This is the third and final part of a short series about the wine trip I made with a group of the Dutch association of Vinologists (Verenigde Vinologen Nederland). The first part was about our tour of Oltrepò Pavese and the second part was about Franciacorta. After that we continued our trip in Valtellina, which is the only remaining wine producing zone with a DOCG denomination in Lombardia. At the end of our trip we tasted some wines of Valcalepio DOC, the wine area near the city of Bergamo. But first let’s dive into Valtellina.
Valtellina is located in the far North of Italy, on the border with Switzerland. It is a valley on the fault line between the tectonic plates of Africa and Europe. The collision of those two tectonic plates has created the Alps. The mountains on both sides of the valley are 3000-4000 meters high (10,000-13,000 feet) and the valley can only be entered from the West side. This is why it was quite a drive from Franciacorta, because we had to drive around the mountains.
Since we arrived in Valtellina at dinner time, our introduction started with food at Trattoria Olmo in Sondrio. We started by trying all of the antipasti on the menu, which included salumi, beef tartare (mixed with chopped capers), bresaola, and sciatt. Bresaola is cured and dried beef, a typical product of Valtellina with a very deep flavor. Sciatt are fritters made from a batter with buckwheat flour, regular flour, beer, and grappa, filled with local Casera cheese. As a primo piatto I opted for gnocchi al mirtillo, because I was curious how that would be. The gnocchi are made from blueberries and flour, and they are served with a sauce of blueberries with some cream. It doesn’t look very appetizing, but it was delicious. For secondo I chose an oven roasted Galletto Vallespluga, a local small rooster.
Of course there was wine from Valtellina as well:
- Dirupi, Olé 2021, Rosso di Valtellina DOC
- Boffolora, Pietrisco 2018, Valtellina Superiore DOCG
- Federico Piliego, Valtellina Superiore Inferno DOCG 2018
- Alfio Mozzi, Grisone, Valtellina Superiore Sassella DOCG 2018
The next morning we started our exploration of the wines of Valtellina by a visit to the Consorzio di Tutela dei Vini di Valtellina. Danilo Drucco, president of the consorzio and chief winemaker of Nino Negri, gave us an interesting overview of the wine producing area.
The west-east orientation gives the south-facing slope of the valley a specific microclimate due to the exposure to the sun. Another important factor is the wind from the Como lake that occurs every day. The rocks in the vineyards heat up during the day and release that warmth again during the night. Because of the high mountains on both sides of the valley, there are less clouds, making Valtellina as sunny as Sicily. It is certainly a lot cooler than in Sicily, but it is warm enough for the grapes to ripen and near the vineyards there are also palm trees, cactuses, and olive trees.
Viticulture was already around in Valtellina in Roman times, when the first terraces were built. The terraces are needed because the slopes are very steep, up to 85% steepness. The total length of all the dry stone walls that were built for the terraces is about 2,500 km (1,500 miles). Most of the terraces still in use today were built between 1300 and 1500.
There are a lot of catholic churches in Valtellina, because it is on the border between the protestants to the north and the catholics to the south. The catholic monks recognized the quality potential of Nebbiolo, and changed all of the vines to Nebbiolo. Valtellina still focusses on that noble grape variety, the same that is used for the famous Barolo and Barbaresco from Langhe in Piemonte. It is however a clone that has adapted to the local circumstances and is called Chiavennasca. It has adapted to the cold winter and large temperature difference between night and day as well as quick changes between dry and wet by having larger grapes and thicker skins. The soil is also different in Valtellina compared to Langhe: Valtellina has shallow soils with a lot of stones, rather than deep soils with clay in the Langhe. Because of this, wines from Valtellina have a more mineral character, which compensates for the smaller amount of tannins (about 30% less) compared to Langhe.
The best vineyards are mid-slope, between 300 and 600 meters above sea level. This is where the grapes for Valtellina Superiore DOCG are grown. The lower or higher part of the slopes is used for Rosso di Valtellina DOC, or for Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG. The latter, also known as Sfursat in the local dialect, is made from grapes are picked 1-2 weeks earlier when the tannins are ripe but they are not yet high in sugar, and are then dried naturally for 100 days to lose 30% of their weight. This technique was originally developed to compensate for low alcohol levels, but thanks to climate change Sforzato now reaches 15-16% alcohol by volume. Sugar levels would be even higher if the grapes were not picked 1-2 weeks earlier. The grapes are dried by the natural wind from lake Como. The wind is cold in the morning and warm in the afternoon. Sometimes a fan is needed if it is too humid, especially during the first days of drying or when it rains.
Valtellina Superiore DOCG needs to be aged at least 2 years, of which 1 year in wood. The Riserva must be aged at least 3 years. There are 5 subzones, from West to East they are: Maroggia, Sassella, Grumello, Inferno e Valgella. Although wines from individual subzones have their own DOCG (e.g. Valtellina Superiore Sassella DOCG), the subzones do not really have a strong character that is easy to recognize. This is because Valtellina has a complex terroir due to the fault line, and differences between terraces within a subzone can be quite large. For one terrace can have much deeper soil than another one in the same subzone. However, as the name implies, Inferno is the hottest subzone.
Valtellina has about 1000 hectares of vineyards and about 60 wineries, most of them small, and most of them work with their own grapes. Although Valtellina is mostly planted with Nebbiolo, there are some experiments with other varieties including white, under the IGT Alpi Retiche denomination.
After the presentation we could taste 37 different wines (wines with a tasting impression were my personal favorites; all wines 100% Nebbiolo unless noted otherwise):
- Alberto Marsetti, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Grumello Vigna Le Prudenze 2018, beautiful aroma
- Alberto Marsetti, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Grumello 2018
- Luca Faccinelli, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Grumello Ortensio Lando 2018
- Rupi del Nebbiolo, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Creazione 2017
- Rupi del Nebbiolo, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Tradizione 2017
- Rupi del Nebbiolo, Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG 2018
- Plozza, Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG Blackedition 2017
- Balgera, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Maferin 2015
- Balgera, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Quigna Reserva 2013, fragrant, aging potential
- Balgera, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Pizaméi Riserva 2013
- Balgera, Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG Solstizio 2013
- Balgera, Passito Rosso IGT Alpi Retiche Luca Primo (sweet sforzato, aged 8 years in steel)
- La Perla, Valtellina Superiore DOCG La Mossa 2015, mineral, juicy, body
- La Perla, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Riserva Elisa 2015
- La Perla, Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG Quattro Soli 2015, aromatic
- Involt Agnelot, Alpi Retiche IGT Li Curt 2015 (90% Nebbiolo, 5% Brugnola, 3% Pignola, 2% others)
- Involt Agnelot, Alpi Retiche IGT Carline 2015 (90% Nebbiolo, 5% Brugnola, 5% Pignola)
- Involt Agnelot, Alpi Retiche IGT La Purscela 2015 (80% Nebbiolo, 15% Brugnola, 5% Pignola)
- Folini Francesco, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Riserva L’Enrico 2018, mineral
- Folini Francesco, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Riserva Vigneto Dos Bel 2018
- Mamete Prevostini, Rosso Botonero Alpi Retiche IGT 2021
- Mamete Prevostini, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Inferno La Cruus 2019
- Mamete Prevostini, Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG Corte di Cama 2018
- La Grazia, Alpi Retiche IGT Bianco Zerovero 2020 (Solaris, Bronner, Johanniter, Souvigner, Muscaris, i.e. hybrid sickness resistent varieties)
- La Grazia, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Goccia 2016
- La Grazie, Alpi Retiche IGT Spumante Metodo Classico Rosé Brut (sparkling Nebbiolo)
- Le Strie, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Le Strie 2009, earthy, aged, balanced
- Le Strie, Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG 2014
- La Spia, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Sassella PG40 2018, nice aroma and body
- La Spia, Rosso di Valtellina DOC 2021
- Triacca, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Casa La Gatta 2018
- Triacca, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Riserva La Gatta 2017, tobacco, juicy
- Triacca, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Prestigio 2017
- Triacca, Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG San Domenico 2017
- Fratelli Bettini, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Inferno Prodigio 2017
- Dirupi, Valtellina Superiore DOCG BIO 2019
- Dirupi, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Grumello Vigna Gess 2018
Afterwards we had a wonderful lunch at Grand Hotel Della Posta. The antipasti included sciatt (even more delicious than the previous day for dinner), bresaola, and local smoked trout.
The primo piatto was manfrigole: buckwheat pancakes stuffed with bechamel and casera cheese, served with butter and sage. Very rich and very delicious.
Naturally there was Valtellina Superiore DOCG with lunch as well, and we enjoyed some of our favorite wines from the morning’s tasting with our lunch.
After lunch Danilo Drucco showed us around the vineyard of Nino Negri within the Grumello subzone, which has been named after the Grumello castle and offers a magnificent view of the valley.
We then continued to the Nino Negri winery, the largest winery in Valtellina. Nino Negri has 35 hectares of vineyards and was started in 1897.
The wines we tasted at Nino Negri were:
- Valtellina Superiore DOCG Valgella Fracia 2018, still young but ripe tannins and spicy, 1 year large slavonic oak
- Valtellina Superiore DOCG Valgella Fracia 2009, aromatic and velvety but strong tannins, 1 year slavonic oak, part barrique
- Valtellina Sforzato DOCG Carlo Negri 2019, still young, black plums
- Valtellina Sforzato DOCG Carlo Negri 2009, aged, powerful, rose hip
- Valtellina Sforzato DOCG 5 Stelle 2018, spicy, powerful
- Valtellina Sforzato DOCG 5 Stelle 1995, velvety tannins, chocolate, fresh, body, balanced, orange peel
It was great that we had the opportunity to taste the Sforzato 5 Stelle from 1995. This is the flagship wine of the company, which is aged in barriques (50% new) rather than large oak barrels for the ‘regular’ Sforzato Carlo Negri. This wine was introduced in 1983 to show that it is possible to make a big fruity wine in Valtellina with the taste of black fruit.
Our next visit was to the winery ArPePe, located just underneath the Grumello vineyard of Nino Negri. ArPePe is a family business, with the 5th generation since the start in 1860. They have 50 hectares of vineyards in Sassella, Grumello, and Inferno, with vines that are about 50 years old.
All the wine making at ArPePe is done in some large concrete and mostly large wooden barrels, which are made with steam instead of fire to ensure the neutrality of the wood. The wine making is very traditional with very long maceration, as long as 130 days in 2018. Geothermal heat is used to heat the most to start the malolactic fermentation, that is also performed with the skins. The wine is also aged longer before it is released than required by the denomination.
2022 looks like it will become a good vintage despite the dry and hot summer, due to the large temperature difference between day and night in the last weeks before the harvest.
We tasted the following wines at ArPePe:
- Rosso di Valtellina DOC 2020, aged for 5 months in large wood, a light wine both in color and flavor. Due to hail in 2020 most of the harvest was lost and only this wine was produced.
- Il Pettirosso Valtellina Superiore DOCG 2018, a blend of Sassella and Grumello, macerated for 100 days qne aged for 12 months in wood. Sassella with shallow soils provides the minerality, whereas Grumello with deeper soils provides the flesh.
- Rocca de Piro Valtellina Superiore Grumello DOCG 2017, macerated for 120 days and aged for 12 months in wood.
- Stella Retica Valtellina Superiore Sassella DOCG 2017, more structured and mineral than the Rocca de Piro.
- Sesto Canto Valtellina Superiore Riserva Inferno DOCG 2016, aged for 34 months in chestnut large oval barrels that are 55 years old, soft tannins. The riserva is only produced in the best years, only in 2013, 2016 and 2018 in the decade 2010-2020.
- Il Pettirosso Valtellina Superiore DOCG 1999, vinified in concrete and aged for 4 years in large oak. Beautifully aged, complex, and fresh with velvety tannins.
All of the wines of ArPePe were remarkably elegant, especially considering the long maceration.
We arrived a bit early at restaurant Trippi for dinner (which incidentally was a restaurant that I had been to myself last year). And so we ordered a nice local sparkling wine, La Perla Metodo Classico Extra Brut 2018, Alpi Retiche IGT, made from the autochthonous red berried grape variety Pignola and aged for two years on the lees after the second fermentation. This was served with complimentary local salumi and cheeses.
As antipasti we had buckwheat crostini with smoked local trout, bresaola with Taroz (mashed potatoes and green beans with local Casera cheese), manfrigole (buckwheat pancakes filled with bechamel and Casera cheese, with butter and saged and crispy pancetta), pork cheeks, and semifreddo of Braulio (local amaro).
- Tenuta Scerscé Essenza Valtellina Superiore DOCG 2018
- Tenuta Scerscé Flammante Valtellina Superiore Inferno DOCG 2019
- Tenuta Scerscé Cristina Scarpellini Valtellina Superiore Riserva Valgella DOCG 2018
- Balgera Maferìn Valtellina Superiore Valgella DOCG 2015
- Balgera Pizaméi Valtellina Superiore Valgella DOCG 2013
- Balgera Valtellina Superiore Valgella Riserva DOCG 2005
- Balgera Valtellina Superiore Riserva del Fondatore DOCG 1995
The wines from Balgera were more traditional and the wines from Scerscé moder modern, but both were good. It was especially nice that we got to enjoy such well aged wines by Balgera.
The next morning we continued our tour of Valtellina at Sandro Fay. This winery was founded by Sandro, but is now run by his son and daughter Marco and Elena Fay. They have 15 hectares of vineyards and produce between 65,000 and 80,000 bottles per year. The winery started with just some scattered plots with a total size of 1 hectare, but Sandro acquired other plots until he owned an entire vineyard in Teglio in the subzone Valgella, between 300 and 800 meters above sea level. The winery also has 1 hectare in Sassella.
The wines in the tasting room are displayed at various heights in accordance with the various altitudes at which the wines are produced. Corta Bassa is produced from grapes that grow at less than 450 metres above sea level, where it is more humid, colder in winter, and hotter in summer, and the skins of the grapes are thinner. Between 450 and 600 meters above sea level are the single vineyard wines with more complexity. Above 600 meters the grapes have more acidity and freshness and are therefore perfect to make sforzato. Finally at 830 meters above sea level, from 2017 Sandro Fay produces Chardonnay under the Alpi Retiche IGT denomination.
It was great that we also got to visit the fruttaio, where the grapes are dried until at least the 1st of December after the harvest for the sforzato. The grapes are mostly dried by the wind, but if it rains, the windows are closed and a fan takes over. Drying the grapes reduces their weight by about 30%. The usual yield of wine from a kilo of grapes is about 0.7 litres, but with sforzato this is only 0.5 litres. The grapes for sforzato have to be healthy without botrytis. There is 4.5 kilos (10 pounds) of grapes in each crate. Normally the harvest is completed at the end of October, but now it was already finished by mid October. Sandro Fay produced around 7,500 bottles of sforzato.
The Sotcastèl Apli Retiche IGT Chardonnay 2020 was already sold out (this is why you see an empty shelf in the tasting room at the highest level), but we were allowed to taste the 2021 vintage directly from the barrel. This wine was very crisp and mineral.
We tasted six more wines at Sandro Fay:
- Costa Bassa Valtellina Superiore Valgella DOCG 2019, elegant and dry
- Il Glicine Valtellina Superiore Sassella DOCG 2018, juicy with ripe tannins
- Ca’ Moreì Valtellina Superiore Valgella DOCG 2018, more tannins, still young
- Carteria Valtellina Superiore Riserva Valgella DOCG 2017, aged 2 years in large wood, balsamic, blood orange, elegant, not as fruity
- La Faya Alpi Retiche IGT 2019, 70% Syrah, 30% Merlot, mint aroma
- Rocco del Principe Valtellina Sforzato DOCG 2019, aged for 2 years in large wood, spicy, hefty tannins
We had lunch at Cà d’Otello, the restaurant of Elena Fay’s husband. We started with a Dirupi Metodo Classico Dosaggio zero Rosé 2018, aged for more than three years on the lees. The main dish for lunch was Chisciöi, buckwheat pancakes filled with Casera cheese (a pan-fried version of manfrigole) with bresaola. We also had some local cheese and apple pie with ice cream for dessert. After the spumante we enjoyed La Spia PG40 Valtellina Superiore Sassella DOCG 2018, which we ordered because it had been one our favorites from the tasting at the Consorzio.
The final winery we visited in Valtellina was Rainoldi. Another family business, founded in 1925 by Aldo Rainoldi, with 11 hectares of vineyards, mostly in Sassella. The wines at Rainoldi are made for 40% with their own grapes, the remaining 60% is purchased from other growers.
Rainoldi has a modern style and uses both large wood and small barriques. Apart from Valtellina Superiore and Sforzato, they also produce sparkling Nebbiolo and Sauvignon Blanc, planted in a windy area at 600 meters above sea level. Some of their vineyards are so steep that a helicopter is used to transport the grapes quickly to the winery.
The tasting room was in the cellar of the winery. Here we were told about the legend of how sforzato came into existence. In the old days, farmers had to pay the rent for their land by handing off a certain percentage of their crops. Trying to cheat this system, they kept some grapes hidden to make wine later in the winter. Then they discovered that this wine tasted much better, and so sforzato was born.
The wines we tasted at Rainoldi were:
- Ghibellino Alpi Retiche IGT Sauvignon Blanc 2021, typical Sauvignon aromas, crisp, will become very mineral with aging
- Valtellina Superiore Riserva Inferno DOCG 2018, produced only in good vintages, aged in French barriques (10% new), can age for 15-20 years, earthy, full bodied and balanced
- Vigna degli Apostoli Valtellina Superiore Sassella DOCG 2015, aged for 24 months in 100% new tonneaux (900 litres), mineral rather than fruity
- Crespino Alpi Retiche IGT 2017, 90% Nebbiolo, 10% Merlot, grapes dried briefly (until 15% weight loss, half of sforzato), aged 12 months in new French barriques, dry tannins
- Valtellina Sfursat DOCG 2019, aged 22 months in large oak, aroma of cocoa and cherry brandy
- Fruttaio Ca’ Rizzieri Valtellina Sfursat DOCG 2009, grapes dried in a fruttaio that is high in the mountains with more wind, so they dry out more. This is an elegant vintage with a long aging potential. Elegant with a mineral aroma, alcohol a bit too present at this time.
- Fruttaio Ca’ Rizzieri Valtellina Sfursat DOCG 2001, complex, elegant, balanced, aromas of mushrooms, cherry brandy, and cocoa.
Our final destination was Bergamo, and the local unknown wine region Valcalepio DOC. We had dinner at restaurant Ol Giopì e la Margi in Bergamo, and Matteeo Manzoni, the wine maker of the local cooperative, the Cantina Sociale Bergamasca, was there with 22 wines for us to enjoy with dinner on behalf of the Consorzio Tutela Valcalepio. Valcalepio DOC was created in 1976. The production area is on the south-west of Lake Iseo, and thus adjacent to Franciacorta. The main wine is Valcalepio Rosso, a blend of 25%-60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40-75% Merlot. The wine needs to be aged at least 1 year of which 3 months in wood, and 3 years of which 1 year in wood for the Riserva.There is also Valcalepio Bianco, with 55%-80% Pinot Bianco and/or Chardonnay, and 20%-45% Pinot Grigio, as well as Valcalepio Moscato Passito. We also tasted some wines from the relatively new denomination Colleoni DOC that was created in 2011. Colleoni DOC or Terre del Colleoni DOC is a denomination for single variety wines from the same production area as Valcalepio from Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, Incrocio Manzoni (a crossing between Glera and Cabernet Sauvignon), Moscato, Pinot Grigio, Schiava, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Franconia (Blaufränkisch), Incrocio Terzi (a crossing between Barbera and Cabernet Franc), and Marzemino.
The 22 wines we tasted and drank with dinner were:
- Cantina Sociale Bergamasca, Colleoni DOC Spumante Brut Millesimato Metodo Classico 2016 from Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Incrocio Manzoni, aged 24 months on the lees
- Cantina Sociale Bergamasca, Valcalepio Bianco DOC 2019
- Cantina Sociale Bergamasca, Terre del Colleoni DOC Incrocio Manzoni 6.01.13 bio 2020
- Cascina del Ronco, Elegia Franconia della Bergamasca IGT 2021 (rosé)
- Cantina Sociale Bergamasca, Terre del Colleoni DOC Schiava rosé 2021
- Magri Sereno, Valcalepio DOC Rosso 2020
- Il Cipresso, Valcalepio DOC Rosso Dionisio 2019
- Cantina Sociale Bergamasca, Valcalepio DOC Rosso bio 2018
- Tosca, Valcalepio DOC Rosso Rosso del Lupo 2018
- La Rovere, Valcalepio DOC Rosso Senesco 2017
- Cascina del Ronco, Valcalepio DOC Rosso
- Locatelli Caffi, Valcalepio Rosso I Pilendrì 2017
- Locatelli Caffi, Valcalepio Rosso Riserva 2016
- Magri Sereno, Valcalepio Rosso Riserva 2018
- Tosca, Valcalepio DOC Rosso Riserva Dionigi 2018
- Tosca, Valcalepio DOC Rosso Bemu 2018
- Cantina Sociale Bergamasca, Valcalepio DOC Rosso Riserva Akros 2015
- Cantina Sociale Bergamasca, Valcalepio DOC Rosso Riserva Akros 2008
- Il Cipresso, Valcalepio DOC Rosso Riserva Bartolomeo 2015
- La Rovere, Valcalepio DOC Rosso Riserva Sancta Crux 2015
- Cantina Sociale Bergamasca, Valcalepio DOC Rosso Riserva Vigna del Conte 2015
- Cantina Sociale Bergamasca, Valcalepio DOC Rosso Riserva Vigna del Conte 2008
All of the reds were similar to Bordeaux, begin a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot aged in wood, but perhaps with more freshness than Bordeaux nowadays often has, and a better price to quality ratio.
The food was very nice. Antipasti: Capù de Parr (stuffed cabbage), sweet and sour vegetables, polenta with anchovies, salumi and cheese. Primi: fresh pasta with hair and cocoa, risotto with squash, sausage, and Taleggio cream. Secondo: roast veal with potato cream and spinach. Dolce: pear and chocolate cake.
We ended the final day of our trip with a guided tour of the historic Città Alta of Bergamo, where we enjoyed Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta as aperitif, and a lunch at Osteria Valtellina near Milan Linate airport. I had polpette di melanzane (eggplant ‘meatballs’) and a typical Milanese dish: risotto al salto con funghi porcini (fried risotto with porcini mushrooms). The wines we had with our late lunch were Rosso di Valtellina DOC 2017 and Valtellina Superiore Grumello DOCG 2016, both by Gianatti Giorgio.
Altogether we tasted 137 different wines during this trip: 21 from Oltrepò Pavese, 16 from Franciacorta, 78 from Valtellina, and 22 from Valcalepio. During the first four days this was an average of 34 wines per day, with a maximum of 57 different wines on the third day. So it was not just fun, but also hard work 🙂 If you now think that we are all alcoholics or were drunk all day, you are mistaken. When we taste wine, we spit most of it out. With lunch and dinner we do drink some wine, but in moderate quantities. It was great to get to know the wines of Lombardia a bit better, and I can’t wait for the next wine trip to Italy with Fred Nijhuis and the VVN.