Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Valtellina of Aldo Rainoldi (Part IV)

My sole poor quality photo of Inferno taken on the road to Chiuro
Having seen the vineyards, guzzled the widely available vino, and eaten the local food, it was time to move on to an actual cellar.  We had scheduled a visit to Aldo Rainoldi in advance of departure to Italy, and it turned out it was a bit fortuitous as all the producers in the area were preparing for VinItaly.  After settling into our hotel in Sondrio and eating pizza and gnocchetti with a venison ragu, we headed a few miles down Via Stelvio to the town of Chiuro where Rainoldi's cellar is based.

A glass-line tank in Rainoldi's cellar now used to store cases of bottled wine
If I were to describe Rainoldi in a sentence or two, it would be as a modern producer rooted in tradition.  Their approach is pragmatic on one level--their website is "Flash"-y and highlights the awards they've received while they invite invite tourism and have an area for hosting tasting at their cantina.  Yet they trace back five generations all headed by an Aldo Rainoldi to around 1925 and maintain production of traditional botti-aged Valtellina Superiore DOCG Crus.  Perhaps an appropriate visual metaphor is the above glass-lined fermentation tank that Rainoldi now uses to store bottled wine.  The history is not forgotten or discarded, but rather is part of the evolution.  

Botti containing (from left to right) 2008 Grumello, 2010 Sassella and 2010 Sfurrsat
Rainoldi produces up to 200k bottles per vintage covering a broad range of styles and price levels.  The entry level Rosso di Valtellina and Nebbiolo IGT are made only in stainless steel.  Next are the 'tradizionale' bottlings from Grumello, Sassella and Inferno that are aged exclusively in botti for 18 months, then given a year in bottle before release.  The Inferno and Sassella Riserva cuvees represent a more modern approach as these see 1st-use medium toast barriques from the Allier forest, though it's not clear whether these see all new oak or only some.  In addition there is a cuvee named Prugnolo after the local name for a stone fruit bearing blackthorn.  This is a blend of three Crus and is aged in 2nd use barrels.  But there is still more: two different Sfursats where the Nebbiolo berries are dried at different elevations, one near the valley floor and the other in a building above the valley, and a pair of white wines.

A barrique containing 2010 Sassella
Our two-hour tour and tasting with Michela Rainoldi began by descending into their cellar.  After passing by the glass tanks, we entered into chambers filled with botti.  Botti may be commonplace in Italy and southern France, but these were quite novel to me given that I've only seen a handful in California wineries.  (In fact, the largest collection of botti I saw in California were being used for display!)  Those pictured here are rather newer looking, but others looked well-worn and extremely old.  If you look carefully the botti have a glass contraption on top for monitoring the level of wine in the vessel.  When the level of wine gets too low due to evaporation there is risk of oxidation and they must be topped off.  I neglected to ask about the type of wood used for the botti, though chestnut is possible if not likely.

Dusty old bottles in the cellar
Though there were barriques for the Riservas, there was something else you don't see in the New World: decades old bottles.  Unfortunately these weren't part of the tasting that followed, but then there wouldn't be much wine left for the next generation if they did that.  Seeing this sort of living history does make one inclined to trust the producer's estimation of aging capacity.  They know because they've seen how the wine evolves.

The tasting lineup running in order from right to left
As for the wines themselves, we tasted primarily from the 2007 vintage with a couple from 2008 as well.  Notes are included at the end and include the bianco Tzapel, Nebbiolo vinified as a white and Sauvignon Blanc, we took home with us. Michela Rainoldi, who seemed to have a very keen sense of the business, added a bit of context in explaining that in Valtellina in the past 5-10 years the overall approach has changed in the direction of making less rustic, less astringent wines.  That along with the 2007 vintage's warmth seemed to be evident in their overall character.

The 'tradizionale' bottles (on the right, though Michela mentioned they will be using a more contemporary label soon) were terroir-driven, yet had a refinement of texture and class that I hadn't found in the widely distributed Valtellinas.  The Prugnolo and Inferno Riserva showed a bit more flesh and flashiness--the finesse and flavors of the oak were present though nicely integrated.  Personally, I like what high quality oak adds to wines when used judiciously, especially wines that are less rich in the first place because they often are rounded out without over-extracting from the barrel.  Finally was the Sfursat, made by drying grapes on mats after harvest to increase concentration.  It's a style that I don't think anyone could dislike.  The high toned Nebbiolo character is still there, yet it is concentrated with darker fruit flavors without seeming raisiny.  Still my preference remained for the Valtellina Superiore style, though I enjoyed both the traditional and more modern approaches.  Certainly if you encounter Rainoldi's wines in the US, you should view the Riservas not simply as 'better' but also 'different' due to the stylistic goals they are aiming for in the cellar.

Something every tasting room needs: a deli slicer for cutting paper thin pieces of cured meat
Last but certainly not in this series least is my post on Ar.Pe.Pe.
  • 2007 Rainoldi Valtellina Superiore - Grumello - Italy, Lombardia, Valtellina, Valtellina Superiore - Grumello

    16-20 months in botti, 1 year in bottle before release. Aromatic, floral, red fruits and tobacco. Elegant, refined, smooth fine tannin, well balanced. Mid weight.

  • 2008 Rainoldi Valtellina Superiore - Sassella - Italy, Lombardia, Valtellina, Valtellina Superiore - Sassella

    Aged in Slavonian oak botti, tougher vintage than 2007. Aromatic and showing mainly red fruits, but not as defined, structured or complex as the 2007.

  • 2007 Rainoldi Valtellina Superiore Prugnolo - Italy, Lombardia, Valtellina, Valtellina Superiore

    Named after a wild stone fruit that grows locally, translated as blackthorn or sloe. A blend of Sassella, Valgella and Grumello aged in 2nd use barriques. Round, smooth, red fruits (again), but with some oak spice, toast and tannin. Floral, less herbaceous than the tradizionale bottlings.

  • 2007 Rainoldi Valtellina Superiore - Inferno Riserva - Italy, Lombardia, Valtellina, Valtellina Superiore - Inferno

    Modern style, aged in new barriques, intended for aging, from the smallest, steepest and rockiest Cru in Valtellina. Refined, structured, spicy, floral, red fruits (yet again), though more mature/ripe in character with a bit of cocoa. A departure from the regional style, but I am a sucker for wines that balance character with the sheen that quality French oak brings.

  • 2008 Rainoldi Valtellina Sfursat - Italy, Lombardia, Valtellina

    From 500-600 meters above sea level where there is more heat/sun exposure as well as large diurnal flux. Dried on mats after harvest. Tannic and extracted, more rich than raisiny, approaches the concentration of Piedmont with this style. Interesting spice/ginger character, concentrated, tannic. More a wine of a style than varietal or regional expression, though this is the traditional approach to make a powerful alpine Nebbiolo.

  • 2011 Rainoldi Valtellina tzapel - Italy, Lombardia, Valtellina

    A blend of Nebbiolo vinified as a white wine and Sauvignon Blanc. Some dissolved CO2 was present when opened, probably from going from a cool cellar at ~200 m to serving temp at 1500 m. Uber-refreshing, high acidity and 12% ABV. Yet had very surprising viscosity, weight and body. The nose was fruit-driven, melon and apple. Minerality underneath it all on the finish. A quaffer with significantly more going on than you can expect for sub-$10 (ex-cellar). I don't see much relation between Nebbiolo made as Bianco and regular Nebbiolo--the skins seem to have all the magic of Neb--but it does seem to make a lovely round yet light wine.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Valtellina Superiore of Nino Negri (Part III)

I don't have any problem saying that US grocery store wine is generally terrible.  Not terrible as in undrinkable, but terrible as in having all the character of a Kraft Singles cheese slice.  Except slathered in bizarre oak treatment rather than plastic wrap.  Italian grocery store wine, though, that's a different story.  Even the miniaturized version of the chain grocery store (Iperal) in the sleepy lake town of Domaso had a whole aisle filled with wine, most of which was local and moderately priced.

Nino Negri and Fratelli Bettini's signs nestled in the vineyards at the western edge of Sassella

The biggest footprint on the shelves belonged to the wines of Nino Negri.  Negri is not a small producer by any means.  The yearly production at Negri according to Isabella Pelizzatti Perego of Ar.Pe.Pe. is around 1 million bottles--about 25% the production of the entire Valtellina region.  But it isn't Gallo, either, and it showed in the wines.  The production is divided over a variety of price levels, styles, and Crus.  There is clearly some deference to market forces as there must be, but there is also value in a producer that makes legitimate and readily available wine.

Aside from a Negri Rosso di Valtellina that was weirdly spritzy and well, plonky, the entry level Cru bottlings had more going for them than you could hope for given the modest $11-$12 US tariff.  It is common for producers to lease vineyards or purchase fruit from families who want to keep their land, but don't have the means or interest to make wine commercially.  My guess is the 'basic' Valgella, Inferno, Grumello and Sassella have significant contributions from 'negociant' purchases of this nature.  (I also noticed different labels on the same shelf for the same vintage and Cru, suggesting multiple lots or sources of a certain bottling.)

Early on we picked up a horizontal of the 2007 Negri Valtellina Superiore Crus (notes below) for pairing with meals at 'home' throughout the week.  The wines showed minimal oak influence and were fresh, aromatic expressions of Nebbiolo with vinous structure.  The 2007 vintage was characterized as excellent when we visited Rainoldi, which I take to mean warmer than usual.  Perhaps that gave these entry level wines a bit more material than usual.  The Sassella, for example, had weight comparable to a more elegant leaning Barbaresco.  Regardless, I found it remarkable that what one might otherwise expect to be a notch above vino da tavola actually expressed typicity of the Crus (as characterized by the producers in Valtellina and in Bastianich's Vino Italiano).  There were hints of rusticity; though clean these weren't polished wines.  But they displayed plenty of character, had honest structure, and went well with pasta, cheese and salami.  What more could you want?

Up next, separate posts for our visits to Rainoldi and Ar.Pe.Pe.

  • 2007 Nino Negri Valtellina Superiore - Valgella - Italy, Lombardia, Valtellina, Valtellina Superiore - Valgella

    Aromatic--tobacco, rose, dried cherry. Lighter/med body, earthy flavor. Mineral (iron), med acidity and somewhat astringent tannin. The note doesn't do it justice--rather ethereal and weightless, hard to put down due to its bouquet. The lightest of the '07 Negris I tried.

  • 2007 Nino Negri Valtellina Superiore - Inferno - Italy, Lombardia, Valtellina, Valtellina Superiore - Inferno

    Rounder, but tighter nose than the Valgella. Cherry and red fruit, iron, mildly earthy. Medium body, tannin became more pronounced with air and aromas opened up. Minerality, tobacco/herb and meaty-spicy Nebbiolo bouquet develop. Good material, needs an hour decanting now.

  • 2007 Nino Negri Valtellina Superiore - Grumello - Italy, Lombardia, Valtellina, Valtellina Superiore - Grumello

    My least favorite of the Negri quartet tried over the week. Meaty, earthy, spicy aromas, a bit rustic on the palate. Cherry, med tannin, med acidity, light red color. Finishes a little bitter and slightly astringent. Still, perfumed with pleasant herbal character--the nose is great even though this wasn't a complete wine. Like other Negris, no noticeable oak.

  • 2007 Nino Negri Valtellina Superiore - Sassella - Italy, Lombardia, Valtellina, Valtellina Superiore - Sassella

    Cherry, menthol, tobacco, spice. Ripe tannin, well structured, sweet fruit, lengthy finish with a hint of tar, warm. Med/full body, giving an almost Barbaresco-like weight and texture. Consistent with perceived typical character: not as powerful as Inferno, more stuffing than Grummello and Valgella. Yet this was open and nuanced aromatically. A bargain.

Just as a little bonus, here's are a couple of good 'grocery store' wines from Bettini, whose vineyard sign is pictured above.  The first is a white wine made from Nebbiolo and the second a well-aged 1997 Valtellina Superiore that was buried on a bottom shelf.

  • 2010 Bettini Chiavennasca Bianco Terrazze Retiche di Sondrio IGT - Italy, Lombardia, Terrazze Retiche di Sondrio IGT 

    Tasted from a cup--wasn't aromatic but perhaps that was the cup not the wine. A white wine made from Nebbiolo, which is called Chiavennasca in the Valtellina. Had very round texture with fresh and mineral driven flavors. Cheap, too, at about $8 US.
  • 1997 Bettini Valtellina Superiore Riserva - Italy, Lombardia, Valtellina, Valtellina Superiore

  • Aged Nebbiolo bouquet. Intoxicating aromas of dried cherry, rose, iron and earth. Light/med body, high acidity, grapefruit pith on the finish. Intense minerality, Nebbiolo spice inner aromas, tannin mostly resolved. Found at the Iperal grocery store in Colico for ~$16. In really great condition given 15 years of age--silly to find this on the shelf for a pittance.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The vineyards of Valtellina (Part II)

The Valtellina is a region that must be seen to be grasped. It is possible of course to find mention of the area in excellent references like Bastianich and Lewis' Vino Italiano that even go so far as to offer notes on typical styles of the various DOCG designated Crus in the Valtellina Superiore DOCG. But that doesn't do real justice to the extreme viticulture required to grow Nebbiolo, known locally as Chiavennasca,* that takes place in this transverse east-west valley in the Alps.

The map pictured above is from Vini Aldo Rainoldi's tasting room, and a version with legible labels can be found on Rainoldi's website (albeit with a different color code) under the "Wine" tab. At the far left on the map is the entry to the valley from the northern edge of Como. The city of Sondrio is located in the middle of the map, more or less between the arrows pointing to Sassella and Grumello. Coming from the western mouth of the valley, Sassella is the first Cru one encounters just outside of Sondrio. The foot of the vineyard is just a bit off the highway, which is really a two-lane road running through valley parallel to the Adda River. It then rapidly climbs upward from the valley floor hundreds of meters by way of stepped terraces. As is the case with all the vineyards in the valley, the exposure is due south--the picture was taken facing north--to maximize sun exposure in this marginal climate. (I was told those who live on the south side of the valley with northern exposure tend to be a rather dour sort due to the lack of direct sunlight.)

Just to the east of Sondrio lies Grumello with the ruins of the Castello Grumello, a castle built in the 14th century then torn down in the 16th century, overlooking the vineyards. Here the slopes are slightly less precipitous, though the picture shown above by Castello Grumello facing to the east does not capture the terracing immediately below. The Adda River runs through the valley on the right side of the picture of Grumello and Inferno. A different perspective of the Grumello Cru is shown below facing north with the castle and relatively gently sloped vineyards in the center of the view.

The producers have signs with their names and the name of the Cru on the hillsides. To the right, signs for Grumello with Nino Negri and Salis can be seen. Though less clear in the picture above of Sassella, signs for Negri again and Bettini can be seen.Unfortunately, I did not get any direct photos of Inferno or Valgella, which is the pink region in the map of Valtellina where the wine region curves northward. Valgella is actually the largest Cru, and its wines seemed to be the most common in local shops. The two producers we visited, Rainoldi and Ar.Pe.Pe., focused primarily on Grumello, Sassella and Inferno. From what we tasted, these three Crus tended to produce wines with more stuffing, and the smaller producers seemed to focus more on these vineyards than Valgella. But, of course, our sample size was extremely limited. In total, there are around 800 hectares (about 2000 acres) of vineyards at present in Valtellina, though we were told that as much as 3000 hectares (7500 acres) were once under vine.

The general impressions given were that Grummello tends to be more gentle in character, open, gentle, soft, round and fruit driven, perhaps due to the less steep and less rocky vineyards. Sassella is steeper and rockier, thus more austere, mineral-driven and closed in youth due to its structure. Inferno, though, has the most fanciful descriptions: it is not called "Hell" without good reason. Inferno is a bit like Sassella on steroids. It is steeper, rockier, and even more mineral driven. In summer, it bakes. Regardless of the weather, it is an extremely perilous Cru to work in due to its sheer verticality. Regardless of the Cru, the wines tend be high-toned and aromatic, expressing the spicy and floral side of Nebbiolo, as well as mineral driven with iron a being a particularly common flavor.

To finish, I have one final lesson on the vineyards of Valtellina: don't look down. A corollary of which is: watch your step. The picture to the left was taken at the west edge of Sondrio in the Sassella Cru. Some of the perspective is lost here, but we were at least a hundred meters above the valley floor. Looking almost straight down are the stacked terraces with the road and Adda River directly below. The stone steps and paths are navigable with some care under normal conditions. But I can only imagine the peril of traversing these vineyards with 100 pounds of grapes on my back. This quite literally medieval. Mechanization is impossible on these historic plots, relics of an era when the only way to avoid floods was to build upward onto the mountains. I almost have to laugh thinking about what some California producers call old vineyards or superior exposures. Valtellina is a great macro-terroir filled with unique vineyards worthy of Cru designation because of their specific expression. Unfortunately the ethereal rather than powerful nature of its wines and its general lack of recognition mean it languishes in obscurity.

Up next, tasting notes from the four major Crus by way of Nino Negri's entry level wines.

*The city of Chiavenna is in a neighboring valley that runs north from Como rather than to the east.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

A week in the Valtellina (Part I)

This didn't start out as a vino-centric vacation. No, actually the plan was simply to stay with my wife's uncle somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Como and improvise. But as it turned out, we landed at the very northern tip of Como. From there you can go north to Chiavenna and Switzerland, south to the tourist centers like Menaggio and Bellagio, or due east into the transverse Valtellina valley. We chose option (d), all of the above, but once we knew where we were going to stay it didn't take long for us to figure out we were next to the premiere alpine Nebbiolo producing region and had to commit a couple of days to visiting the area. Valtellina is also the only precarious, vertiginous terraced Nebbiolo producing region that I know of, but let's not let simple facts get in the way of the story until later.
The first thing that I noticed--and couldn't keep from noticing day after day--was the bizarre juxtaposition of seemingly Mediterranean plants like palm trees (above), loquats and aloe with 8000 foot, generally snow-capped peaks (also above). Here we were in the Alps, yet the flora was seemingly identical to that of the California Central Coast. Part of it is likely the moderating influence of the lake as I have my doubts palms and succulents can handle a hard freeze like deciduous plants. Ignoring that, however, the other part of the equation is the solar flux imparted by elevation. Particularly on the south-facing slopes, there is a lot of sunlight. And that seems to be the key to growing grapes as well in a continental, alpine climate.
The picture above is from the village of Domaso on the western side of Como. While this is well outside of the Valtellina, it gives a good impression of the terracing employed throughout the region. The hillsides are littered with these walled terraces; behind the house where we stayed we found a variety of outbuildings mingled among the terraces. In the areas without cover from trees, more often than not vines are cultivated. Domaso actually falls within the Terre Lariane IGT designation, and the winery pictured above is Sorsasso, one of two in Domaso. The other producers in this IGT are near Lecco, at the southeastern tip of Lake Como. We didn't visit any of these producers because we didn't know they existed until wandering up footpaths in the village. We did bring back a bottle each from Domaso-based producers Sorsasso and Angelinetta, which interestingly are Sangiovese-based blends.

Next up, Part II on the vineyards of Valtellina.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Dusting off the old blog . . . .

It's been a while since I posted. But there's some posting to be done following up on my recent trip to the Italian Alps. No, they don't grow Cab Franc there, though I did have a nice Friuli Cabernet Franc from Ca' Bolani, one of Zonin's properties, at lunch one day. What they do grow is Nebbiolo on the vertiginous terraces of the Valtellina valley. And damn is it delicious.

My hope is I can provide some useful info to the stray googler. But for the couple of you guys still following this blog . . . . stay tuned. The Valtellina is the most interesting wine region I've visited yet. And who knows, maybe I'll be motivated to post on a few interesting producers in New Mexico as a follow up.