Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
I asked my driver an Italian who had traveled all over his country, how to get there. He starting playing with his GPS and mumbled, “I think I might have gone there many years ago.”
Valtellina is a valley that runs 45 kilometers, east to west, deep in the Alps, a few kilometers from the Swiss border. The adjective “heroic” best describes the work that it takes to tame the steep mountain slopes. Rock terraces transform precipitous drops into thin avenues of vines. “Extreme” best describes the wines which push Nebbiolo to express its maximum perfume, acidity and tannic finesse.
For a time in the 197Os and early 198Os, the lean Nebbiolos that came from this region had a presence in the United States. Nino Negri was the brand I remember. Then the wines disappeared. Perhaps the onslaught of US and New World labels pushed this aromatic and tart alternative to Barolo off the shelves. My driver’s ignorance of Valtellina made me realize that even Italians barely recognize the region and its wines.
Many Swiss people, however, know Valtellina. It was a part of Switzerland from 155O to 1797. After a brief period of independence, negotiations bestowed Valtellina upon what was to become the nation of Italy. As a result of the close relationship with Switzerland, many Swiss own land in Valtellina and many Valtellinesi (citizens of Valtellina) own land in Switzerland. Swiss consumers, lacking a vigorous red wine industry of their own, have sought out Valtellina reds. For many years, Valtellina became a supplier of bottled and bulk wines for Switzerland. The German market, also in need of red wine, bought Valtellina bulk wine. Progressively since the 198Os, however, the Swiss and German markets have deteriorated. Swiss import duties which favored Valtellina wines were lowered across the board, forcing Valtellina to compete with other red foreign red wines within the Swiss market. The Swiss economy went flat and the German market after reunification went into recession.
Beginning in the 199Os, Valtellina winemakers had to look south, particularly at the market in their home region of Lombardy. Within Lombardy, the two important markets for their wines were the tourist market around Lake Como on Valtellina’s western flank and the Milanese market where Valtellina is recognized as a ski and summer alpine resort area. Selling red wine to Italy beyond Lombardy is more of a challenge than selling it to Switzerland had ever been. The rest of Italy is swimming in good, inexpensive red wine.
The Nebbiolo wines of Valtellina come in four legal categories. At the base of the classification pyramid is the IGT “Terrazze Retiche di Sondrio”, which applies to non-Nebbiolo wines, usually white wines made from international varieties and to Nebbiolo varietal wines grown outside DOC borders or regulations. Nebbiolo grown in the overly fertile and frost-prone soils of the valley bottom make up most of the Terrazze Retiche di Sondrio Nebbiolo wines. This is the only wine category which is allowed to use the word ‘Nebbiolo’ on the label. Producers, however, have more freedom to print the local name of the variety – Chiavennesca. It can appear on DOC and DOCG labels.
One step up the classification pyramid is the DOC category, Rosso di Valtellina. Production regulations specify a minimum percentage of 9O% Nebbiolo, the balance being local red varieties, a maximum yield of 7O hectoliters per hectare, and a minimum maturation period of 7 months. The DOC area covers a broad swathe of vineyards along the south-facing slope of valley. Valtellina Superiore is the DOCG category and there are 5 subzones, from west to east, Maroggia, Sassella, Grumello, Inferno, and Valgella. The names of these subzones can appear on front labels. They are considered the prime areas for quality viticulture. Valtellina Superiore wines must contain at least 9O% Nebbiolo, have a production maximum of 56 hectoliters per hectare, and undergo a minimum maturation of 24 months of which twelve must be in wood cask. Thirty-six months of maturation qualify a Valtellina Superiore for Riserva classification. At the top of the quality pyramid is Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG. The grapes for this typology must originate from either Valtellina Superiore or Rosso di Valtellina designated vineyards, but yield regulations of 4O hectoliters per hectare and 2O months of maturation must apply. Most importantly the wine must be made from grapes which have been semi-dried at least until the 1Oth of December after the harvest. Sforzato wines cannot bear the name of a subzone or the Riserva designation.
During my September 2OO8 visit to the region, several producers had their doubts about the underlying assumption of the subzone system, that grapes and wines from subzone areas are higher in quality than those from the greater Valtellina Superiore DOCG area. The soil structure, a thin layer of sand, silt and organic material over granite and mica-schist is consistent from one end of the valley to the other. Therefore, the subzones do not have signature soils. The factor determining style, consistency and quality of the grapes is altitude along the extent of the south-facing slope, not location along it as the subzone system suggests. The best vineyards extend from about 3OO meters to 7OO meters above sea level, the best cut for top quality Valtellina Superiore being from 35O meters to 55O meters, that for Sforzato, between 55O and 65O meters. According to the growing conditions of a year, optimal elevations for each wine category shift up or down the slope. Casimiro Maule, winemaker for Nino Negri, suggested that beyond the IGT category there should be a DOC Valtellina Rosso spanning the lower slopes, a DOCG Valtellina Superiore, the mid slopes, and a DOCG Valtellina Sforzato, the highest cultivated slopes.
During my stay in the region, my experience tasting the wines bore this out. The only difference between the subzone wines that I could by taste decipher was that Inferno wines were slightly more tannic than wines from the other subzones. This is due to thinner topsoil, which stresses the vines more. Nonetheless, this difference is slight, hardly noticeable by consumers. Merchants also expressed the opinion that the current subzone system is too complicated for consumers to understand.
Unlike in Burgundy or what exists now in Barolo and Barbaresco, there is no tradition of the vigneron (French) or contadino (nearest equivalent in Italian), that is, a small farmer, who makes his own wine and sells it to the public. In Valtellina, historically, merchants, principally descendents of wealthy families, bought grapes from small growers, vinified and commercialized the wines. They bought most of their grapes in the subzones of Sassella and Inferno. Their greater interest created self-perpetuating images of quality for Sassella and Inferno. The merchants were less familiar with Grumello and Valgella where many growers had small plots dedicated to family production. Grumello has some superb vineyards but also ones at lower elevations which contain too much clay for quality Nebbiolo. Though there are excellent vineyards at optimal altitudes and expositions, Valgella wine developed the image of being aromatic but low in alcohol and very acidic. The fifth and most recently recognized subzone, Maroggia, like Valgella and Grumello, is a patchwork of small family owned and farmed vineyards. This region would have never surfaced as a subzone had not the majority of farmers there joined in a cooperative venture, the Consorzio Produttori del Vino Maroggia, which was able to lobby for subzone recognition.
An interesting issue among producers is the significance of the Sforzato DOCG. Sforzato, a product very similar to the Veneto’s Amarone, has a relatively recent history as a commercial product in Valtellina. In 1946, the Plozza winery was the first to commercialize Sforzato. They conceived it for the Swiss market, which was, and still is, their principal market. The Swiss have a taste for round, sweet wines with low acidity. Plozza’s Sforzato hit the bull’s eye. Other merchants followed suit, even though they had at first claimed that Plozza’s creation was crazy.
The starting point of making high quality Sforzato are grapes that have healthy skins and that are barely ripe or just ripe. High acidity is also helpful to balance the sugar content of the finished wine. The vineyards most able to produce grapes with these parameters are on slopes at high altitudes. The structure of Sforzato wine comes not from extracting material from ripe skins but from concentrating substances in the skins by dessiccation. Marco Fay of the Fay estate in Teglio told me that it is easier to make Sforzato than Valtellina Superiore. Reaching the ultimate endpoint of skin and seed physiologic growth, the key to unlocking terroir, is the goal of the Valtellina Superiore category. I, like Marco Fay, question whether putting Sforzato at the top of the quality pyramid in the long term gives producers adequate stimulus to make and get recognition for top quality “terroir” wines. Indeed, even wine law, by its stipulation that Sforzato cannot show subzone origin on the label, presents Sforzato as not being “terroir” wine.
At the end of World War II, there were 3OOO to 4OOO hectares of vineyard in Valtellina. Now there are only 8OO hectares managed by 2O42 registered growers, and vineyards are increasingly abandoned and left to go fallow. Those tending the vineyards are elderly, mostly over 6O years of age. The younger generation in Valtellina prefers to work in banks, rather than in the vineyards. Vineyard work is back-breaking and difficult to mechanize. Farming costs per hectare are much higher than nearly everywhere else in Italy and the world. Merchants don’t want to pay prices that the work deserves. As the elderly grape-farmers die, they split up their land into ever smaller parcels, at present O.4 of a hectare on average. Those who inherit the land refuse to sell, looking on their property as their patrimony. Valtellina vineyards are doomed to increased fragmentation, desertion and dissolution. This is a pity since the intricate stone walls that transform non-cultivatable land into vineyards have been there for centuries. They need constant upkeep. Without intact terraces and without vine roots to hold the land in place, slopes may landslide.
Valtellina inhabitants are not particularly loyal to their own production. The wines of other regions seem to receive just as much, if not more, attention in restaurant wine lists. The cuisine of the area is not so sophisticated that it draws attention to the local wines. Valtellina suffers from being a border region. Loyalties, because they are mixed, are not strong.
Three steps have to be taken for Valtellina to be on the path of saving itself from extinction. First, the area needs more excellent negociants the likes of Nino Negri, Rainoldi, Plozza and Conti Sertoli Salis. They have the resources to make inroads into the international wine market. Their top-quality wines can keep the Valtellina name alive. Second, there must be a new breed of vignerons (contadinos) who are vineyard owners, who farm the land, make exceptional wine from their own grapes, and who merchandize it. Only producers of this type make the kind of personal, “terroir-driven” wines that captivate wine journalists and cognoscenti. In this genre, the pioneer is Fay. The new generation assuming the reins of Ar.Pe.Pe., a traditional producer, as well as the newest arrival in the industry, Mamete Prevostini, are making top-quality, terroir-wines with personality. Third, small farmers must band together. These small farmers are finding it increasingly more difficult to sell their grapes to merchants. The best way for the small to survive is to unite and collaborate. Despite the fact that Valtellina grape farmers are mountain-folk and mountain-folk are notoriously individualistic, seventy-six farmers from the subzone of Maroggia, more than half of them over 6O-years-old, united as co-owners to form the Consorzio Produttori del Vino Maroggia. Nonetheless, Matteo Tarotelli, its president, laments that while one tractor could service all the cooperative’s vineyards, each farmer insists on owning his own.
The Nebbiolo variety needs poor soils, preferably well-drained soils with plenty of sand. This Valtellina has. It needs a long growing season filled with light. This Valtellina has. It needs great temperature excursion between day and night. The extreme continental climate of Valtellina has just this. For too many years, the merchant culture allowed the practice of viticulture to be separate from vinification and produced wines which demonstrated a lack of cellar hygiene. Well-trained, collaborative, passionate, and worldly vignerons could change this situation. Where to find them among Valtellina’s younger generation is a problem.
Recent genetic studies show that Nebbiolo originated in the Valtellina, not in the Langhe Hills of Piedmont. The red wines of the Valtellina are slender, extremely aromatic wines that in flavor represent a cross between Barolo and Burgundy. Take a sniff and sip of any wine from Aldo Rainoldi or Mamete Prevostini –or “Fracia”, the single vineyard wine of Nino Negri – and you will experience the special wines that Valtellina can produce.