Italy’s hidden wine valley: the Valtellina

Valtellina is one of the most dramatic vineyard landscapes in the world, invoking comparisons with Germany's Mosel, Portugal's Douro and Italy's Alto Adige

PORTLAND, Ore. July 24, 2016/ Troy Media/ – The Nebbiolo grape variety has long been associated with Italy’s Piedmont region. There it is used to produce two of Italy’s greatest wines: Barolo, the self-styled king of Italian wines, and its equally distinguished cousin, Barbaresco.

There is one other kingdom, however, where it reigns supreme. This region, largely unknown to international wine enthusiasts, is Lombardy’s hidden valley – the Valtellina.

The Valtellina is a long, narrow alpine valley on the Rhaetian side of the Alps, in the province of Sondrio, at the far north of the Lombardy region along the Swiss-Italian border. The valley, about 100 kilometres northeast of Milan, runs along a 220-kilometre east-west axis from the village of Berbenno to the village of Tirano. The wine-producing region is only about 50 kilometres in length, roughly on either side of the town of Sondrio.

The Adda River carved the valley out of the hard granite of the local mountains. Tiny vineyard plots, averaging only one-quarter hectare in size, are spread out along the south facing slopes of the mountains, at altitudes of 200 to 800 metres above sea level. The total area under cultivation is slightly less than 1,090 hectares.

This is one of the most dramatic vineyard landscapes in the world, invoking comparisons with the unlikely terraced vineyard plots of Germany’s Mosel, Portugal’s Douro and Italy’s Alto Adige. If they were connected end-to-end, the stone retaining walls of the terraces, called muretti (little walls), would form a continuous wall 2,500-kilometres long.

The soils in the valley are sandy and gravelly, well drained, alluvial and rich in silica. Large stones on the surface absorb heat during the day, releasing it at night. Much of the sand and gravel soils in the terraces were hauled up the backbreaking slopes in baskets from the valley bottom. The large diurnal variation in daily temperatures, typical of vineyards at altitude, promotes acidity, while the heat retaining gravel soils helps promote ripening.

Warm, dry summers, with long days of sunshine, help to maximize sugar levels in the grapes, creating an ideal mix of sugar, acidity and bright, vibrant cherry scented fruit. The Rhaetian Alps block the cold northern winds, while the Orobie Alps block winds from the south. The la breva, a warm, gentle wind that originates over Lake Como, moves warm air into the valley, and helps promote pollination in the spring and reduce fungal diseases.

Wine production in the Valtellina dates back some three millennia, to the Etruscans and Ligurians, and predates Roman times. Benedictine Monks first introduced the Nebbiolo grape into the Valtellina when they moved into the valley in the 12th century. This grape, an ancient clone of the modern Nebbiolo grown in Piedmont, is called Chiavennasca – an adaptation from the local dialect Ciu Venasca meaning “more winey.” Over time, Nebbiolo/Chiavennasca came to represent 90 per cent of the grapes cultivated in the region.

The Valtellina’s most famous wine is the Sforzato di Valtellina, also written as Sfursat. The practice of “raisinating” red wines 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, concentrates the sugars and acids in the grape allowing for the production of a more robust and concentrated wine. In ancient times, such wines were prized both for their concentration of flavour and superior holding ability.

Today, the grapes are placed on wooden or plastic lattices to dry in a climate controlled room, called a fruttaio, for a period of two to three months. During this period, the grapes will lose about 40 per cent of their volume. The raisinating process also modifies the acidity and enhances the aromatic characteristics of the wine. The grapes cannot be pressed until at least the 10th of December.

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-litre botti to French barriques. Historically, the practice was to use large wooden containers made of the local chestnut or Slavonian oak.

This botti are being replaced with smaller, traditional 225-litre 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 per cent Nebbiolo, with a minimum alcohol level of 14 per cent.

One would expect to find 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 Sforzati wines exhibit more concentration than their Valtellina brethren, they still show the crisp, bright acidity and pronounced, tart, black and red fruit flavors typical of the Valtellina.

There are approximately 40 wine producers in the Valtellina. Among the top wineries to look out for are: Nino Negri, the largest of the Valtellina producers, and Aldo Rainoldi, one of the most innovative. Also worth looking for are Ar.Pe.Pe, Conti Sertoli Salis, Sandro Fay and Triacca.

For diehard aficionados of Nebbiolo, the Valtellina offers an alternative version of Nebbiolo, one completely different than the traditional styles of Piedmont’s Barolo or Barbaresco wines. This medium fruity wine is redolent with a bouquet of sour cherry and floral aromas, with crisp, bright acidity and smooth delicate tannins.

Joseph V. Micallef is an historian, best-selling author, keynote speaker and commentator on wine and spirits. Joe holds the Diploma in Wine and Spirits and the Professional Certificate in Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (London). Bottoms Up is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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