Given that Italy’s wine industry is based on indigenous varieties, it’s no surprise that many of the country’s finest wines are not very well known. One of the great red wines that few people know much about is Valtellina, from northern Lombardia, not far from the Swiss border.
The wines here are made from the Nebbiolo grape, the same variety that is the source of the famous offerings of Barolo and Barbaresco from the neighboring region of Piemonte. In Valtellina, the Nebbiolo grape is known as Chiavennasca and it is the basis for all the best reds here, most importantly Valtellina Superiore, which must be made from a minimum of 90% Chiavennasca.
Valtellina is an east-west zone (I believe the only east-west wine valley in Italy) and many of the best plantings are 1200-1500 feet above sea level. As this area is located so far north in Italy and is quite cool, it becomes necessary to plant vines at such altitudes to catch as many of the sun’s rays as possible for optimum ripening conditions. This however, makes things a bit difficult, especially for work in the vineyards. Plantings run every which way and are often shored up by rock walls, to prevent erosion. This is extreme viticulture at one of its most extreme sitings and it assures that big corporations will not be investing in this area anytime soon; rather is it the small families that are the producers of wines from Valtellina.
The most common wine here is Valtellina Superiore with the best bottlings named for five districts. The districts are: Grumello, Valgella, Sassella (named for the rocks in the soil), Maroggia and Inferno, this last zone named for the summertime heat in the vineyard which can get as hot as you-know-where.
These Nebbiolo-based wines do not have the sheer power of Barolo or Barbaresco, but do offer excellent richness and complexity. Think of these wines are more subdued than their Piemontese cousins, often with a distinct spiciness. The wines are gently rustic and feature flavors of cherry, dried brown herbs and notes of rosemary and thyme backed by good acidity and firm, but not overpowering tannins.
The best producers of Valtellina include:
- Ar Pe. Pe.
- Nino Negri
- Aldo Rainoldi
- Conti Sertoli Salis
- Mamete Prevostini
The greatest red wine of Valtellina is a Valtellina Superiore known as Sforzato (also known as Sfurzat or Sufrsat). The word sforzato is loosely translated as “forced” and it refers to the appassimento process used to produce this wine. This is the same process used to produce Amarone from Valpolicella; it concerns the initial steps in which newly harvested grapes are placed on mats or in boxes in special humidity-controlled rooms and natually dried for a period of about three months. The grapes lose a large percentage of their water, shriveling up to very small berries, almost like raisins; thus some of the flavors are “forced” in the wine with this process.
These are remarkable wines, among the best of Italy, with great power and distcintive spice. They generally age for 10-12 years (a few even longer) and tend to need very rich game or red meat to accompany them. Among the best examples of Sforzato are the “Ca’Rizzieri” from Rainoldi, the “Feudo del Conte” from Sertoli Salis, the “Roncho del Picchio” from Fay and the amazing “5 Stelle” from Nino Negri.
A few final words on Valtellina regarding foods to accompany these wines. The most famous cheese of the area is Bitto, a D.O.P. cheese that is aged for periods from 70 days to 10 years! As you can imagine, the longest-aged examples are quite powerful, making them fine partners for a Sforzato.
One of the area’s signature dishes is pizzocheri, which became one of my favorite regional foods from anywhere in Italy on my recent trip. A number of ingredients make up this dish; at the center is a pasta made with a local rye grain known as grano saraceno, a medium-width pasta much like fettucine that is cooked with casera, a local cow’s milk cheese and a cabbage known as verza. This cabbage has an exotic blend of swetness along with earthy, lightly bitter flavors. It’s unlike any other pasta dish I’ve tried in Italy and its complexities and flavors perfectly accompany the earthiness and spice of a Valtellina Superiore from Grumello or Sassella.