wine Features
Wine on Skis: Valtellina
Piedmont meets the Veneto


By Jim Clarke
December 2006

When I was first learning about wine, my teachers repeated the contrast between cool climates – which yielded higher acid, lighter bodied wines – and hotter climates (full-bodied, lower acidity) like a mantra; it’s one of those basic divisions that help you make sense of wine’s variety. For classmates whose sense of geography and climate was unsure, there was a shorthand trick: Do you go there to swim or to ski? If you know that, it tells you enough about the climate to start making some assumptions about the wine.

But every rule has an exception. Valtellina, in northern Italy, is a studded with ski resorts; there are about 250 miles of slopes. The peaks remain snow-covered all year long, and glaciers allow year-round skiing in some spots. Nevertheless, a 25-mile amphitheater of southern-facing mountains allows winemakers with the necessary energy and stamina to make some of Italy’s most individual wines, rich and complex.

The mountains line the Adda River, which works its way up from Lake Como. It brings with it the breva, a warming wind which heats up the Adda Valley and prolongs the autumn so that grapes have time to ripen (It also makes the northern part of the lake a great spot for windsurfing). The terraced vineyards lie on the north side of the river, facing south; they squeeze out every drop of sunlight available. Even when the sun has passed, the rocks retain much of the heat and keep the vineyards warm into the evening.

Piedmont meets the Veneto

Still, despite number of advantages Valtellina owes to its peculiar geography, it seems like a difficult place to grow winegrapes. All the work has to be done by hand because of the steep mountainsides and terraces. Apparently the growers are gluttons for punishment: to complement the region’s physical challenges, they grow Nebbiolo, a grape so temperamental and late-ripening that it’s rarely seen outside of Piedmont, where it contributes to the fame of Barolo and Barbaresco. Even New World producers who yearn to work with the finicky Pinot Noir seem reluctant to tackle Nebbiolo. But in Valtellina they have been growing Nebbiolo (locally called Chiavannasca) here since the 14th century.

If their grape choice matches with their neighbors to the west, some of their winemaking techniques look toward their eastern neighbor, the Veneto. There the winemakers sometimes like to pick the grapes and dry them out in a barn, concentrating the sugars and flavors to make a fuller and more intense wine. The Valtellinese would be foolish not to try it for themselves, because the breva wind not only helps warm the vineyards; it’s also perfect for drying out the grapes while limiting the threat of rot. These are the Sforsato or Sfurzat wines; they have the same intensity and rich fruits of the Veneto’s Amarone wines, but retain the Nebbiolo grape’s tannins and tar, lavender, and spicy aromas.

The non-Sforsato wines are generally leaner and gentler than a typical Barolo or Barbaresco, but they’re not lightweights. The wines labeled Superiore come from one of four vineyards: Sassella, Valgella, Grumello, and Inferno (the name suggests the heat of the vineyard in the summer). The Inferno wines are generally the most powerful of the non-Sforsato wines, while Valgella’s high-altitude vineyards creates more delicate, aromatic wines.

There are only twenty-something producers in Valtellina, and not all of them export their wines. Keep an eye out for the following:

Nino Negri
Aldo Rainoldi
Sandro Fay
Arturo Pellizatti Perego

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