Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Valtellina: Where the Nebbiolo grape is called Chiavennasca

Nebbiolo, the variety undergirding the Langhe's famed Barolo and Barbaresco wines, is considered Italy's most noble grape, primarily based on its performance in that region. But Nebbiolo shines elsewhere in the Italian north, in an area where it is called Chiavennasca. In a vertigo-inducing wine region called Valtellina, a 25-mile-long, east-west valley in the Rhaetian Alps hard by the border with Switzerland. Fernando Batata MS (fernandobatata.com) indicates that written records of the word nebiol can be traced back to articles in Torino in 1268 while the word Chiavennasca is not encountered in Valtellina until 1595. DNA results indicate that the variety could have either originated in Valtellina or Piemonte but that the variety is so old that its parents are probably extinct.


Valtellina (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The climate in the Valtellina region is cool but this is mitigated somewhat by an abundance of sunlight falling on the valley's south-facing slopes. Fungal influences are kept at bay by cool alpine breezes and warm air blowing in from Lake Como.

Soils are alluvial, gravelly, and rich in silica. The larger stones peppering the mix collect heat during the day and release it at night, mitigating the high diurnal temperature variation as well as helping to prevent frost in the spring.

Vineyards are planted on the sun-splashed south-facing slopes in order to promote ripening at elevations which range from 230 m (750 ft) to 765 m (2500 ft). The vineyards are planted on terraces which had been manually carved out of the mountainsides by inhabitants in the distant past. The vineyard locations are so steep that, in some cases, tracks have been laid to allow small devices to carry harvested grapes down to the bottom. In some cases helicopters are utilized to carry materiel down from these mountains.

In Valtellina the grape can struggle to ripen and does not produce the distinct tannin found in Piemonte. Batata sees the wines as lighter and more perfumed than its Langhe counterpart but still retentive of the mouthwatering acidity for which it is renowned.

The primary wine from the region is the Valtellina Superiore DOCG which is made from a minimum 90% of the native variety. A total of 282 ha (697 acres) are devoted to this wine with annual production at 13,325 hl (140,000 cases). This wine was initially awarded DOC status in 1968 and upgraded to DOCG in 1998. The Superiore is aged for a minimum of 24 months while an available Superiore Riserva has to be aged for a minimum of 36 months.

A second Valtellina DOCG wine -- Sforzato di Valtellina -- is also Chiavennasca-based but is made in the passito style where the grapes are dried out (to concentrate the sugars) prior to fermentation. The requirements for the Sforzato are: (i) the grapes be Chiavennasca, (ii) the style be passito, (iii) the wine be fermented dry, and (iv) the alcohol level be a minimum 14%.

Grapes that are not Superiore quality can be made as  a DOC wine called Valtellina Rosso or Rosso di Valtellina.

Both the DOC and DOCG wines can be labeled with one of five subzone names: Grumello, Inferno, Sassella, Valhalla, or Maroggio. To be so labeled, 100% of the grapes must be sourced from the subzone. According to Meraviglia and Bitturi (An Overview of Italian Wines), the characteristics of the subzones are as follows:
  • Sassella -- the most elegant and complex wines due to the presence of iron in the soils
  • Grumello -- smoothest and softest while retaining complexity
  • Inferno -- robust and highest in alcohol. Warmest and most sun-drenched of the subzones
  • Valgella -- simplest. Crisp and acidic. Coldest of the subzones
  • Maroggia -- added in 2002. Still developing its character.
Some Valtellina wines may be labeled Stagafassli, signaling Valtellina grapes bottled and/or aged in neighboring Swiss towns by Swiss-based owners whose vineyards span the border.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this article! I'm studying for my Diploma Unit 3 and this article brought an area I knew nothing about to life (fingers crossed now for a question on Lombardy!)