La Perla di Marco Triacca
North of Milan, past Lake Como, tucked between the Orobie and Rhaetian Alps, you find the Valtellina Valley. As you drive east through the valley, you pass Sondrio at the center, watching the steep vineyards on the northern slopes.
The region has 5 sub-zones, Valgella being the furthest east. It is here that you will find La Perla di Marco Triacca.
Marco Triacca founded his winery in 2009 and named it in honor of his mother, who was known by the nickname “La Perla.”
We first met Marco at the tasting in the Consorzio Valtellina cellar in Sondrio.
Marco Triacca stood in a striped sweater behind his table, smiling and ready to pour his wines and tell you about them. He is Swiss and, in fact, lives in Switzerland, commuting to Valtellina each day to the vineyard and winery.
He is thorough and organized, the workings of his winery timed beautifully like a Swiss watch…
Marco makes 4 wines from just 2 varieties of grapes, all grown on his 3.5 hectares of vines at his estate vineyard in Valgella, producing 20,000 bottles annually. He harvests the grapes for his sparkling Pignola in mid-September, his Sforzato of Nebbiolo harvests at the end of September or beginning of October; his Valtellina Superiore La Mossa harvests mid-October and the Riserva Elisa that harvests mid-November.
Marco says with a laugh, “I have no harvest stress!”
La Perla di Marco Triacca Extra Brut
The first of these wines we had tasted with our lunch. Marco’s La Perla Extra Brut is a Metodo Classico sparkling wine from Pignola. Pignola is a dark-skinned grape that is native to Valtellina. This is one of the few sparkling wines made in the valley.
This dry sparkling wine has brioche on the nose and is tart but rich with notes of firm kiwi. Marco does not add “liqueur d’expédition,” the topping up of the wine to adjust the sweetness level. As a result, this wine has just 2 grams of residual sugar, which puts it in the brut nature category for sweetness, which is the driest level.
This wine, as it is sparkling and not Nebbiolo, is not part of the Valtellina DOC or DOCG and is labeled under the larger Alpi Retiche IGT.
For most wineries in Valtellina, the difference in their wines often depends on which vineyard and sub-region the wine comes from. Most wineries have parcels in multiple sub-zones. Marco has just these 3.5 hectares in Valgella. The differences in his wines come from the harvest dates and the winemaking method.
In the Consorzio Cellar in Sondrio, we taste his Nebbiolos.
La Perla di Marco Triacca La Mossa Valtellina Superiore DOCG 2015
The La Mossa Valtellina Superiore DOCG represents his beginning, his “first move.” The name comes from the Palio di Siena horse race in Tuscany, which he was passionate about when he was young. The Start of the race, “La Mossa,” means “the move.”
This wine macerates on the skins for 20 days and has 3 years aging in large untoasted barrels, followed by 18 months to 2 years aging in bottle.
La Perla di Marco Triacca Riserva Elisa Valtellina Superiore DOCG 2015
The Riserva Elisa Valtellina Superiore DOCG is a late-harvest wine named for his late mother. When the harvest for the La Mossa is complete, they go through the vineyard and clip the vines leading to the bunches for the Elisa. The grapes are left hanging in the vineyard to dry for 3 weeks before being harvested. This concentrates the sugar, but with these grapes, because they are on the vine, the diurnal temperature shifts help to give rounder tannins and more complexity. This matures for 4 years in large format oak and another 18 months to 2 years in bottle prior to release.
La Perla di Marco Triacca Quattro Soli Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG 2015
The Quattro Soli is his Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG. This is the first harvest of Nebbiolo that he does when grapes are not quite ripe and have high acidity. These grapes then dry in the “fruttaio” or drying room for 2 months, where the sugars concentrate as the grapes dry. They vinify this wine at the beginning of December. This wine was named for his four nephews. Of course, now he has 8 nephews, but the name of the wine remains.
After drying, the grapes are destemmed and crushed, and they heat the must to begin the fermentation process. The juice spends 30 days on the skins and matures for 3 years in large format oak. It then ages an additional 18 months in bottle.
Each year Marco determines which sections of his vineyard will be picked for each of these wines.
We were lucky enough to visit Marco at his vineyard the following day.
The writers we traveled with were to be divided into groups of 3 to spend time with 2 wineries the following day. Gwendolyn Alley of Wine Predator found the sign-up list and asked if we would join her.
We would visit 2 wineries in the eastern end of the valley, Marcel Zanolari, which was Demeter certified as biodynamic, and La Perla Marco Triacca, which is listed in the Slow Wine Guide.
(Gwendolyn and I are both big into biodynamic and regenerative viticulture. In fact, we were both finalists in the Jancis Robinson Wine Writing Contest on the subject. Gwendolyn was the winner!)
The following morning, the 3 of us hopped into Marcel’s car and visited his winery and several vineyards before he brought us to La Perla. (more on his story in the next episode)
Into the Vineyard
As you get close to La Perla di Marco Triacca in Valgella, the wall of the Strada del Vino makes a striking image on the slope behind the vineyard. Above the vineyard sits the village of San Gervasio, with the Chiesa San Gervasio Church at the top of the hill. Beyond that, the “Torre di li Beli Miri,” the tower of the ancient castle of Teglio, looks out over the region. This tower is the symbol of Teglio and is all that remains of the medieval castle built on Roman ruins. With up to 60-kilometer views, the tower was important for the valley’s defense for centuries.
Here at the vineyard, the vines are planted in long rows running with the curve of the mountain. You see the “muretti,” the dry-stone walls that shore up the soil of each terrace on the steep hillside. A little further up on the hillside, just below the Strada, you see vines oriented perpendicular to the mountain. This is where the vineyards of Sandro Fay begin.
Marco meets us as we arrive and takes us into the vineyard east of the tasting room. Their 3.5 hectares of vineyards sit at approximately 400 meters above sea level. This, of course, varies by row as the vineyards are steep. Unlike most estate vineyards in Valtellina, they are contiguous. All together in one spot, this makes managing the vineyard much easier for Marco. Ease and efficiency in all things allow Marco to focus on winemaking.
Many of the vines are lush with fruit. Long large bunches hang in small groups from the vines. They are harvesting for the La Mossa today, the 3rd of his four harvests. The harvests for the sparkling Pignola and the Sforzato are already complete. The weather today is perfect.
As Marco tells us again his harvest schedule, I comment on how this seems like perfect planning. His answer with a laugh is, “I am Swiss!”
Innovations by Domenico Triacca
The Girapoggio planting pattern & the Treble Clef post
In the early 80s, Marco’s father, Domenico, developed the Girapoggio planting pattern while working in the family cellar Triacca La Gatta as they began the family’s wine production business. Domenico known locally as “Meco,” spent 45 years innovating for Triacca Winery. This method of planting running parallel with the contours of the mountain allows for partial mechanization in the vineyards and makes the hand harvest much easier on workers. We are walking amongst vines that Domenico planted in 1980.
Before this, the vineyard rows in Valtellina ran north to south in the “rittochino” method. The steepness of the slopes meant many small steep terraces with short rows and no possibility of mechanization. It was also back-breaking work for any vineyard maintenance and harvest.
This new method had skeptics, but after a few years was accepted in the DOC rules. Now, many replantings, especially at the larger vineyards, are done in this style. This method does require space. Many Valtellina parcels are too tiny to take advantage of this method.
The vines here are trained in a double guyot style, so two canes are kept and trained in opposite directions. Usually, you would train both canes to the same trellising wire. Here, they have 2 separate wires, one higher for the upper side of the vine (the north side) and the other that runs lower on the lower side (the south side). Remember, we are on a slope, and you have about a meter difference in altitude between the rows here.
The new canes then run with VSP (vertical shoot positioning) so that the upper canes’ fruiting zone is at the perfect height to stand and pick, and on the lower, the canes are grown down. This again leaves the fruiting zone at the ideal height for harvest. It is ingenious!
In this way, they have separated the leaves, giving the vines more sun exposure! They have more bunches per plant but also more leaves.
The standard in the industry is kilos of grapes per plant of grapes for quality. Instead, Marco looks at the leaf surface area per plant and how many kilos of grapes each vine can support. If you want more grapes on a plant, you need more leaf surface area for photosynthesis.
Another of his father’s innovations is the treble clef post. These posts, shaped like a treble clef, push the trellising wire out at the bottom on the southern side. This allows the vine to take in more sun and better airflow, which is helpful in disease control.
As we walk through the vineyard, the ground between the vines is lush with green plants of all sorts. Grasses, broad-leaf ground plants, and vast and diverse plant life grow between the rows. I ask Marco about this. He explains that he does not plant cover crops. What grows between the vines is native and comes from the mountains.
I see inverted plastic cones at the base of the vines and the posts. Marco explains that these keep the bugs from climbing and eating the buds in the spring. The cones cause them to fall back into the undergrowth and grasses, where they can find plenty to eat.
We make our way to the eastern end of the vineyard where the Pignola grows. These vines are already harvested, but we can see the steep stairs that take you to the higher rows.
Innovation for ease of harvest
We head back to see where they are harvesting the Nebbiolo for the La Mossa today. We stop where a woman is carefully harvesting Nebbiolo into a 12-kilo box on a small metal stand. She pulls the stand with her as she moves down the row, clipping and gently laying each cluster into the box. I can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity of this method. She doesn’t need to bend down. All the fruit is ideally located at the right level for her easily clip the fruit. When the bin is full, she will leave it on the ground beneath the vines to be picked up later by the tractor.
When we speak of sustainability, the human aspect is often overlooked. We talk about the health of the vineyard and soils, but sustainability should also consider the people’s health. Here, they have created a system that works for the health of the vines and the health of the people working them.
Marco will wait until the following evening to begin vinifying these grapes. They will continue to harvest tomorrow, and he will have enough grapes to start by late tomorrow. With these smaller 12-kilo boxes, you can wait one or two days as the berries do not crush each other, releasing juice that could start fermentation early.
The making of the Riserva Elisa
We have come now to the part of the vineyard that he will use for the Riserva Elisa. When they finish with the La Mossa harvest, they will come back through and clip the vines leading to the bunches of fruit on these vines. This way, the grapes will be cut off from the plant’s water and begin drying, concentrating their sugars.
Where this cut is made will determine how the grapes will dry, so by varying this, he can add complexity to this wine. These grapes will remain on the vine for another 3 weeks, slowly concentrating flavors and sugars. As they are in the vineyard still, they are exposed to the daily diurnal temperature shifts, which help to maintain the acidity.
The Fruttaio – the drying room
The 2-story stone building that we parked by was the “fruttaio.” This is the drying room for the sforzato. The wooden double doors lead us into the 2nd story, where hundreds of 5-kilo orange bins are stacked. Each contains a single layer of Nebbiolo grapes that will stay in this room drying until December. They will have lost 30% of their water weight by that point. The sugars will concentrate, increasing the alcohol, but as the grapes were picked before they were fully ripe, they will retain some acidity.
There is a temperature/humidity gauge in one of the bins. It registers 18 degrees Celsius, or 64 degrees Fahrenheit, and 68% humidity.
While the grapes will be here for 2 months drying, Marco checks on them a few weeks after they are picked. He will catch any botrytis (gray mold) on the grapes early and remove it to keep it from spreading to the rest of the bin and beyond. After that check, he can breathe easier.
The room has high windows, and there are fans in the room. If the humidity reaches 90 or 95%, they close the windows and wait a few days. If the humidity stays this high, they can use the dehumidifier, which will drop the humidity in the room in 1 to 2 hours. Often the sun will come back out and dry things out.
The fans keep the air circulating, which is essential if it is damp; in the same way, airflow through the vines is necessary to stave off mold and mildew.
Having the fruttaio here at the vineyard makes things much more manageable. The bonus is that Domenico lives here on the vineyard, so he has an expert onsite to come out and check on the fruit.
Tasting at the vineyard
As we leave the fruttaio, Marco’s father, Domenico, leads us into the tasting room.
The tasting room is large, with white-washed walls that curve and dome. Domenico tells us this room was once a cellar, hence the thick walls. All the wall edges are rounded, giving this room a bright but soft feeling. The windows, which on the outside are inset by about a foot, on the inside are inset 18 inches to 2 feet, the walls curving in at the center of the window and back out toward the ceiling and the floor, it has a bit of a Suessical effect. For a moment, I am transported to the happy place of Whoville.
Marcel Zanolari, with whom we had spent part of the morning, has joined us. We will taste both Marco’s and Marcel’s wines and enjoy lunch. Italian hospitality means breaking bread together. When you visit with a winemaker, you are often expected to join them for lunch. In Italy, wines are meant to bring people to the table, to gather, enjoy good food and good company. This is not like the fancy pairings you might see in Napa. It is about sharing good homecooked local food that naturally goes with the wines. You know, “what grows together, goes together.”
We begin with another glass of Marco’s Metodo Classico Pignola. Saluté! Clinks all around! This is the way we begin.
Marco tells us that Pignola and Nebbiolo were originally interplanted here in Valtellina and vinified together. The DOC now requires 90% of the wine to be Nebbiolo, but the other 10% is open for local varieties.
As we have already tasted his most recent releases of the La Mossa, Riserva Elisa, and Sforzato, he asks if we would like to taste an older vintage. How can you say no to that?
As he starts to pour these wines, lunch arrives. There is Bressaola, goat cheese with herbs, and marinated mushrooms to start, then small crocks with cooked cabbage, cipolotti (spring onions), and topped with trout. Each crock is garnished with a small flower from the garden.
Marco pours the 2011 La Mossa Valtellina Superiore DOCG. This wine, despite its age, is fresh. Its tannins are smooth, and there are notes of dried rose petals. Gwendolyn and I banter over the aromas and flavors…sandalwood, spice, carnation, cherry notes. We notice that the label does not say “Nebbiolo.” In 2011, the variety label was not allowed on the bottles. It was later that this was added to the DOC rules.
Next he pours the Riserva Elisa 2014 Valtellina Superiore DOCG. This wine was richer and deeper with riper fruit notes, spice, and caramel. Gwendolyn mentions that the fruit notes here seem more like raspberry than cherry. I find something that reminds me of green leaves, perhaps green tea leaves, and there is that note of dried roses in the back.
Marco pours his Quattro Soli Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG 2014. This passito method wine has savory notes and spices and is a bit woodsy. Gwendolyn and I bounce aromas around as they come to us from the glass, Christmas holidays, Douglas fir, Christmas cranberry, baking spices, pine, or perhaps cypress.
Next come plates of calamarata pasta bathed in fresh tomato sauce, topped with ricotta and fresh basil. The conversation takes a tangent or two as we enjoy the wines, the food, and the company.
Then a dessert of apple strudel arrives. I am transported to my childhood as I see the apple strudel on the plates. My mother made apple strudel, taught by my Hungarian grandmother, who had a tablecloth she would cover in flour to roll out the thin dough as big as the table.
This strudel has apples and raisins, and the cinnamon and spice notes made us reach for our glasses of sforzato. We finish with an espresso, before full in mind, heart, and stomach, Marco returns us to our hotel.
The organizations that La Perla di Marco Triacca proudly displays on their labels
I should also mention that Marco is a member of Vignailo Indipendenti and Viticoltura Eroica CERVIM.
Vignoailo Indipendenti FIVI (Federazione Italiana Vignaioli Indipendenti) is a non-profit organization to promote and protect the independent Italian Winegrower. These are vignerons who cultivate their vineyards, make & bottle their wines AND sell them. These are the little wineries that do it all. https://fivi.it/
Viticoltura Eroica CERVIM is an organization to promote and protect heroic viticulture. This includes vineyards at altitudes over 500 meters, those planted on 30% or steeper slopes, terraces or embankments, and small islands with difficult growing conditions. https://www.cervim.org/en/
Pride and legacy
Beyond the delicious wine and the innovations here at La Perla di Marco Triacca, there is a sense of pride and legacy. Losing his mother sparked something in Marco as he looked to continue a legacy to make her proud.
The way that he and his father work together is inspiring. The pride here goes both ways. His father, a giant in the wine industry in this region, is now assisting his son with this venture. The pride he feels for his son is apparent, as is Marco’s pride in the innovations and accomplishments of his father.
The stories of two Swiss winemakers in Valtellina
Our next episode will take us to the vineyards and winery of another Swiss winemaker, Marcel Zanolari. These two wineries have many similarities but also some dramatic differences. These are two Swiss Winemakers with fathers who pushed for innovation in this valley. One was innovating planting styles in the vineyard, the other experimenting with new varieties. Their sons now carry on their legacies in their own unique way.
Join us as we continue Discovering Wine Country in Valtellina, Italy!
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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