Danilo Thomain talks like a tornado—the conversational embodiment of the boundless energy it takes to tend vines in such a steep, difficult terrain as the Enfer d’Arvier. The second-highest zone of the Valle d’Aosta in northwest Italy (only Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle—home of our renowned Ermes Pavese—lies above it), the Enfer d’Arvier encompasses a scant five hectares, a splendorous amphitheater of 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 one 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.
It’s tough to believe we’re about to receive our ninth vintage from Danilo. It seems like just the other day that, through a recommendation from his pal Ermes Pavese, we had yet another face of the Valle d’Aosta’s incomparable terroir revealed to us. These are the sorts of treasures we at Rosenthal live for—arresting wines made by fascinating people working in unique corners of the earth—and Thomain’s wines were an immediate success. Danilo produces only a few hundred cases of wine each vintage, and being able to purchase over half of it for the USA feels like rolling triple 7s every year.
So what exactly goes into the Thomain Enfer d’Arvier? Needless to say, such 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. The local stalwart Petit Rouge is the only grape variety Danilo has under vine, and the end result is perhaps the most tension-laden red wine we import from the region. It pours a deep, blackish red, sanguine and glowing. The nose is unfailingly boisterous, full of black cherry, savory spice, tiny mountain flowers, and a vaguely menacing whiff of the sauvage. Rapier-like acidity pulls firmly at the reins of muscular, thickly luscious fruit—“Enfer d’Arvier,” after all, means “The Hell of Arvier,” a reference to the blistering heat such perfectly angled vineyards absorb under full sun, and the wine is indeed never deficient in ripeness. An essay in extremes, Danilo’s Enfer d’Arvier is both bracing in its freshness and intense in its concentration. And, as a recently consumed 2008 (the first vintage we imported) attested, it can age, and age beautifully. 2016 was an exceptionally strong, well-balanced vintage in this part of the Valle d’Aosta, and Thomain’s wine expresses fully the concentration and verve of such a healthy season.
2016 Danilo Thomain Enfer d’Arvier
NOTE: One of the first questions people tend to ask about the wine is inevitably, “What’s the story with that label?” Certainly, the busy, crude illustrating of a trident-wielding demon clutching a bottle stands out in any context, and it is tempting to chalk it up to quirkiness. However, while we often associate the Alps with clean air, pure water, and admirably 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.