Nebbiolo, the noble grape behind Barolo and Barbaresco, is currently Italy’s hottest red variety. But if you think only Piedmont can turn out world-class, age-worthy wines from Nebbiolo, it’s time to discover Valtellina, where Nebbiolo soars in rocky, Alpine vineyards in Lombardy. Of the area’s two most famous wines, Valtellina Superiore is racier and more graceful than its Piedmont cousins but equally fascinating and age-worthy, while Sforzato di Valtellina possesses concentration, structure and velvety texture.
The Growing Zone
Cradled among soaring Alpine peaks near the town of Sondrio, Valtellina’s steep mountain vineyards have been turning out notable wines for millennia. Ancient Roman chroniclers Virgil and Pliny praised the area’s wines, as did Leonardo da Vinci in his 16th-century Codex Atlanticus, where he observed, “Valtellina, surrounded by high and terrible mountains, makes very potent wines.”
Nebbiolo has the starring role on vertiginous slopes and currently accounts for 90% of Valtellina’s 2,026 acres under vine. Planted predominantly in terraced, dry stone-wall vineyards, Nebbiolo thrives in the area’s unique growing conditions. These include high-altitude vineyards that are protected from strong winds and fierce storms by the Rhaetian Alps. The grape further benefits from mild breezes from Lake Como below and southern exposures, all of which add up to a long growing season that generates aromatic complexity while rocky soils impart elegance and mineral sensations.
The results are graceful, fragrant reds that are naturally lighter on their feet and have lower alcohol levels than Barolo and Barbaresco but feature depth, finesse and serious longevity. These wines deliver their varietal pedigree, offering enticing sensations of rose, red berry, camphor and new leather as well as Alpine herb accents, bright acidity, taut yet refined tannins and savory mineral notes.
“The tannic power and quantity of tannins in the Langhe are higher because the clayey, calcareous soils favor their production,” says Danilo Drocco, managing director and winemaker at historic firm Nino Negri, who has ample experience with Nebbiolo. Before joining Nino Negri, he worked at leading firms in the Langhe, home to Barolo and Barbaresco. “However, the tannins of Nebbiolo from Valtellina, where the soil is rocky and acidic, are supported by fresh acidity and minerality that make the wines similar to the great Pinot Noirs of Burgundy. These are wines that find tannic harmony after a short aging period but that can have a long life thanks to the perfect balance between tannins and acidity.”
The Valtellina Range
Valtellina has four different appellations. Rosso di Valtellina Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) is fresh, lithe and made to be enjoyed young. It can be produced throughout the province of Sondrio and two areas to the left of the Adda river. Mandatory aging is only six months before release to highlight the wine’s fruitiness and youthful vibrancy.
Alpi Retiche Indicazione Geografico Tipico (IGT) is a flexible designation that encompasses white, red, rosato, passito and sparkling wines made from native and international grapes.