Valtellina: Remarkable Vines, Views and Vistas of Mountain Viticulture in Northern Italy
I had the chance to visit Valtellina this fall. This story and these pictures were captured October 2nd & 3rd of 2022, on the last excursion that was part of the Wine Media Conference 2022. The stunning views, breathtaking vistas and fantastic food and wine were second only the our Valtellina hosts. These winemakers and proprietors were humble, generous and hard-working folks who have a big mission and vision - to share the story of Valtellina with wine lovers around the world.
Introduction to Valtellina
My first job in wine was at Liberty Wine Merchants in West Vancouver. It was a tiny shop that carried the most excellent and exclusive bottles of Bordeaux (a $6000 Chateau Margaux 1959 magnum), Burgundy (Remoissenet by vintages from early 70s) and classic producers from around the world. The most mysterious single bottle however, was the SFursat 5 Stelle (Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG) by Nina Negri. With a little research we discovered that Nebbiolo called Chiavennasca in this part of Italy was made passito style producing a rich, smooth velvety and age worthy style of wine. So when I heard about the excursion to Valtellina as part of the Wine Media Conference 2022, I jumped at it.
Valtellina: Nebbiolo of the Alps
Lombardy is a state filled with contrast. From the shores of Lago di Garda to the slopes of the Italian alps, there couldn't be a greater expression of diversity and extremes here in Italy. While some wine regions are easily accessible along a roadway with no particular vista, Valtellina leaves you breathless with its spectacular view and steep vineyards. The village of Sondrio lies in the heart of this steep valley where the alps rise sharply to the north and the south of the Adda river forming a perfect V - for Valtellina of course. The valley is an east-west corridor with Sondrio as the unexpected centerfold for this historic area. With some 2000 years of history, the town exposes layers of the old and the new through architecture, roadways and winery caves - secret and not so secret. Charms lives in the cobblestone streets, the brick buildings, the clock tower, and a concentrated area of bakeries and mountaineering shops. It’s also under the radar for its flavourful and cellar worthy wine. If you love Nebbiolo like I do, then you must explore Valtellina.
UNESCO Protected Terraced Vineyards
With 850 hectares of vineyard, this region boasts 60 wineries dedicated to mountain grown Nebbiolo. The unique feature of Valtellina is its historic and ancient system of terraced vineyards built by the Romans. These dry stone walls hold soil in place and make it possible, albeit difficult and expensive, to farm these steep slopes. UNESCO World Heritage designated terraces provide not only a glimpse into the symbiotic relationship of man and nature created by an ancient culture but also how necessity breeds invention. While originally used for agricultural crops of grain and produce, today vineyards dominate.
The Rhaetian (north) slope hosts the majority of the vineyards and terraces and captures the maximum amount of daily sunshine in a moderately dry region (only 700 to 900 mm of rain annually). The UV index is high and sunshine here is as strong as in Sicily. The elevation stretches from 300 to 750 meters with grade in some instances as steep as 73%. The air is mountain fresh, with breezes - Tivano and Bafalore come fresh from the glaciers in the morning and Breva comes from Lake Como in the afternoon. Like the breezes, the rivers are fresh water and glacier fed.
Four classifications protect the Valtellina brand and identity. Rosso di Valtellina DOC was established in 1968 and Valtellina Superiore DOCG and Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG, separate classifications, were established in 1998. All require a minimum of 90% Nebbiolo grapes with 10% from indigenous local varieties although top producers use 100% Nebbiolo. Alpi Retiche IGT, established in 1995, provides protection of indigenous white, red and rosé styles coming from this region. White grapes include Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Traminer, Riesling and red grapes include Merlot, Pinot Nero and Pignola.
Along with regional identity, vineyard specific wines from Valtellina are indicated on the label providing a deeper dive into the unique mountain terroir. Valtellina has five crus.
The crus are listed below with a little stylistic note and appear on labels as Valtellina Superiore XXX DOCG - XXX being the holder for the cru name. Riserva can appear on bottle labels where age is extended.
The Grapes of Valtellina
Growing Nebbiolo of the Alps is unique in the world to Valtellina and borders on the extreme. Irrigation is forbidden. Chiavennasca, the local name for Nebbiolo, is indigenous with the distinct features of thicker skins possibly from the influence of the wind. With so much sunshine, the canopy plays a key role in protecting grapes from sunburn. The diverse soils are rich in minerals with vine roots going deep into the bedrock establishing vines as old as 100 years. There is minerality at the heart of these wines along with freshness. Diurnal shift - the gap between warm days and cool nights - helps the fruit retain acidity and therefore freshness in the wines. Vineyard work is excessive and can only be a labor of love, with hours of labor per hectare close to 1500 whereas the average in hilly Piedmont is closer to 400 or fairly level Tuscany at 100. It is through the use of traditional pulley systems that vineyard work is acheived. At harvest, modern measures include use of helicopters to fly totes of grapes high in the vineyards down to the wineries in Sondrio.
Meeting the Makers
Our lunch hosted by Vini dei Valtellina is a fantastic selection of antipasti followed by a classic Italian lunch of several courses. As we dine and meet our hosts, we quaff fresh bright sparkling wine, white wine and then we make our way to the tasting table where the reds await. There are a dozen bottles of local wine, Valtellina DOC, Rosso di Valtellina DOCG and Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG just for us. Danilo Drocco, head of Nino Negri winery and president of the Consorzio called Vini di Valtellina is unpacking the power and perfection that is Valtellina.
Following lunch, its off to the grand tasting with a dozen wineries and hosts presenting selections of their best bottles for export. While we sip and spit our way around the old cave, it’s clear once again that Valtellina is unique. There is more wine than time and I find myself apologizing for not having a chance to connect with everyone.
See you next time!
Valtellina, is a wine region under the radar. Here is a little poetic license taken from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43 to express my love for this area and wine. It might not make sense until after you have visited.
Valtellina - how do I love thee! Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth of the Adda river, the breadth of the deepest valley and vineyard heights my soul can reach, my mouth taste, my fingers touch, my lungs sing and my arms embrace. I love thee freely and purely with passion and praise in my old age and youthful gaze, I love thee now and with my life’s last breath, oh immortal Valtellina, I’ll celebrate you even better after death.
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