Valtellina – an ode to Mountain Nebbiolo Part 1
This article is about how I discovered Valtellina, a special place. One to return to, again and again.
A few years ago, a glass of red wine was accompanied by the dread question, “what’s this?” On the first inspection, there was a floral perfume, high acidity, cherry fruit, tar and tannin. “Italian”, I ventured. My friend’s expression indicated that I was right but that my answer was neither revelatory nor adequate.
“Go on…” A closer look. The wine had an orange rim and smelled of roses while the palate showed violets, sour cherries and tar. It suggested the Nebbiolo grape, but from where? It didn’t seem big enough for a Barolo or Barbaresco, but Nebbiolo is successful in few other locations. Perhaps it was one of the smaller Piemontese appellations, say Gattinara or Ghemme?
A good guess perhaps, but no cigar.
“It’s from Valtellina, in Lombardy. Nebbiolo, as you say, but the local name for the grape is Chiavennasca, grown high up in the Alps”. I took a good look at the bottle. The label said Valtellina Superiore DOCG, Nino Negri, Inferno Mazér, Lombardy, Italy. 2002. It was superb.
I was hardly any wiser. It was my first encounter with Mountain Nebbiolo, and exciting wine with an almost Burgundian elegance. I resolved to find out more and, since Valtellina isn’t well-known, there was only one thing to do.
Now I’m driving north once again from Milan and heading for Valtellina, in Lombardy’s alpine foothills near the Swiss border. It’s around two hours drive up the eastern side of Lake Como. Emerging in bright sunlight from the last of a long series of road tunnels, you bear right. And then the spectacular valley of the river Adda is before you. Benvenuto a Valtellina.
Valtellina was part of the Austrian Empire before Italian unification, a strategic alpine pass to northern Europe. Unusually, the valley here runs west to east. Hence the south-facing slopes (the Retic Alp, rising to 4,000 metres) receives full sun from dawn ‘til dusk.
On this side of the valley, you’ll find tiny villages and ruined castles. The terraced vineyards rise steeply from the valley floor. A dozen Churches seem to sprout organically above dizzying precipices. The opposite, north-facing, side of the valley (the Orobic Alp) is a complete contrast. In full shade, there are only dense Chestnut stands.
There’s just one main road through Valtellina, which makes navigation easy. The SS38 follows the vivacious river Adda on its journey down to Lake Como. From the west, this route links the attractive wine towns of Morbegno, Sondrio, Chiuro and Tirano together. Eventually, it turns north to reach the ski resort of Bormio. With only a single carriageway after Morbegno, there is substantial traffic. Assume gridlock at harvest time!
The Valtellina terroir
Leaving the SS38, a tranquil haven of produce awaits. Apple orchards, fields of vegetables and buckwheat are on the valley floor. Buckwheat flour makes Pizzoccheri, the local ribbon pasta. Higher up, the alpine pastures produce other regional specialities such as honey, Bresaola (air-dried beef) and Casera and Bitto cheeses. There is nothing better than pizzoccheri with Valtellina wines.
But it’s the spectacular vineyards that make Valtellina so memorable. They stretch for 60 kilometres along the south facing slopes. The vines are on small terraces between 300 and 800 metres. These follow the contours, hacked out of vertiginous slopes by hand. Some are so narrow that they have just a single row of vines. There are over 20,000 individual parcels in only 1,200 hectares. Of this, 915 hectares are officially “difficult terrain”. That’s an understatement.
These terraces are held up by dry-stone walls, the remnants of ancient labours. Most were built in the 13th and 14th Centuries though some are far older. Measured together these walls would stretch for 2,500 kilometres! They’re a UNESCO World Heritage recommendation.
Valtellina grape growing possibly originated with the Romans, but the earliest proof is from the 9th Century. Some believe Benedictine Monks established the Nebbiolo grape in Valtellina, even before Piemonte. However, most think it more likely that Nebbiolo arrived in Valtellina in the early 19th Century.
Nebbiolo occupies more than 90% of the vineyard area. In Valtellina, Nebbiolo is known as Chiavennasca. It’s a dialect word meaning “most suitable for wine”.
Heroic Vatellina Viticulture
Valtellina has a northerly latitude and alpine setting. Despite this, its long hours of sunshine equal that of Sicily. A drying breeze blows along the valley from Lake Como called la Breva. The narrow valley concentrates and retains heat while the mountains ensure protection from cold winds and storms.
Those dry-stone walls also retain heat; the vineyards can be 5°C warmer than the valley floor. Damaging frosts are rare, as cold air sinks to the valley floor. Heat differences between day and night ensuring the grapes retain acidity and aromatics. Low rainfall and the drying wind mean a low incidence of fungal diseases. Nebbiolo takes full advantage of the long growing season because it buds early and ripens late.
The poor granite soils of the terraces are ideal for vines. Stony, acidic and shallow, they are also free draining, with irrigation allowed only during an exceptional summer drought. Most vine rows run up and down the slopes to maximise their exposure to the sun. Growing grass between the vine rows, terracing and water channelling reduce erosion.
Most vineyard plots remain entirely inaccessible to machinery, so vineyard work is almost all by backbreaking toil. To work these vines, you need physical strength and a head for heights!
There are some 3,600 growers; so many individual holdings are as tiny and fragmented as the vineyards, averaging less than 1 hectare. Many of these “Sunday growers” tend their vines part-time, either for their consumption or to sell to the local co-operatives.
Nebbiolo is usually at a density of 4,000 plants per hectare. Being vigorous, restrictive pruning and canopy management are essential for a quality crop. Some producers are gradually replanting with newer, lower yielding clones at higher densities.
As Nebbiolo is late-ripening, the harvest usually begins during mid-October. Handpicked grapes have to be carried down the slopes. The most treacherous slopes utilise cable cars (téléfériques) to lower the grape bunches. The harvest of one particularly inaccessible site is flown out by helicopter!
As in most Italian regions, Valtellina has seen winery methods change. Today, styles of vinification and maturation range from the traditional to the modern. It depends on the producer’s philosophy, and maybe their bank balance.
The grapes will be de-stemmed as the thick skins of Nebbiolo have naturally high tannins. Acidification or chaptalisation (the adding of sugar) of the juice is not allowed. Nebbiolo already has plenty of tannins and the wines reach a natural alcoholic degree of between 11 and 13.5%. Fermentation is as likely to take place in temperature-controlled stainless steel as in cement tanks or traditional open-topped wooden vats.
The most significant change has been in maturation because of the introduction of ubiquitous French oak barriques. Traditionalists argue that new oak obliterates terroir. However this “international style” has been successful in export markets such as the USA. There seems to have been a reduction in new wood recently. Thankfully, the traditional large chestnut or Slavonian oak botti are still commonplace, leaving no overt taste of wood.
With so many vineyards, winemaking options and classifications, there is a tendency to vinify many different cuvées in various styles. In consequence, some producers have broad confusing wine ranges rather than establishing a clear identity.
The unique Valtillnese wine is Sforzato or sfurzat. The amount of Sforzato has grown as it commands the highest prices. It uses dried grapes and creates a strong, Amarone-style wine. Because this takes the best grapes, rules allow only a maximum 30% of the vineyard for Sforzato. It ensures no steep quality drop in any of the red wines.
Valtellina Classification system
A small region making only some 4 million bottles per year, Valtellina has the usual confusing Italian wine quality designations. The official DOC and DOCG wines are dry reds with a minimum Nebbiolo content of at least 90%. While most are 100% Nebbiolo, the remaining 10% is from a range of other authorised rare Lombardian grapes. These are Pignola Valtellinese, Brugnola, Rossola Nera (aka the wonderfully-titled Coda di Volpe della Valtellina), and Fortana. Pinot Nero and Merlot are also allowed.
Rosso di Valtellina DOC
240 hectares, often at the highest altitudes or less auspicious vineyards. It has a maximum yield of 70 hl/ha and a minimum maturation period of 7 months cask ageing. The wine must have a minimum strength of 11%. These are the reds for younger drinking. There are 1 million bottles per year.
Valtellina Superiore DOCG
Superiore for once does indicate a big step up in quality, with DOCG status in 1998. From the Valtellina heartland of 612 hectares, these are better quality vineyards with a lower maximum yield of 56 hl/ha. The wines must be at least 90% Nebbiolo. An extended minimum maturation period of 24 months includes at least 12 months in cask. The wine must reach a minimum strength of 12%. There are some outstanding and elegant examples, including single-vineyard wines. These will also repay keeping, developing over 5-8 years in bottle. There are around 2 million bottles per year.
Superiore may also be one of the five DOCG sub-zones.
Their principal differences are soils and aspect, and they are effectively Cru. If the wine is a blend of sub-zones, it can only be called Superiore.
The sub-zones are (from west to east):
Maroggia, a new addition in 2002 (25ha);
Sassella, the most substantial (150ha);
Grumello, the steepest (78 ha);
Inferno, the hottest (55 ha);
Valgella, the flattest (137 ha).
Riserva wines complicate matters further. These are Superiore wines from exceptional vintages. Maturation is longer to exploit their additional ageing potential. These have a minimum of 36 months ageing, of which 12 months must be in cask. They will develop for at least ten years in bottle.
Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG
Locally referred to as Sfursat (meaning “withering”), Sforzato di Valtellina is unique. Now seen as Valtellina’s signature wine, it sits at the top of the quality hierarchy and commands the highest prices. DOCG status came in 2003, long before Amarone received theirs.
At harvest, the best grapes from the Rosso and Superiore vineyards dry in the lofts of small buildings. These are the Fruttai, built in the vineyards.
After 110 days the grapes have lost 40% of their weight. The process concentrates sugars and flavours. There is some risk of grey rot, but the cold, dry air usually prevents this. Some noble rot (Botrytis cinerea) is acceptable. However, most producers, as in Valpolicella, try to avoid any Botrytis influence.
When pressed in the winery, the yields are much lower, frequently far less than the maximum of 40 hl/ha. After fermentation, the wine reaches a minimum strength of 14%. There is a minimum of 20 months maturation including at least 12 months in cask. These wines are the most likely to receive expensive new oak treatment. Strangely, Sforzato can’t show a sub-zone on the label. However, Riservas again have more extended ageing. With 500,000 bottles per year of this long-lasting and powerful “Amarone” style wine, it’s a Vino de meditazione. Many examples are magnificent.
IGT Terrazze Retiche di Sondrio
Finally, there are 350 hectares of this less restrictive designation. These are wines that don’t conform to the DOC or DOCG rules. As in other parts of Italy, IGT can be of very high quality. Small quantities of white wines come from Nebbiolo, Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Incrozio Manzoni, Traminer, Riesling, Muscat and Malvasia. Interestingly, there are even Metodo Classico sparkling wines.
IGT also covers the occasional rosé or non-conformist red wines. For example, those with higher than 10% of the other varieties allowed under DOC or DOCG. It also covers any wines made from late harvest grapes and sweet dessert wines. Simple Novello quaffing wines without cask ageing will also be IGT.
The local co-operatives and négociants dominate output given the fragmented vineyard ownership. It means that there are only 41 producers in Valtellina.
Given Valtellina’s location, it was natural that Switzerland once took the majority of the wine exported. However, Swiss exports declined after these wines lost their partial tax-exemption. To compensate, producers are developing the German, American and UK markets. For many, distribution remains an issue. Even in Italy, Valtellina wines are far from being well known.
Human labour is at a premium; it is arduous, costly and increasingly scarce. As most vineyards are inaccessible by machinery, pruning, wall maintenance and harvesting need manual labour. It’s no surprise that many might prefer more comfortable work in a modern office for higher wages. In working hours alone, a Valtellina vineyard needs between 1,300 and 1,600 working hours annually. Compare this with just 300 in the most straightforward parts of Italy. No wonder the vineyard area contracted massively from a peak of some 6,000 hectares.
Rarely, a few vineyards are accessible by small tractors. Valgella has some flatter sites, although such a description is relative. But using machines requires a costly reorientation of the vine rows to follow the contours. However, this does reduce labour to 700 working hours per year.
However, the only way Valtellina wines can thrive commercially is in the relentless pursuit of quality. Higher quality wines have more commercial value and hence are more profitable. Nevertheless, they remain of excellent value.
Valtellina is extraordinary. This “hidden gem” has spectacular scenery and a compelling expression of Nebbiolo. These wines stand easily with their more famous and expensive brothers from Barolo and Barbaresco. Meanwhile, the Sforzato style is a unique style of Nebbiolo. Valtellina wines are worth tracking down, whether in the UK or Italy.
Sometimes critics write off Lombardy as an inferior wine region when compared to its more illustrious Italian brethren. How wrong they are! With Valtellina, Franciacorta, Lugana and Oltrepò Pavese they have plenty of world-class wines to discover!
Part 2 recommends some of the best Valtellina producers with wines available in the UK. I’ll publish that on Nebbiolo Day, 13 November 2017, in celebration.