Mute that damned phone; turn your computer’s volume up.
Take a deep breath.
Let me take you somewhere magical for five minutes. (You’ll want full-screen video).
Welcome to one of the most beautiful places on this Earth: Valtellina. Sorry for the abrupt ending; this is an excerpt of a larger film by the celebrated Italian director Ermanno Olmi. Valtellina is probably the least known high-quality wine producing region of Italy. I wish I could send you the smell of burning wood, wet earth, stone, and porcini mushrooms just now to accompany these images.
Valtellina is where Nebbiolo (aka ‘Chiavennasca’ for locals) grows on the slopes of the Alps. This is as mountain Nebbiolo as you’ll get. You can see the snow-covered peaks in the background; they linger ominously behind any scene — a new perspective on the sublime. Relativizing our pursuits as extemporaneous follies; rendering us not unlike ants on an undulating surface which we can neither control nor fully comprehend.
Planning a trip to Northern Italy last September, it was unclear whether we’d have time to visit Valtellina. We had a pretty busy dance card already. The funny thing? Aside from the stunning photos, what haunted me was a word: SONDRIO.
Sondrio is the largest town in Valtellina. Once this sibilant name slipped into my head, it echoed for days (in my fake Italian accent). I became obsessed. It haunted me until I insisted we go.
I don’t believe in fate, but the moment we arrived I began to wonder if I should. Valtellina was the single most magical part of our trip.
I want to explore the region and wines with you through the lens of two different Valtellinese vineyards: Grumello and Sassella. These are only two vineyards among many, each near the central town of Sondrio, in the east-west expanse of the Valtellinese valley which contains other fascinating vineyards visible at this excellent website. If you pretend to speak Italian and scroll down to each vineyard name, you can see some amazing photos.
The reason that Valtellina makes me swoon, and in particular Sassella and Grumello, has everything to do with this map — click twice to fully enlarge:
Can you feel chill of the Alps yet? The red marker is ArPePe’s cellar in Sondrio. See the valley? That was carved by the Adda River. Unsurprisingly, the vines all thrive along the sun-drenched southward facing slope. Lake Como is over on your left, off the screen.
Now try to mentally superpose this vineyard map by the master Alessandro Masnaghetti (no better resolution, you must buy that, details here1):
You may note that at certain sinuous points on the map, the colored vineyards gently curl upwards northeast a bit in violation of the straight east-west axis. This has EVERYTHING to do with why I love these wines; the vines on that twisted portion are unique given their slight southeastern exposure. They sculpt wines of incredible terroir and aging potential. Sassella and Grumello are in the very middle, in orange and lime green.
Before exploring my favorite producer of the Valtellinese region, the almighty overlord Nino Negri needs contextualization. Nino Negri owns or has contracts set up with nearly the entire Valtellina region, 184 hectares (ha) total2. Nino Negri owns restaurants, cellars, the very air. Nino Negri signs litter the landscape, towering over the vineyards, affirming the domaine’s majesty.
Doubtless, Nino Negri is responsible for keeping many growers fed and alive, and that’s important. The wines are good. The Quadrio Valtellina Superiore bottling, readily available in the US, incorporates Nebbiolo and a bit of Merlot, and can certainly be an okay wine for the money (all Valtellina reds must contain 90% Nebbiolo). One could all too easily piss away $20 on less interesting wines. But, in my tasting experience, something’s missing. There is none of the rustic elegance, the savage mountain character that I crave.
Only 30% of Valtellina’s vineyard’s are privately owned. And ArPePe (an abbreviation for “Arturo Pelizzatti Perego”) is a historic part of that, working 12 ha. In a bumper crop, they’ll produce 50,000 bottles total. Given the steep slopes and impossibility of mechanical intervention, about 1200 hours of human intervention is required per hectare. The Pelizzatti family controlled 80 ha and were the largest player in Valtellina before their grandfather passed in 1973, igniting inheritance conflict, and forcing the sale of vineyards to the Swiss-American company Winefood who no longer cared as much about the vines (where have I heard this story before … sigh).
Hell bent on getting back their legacy, they painstakingly rebuilt. Here is the entrance to ArPePe’s stunning cellar, built into the rocky base of the Grumello vineyard.
The Grumello vineyard renders the lightest and most elegant of all Valtellinese wines. If the Sassella vineyard typically shows mountain strawberry aromas, Grumello cranks up the acid and lightness to arrive at a raspberry aroma. These are the lightest Nebbiolo you will find anywhere in the world — the antidote to overwrought modern Barolo that come across as chubby callgirls slathered in oaky makeup and extraction. These, to me, are true grand cru Nebbiolo — let’s set aside Serralunga’s awesomeness, this is the ‘Les Saint Georges’ of Nebbiolo. While retaining an exquisite sense of restraint, they still manage to Nebbiolo: leather, tar, roses, all in a remarkably lightweight vessel.
On the ArPePe Grumello labels, you see the historic Castel Grumello. In this northern portion of Italy, castles seem to mark every high point on the horizon. The vines are nestled around and below it. It’s decayed into ruin, but nearby, there is a fabulous little restaurant, the ristoro Castel Grumello, that doesn’t want to have anything to do with tourists. We had to beg the waiter to seat us, but it was worth it: who knew there was such a thing as smoked tuna carpaccio. The view from the castle’s ruins is stunning.
Sassella is far rockier than most other vineyards. These are brawnier than Grumello and show intriguing earthy aromas somewhat like oxidized mint (sounds bad; tastes amazing) in addition to the aforementioned mountain strawberry. There are all the other noble Nebbiolo aromas present in spades as well. What’s amazing is how it has such density and power without ever feeling overwrought. If Grumello is the Les Saint Georges, Sassella is a Mazis Chambertin. These wines require aging to integrate and smooth their tannins, and are quite spiky and savage in youth — just as any properly macerated, self-respecting Nebbiolo should. A 2006 Sassella tasted recently seemed to pair surprisingly better with Kunik cheese than with a lamb shoulder chop; the cheese absorbed the tannins but didn’t erase any of the Nebbiolo character or fruitiness.
Here is the amazing ArPePe cellar. Even if it’s carved out of serpentine granitic rock, as crazy as it sounds, it is essentially built on sticks, with a river coursing below. Building the cellar was a ridiculously difficult task which ultimately paid off, as it now leverages geothermal energy thanks to that river below, via a computerized control interface.
With Fukushima fresh in their minds, upon noting that the Alps still exhibit seismic activity from time to time, a number of Japanese visitors to the cellar immediately queried “What will happen here if there is an earthquake?” Isabella prefers not to think about that.
Fermentation is in French and Slavonian oak, with bits of chestnut. They previously used a mixture of chestnut and concrete, but have moved to all wood fermentation.
The giant botti are from 1967. Botti were traditionally entirely made of chestnut; this nowadays is far less common in Italy. These were restored in 2005, scratched on the inside and out, and will now live two more generations. ArPePe made some controversial choices with their botti: acacia and throw-back chestnut. Acacia is thought to have lent honeyed notes to an older generation’s wines. Many scoffed when ArPePe decided to use acacia, but they are elated with the results, noting that it lends a fresh, floral character.
As out-of-this world fantastic as Isabella’s wines are, even she agreed that the undisputed master of Grumello was the hermitic, legendary Gianatti Giorgio, whose Grumello vines lay just east of her own. His wines are difficult to find, and he is a totally one man show — every aspect of farming and vinification of his holdings in Grumello and Inferno are completely up to him. Isabella laments his stoic obstinacy and worries what will happen to his legacy if ever something were to happen to him. I’d never seen his wines anywhere until Garagiste offered his 2007 Grumello last May for $20, and I had a small heart attack then immediately purchased a case upon reviving. Tasting notes forthcoming, just as soon as they’re delivered, can rest in the cellar, and I can finally taste and learn more.
What does one pair these wines with? The hearty mountain foods of Valtellina. Think porcini mushrooms, Bresaola (air-dried beef fillet), bitto cheese (expensive, addictive cow’s-milk cheese from Valtellina), pizzochieri pasta (made from buckwheat; unbelievably hearty as it’s served with savoy cabbage, potatoes, whole garlic, and melted bitto cheese. Please message me if you find this anywhere for sale in NYC). Note how the porcini mushrooms’ gills have a greenish hue: this will forevermore be indicative of freshly dried poricinis for me. And look at this amazing churrascaria-style beef, cut super thin, wrapped around a stick, then brushed with olive oil and quickly browned in a fireplace. Even the eggs had an unearthly bright orange color that made me think we blindly subsist on industrial factory crap out here in the US.
Ready to max out another credit card and book a flight to Milan?
Visit Isabella by reserving at least two weeks in advance: ArPePe, Via Buon Consiglio, 4, 23100 Sondrio, Tel (+39) 0342.214120.
Here’s the first fabulous wine hotel in Valtellina (that has the orangest eggs): Retici Balzi, via Panoramica 2, 23020 Poggiridenti, Sondrio, Tel (+39) 0342 38.20.92.
Unforgettable, must-not-miss, Ristorante Frascia, Localita Fracia, 23030 Chiuro, Tel (+39) 0342 482671, difficult to find, whose pizzochieri you must earn by a drive where you get lost, then seek directions, and then make a short, mandatory hike uphill.
Those beef sticks! Ristorante il Poggio, via Panoramica 4, Poggiridenti, Sondrio, Tel. (+39) 0342 380800
If at all possible, drive 30 min due north from Sondrio to the tiny town of Chiesa in Valmalenco, dead in the middle of the Alps, to Enoteca Gazzi. Be prepared to faint when you get out of the car: the Alpine amphitheater that surrounds you will suddenly prove to you that you thought you understood the Romantic notion of the sublime, but you really didn’t have a clue. Have a chat with the owner about wine, he can teach you a lot. Buy some of his fruit and bring some dried porcini home with you (don’t tell customs).
I have vowed to return before I die.