Marcel Zanolari met us in front of the Hotel Campelli in Moia, which overlooks Sondrio at the center of Valtellina. This is the Northern part of Lombardia, Italy, a valley between the Alps and just across the border from Switzerland.
Michael and I, along with fellow wine writer Gwendolyn Alley jumped into his little hatchback Audi and sped off to the east end of Valtellina.
We would spend part of our day with Marcel and part with Marco Triacca.
Two Swiss Winemakers in Valtellina.
So similar, yet so different.
If you read our last piece on Marco Triacca, you will remember how he has everything organized to run as efficiently as a Swiss watch. He makes just 4 wines from 2 grape varieties, and each wine has its own harvest window, with a week or so between each. Marco told us, “I have no harvest stress!” His father, Domenico, was well known for the Girapoggio planting method here in the Valley.
At the same time, Marcel’s father, Giuliano, was working with new resistant varieties in the Valley. These two contemporaries, innovating in different ways in the wine region, both now have sons, continuing their legacies in the Valtellina Valley. Mind you, these two legacy winemakers, while friends, have very different approaches.
Marcel Zanolari his many grapes and vineyards
Marcel’s vineyards are past Valgella, in the Valtellina Superiore region near Tirano on the far east end of the Valley. He has vineyards in Bianzone, Villa di Tirano, Tirano, Vangione, and some in Teglio that are at almost 900 meters above sea level. 7 of the 12 hectares that he has planted with grapes are rented. Five of those hectares are cultivated with PiWI, resistant grape varieties.
They also have contracted property near one of their vineyards to manage olive trees and clean to forest to promote biodiversity near their vineyard.
Many of the vineyards in Valtellina are small parcels owned by families. As the younger generation moves on to careers other than agriculture, which often takes them out of the Valley, the older generation struggles to maintain these small plots. Marcel has taken on many of these small plots.
The PiWI grapes
Marcel, like his father, is experimenting in the vineyard. He has many PiWI varieties.
These are disease-resistant grapes varieties that are being bred. Marcel works with 115 different varieties of grapes. One hundred of those are the resistant grapes that they are testing with 80 red varieties and 10 white.
They have almost all the hybridized grapes created by Valentin Blattner and some of the other more common PiWI varieties
In 2023 they will add 8 new varieties to test and see how they react in the different microclimates of this far eastern end of Valtellina.
Marcel spreads these out among the many small parcels he maintains so that they can see how these resistant varieties do at different altitudes, amounts of sunlight, soils, and microclimates. They began with 25-50 of each variety placed at 3 altitudes, the valley floor, mid-way up the slope (near their cellar), or at the property high in Teglio at 900 meters.
They cultivate biodynamically and are Demeter Certified. While the certifications are not the primary importance, Marcel believes they are essential to the consumer to show accountability and reflect quality. In addition to Demeter, they are certified by Bio CE and Bio Swisse. The idea is to have the farm become a self-sufficient closed system, a healthy biodiverse environment.
A step beyond these certifications, they became the first wine-growing company in Italy to become a B-Corporation. Certified B-Corps go beyond being a company looking to make a profit and instead look to drive society and care for nature and the environment. It is a global movement to create a regenerative economy.
Off to the vineyards
The first of his vineyards we would visit was about a 20-minute drive.
As we headed east, Marcel explained the regions and sites as we passed through them. You find orchards of kiwi, apples, hops, and olive trees for oil. Kiwi has seemed to nudge out apples, being more efficient and less expensive to grow.
We pass through Curo, where Nero Negri is located. This, Marcel tells us, is now the “capital” of wine. We can look up and see the remains of the Castel Grumello.
As we drive, we notice that most of the towns have two bell towers. While Italy is primarily Catholic, this region, high in the Alps and on the border of Switzerland, has a mix of Swiss culture. You find each town has a catholic church and a Reformationist or Lutheran church. The church spires and bell towers that dot the hillsides are enchanting for those of us who are unused to them. It just gets better for us when at the hour, the bells ring.
In the flat area near the Adda River, you find land for agriculture and livestock. This area sees morning dew, so it is unsuitable for wine grapes.
We pass some extensive construction. Much of the agriculture along the river is being pulled out as the government looks to expand the road. This route we are traveling on, the main highway through Valtellina, is often just 2 lanes, expanding now and then to 4.
We arrive at the end of the Valgella sub-zone, and the Valley opens up before us. Marcel tells us that in the last 5 years, land prices have reached between 3 and 7 Euros per meter of vineyard. In Sondrio, at the heart of Valtellina, that number is 20-30 Euros.
The Dark Side
Marcel turns off the main road south to what is known as “The Dark Side.” This is the south side of the Valley which gets significantly less sun than the north. During two months of the year, this land will not see any sun. This area shaded by the Orobic Alps to the south is not typical grape-growing land. But then, Marcel Zanolari is anything but typical.
We turn near the Chiesa di San Bernardo, and Marcel parks halfway up the hill.
He points across the Valley to the north side, where he has vineyards and some land where they grow grass for his goats. He tells us it is his dream to live there, high above the vineyards. It is a great place to parasail from, something he loves to do.
From here, you can also see the churches in Stazzona to the west.
Marcel leads us down the hill past a little garden. Carmen, the owner of this garden, is 84 or 85 and also raises chickens. Marcel sometimes gets eggs from her. We continue on into a vineyard where a team picks Nebbiolo.
Marcel is working to change the soil in this vineyard. He digs down a bit, and the soil becomes richer and darker. This is due to their biodynamic practices. When left to its own devices, parts of the soil recuperate pretty quickly, but the plastic…As the vines are trained, many vineyard owners use plastic zip ties to attach the vines to the trellising wire. In the winter, when they prune, this plastic is dropped to the ground and later plowed into the soil. Marcel says getting this out can be the hardest part.
While they farm biodynamically, there is a bit of compromise. They have a tractor (mind you, these are tiny tractors, like the little cars in Italy!) This allows them to cut the grass, spray the biodynamic preparations and pick up harvested fruit and prunings. They try to consolidate their passes so as not to compact the soil.
They have been working on changing the orientation of the rows of the vineyards they manage in the way that Domenico Triacca suggested. This allows them to tend the vines more easily and partially mechanize. The problem with this is that replanting requires you to plow the soil, which often mixes up those layers of earth with residual chemicals and poisons into the soils that have started to improve.
As we look at the beautiful clusters of Nebbiolo, Marcel points out the white on the grapes and soil, which is zeolite. These are minerals that contain mainly aluminum and silicon compounds that are used as drying agents. It is like a stone that they spray on the grapes. The crystals stick out and keep the mosquitos from bothering the grapes.
Marcel tells us that they will begin propagating grapes vines where there are empty spaces in the vineyard where they have died or need to be pulled out. In those places, they will bend a cane from the vine next to the empty spot and plant it in the ground. When the new vine is established, it will be cut away from the original plant. This is a method called “layering.” This differs from cloning, so the new vine differs from the parent plant. Marcel finds that this adds complexity to the wines. In 2006 and 2007, they propagated some vines in this way near their house. They found that the parent and new layered plants were very different when making wine from these vines.
(If you are interested in this technique, Tablas Creek has a great article on how they use it!
The team in the vineyard right now is harvesting for Sforzato. For this wine, they harvest when the grapes are not fully ripe and then dry them for 2 months to concentrate the sugars and increase the alcohol.
We head back to the car and down the road along the Adda River. This time of year, the river is low, Marcel says, because the water is held back for the hydroelectric plants. This year they have 400 liters per square meter available due to the drought. Typically it is double that.
If there is a bright side to climate change for Marcel, it is that land on the dark side is becoming better and better for growing wine grapes. Before, they looked to places in the Valley that didn’t have snow to find the best vineyards. Now it is the opposite. With climate change, the south-facing slopes have difficulty with a lack of water and high summer temperatures.
The Hillside Vineyard
We head to the north side of the Valley, up Via Sant’ Antonio, and across Via dei Mulini. Here we can see the Chiesa di Sant’ Antonio ahead. The streets are narrow, and we pull to the side in a wide spot between the buildings to allow another car to go by.
Marcel tells us that the big houses you see here were all built with money from contraband. We had heard about this earlier when we visited St. Moritz across the border in Switzerland. People who used to make money from agriculture and livestock here in Valtellina, in difficult times turned to taking contraband across the border to Switzerland. There were times when agriculture would simply not pay enough to keep families afloat. Of course, these days, the proliferation of supermarkets has made keeping even a garden more of a novelty and less necessity.
*There were times in history when the Italians near the border found smuggling goods to Switzerland as the only alternative to starvation. They smuggled sugar, tobacco, and even watches. Surprisingly, the Swiss government classifies the smuggling of cigarettes into their country as a legitimate business.
We take the Via Stefano Bongioni and then turn onto a gravel road to the vineyard. You see Marcel’s vineyard to the left with rows parallel to the mountain. On the right, older vineyards run perpendicular to the mountain in the rittochino style.
This vineyard is planted to Pinot Nero and Cabernet. These were the first vines his father planted for his experiment to avoid synthetic chemical products. He worked with FIBL in Basel, Switzerland, a Research Institute of Organic Agriculture founded in 1973. He had bits of success and then what Marcel calls a catastrophe, losing a large percentage of vines.
This vineyard sits below the 8 hectares where he grows grass on the mountain. That property sits 2600 meters above sea level. Marcel pictures living on that property and parasailing down here to the vineyard. “Today.” he says, “is not a good day for parasailing. “But,” he adds with a smile, “you should return!”
In this vineyard, he has some vines of Arinarnoa, a French cross. Thought to be a cross between Petit Verdot and Merlot created in 1956, DNA research has determined this is actually a Tannat/Cabernet Sauvignon cross. He was sold this grape as a resistant grape, but it is not, he tells us as he pops grapes into his mouth.
They are mowing this vineyard today, and the tiny tractor with a mowing attachment cuts the grass as it moves west to east. At the east end of the row, it pulls down the side path slightly to back up into the row above. It then backs to the west end and begins again, mowing as it comes east. There is no room to turn around here.
When the mowing is complete, they will harvest here. The mowing makes it possible for the harvest team to get down the rows.
Before we leave, we walk east to overlook another vineyard where he is growing Pinot Bianco and Traminer. Past it, you can see the Chiesa di San Lorenzo bell tower in the Villa di Tirano. The church bell begins to ring. (Yes, I’m totally enchanted with these small villages.)
Marcel asks if we mind if he stops to move the goats. Goats! How could we say no? His herd of goats is eating up the grass and shrubbery in a drainage ditch. The city used to pay 15,000 euros to have the grass cut here. Now he has a 6-year contract to have the goats do that work.
He has 33 goats, but 8 or 9 are not his. Several he has taken in because their owners didn’t want them and would kill them. “Buongiorno,” he calls as he heads to the fence. The goats all make their way up to him. He introduces us to Geni, and Grigy, the sister of Blacky. There is Marcelina and Cecci. We meet Carletto, who behaves like a dog, and Tuchessa, a hermaphrodite. There is a pygmy goat who is a Tibetan cross. Marcel says the owner didn’t want him anymore because he got 20 goats pregnant, and the owner didn’t want any more of these small goats.
Marcel grabs a stick to wrangle them across the road to the next area. It’s much more challenging without Peppa, he says. Peppa is his herding dog. We jump in to help, encouraging the goats in the right direction.
Eventually, he would like to breed the goats with Stambecco (mountain goats) to create a bit of rewilding. While they would love to use cows, as that manure is best for compost, they cannot have cows in the vineyard. The cows are too big, and it is too difficult with their horns. They use the milk from the goats to make cheese, and the whey can be used in the vineyard. When exposed to sunlight, the milk protein in whey helps control powdery mildew.
Of course, to make cheese, you need lots of milk. Most people who keep goats for cheese kill the babies so that they can use all the mother’s milk for cheese. Not Marcel! They will take just a little milk, leaving plenty for the babies. This, of course, means that to have enough milk, they will need many goats! They are in the process of finding more space to graze the goats.
The farm and fruttaio
We return to the car and head to where Marcel keeps the chickens, farm equipment, and the fruttaio (drying room). There are fields here for the horses, goats, and compost. Usually, they bring the compost from Switzerland, where the cows are not corn-fed.
They will soon have Blanche, a working Comtois horse who will give birth in June to a foal that is a cross with a Percheron. (You’ll see her in the movie, as Marcel sent me a video!)
He calls for Masha, the Caucasian shepherd that he has to guard the animals. Masha is in the nearby field and is happy to join us. Masha’s ears are clipped since she is meant to protect against wolves. They cut the ears of this breed, so the wolves cannot grab them.
Masha has been in the field with the goat Puma. This is a relief, as Masha, evidently, is known for heading down into town for a visit. When they take the dogs to the vineyard, they always take one goat. This keeps the dogs occupied so they don’t run off.
Marcel heads to the gate on the other side of Via Roma and calls for Peppa. He opens the gate, and Masha leads the way. This is the busy part of the year with daily harvests happening in the small parcels that Marcel manages all over this part of the valley. As we enter, there is a pile with ramps, broken pallets, bins, and other equipment that have broken waiting for some attention when harvest slows. Beyond this are neat stacks of large and small bins waiting to be filled.
We head first to meet the chickens. These chickens are young, just about 1 ½ months old, and are currently in a makeshift coop. Marcel sent me a photo of the fancy new coop they constructed after harvest.
At last, Peppa arrives. She is a Border Collie, and Marcel says she is the clever one.
We head to the north side of the 2 story building built on the slope. This upper level is where the fruit comes in. The lower level is hay and equipment storage.
Marcel rolls open the corrugated metal doors to reveal a room filled almost to the rafters with orange drying crates. For the last three weeks, this room was filled with Pinot Nero, Pinot Bianco, etc., but that is mostly all in the cellar now. Now they are bringing in the grapes for the Sforzato.
One side of the room is for his friend. Those bins are a dark color and indicate that the grapes have been grown conventionally, you’ll hear Marcel in the video call them “contaminated,” which is his term for anygrapes that might have residue of pesticides, fungicides or other chemicals. Marcel prefers not to have his fruit in the room at the same time as the conventionally grown grapes, but it is not always possible.
He grabs a bunch of grapes from one of his orange bins. It is a crossing grape with Pinot Nero. As he offers them to us, and Peppa gets is feeling left out. She stands politely, waiting until she also gets a grape!
Suddenly Peppa runs down the driveway to greet a truck and trailer backing in with the fruit we watched being picked this morning.
These little trailers are designed efficiently, with every side able to open to unload. This is very helpful in the small alleyways in most Italian villages. Marcel prefers using the truck and trailer instead of a tractor for moving the grapes. It is faster, and the truck has suspension, so the grapes don’t get bounced around as much, and the skins stay intact. This is especially important with the Sforzato, where any breakage invites mold.
As the crew unloads the fruit, we head back to the car to go to the cellar. We head down Via Stelvio, which becomes Via Teglio. This small backstreet between the buildings and walls is so narrow that it can barely fit one small car. I felt a bit claustrophobic riding through! At the end, the street opens up with vineyard views to the south and a building to the north, which, as it turns out, is Marcel’s cellar.
There are several large apple trees in the garden, and Marcel invites Gwendolyn (who has been eyeing the apple trees all morning) to pick some. She fills her many pockets in her overalls.
As Gwendolyn gets in her apple picking, we take in the view of the steep vineyards behind the cellar.
On the south side of the road, Marcel points out the young olive trees that he expects to pick in about 3 weeks. Beyond it is a vineyard of Traminer that still runs north to south as it is a property they manage for someone. This is the only grape they trim because it pushes so much canopy.
A large grapevine is climbing the wall on the front of his cellar. This is a 170-year-old Zibibbo vine (a type of Muscat). They made three steps on the side of the building so that people can reach the grapes and snack on them on their walk to the church just down the street.
Marcel leads us through the large wooden doors into the cellar. The cellar is made up of small rooms that are organized to make the most of the space. We pass one tank room and follow Marcel further into the cellar, where there is another. There is also a low-ceilinged room filled with terracotta eggs and another room with barrels.
This building was once a bakery downstairs with 3 families living above. The families own much of the vineyard behind the building, and Marcel owns the parcel in the center.
Marcel makes white wines in the amphora eggs depending on how much fruit he has each vintage. This year he is making more wine in stainless steel. He needs about 100 amphorae, ideally larger ones, to replace the wooden barrels.
While aging in wood is required for the DOC and DOCG wines in Valtellina, you remember I said that Marcel was anything but typical. Marcel is working with varieties that are outside of the DOC and DOCG regulations. He prefers to take his own path and discover new things, so most of his wines are under the Alpi Retiche IGT for the region, giving him much more freedom in his winemaking.
They do not have enough space in the cellar for all 12 hectares. With all the varieties they grow, they do multiple vinifications. Luckily with the Sforzato drying for two months, they don’t have to bring all the fruit to the cellar at once. When they finish with the fermentation of the first wines, the Nebbiolo for the Sforzato will be finished with it’s drying, where it loses 1/3 of its weight and they will begin its fermentation process. With all the varieties they grow, they do multiple vinifications.
We grab a glass and taste some of the fermenting wines.
In the large tank room, the Vagabondo Bianco 2022 is fermenting. It does a 3-4 day maceration on the skins, and then it settles. This wine has 18 different grapes grown on parcels all over the region, hence the name! The Vagabonda Rossa has 80 different varieties.
The winery’s business plan is unlike those 5-year plans you see in the US. Here it is all about experimentation. His father, Giuliano, began in 1975. In 1997 Marcel began, and their first vintage was 1998. For the first 4 years, they did not have wine to sell. So his father started importing wines from 7 different Italian regions to sell in Switzerland. This allowed them to raise the money to begin the winery. They make progress each year and try new things.
No one knew them as they started out, and they were doing something different. They didn’t go into this looking to make a high profit, but rather high quality. Now they see others wanting to copy their style.
We now taste two of his Sforzatos, one from a barrel and the other from an amphora. The wine in wood is from a 7-year-old barrel. He wants the wood to be neutral and not impart anything on the wine. Again, he doesn’t want his wines to taste like everyone else’s. He wants his wines to show purer fruit.
We head to the Amphorae room to taste another Sforzato. This difference is amazing. The tannins are smoother, the texture is different, and the fruit is much more present.
Marcel tells us that they do not have a winemaker here. They work as a team. Robert, who met us as we arrived, does much work in the cellar and has been with them for 12 years. Alfio is his other right hand in the cellar. In addition, there is Veronica and Michela, Bernardo, his handyman, Matteo, Luca, and Davide do technical vineyard work, wall maintenance, and take care of the vehicles. Ettore deals with the paperwork, including certifications and registers. Marcel’s parents Ivana & Giuliano, with Stefano and Kerstin, deal with delivery and sales in Switzerland. Then several others work with them seasonally. Until 2 years ago, Gianfranco worked with them, but at 82, he finally retired from this!
They work to create a wine with their own identity. They make 30,000 bottles annually and sell mainly in Switzerland, although they do have wine distributed in the US through Schatzi wines in New York. Maybe they don’t sell as quickly, but after 20 years, they have continuity in this project.
Farming as they do, they get less fruit. Typically in Valtellina, 12 Hectares will produce 145,000 kilos of grapes. They usually get 50,000 kilos.
Marcel says that they produced DOCG wine for 4 years, but you must have 4000 plants per hectare for the DOCG. His planting method has about 2000 plants per hectare, so he happily makes his wines under the Alpi Retiche IGT and plants how he pleases!
On to La Perla and our tasting
Now it is time to go to see Marco at La Perla. We head west on Via Teglio, passing the Chiesa Parrocchiale di San Siro (the church he mentioned). Marcel points to the right as we approach the corner at Via la Gatta. In the distance, you can see Triacca – Tenuta La Gatta, the winery of the Triacca family that Marco’s father worked with for decades until he set out on his own. This mirrors the path of Marcel’s father.
Marcel brings us to La Perla di Marco Triacca and puts us in the care of Marco. He returns after our vineyard tour to join us for lunch, where we will taste more of his wines.
We taste 2 of Marcel’s Vagabondo Biancos, one from Stainless Steel and another in an orange style with 1-year skin contact in amphora. This blend of 18 varieties, many PIWI grapes, is astonishingly different depending on the winemaking method. The stainless steel wine had notes that reminded me of Gewurztraminer, with lychee and roses, then with herbs and orange. It was round with sweet fruit notes and great acid. Gwendolyn mentions celery seeds, spicier, green herbs, and pear tart.
The amphora wine has considerably more spice. Gwendolyn mentions mulling spices and orange slices.
We also taste his Pinot Nera which was made in an amphora.
Our time with Marcel was a whirlwind of information. You can see the differences between him and Marco now: 2 varieties versus 115! One contiguous vineyard vs. many small parcels. DOCG wines versus IGT wines. But both are producing delicious wines from this beautiful Valley. I do believe that variety is the spice of life!
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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