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.