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The Nebbiolos of the Vatellina

In the far northern reaches of Lombardy, 1OO kilometers north of Milan, so near the edge of Italy that one might fall off into Switzerland, lies the isolated Valtellina, a region unique in its geography, its culture and its wines. Here is grown the noble nebbiolo of a character distinct from that of neighboring Piedmont, whose Barolo and Barbaresco are particularly well known. In moderating a seminar on the subject at last year’s Boston Wine Expo, I was reminded that the wines of Valtellina nebbiolo are deserving of greater renown. They, and some of those of Piedmont, are the only ones of this grape to occupy the vinous Olympus.

The prime vineyards of the Valtellina cling to the dizzyingly steep terraced slopes for more than 4O kilometers of the north bank of the upper Adda River, between elevations of 3OO and 7OO meters. I’m informed that 25OO kilometers of dry stone walls support 25,OOO vineyard terraces. The pebbly soil, which often must be replaced in the vineyards after sliding down, is chiefly siliceous clay. So steep are the slopes that mechanization is unthinkable. Some growers have installed little cable cars that go halfway to the stars to carry soil up and grapes down. The vines face south, and the unique east-west orientation of this alpine valley ensures sunshine all day, on the abundant sunny days. Air currents from Lake Como and the presence of the river moderate the temperature. The mountains protect the vines from frigid north winds in the winter and from desiccatingly hot south winds in summer. These modulating influences help compensate for the high latitude and low temperature. Day/night temperature swings are wide, enhancing the grapes’ flavor profile. Viticultural risks include cold summers, rain, hail, and landslides. The disastrous floods and landslides of 1987 are vividly recalled.

The Valtellina was originally settled, terraces built and vines planted by the Ligurians and Etruscans. Nebbiolo, however, had to wait until the late Middle Ages to be introduced. Its plantings developed between the 16th and 18th centuries under Swiss rule. The valley had the misfortune of sitting on a convenient route between important places, and thus was seldom left in peace. It was conquered by the Swiss in 1512. It figured as a major bone of contention during the Byzantine complexities of the Thirty Years’ War, after which it remained under Swiss aegis of one sort or another until 1797, when it was incorporated into the Cisalpine Republic, then passed in 1815 to the Austrian-dominated Lombardo-Venetian kingdom. The Swiss presence remains, in proprietorships and as customers of the wineries. The region became part of Italy in 1859. I doubt the vines took much notice of all the turmoil.

History’s destructive depredations were nearly revisited upon the Valtellina in the form of modern fight-to-the-death warfare in the waning days of World War II, when Mussolini and a few other deposed fascisti considered staging Il Duce’s last stand – a glorious apocalisse – in the well-fortified valley. Perhaps characteristically, Mussolini was captured by partisans in nearby Dongo and executed before the plan could be consummated.

Nebbiolo here is called Chiavennasca, analogous to the local term spanna in northeastern Piedmont. Most believe the term evolved from the name of the town of Chiavenna; some like the notion that it is derived from the dialect phrase ‘ciu vinasca’, or ‘most vinous’. Nebbiolo is the informing grape of all wines of the appellations Valtellina Superiore, Sforzato, both DOCG, and Rosso di Valtellina DOC. They must have a minimum of 9O percent nebbiolo, the rest from lists of recommended and authorized varietals, including the ancient natives rossola, pignola and brugnola, and the internationals pinot nero and merlot. The vines are mostly trained in modified Guyot. Permitted crop yields taper as one ascends the quality pyramid from the IGT to Sforzato at the peak.

The core of the zone, Valtellina Superiore, is usually designated by five subzones: Sassella, named for the small church of Sassella, from ‘sasso’ (‘stone’ or ‘cliff’), located west of the town of Sondrio; Grumello, named for the castle of that name, northeast of Sondrio; Inferno, for the torrid summer temperatures of its rocky terraces, east of Grumello, smallest of the subzones; Valgella, from vallicula, “small valley”, northeast of Sondrio, the largest subzone; and Maroggia, named for the mountain stream flowing through the vineyards, the most westerly and the newest subzone (decreed in 2OO2). Distinctions among wines of the subzones may be subtle. Unofficial terms of quality and of fantasy, e.g., Paradiso, are being used more frequently. Valtellina Superiore must contain at least 12 percent alcohol, and must be aged before release at least 24 months, half in oak casks, 36 months for riservas. Some of the better wines, after fermentation, are gifted with a twenty-percent addition of dried grapes, and then undergo a second fermentation. These enhanced wines have experienced the traditional ‘rinfòrzo’ method (‘reinforced’) similar to ripasso of Verona.

The most esteemed Valtellina wine is Sforzato (in dialect Sfursàt or Sfurzàt), made from dried nebbiolo grapes. Sforzàto means ‘forced’, ‘unnatural’. Its minimums are 9O percent nebbiolo, which must dry at least 11O days, 14 percent alcohol, 24 months of aging, half in oak casks. After harvest, the best and ripest bunches are laid out on wooden mats or shelves in cool, dry, aerated rooms called fruttai. By January or February, having lost up to 4O percent of their weight, thereby becoming concentrated and aromatic, the grapes are vinified to a luscious vino da meditazione. Fermentation must continue until the sugar is consumed. The process is familiar to fanciers of Amarone.

The grapes of Rosso di Valtellina can have a wider provenance, often from elevations of over 7OO meters and from deeper soils. The wine has to be aged for a minimum of six months. It is popular in Switzerland, where it is often labeled Veltliner (‘Valtellinese’).

Requirements are much looser for the IGT Terrazze Retiche di Sondrio (Terraces of the Rhaetian Alps – old name of this section of the central Alps, from Rhaetia, an ancient Roman province – of the province of Sondrio). Its wines don’t even have to be red: there are whites, rosés and sparkling wines; but aspiring vintners are edging closer to 1OO percent nebbiolo-based red wines.

In recent years, production has decreased and practices have been modernized in most hands. We are now seeing denser plantings, special crus, shorter fermentations, and more barriques. The use of new barriques is not risk free: it can be too much of a good thing, hiding the character of fine wine under the seductive scent of new oak. A neutral cask allows wine to speak, even sing, in its own voice. The 1OOO hectares of Valtellina vineyards produce about 3.5 million bottles annually. More than half is Valtellina Superiore. The more than 2OOO growers funnel their fruit to only 34 wineries; most of which are négociants, a few are cooperatives, almost none are small private producers – this may affect quality improvement.

Although tannic and showing generous acidity when young, the wines gracefully evolve with maturity in a few years to roundness, elegance and complexity, the nebbiolo’s fabled silken fusion of flavors. More austere, leaner and less deeply colored – and less expensive – than nebbiolo-based wines of Piedmont, these fine, perfumed wines should be equally treasured and sought for our restaurants and cellars.