A Visit to the Birthplace of Nebbiolo in Valtellina

Nebbiolo is a grape that most people think hails from the Piedmont region of Italy (or Piemonte, as the Italians call it). But during a visit to Valtellina last fall, I learned an interesting fact about Nebbiolo — locally called Chiavennasca (starts with a hard “K” sound) — that points to its origins in Valtellina, a small wine-growing area in the Italian alps, in the northernmost part of Lombardy, just 30 kilometers from the Swiss border.

Dr. Anna Snider, an ampelographer from the University of Turin, identified 12 clones of Nebbiolo in Valtellina! As told to me by one of the local winemakers, “If there are 12 Nebbiolo clones here, and only four in Piedmont, it was born here.”

During two full days in the area, as my teeth and tongue turned deep purple, I tasted what felt like every wine made in Valtellina. Looking back at my notes, it’s impossible to capture everything in one article, so here I’ll share an overview of this amazing wine region.

Italy’s Largest Area of Terraced Vineyards Valtellina is home to just 850 hectares of vineyards, with 60 producers and 2,000 growers. All of the vineyards are planted on steep, terrraced hillsides. As Danilo Drucco, head of the Vini di Valtellina consortium of wineries and headwinemaker at Nino Negri, one of the area’s largest producers, said, “Here, we grow Nebbiolo; it loves the sun and hot temperatures and grows very well here in the alps.” (Indeed, the day we were there it was about 80 degree Fahrenheit with a bright blue sky full of sunshine.)

These are mountain wines that have a very distinct character all their own. You’ll pick up cranberries, cherries, cassis, some floral notes, dried herbs, fresh earth, and fine tannins that characterize these wines as Valtellina wines.

Valtellina gets little rain (only 7-9 millimeters per year), has the same amount of sun as Sicily and is protected from storms surrounding mountains. It all means the wines show less harsh tannins and are richer in minerality than Nebbiolo wines from Langhe in Piemonte.

Family-owned Wineries Rule Unlike so many wine regions today, Valtellina is home to family-owned wineries. The 60 wineries here range in size from micro to mega, and vineyard holdings are passed down, often divided among different family members, not unlike Burgundian vineyards, where some family members own a single row of a vineyard.

This remote area isn’t visited too frequently by wine writers, and our hosts really went the extra mile. After an extraordinary lunch where we had the local buckwheat crepes filled with casera cheese, we took a stroll through the town of Sondrio to a cellar deep beneath the ground where we were greeted with a private tasting of more wines than anyone could possibly taste in two hours!

A private tasting for 18!

The next day was field-trip day! I started with a visit to a micro-winery called Cantina 1881started by three friends, Fabbio, Dario and Emilio. Each has their own wine label and vineyard property and they share a winery that was built in the dungeon of a medieval castle dating back to 1444!

L to R: Dario, a sommelier nd biodynamic winemaker; Fabbio, owner of Agrilu wines and Emilio, who makes Cantina Riter wines (and also makes bresaola, the popular cured meat!)

Fabbio’s Agrilu wines, Emilio’s Cantina Riter wines and Dario’s biodynamic Le Campelline wines were – in a word – amazing. These wines are expressive, balanced and wake up the palate with bold fruit, minerality and satiny tannins. Production is tiny, distribution is only local (right now) and the hospitality is unforgettable. I can’t tell you how warm and inviting these winemakers are! Before tasting, we spent time with Fabbio, climbing up into the steep, terraced vineyards, where I clung to posts and couldn’t imagine navigating those rocky hills with even my own purse, much less a basket of grapes on my back! It was an unforgettable experience.

We toured their medieval winery and they hosted us on the patio to taste each of their wines.

After a sumptuous lunch at Ristorante San Carlo – with wines from all three winemakers plus wines from Caven and Cantina Nera – we were handed off to the nicest man (and it is killing me that I cannot find his name in my notes!) from Caven and Cantina Nera, one of the largest producers in Valtellina. Nera is run by the three grown grandchildren of the founder, Pietro Nera,.Today, Simone, Stefano and Angela Nera are turning out beautiful Chiavennasca (aka Nebbiolo) wines plus Sforzato wines – the local term for wines made from dried grapes (aka Amarone, from Valpolicella in the Veneto).

I feel like I really lucked out, being able to spend a day with the team at Cantina 1881 seeing their amazing micro-winery and then visit a larger producer, like Nera and Caven. My advice: seek out wines from Valtellina. Thank you, Valtellina! For more info, check out the Vini di Valtellina website here.

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