Notes from my visits on December 21, 2009.
It all started with an email from my very good friend and fellow oenophile, Will, early last year. “Have you ever heard of this place, or had these wines? The Sforzato wines of Valtellina, from dried Nebbiolo grapes grown in the shadow of the Alps, retain the brightness of that variety’s high-acid way…”
What!? No. How is this possible? I’d been to Italy four times and driven through that region twice! I immediately consulted my Vino Italiano book and (luckily for me!) there were three full pages devoted to this place and style of wine. I absorbed the information and decided it was a must-hit on my next trip. Unfortunately for my blood pressure, my next trip would be in mid-December. Valtellina is in the Italian Alps, very far up in both latitude and altitude, which means snow storms are guaranteed.
I was all set to go in that direction (appointments, reservations) but wasn’t going to do it if the weather was going to be bad. (I know what’s required for driving in the snow and I certainly was not equipped with any of it.) My rental car was the crappiest and cheapest you could get and I wasn’t going to fork over more Euro at a 1.59+ exchange rate for some fancy SUV with snow tires and navigation. I just don’t prioritize my cash that way when I travel. I checked the forecast and it said it’d be clear, except for a 20% chance of snow on the day I’d drive out of Valtellina. It sounded just fine. So I set out on a blisteringly cold and clear afternoon from Torino, for northeastern Italy. …I was travelling solo, in search of an obscure style of Nebbiolo… I was afraid, not of the snow, but of either hating the wine (wasted trip) or loving it (how could anything surpass my beloved Barolo and Barbaresco!?). But I just had to know.
After a lovely stay and excellent dinner at Hotel Sassella in Grosio (for a photo of my manifriguli all grosina (pasta rolls baked to a crust, filled with a fabulously synergistic combo of winter squash and cheese), see this entry: https://enotecamarcella.wordpress.com/category/why-im-writing-this-blog/), and a mid-morning walk through an adjacent Gothic park, I set out for Triacca Winery in Villa di Tirano.
This impressive estate was established over 500 years ago as a Dominican convent and transferred through only a couple of families before the Triacca family acquired the estate in 1969.
Once I arrived, a very kind and energetic, Simona, led me through the castle, cellar, and poured wine for me in the modern and renovated tasting room.
She explained to me about where they held vineyards, the history of the family, grapes they grew, and even showed me some ancient presses the first families on this property had used to make the wine. We spent the entire visit speaking in only Italian because she knew absolutely no English. (I didn’t know I was capable of this!)
The wines, I won’t lie, were not spectacular. They were fine but from the get-go, the problem was I was probably going to be their last visitor until Christmas and it was obvious to me that this place was being run as not only a place to impress, but as a business. Simona was not allowed to crack open six or seven fresh bottles for one person. So she poured me “what had been opened the previous day,” which I suspected might have been opened the day before that. But whatever; I didn’t come all this way to merely look at the bottles.
La Contea 2008. Valtellina Superiore DOCG. Pignola Valtellinese 85% (red), Sauvignon blanc 15% (white, obviously). A “Federweisser” or “blush” style in other words, however this wine was completely white – looked like straight Sauvingnon blanc. They must be fast getting the juice off the skins of the Pignola! This one was produced entirely in stainless steel (aciaia) and smelled fruity with lots of peaches like a Torrontes but felt like a Pinot grigio in my mouth with lots of apple and nuts; very dry.
Riserva La Gatta 2004. Valtellina Superiore DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. By law this type of wine must be aged in oak three years prior to release, the first two in large casks (botti), and the third in the winemaker’s choice. I found this wine to be a little oxidized in the aroma and somewhat salty.
Prestigio 2004. Valtellina Superiore DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. Made from grapes from the estate vineyard, allowed to dry slightly on the vine to ensure full ripeness, this wine is aged 15 months in 225L (new to 3 year old) barrique. It rests a further six months in aciaia and six months in the bottle (bottiglia) before release. It had a wonderful aroma of vanilla and sweet ripe red berries, with a palate of discernable chalky tannins.
Sforzato San Domenico 2004. Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. The grapes are handpicked and left to dry in a well-ventilated room called afruttaio thoughout the autumn. In January the grapes are finally pressed. Fermentation is slow because of low cellar temperatures and a high sugar concentration of the grapes. This sforzato style, while comparable to the Amarone style because of the drying-out technique for concentration, tastes more savory and spicy, and the Nebbiolo characteristics shine though, unmasked by the technique. This wine is aged in only botti for 18months followed by six months in aciaia and six months in the bottiglia before release. On the nose I got raisins, leather, cocoa and perfume. A very rich wine and noticeably high in alcohol (but no more so than a big California Zinfandel), it finished with a big hot smack of red fruit and spice.
I have a loose theory that the more beautiful the winery, the worse the wines taste, and that was solidified on this day because my next stop was certainly nothing spectacular to see, but the wines were awesome.
Aldo Rainoldi, current winemaker and grandson of the founder Aldo Rainoldi, guided me through the cellar and tasting. He was quite nice, answered all my questions, and spoke good English. The estate began in 1925 with his grandfather, Aldo, son of Giuseppe who was already a well-know producer and trader with the nearby Switzerland. Trade to Switzerland remains standard practice in this area. The headquarters of the winery lie in the village of Chiuro, right in the center of the 40km spine of the Valtellina region.
I didn’t take many photos here but I do admit that I’m sure I just missed the best scenes. Aldo was disappointed he could not show me the vineyards. (He was really busy running from here to there during the tasting.) He said that the vineyards of Valtellina are where it is most beautiful and the source of a more rich experience. But remember, I was there in December and, surprise!, it had just begun to snow…
There are five DOCG regions within Valtellina which produce high quality wine without necessarily utilizing the sforzato method. They are: Valtellina Superiore DOCG Maroggia, Sassella, Grumello, Inferno, and Valgella. What defines the Sforzato DOCG wines is not necessarily the exact location, although the grapes must come from the best spots of the general Valtellina Superiore region, but the rigorous drying method and cellar practices. There are also some very approachable wines with the category “Rosso di Valtellina DOC.”
Grumello 2005. Valtellina Superiore DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. Darker ruby than a Piemonte Nebbiolo. (– this goes for all of these but I learned not to say that anymore. They get offended for some reason.) A bouquet of rose, strawberry, blueberry, and coffee. A full mid-palate with a glycerin texture and a dry finish.
Sassella 2006. Valtellina Superiore DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. Stinky, smoky, with only dried red berries for fruit. Some fruitcakey sweetness in the middle, finishing dry and astringent. Both the Grumello and Sassella are aged in huge 150 hectoliter botti and not intended to be drunk until 7-8 years after release.
Sassella Riserva 2005. Valtellina Superiore DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. Aged 20% in second use barrique and 80% in botti. On the nose: smoke, raspberry, balsamic soaked green herbs with a full and spicy mouthfeel and dry, chalky tannins. ★
Inferno Riserva 2005. Valtellina Superiore DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. This, as one could guess by the name, is the warmest of the Valtellina regions, because of sun exposure positioning. Aged only in barrique. A concentrated ruby color with an orange rim. Cinnamon and spice-soaked cranberries pull you into a full and fruity wine which leaves the mouth with round, velvety tannins. ★
Sfursat 2006. Sfursat di Valtellina DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. A concentrated brick color. A bouquet of plums: fresh and dried, autumn spice, green herbs, and smoke intrigued me. The taste, strong and fruity yet refreshing like the best red cherries you ever ate, ending with smooth coffee bean oils. ★ ★
Fruttaio Ca’Rizzieri 2006. Sfursat di Valtellina DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. Aged 15 months in barrique and one year in 100 hectoliter botti. On the nose I got dried plums, leather, ripe cherries and raspberries, and coffee aromas. The finish, while robust and alcoholic seemed totally balanced and offered tannins true to the Nebbiolo character. ★ ★
After my spectacular tasting at Aldo Rainoldi, I jumped into my little cheap rental and drove and drove south as fast as I could but there was no escaping the snow. It just fell harder and harder and I had to drive slower and slower. A two hour drive turned into a five hour drive and I was quite sure I’d die, or at least end up with a multi-thousand Euro repair ticket before the night was over. The trip took forever and my flight out the next morning was cancelled. There were massive amounts of snow all over Europe…so much for a 20% chance! Do I regret this part of the trip? Well, no. But only for two reasons: I made it through safe and sound (I guess I have mad driving skills) and because, have I found a new Nebbiolo obsession? Certainly not.