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.

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