Discovering Vini di Valtellina – Chiavennasca – the Nebbiolo of the Alps
Far in the north of Italy’s Lombardia region, tucked between the Rhaetian Alps of Switzerland and the Orobiche Alps in Italy, you find the east-west valley of Valtellina. Here, the Adda River flows from the Swiss Alps through the Valtellina Valley and then out to the west into Lake Como, past Milan, and eventually to the Po River.
The Alps protect this region from storms. The rain shadow that is caused means they receive less than 900 millimeters of rain annually.
The valley’s north side, which gets the southern exposure, has terraces of vines planted to catch the light. Vineyards here are steep.
Chiavennasca – Nebbiolo in Valtellina
When you think of Nebbiolo, your mind likely goes to Piemonte, Barolo, and Barbaresco. There they debate whether the name Nebbiolo is for the fog that often covers the region or the bloom on the berries.
You won’t find fog here. Perhaps, that is why their primary grape, Nebbiolo, has traditionally gone by a different name. In this valley, this noble grape is known as Chiavennasca.
There is nothing to dilute the strength of the sun, which Danilo Drocco, the President of the Consorzio di Tutela dei Vini di Valtellina, says is as strong as the sun in Sicily. This is good because Nebbiolo is a sun and heat-loving grape.
“Muretti” the dry stone walls that terrace the vines
The roots of the vines here drive into the mother rock giving the Nebbiolo here lighter tannins and higher minerality.
The Adda River has always been known to flood. Its water originates from snowpack in the Alps, so grapes were planted on the steep slopes between 300 and 800 meters above sea level.
To make caring for the vines easier, the people of Valtellina built dry stone walls to create terraces on these south-facing slopes. There are more than 2,500 kilometers of these walls, called “muretti,” in the region. They like to say this is equal to driving to Sicily and back. In 2018 the area was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Even with the “muretti,” viticulture here is not easy. The steep vineyards are hard to get to and must be worked by hand. A vineyard in Tuscany might require 250 person-hours per hectare. Here in Valtellina, that number is 1500 hours. They call this “heroic viticulture.”
During harvest, it is especially challenging. Hand harvesting the grapes and getting them to the winery from these high terraces has caused innovation. Some wineries have installed aerial pulley systems to get the grapes down from the terraces.
Larger wineries, like Nino Negri, have opted for helicopter harvest. When we visited during harvest, it was a sight to see. Harvest crews attach half-ton bins of harvested grapes to a hook dangling from a helicopter, which can quickly get the fruit to the winery. A harvest that would have been spread over a week, with grapes at varying ripeness levels, can now be done in a day.
The styles of Nebbiolo in Valtellina
As we speak of ripeness levels, it is interesting to see how this region, which is so dependent on one grape variety, produces multiple styles.
Rosso di Valtellina DOC
Rosso di Valtellina is the freshest style of wine made here in Valtellina. Grapes for this wine can come from the entire region. Basic regulations require no more than 10 tons per hectare of fruit and a minimum of 6 months of aging. This wine is fresh, bright, and easy drinking.
Valtellina Superiore DOCG
Valtellina Superiore is produced from more specific regions within the Valtellina DOC, including the 5 specific subzones in the valley. Wines made from grapes within these areas may use the name of the subzone on the label. Here harvest can be no more than 8 tons per hectare, and aging must be for at least 2 years with one in wood. There is also a Riserva that requires an additional year of aging.
Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG
Made in the passito method, the grapes for Sforzato are harvested in shallow baskets and allowed to air dry before pressing. It was Italy’s first dry red passito wine to receive DOCG status in 2003. (Yes, before Amarone, which received its DOCG in 2011.) But this method dates back to the early 17th century.
The grapes for this wine can come from the greater DOC region, but harvest must be limited to 80 quintals (8000 kilograms or 200 pounds) per hectare in early October. Grape bunches must be intact, healthy, and sparse. Sparse for the reason that they must dry, and tight clusters will not allow airflow for the grapes to dry properly.
The grapes dry slowly in ventilated rooms called “fruttai” until the first of December, when they can then be pressed. At this point, the grapes would have lost approximately 1/3 of their weight. The wine must then age for 20 months, with at least 12 of these in wood.
The sub-zones of Valtellina
When we spoke about the Valtellina Superiore DOCG, we mentioned the sub-zones. Let’s discuss a bit more about the layout of the valley.
We will begin on the east end of this east/west valley and follow the direction of the Adda river at its base.
If you follow the river from its start in Switzerland, quickly across the border to Tirano, you come first to the Valgella subzone. The name comes from ‘valgel,’ which in the local dialect refers to the small creeks in the region. These small creeks create more variations in soil and climate than in other sub-zones. With 140 hectares planted, this is the largest of the 5 subzones.
Next, we find Inferno. The region is well known, with its firey name and covers 55 hectares. The signs for the sub-zone dot the hillsides. As its name implies, this rocky area is one of the warmest places in the valley, producing powerful wines in good years.
Next as we head west we come upon the Grumello sub-zone. This sub-zone covers 80 hectares and sits closest to the city of Sondrio, the heart of the region. You will recognize it by its castle. This zone is further divided into 3 zones: Ca’ Bianca, Ca’Rossa, and Sant’Antonio beneath the famous castle and delle Purdenze and Area dei Dossi Salati above.
As we move west from the city of Sondrio, we come to Sassella. This is perhaps to most famous sub-zone in Valtellina, covering 100 hectares.
It takes its name from the Santuario della Madonna della Sassella. Built into a rocky crag and dating back to the sixteenth century, the interior is covered in frescos thought to be painted by Andrea de Passeris.
Due to the rocky crags, the region is divided by the village of Triasso. To the east, you find just bits of vineyards tucked in among the mountain. On the west, things open up a bit allowing the wind to blow through the vines.
Furthest west, we find the smallest sub-region of Maroggia, which has but 25 hectares of terraces. This was the last sub-zone to be recognized in 2002 and is the one region where new vines are being planted as some abandoned vineyards are being reclaimed.
This region is the closest to Lake Como and, as such, sees more influence from the Lake.
Did we talk about “the Dark Side”?
We have spoken of the vineyards within Valtellina, which are primarily on the right bank (the northern side) of the Adda River. The other side of the river holds the Orobian Alps, and locals refer to it as “The Dark Side” because so much less sunlight hits this side of the valley.
The valley’s northside is full. There is little to no space to put in additional vines, especially within the sub-zones. While most producers are not growing on this side of the valley, some are experimenting with different varieties. We met Marcel Zanolari, who is innovating and working with multiple varieties biodynamically to see how they do. It is a far cry from almost everything else you see in the valley, and we look forward to sharing his insights with you soon.
The stunning beauty of the region is something that must be seen with your own eyes. Photos are gorgeous, but the scale is impossible to feel through an image. Finding these wines exported is not the easiest. Several producers, Dirupi, Ar.Pe.Pe, and Tenuta Scersce, can be found via Wine.com, and I encourage you to seek them out and taste them. But honestly, this is a region that should be experienced. Get there if you can.
We will be focusing on the Valtellina region all this month. Watch for additional articles with tastings with multiple producers from the area, foods of the region, and visits with 2 winemakers, Marcel Zanolari who is producing wines biodynamically and grows a wide variety of grapes, with some on “the dark side” and Marco Triacca of La Perla. Marco works vineyards with just 2 varieties, Nebbiolo and Pignola and his father developed a unique trellising system that makes efficient use of the sun and makes harvesting easier.
We will also speak with several women in this region who are helping to change the dynamic in this male dominated wine region.
Join us, as we Discover Valtellina.
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine and WSET 3 Certified. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.
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