92 points Falstaff
"Sparkling, bright cherry red. Fragrant, flowery nose of orange zest, rose hips, raspberries and a hint of spice. Very juicy and very bright on the palate, of medium intensity, balanced and very accessible, best served slightly chilled."
Vinous Reverie Notes
Forbes - The Valtellina: Discovering Nebbiolo From The Alps
"The Valtellina is a long, sinuous alpine valley bordered by the Bernina Alps, part of the Rhaetian Alps, the Ortles Mountains in the northeast and the Orobie Alps to the south. It snakes its way along a 132-mile east-west axis from the village of Berbenno to the town of Tirano. Situated in the far north of the Lombardy region, it forms part of the border between Italy and Switzerland.
Geographically and economically the region has more in common with Switzerland, a country it has had a long association with, than it does with Italy. From 1512 to 1815, the area was controlled by various Swiss cantons. In 1815, it was joined to Austrian Italy and in 1859, it became part of the Kingdom of Italy. Historically, the valley was an important trade route that connected the Po plain with Germany and the Danube watershed via the Bernina, Stelvio, Aprica and Umbrail passes.
The Valtellina is also one of Italy’s smallest and least known wine producing regions. It stretches for 15 miles on either side of the town of Sondrio. The valley was carved from the hard granite of the local mountains by the glaciers that descended from the Alps during the last ice age. Today, the Adda River winds its way across the valley floor.
This is one of the most dramatic vineyard landscapes in the world, invoking comparisons to the terraced vineyard plots of Germany’s Mosel, Portugal’s Douro and Italy’s Alto Adige. Perched on these impossibly steep slopes, tiny terraces, many less than .65 acres in size, cling to the south facing slopes of the mountainside at altitudes of 750 feet to 2,500 feet above sea level. The total area of cultivation is approximately 2,100 acres.
A trade agreement between Italy and Switzerland required Swiss importers to purchase a minimum quantity of Valtellina wines. When the agreement finally ended in the 1980s, the region’s wine industry was left in disarray. Many wine producers closed and approximately 80% of the valley’s vineyards were torn up, many replaced with apple orchards.
The Italians call this heroic viticulture, although even a superhero might find wine-making here a challenge. It is one of the most forbidding landscapes in the world in which to grow grapes. Only a few plots are large enough to allow even basic mechanization. Most must be worked by hand.
During harvest, grapes were transported down the steep mountain trails or across never-ending staircases in small baskets called portini. Today they have been replaced by plastic versions. A few large producers have aerial pulley systems to transport grapes down the steep mountain side, but these are the exceptions.
The terraces are held together by dry, stone retaining walls called muretti or little walls—some of which date back to the Middle Ages. Placed end-to-end, they would form a wall 1,500 miles long. This is the largest terraced wine region in Italy.
It’s muretti are distinctive enough to have earned the region a nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, there is an acute shortage of stone masons, so it is imperative that the muretti are maintained. If they were to collapse, it’s highly unlikely they would ever be rebuilt.
The soils are a complex mix of clay, loam, sand and gravel, with the composition varying widely depending on the elevation and location. They are well drained, rich in silica, and in places can be quite shallow and rocky. Winter rains can create a lot of erosion, necessitating the back-breaking task of hauling up soil in baskets, often times by hand or on a mule, from the valley bottom.
The aspect of the mountainside varies from southeast to southwest as it follows the contours of the mountain slope. Only south facing terraces, preferably with a western aspect, have any hope of consistently ripening here. The large, diurnal variation in daily temperature, typical of vineyards at altitude, promotes acidity, while the heat retaining gravel and stony soils promote ripening.
Warm, dry summers with long days of sunshine help to maximize the sugar levels in the grapes, creating an ideal mix of sugar, acidity and phenolic ripeness. The Rhaetian Alps, on the north side of the valley, block the cold northern winds, while the Orobie Alps, on the south side of the valley, block winds from the south.
The la Breva, a warm, gentle wind that originates over Lake Como immediately to the south, moves warm air into the valley and helps promote pollination in the spring and reduces fungal disease. Foehn winds, a dry Alpine wind that sometimes descends from the northeast, also warms the valley in the spring and helps reduce humidity.
Paradoxically, notwithstanding its northern location, Valtellina summers have a heat index comparable to the sun-drenched island of Pantelleria off the coast of North Africa. Capers and Indian figs (a cactus), typical Mediterranean flora, grow like weeds here. Bud break is two weeks earlier than in Piedmont’s Langhe, but because of the intense summer heat vines shut down in July, so the harvest is two weeks later than in Piedmont. Harvest can run until mid-November.
In many years, Italian harvest data is published before Valtellina producers begin vinifying their grapes. The intense summer heat means that many grape varieties would get burned as they start to ripen. Because Nebbiolo is a late ripening grape, it is still green during the hottest part of the Valtellina summer, making it one of the few grapes that can be successfully ripened in the region.
Wine production in the valley dates back more than 2 millennia, and predates Roman times. The region’s claim to fame is Chiavennasca, the local name for various ancient clones of Piedmont’s famed Nebbiolo grape. The valley grows several other indigenous grapes including Rossola, Pignola and Brugnola. All three varieties are genetically linked to Nebbiolo. The average age of the vineyards is around 50 years, with some vineyards in the Sassella sub-zone exceeding 100 years.
The first written references to Chiavennasca date back to the 12th century, although it is likely that the variety was being grown in the region well before then. The name comes from the local dialect, Ciu Venasca, meaning more winey. Today it represents more than 90% of the grapes grown in the region. Compared to the Nebbiolo in the Langhe, Chiavennasca has a larger, looser grape bunch.
It’s long association with Nebbiolo has led the local wine producers’ association, the Consorzio di Tutela di Vini di Valtellina, to describe Chiavennasca as Nebbiolo from the Alps. Indeed, although the evidence is circumstantial, the breadth of genetic diversity in Chiavennasca has led researchers at the Fondazioni Fojanini in Sondrio to suggest that Nebbiolo might well have originated in this alpine valley long before it found its home in Piedmont.
The Wines Of The Valtellina
The Valtellina produces four main categories of wine: Sforzato (DOCG), Valtellina Superiore (DOCG), Rosso di Valtellina DOC and Terrazze Retiche di Sondrio IGT.
The Valtellina’s most famous wine is the Sforzato di Valtellina, also written as Sfursat. This was the first raisinated dry wine to obtain a DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), Italy’s highest ranking for wines of superior quality. Granted in 2003, it preceded Italy’s most famous raisinated dry wine, Amarone, by 7 years.
The practice of raisinating grapes, appassimento in Italian, for several months before vinifying them is an ancient tradition that dates back to classical antiquity. These wines have traditionally been referred to in northern Italy as vini di paglia, wines of straw, a reference to the practice of drying the grapes for several months on mats of straw.
The drying, or raisinating of the grapes, concentrates the sugars and acids in the grape, producing more robust and concentrated wines. Historically, this technique was used to produce sweet wines, highly prized in antiquity because the elevated sweetness would help preserve them and give them a longer shelf life. Over time, producers discovered indigenous yeast varieties, which had higher alcohol tolerances, and could ferment all the sugar in the grape must into alcohol. The result was robust, dry red wines.
The practice of raisinating grapes prior to vinification is still widely practiced in northern Italy. In addition to well-known wines like Sforzato di Valtellina and Amarone, many Italian wine producers will include a portion of raisinated grapes, typically 10% to 20%, in their red wines.
In the Valtellina, for example, some producers will use a portion of raisinated grapes in the production of Valtellina Superiore (DOCG). It is also true of some Valpolicella ripasso producers in the Veneto, although in Valpolicella both newly raisinated grapes and the skins leftover after the production of Amarone can be used, depending on the producer.
The Sforzato di Valtellina is made from a selection of the finest Nebbiolo grapes. These are typically picked about a week or so earlier than the main crop. It can be produced anywhere in the Valtellina. Immediately after harvesting they are placed on wooded lattices to dry in a room called a fruttaio. The room may have climate controls like a dehumidifier and heat or simply rely on the prevailing winds to dry the grapes.
Increasingly, the practice is to use plastic trays, as they are more hygienic. The grapes are left to dry for a period that can range from 30 to 100 days, depending on the practice of the producer. During this period, the grapes will lose between 20% and 40% of their volume, concentrating the juice and the acids and sugars they contain.
The raisinating process also reduces the acidity, hence grapes are picked earlier to retain more acidity, and changes the aromatic characteristics of the wine. The tartaric acid will drop significantly, but the other acids will stay the same. It also increases glycerin levels, resulting in a smoother, more viscous wine, with a more pronounced palate weight.
The grapes cannot be pressed until at least the 10th of December. Of late, the trend in the Valtellina has been to pick grapes later and to dry them for less time—typically 30 to 60 days. This preserves more of the fresh fruit elements, resulting in wines that are more floral and fruit forward than the traditional, slightly reductive style, that was typical in the past.
After vinification, the wine is aged for 20 months, first in wood for a minimum of 12 months and then in bottle, before being released. Wood casks can vary from 5,000-liter botti to French barriques. Historically, the practice was to use large wooden containers made of the local chestnut or Slavonian oak.
This practice is being replaced by the more innovative producers with smaller, traditional 225-liter barrels made from French or Slavonian oak. Chestnut imparts more tannins to maturing wine, while smaller oak barrels produce smoother, finer, less tannic wines. The result is a strong red wine that is at least 90% Nebbiolo and with a minimum alcohol level of 14%. Most Sforzato wines are between 14% and 16% ABV.
The combination of the Nebbiolo grape and the process of raisinating it for several months would suggest that the resulting wine would be a big, powerful, concentrated red wine, something of a cross between Piedmont’s Barolo’s and the Veneto’s Amarone. The result is, in fact, surprising. While Sforzato wines exhibit more concentration than their Valtellina brethren, they still show the crisp, bright acidity and elegance along with the pronounced, tart, black and red fruit flavors typical of the Valtellina wines.
The thin skin of the Nebbiolo grape, unlike the varieties used to make Amarone, and the practice of minimizing the amount of tannin extracted during vinification, unlike the traditional style of vinifying Barolo, creates a Nebbiolo wine unlike any other. The bright, cherry flavors and rose and violet aromas that are unmistakably Nebbiolo are still there, but the tannic backbone is much lighter, less obtrusive.
This is alpine Nebbiolo. It has more in common with the Nebbiolo (locally called Spanna) grown in the Val D’Aosta or the Nebbiolo from Gattinara or Ghemme in the alpine hills of Alto Piemonte, than it does with traditional Barolo or even the fruitier Barbaresco. This is Nebbiolo truly in a class by itself.
The Valtellina Superiore is also designated a DOCG. Superiore wines are limited to a maximum yield of approximately 3.3 tons per acre. The wine must consist of at least 90% Chiavennasca produced from vineyards, with a planting density of at least 1,600 plants per acre. The wine must be aged for a minimum of 24 months, of which at least 12 months must be in wooden casks of any size. The alcohol level must be at least 12%.
The Valtellina Superiore DOCG is divided into 5 different sub-districts.
From west to east these sub-districts are Maroggia, Sassella, Grumello, Inferno and Valgella. Wines designated Superiore can carry a specific sub-district designation or a generic Valtellina Superiore label if grapes are drawn from multiple sub-districts.
Maroggia is the smallest of the sub-districts with only about 60 acres under cultivation. The wines from Maroggia have an intense ruby red color featuring cherry, raspberry and blackberry aromas, along with typical Nebbiolo aromas of rose petal and violet. Maroggia wines tend to be balanced, full and dry, with soft light tannins and good acidity. These wines have a long and elegant finish.
Sassella is the most prestigious of the Valtellina’s wine districts. It covers an area of approximately 325 acres. The vineyards are located along a large, steep slope that bulges out of the valley wall. These vineyards have excellent drainage and a particularly sunny, southerly aspect. The gravelly soils contain large stones, sassi in Italian, which gave the sub-region its name. Sassella wines have a bright, ruby color featuring aromas of cherry and raspberry jams, roses and ripe black cherry. On the palate, the wine is full, with smooth soft tannins, complex, nuanced flavors and an elegant finish, with notes of prune and spices.
Grumello is a 200-acre district northeast of the city of Sondrio. It takes its name from the Grumello castle, which has towered over the valley since the 13th century. The vineyards rise to an altitude of 2,200 feet above sea level, 1,200 feet above the valley floor, and are among the highest in the Valtellina. The soils are deeper here, with more clay, resulting in a bolder, richer wine.
Grumello wines are a light, ruby color and exhibit many of the typical Nebbiolo aromas of potpourri, spice, tar and leather. They tend to be more approachable, faster maturing, easy drinking wines. These are robust to medium wines, although they can be also vinified in a much lighter style, with smooth well-ripened tannins, crisp, medium acidity, underscoring tart, juicy, red fruit with hints of tobacco and even some minerality.
Inferno, meaning hell in Italian, is a 140-acre sub-region. The terrain here is particularly uneven and difficult to farm. Tiny terraces, some as little as 500 square feet, stretch between the villages of Poggiridenti and Treviso. The slopes here are also believed to retain more heat than other parts of the valley and may be the origins of the name inferno.
These wines tend to be dark garnet in color and show riper fruit with pronounced notes of dried red and black fruit and flower aromas, with hints of spice and tobacco. Like other Valtellina wines it has a medium body with bright, crisp acidity and fine smooth tannins.
The easternmost district in the Valtellina is Valgella, about 10 miles east of Sondrio. Stretching from the villages of Chiuro to Teglio, the sub-region covers over 340 acres and is the largest of the sub-regions. It sits in the Val Fontant Valley, a side valley of the Valtellina, surrounding the tiny village of Valgella.
These wines tend to be a bit more tannic, while exhibiting the typical Nebbiolo aromas of cherry, roses and dried red and black fruit, with hints of earth and tobacco. These are medium bodied wines with crisp acidity and sharp, tart sour cherry and cranberry flavors."
100% Nebbiolo (Chiavennasca). Made with only Nebbiolo grapes, thanks to its intriguing simplicity and easy drinkability, this is the perfect wine for every day, while standing up to even the most important occasions. Transparent garnet red, it surprises us with its gentle floral notes, which lead to a fresh, fruity and harmonious taste. Delightful and joyous, it’s easy to match with food but is perfect with all traditional cuisine from Valtellina.