence which created the very terrain itself millennia ago. The 1980s-era precursor to the current label is an even more blatantly evil depiction of hellfire and angry ghouls—basically, a heavy metal album cover glued to a bottle of wine. And even the old pre-1960s label shows a makeshift chorus line of cavorting skeletons and assorted unsavory spirits. This darkness is just as much a part of Alpine life as the beautiful vistas and clean atmosphere, and Thomain’s label attests to that in bold, irresistible fashion. Furthermore, it captures the dual nature of the wine itself—a liquid both invigoratingly vibrant and broodingly savory, one that expresses all the teeming life above the Alpine soil as well as the unknowable depths which lie below.

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