t’s always lovely to return to the crazy sensuality of Italy following time spent in the United States. With the sun setting in front of my balcony in the Ligurian town of Ruta, I prepared a cold supper for myself and two friends: fresh arugula, creamy mozzarella di bufala, prosciutto, homemade spinach and ricotta tortellini with pesto from the shop in nearby Camogli, soft focaccia from the panificio, and of course, wine.
I chose Sassella Stella Retica Valtellina Superiore 2004 DOCG by AR.PE.PE, a seven-year old 100 percent nebbiolo. What might sound like a strange match for a light supper was perfect. Earlier this summer I fell in love with Valtellina nebbiolos. I thought I knew all about the taste of nebbiolo wines, but it turns my education had just begun. Piedmont Barolos and Barbarescos are more like second cousins than siblings to Valtellina nebbiolos. The grapes are of the same variety (although in Valtellina they are called chiavennasca rather than nebbiolo) but the wine itself is not at all the same. Valtellina prices are also far lower (generally €20-25 with only a few climbing to €40).
Heavy clay soil tends to make Piedmont nebbiolo structured and tannic, with aromas of truffles, dark fruit that reflect the woodsy, foggy hills where the grapes grow (best after 10 or even 20 years). Valtellina vineyards by contrast are more compact, vertiginous, located on south-facing hillsides carved out by the Adda River (north of Milan, south of San Moritz, and east of the Lago Maggiore). It’s about the only place outside of Piedmont where nebbiolo grapes thrive.
The mineral-rich soil, steep slopes, and the altitude (350-900 meters) make the wines naturally lighter, fresher and more floral. They are also lower in alcohol content and less structured than their elegant but decidedly different Piedmont cousins. Valtellina nebbiolos are best enjoyed 5-8 years after production.
AR.PE.PE, an artisanal producer in Valtellina, was founded in 1860 and originally known as Azienda Pelizzati Perego. The family was forced to sell the winery in the early 1970s after the unexpected death of Guido Pelizzati Perego, who had just completed a state-of-the art cellar he built into the side of the steep hillside. In 1984, Guido’s son Arturo revived the cellar, and despite debts and doubts kept his wine aging in botti grandi (large oak vats) and not barriques (the small, usually French, barrels) employed by many neighboring vineyards. After six patient years he sold his first bottles in 1990. The investment in excellence was immediately recognized, with acclaim for his Valtellina Superiore Sassella Rocce Rosse Riserva.
Guido died in 2004, but his daughter, Isabella, a trained enologa (winemaker), took over the cellar, while his son, Emanuele, ran the vineyards. Emanuele designed and built a custom backpack that allows pickers to snap their grape-filled bins directly onto its steel frame for transport to the cantina. Since the vineyards are narrow and steep, they can only be tended to and picked by hand.
Though Isabella and Emanuele carry on the family tradition of high-quality wines (mostly small productions from Sassella and Grumello, subzones of the Valtellina DOCG), they also like to experiment. They make a cru Sassella Vigna Regina Valtellina Superiore DOCG from one particular vineyard, a DOC Rosso Di Valtellina. It’s a simpler, easier-drinking version of their elegant DOCGs. They also produce a late-harvest wine called Sassella Ultimi Raggi Valtellina Superiore DOC.
Another remarkable brother and sister team is Marco and Elena Fay. They manage the Fay winery, opened by their father Sandro Fay in 1973. The family produces three Valtellina Superiore DOCGs, all of them crus: Sassella Il Glicine, Valgella Cà Moréi, and Valgella Carteria. The Fays say crus make more sense since their wines seem to vary more depending on vineyard altitude — unlike the more traditional subzones of Valgella and Sassella. The Fay Sforzato Ronco Del Picchio comes from their highest vineyards (650 meters). The grapes there rarely ripen in time to make Valtellina Superiore.
The Sforzato, Sfurzat or Sforzat is traditionally Valtellina’s most famous wine and is produced like Amarone. It’s made only after the grapes have been left to dry in open racks for three months. Unlike other Valtellinas, the Sforzato is a fall or winter wine to be drunk either as a vino di meditazione, or with aged cheese or meat dishes.
The most recognized Sforzatos come from bigger outlets. Nino Negri (Sfursat di Valtellina DOCG), owned by Gruppo Italiano Vini, is by far the largest Valtellina producer, putting out about a million bottles a year using grapes from some 250 local vineyards. Rainoldi, still a family vineyard, generates 200,000 bottles annually, including Fruttaio Cà Rizzieri DOCG — which is produced only in the best years — and Sfurzat di Valtellina DOCG).