The wines of Valtellina, produced at altitude near the Swiss border, are well worth seeking out for their elegant, perfumed character, says STEPHEN BROOK after a visit to the region.
In 1991 a delegation of growers from Valtellina, an Alpine valley just south of St Moritz and the Swiss frontier, came to London. They presented their wines, which struck me as very good, then went home and were never seen again. This is a shame, since the wines of Valtellina have a unique and very attractive personality. They are planted on south- and east-facing slopes along the 45km width of a valley formed by the exuberant River Adda as it flows towards Lake Como. Orchards line the valley floor, chestnut groves blanket the higher inclines, and vines cover the slopes between 350 and 700m. Summers are hot and the growing season is prolonged, with many growers not harvesting their finest grapes until November or even December. Italian bureaucrats have endeavoured to complicate matters, but there are essentially three groups of wines: basic Valtellina, with a maximum yield of 65 hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare); Valtellina Superiore, from better sites with lower yields; and four sub-zones, widely agreed to produce the best wines – Sassella, Inferno, Grumello and Valgella.
Arturo Pelizzatti Perego believes that Sassella is the best of the lot, but opinions vary. All four are steep, rugged sites with excellent exposure to the sun and Sassella, in particular, resembles a quilt that has been unpicked and reassembled. For some wineries, such as Rainoldi, the top wine is often a Valtellina Superiore aged in new oak, while the traditional Riserva style, which requires long ageing in large neutral casks, is reserved for the Grumello or other subzones. Although there are only 20 producers, there are 2,000 growers and the average holding is a mere 0.3ha. It seems hard to believe, but these smallholdings are divided into 200,000 parcels. However, when you see the vineyards, with their patchwork of tiny terraces, that seems plausible after all. Most of the hobby growers are contracted to sell their grapes to the larger producers, so that wineries such as Negri and Triacca will each buy fruit from over 200 growers. ‘Our main problem,’ says the veteran winemaker Claudio Introini, who now works for the Sertoli Salis estate, ‘is that the average age of proprietors is 65. Their children have no interest in maintaining the vineyards, so the future is uncertain. The youngsters prefer to work in the cities or Switzerland and don’t want to spend their weekends pruning vines. There used to be 3,200ha here two centuries ago. Now we’re down to just over 800.’
The dominant grape variety by far is Nebbiolo, known locally as Chiavennasca. Some white wine is also produced, but it’s mostly for local consumption and doesn’t reach great heights. Since Valtellina was ruled by the Swiss canton of Grisons from 1512 to 1797, the traditions of the valley are more Swiss than Italian, and the wines are totally different from, say, the Barolos and Barbarescos of Piedmont.
‘In Piedmont,’ explains Casimiro Maule, who runs the Nino Negri estate, ‘the soils are deep, giving rich powerful wines. Our soils are very thin and our wines are more perfumed, elegant, and lighter-bodied.’ Elegance is certainly the hallmark of the Valtellina wines. Many of the vineyards are around 60 years old, so yields are low, between 30 and 40hl/ha for the top wines, and the wines concentrated. They have the fairly high acidity of many Italian reds and this helps them age easily, although they can also give pleasure in their youth. Moreover, that natural acidity gives them freshness, making them an ideal partner for the rich local food. A great Barolo can overwhelm, even at the table, but Valtellina never fatigues the palate, even though in the best vintages alcohol levels can be quite high. The wines also wear their tannins lightly.
Despite their relative isolation, Valtellina growers are no oenological sluggards. Some, such as Pelizzatti, don’t like barriques, but most do age all or part of their top wines in small French barriques. This can contribute greater complexity and length. Negri’s 1995 Riserva comes in two versions: one aged in large neutral botti (which I prefer), the other in barrique. Nonetheless, the concentration of the top wines allows them to absorb even new oak effortlessly. Negri has been around for over a century, but has not been slow to make vineyard improvements. Traditionally the vines are planted down the slope, but Maule has planted horizontal terraces, allowing limited mechanisation and giving better exposure to sunshine. ‘Our labour costs,’ says Maule, ‘are four times the average for Italian vineyards, but we can’t get the same prices for our wines as our friends in Piedmont, so mechanisation helps us to control our costs.’ Domenico Triacca, the most innovative of the Valtellina growers, agrees, and has converted 13ha of vineyards to horizontal planting. ‘I have doubled the density, which gives more concentrated wines, but at the same time I can reduce the hours required to cultivate one hectare from 1,200 to 700,’ he says. Triacca has pioneered clonal selection in Valtellina, identifying 213 variants of Nebbiolo in his vineyards and whittling them down to four. He also severs the cordons in October, leaving the bunches starved of nutrition, to dry out on the vine for five or six weeks. From these, he makes a wine called Prestigio.
For most growers (except the wilful Arturo Pelizzatti), the most prized wine is Sfursat or Sforzato. This is a passito wine made, like Amarone in Valpolicella, by laying healthy bunches of grapes in a well-ventilated attic for three months. They are then pressed and vinified, resulting in an intense wine with around 14.5? alcohol. Many top examples, such as Negri’s Cinque Stelle and Rainoldi’s Ca’ Rizzieri, are aged in new barriques. It’s not hard to recommend good Valtellina producers. Negri, of course, for its Riserva, the Grumello Sassorosso, the oaked Sfursat Cinque Stelle, plus the unoaked version. Rainoldi’s wines are effortlessly good, my favourites being the Sfursat and the elegant Crespino. The Sertoli Salis family once supplied the Hapsburgs with wines, but Dr Cesare Sertoli Salis only resumed production in 1989. As well as the Sfursat, the Valtellina Superiore Corte della Meridiana, partly made with dried bunches, is delicious, too. Triacca’s Prestigio is too oaky for me, but the Sfursat and the Riserva are outstanding. Sandro Fay’s normal bottlings are a touch dull, but his top wines, such as the Valgella Ca’ Morei, are excellent. Good, too, are the wines from Nera, its sister label, Caven, and Pelizzatti Perego.
These wines, with their fragrance of cherries, roses and almonds, and their silky textures and sleek flavours, are well worth seeking out, especially since all vintages since 1997 have been very good to excellent. Tasting a delicious 1991 Grumello from Pelizzatti, I scribbled: ‘Smells remarkably like Pinot Noir’. The head of the growers’ association turned to me as I was doing so and murmured, ‘Is like Burgundy, no?’ I showed him the note I had just made and he whooped, for we all know there are few higher compliments than ‘Burgundian’. v Stephen Brook is a Decanter contributing editor.