Nebbiolo Reaches New Heights in the Alpine Vineyards of Valtellina

Madonna della Sassella sanctuary, Sondrio, Valtellina, Italy__Shutterstock_1920x1280
Shutterstock

Nebbiolo, the noble grape behind Barolo and Barbaresco, is currently Italy’s hottest red variety. But if you think only Piedmont can turn out world-class, age-worthy wines from Nebbiolo, it’s time to discover Valtellina, where Nebbiolo soars in rocky, Alpine vineyards in Lombardy. Of the area’s two most famous wines, Valtellina Superiore is racier and more graceful than its Piedmont cousins but equally fascinating and age-worthy, while Sforzato di Valtellina possesses concentration, structure and velvety texture.

Nebbiolo_With_Altitude_Grapes_drying_Photo_Massimo_Ripani_SIME_1920x1280
Nebbiolo grapes ready to be dried by natural air to get the typical wine called Sforzato located in Balgera cellar, Italy. / Photo by: Massimo Ripani

The Growing Zone

Cradled among soaring Alpine peaks near the town of Sondrio, Valtellina’s steep mountain vineyards have been turning out notable wines for millennia. Ancient Roman chroniclers Virgil and Pliny praised the area’s wines, as did Leonardo da Vinci in his 16th-century Codex Atlanticus, where he observed, “Valtellina, surrounded by high and terrible mountains, makes very potent wines.”

Nebbiolo has the starring role on vertiginous slopes and currently accounts for 90% of Valtellina’s 2,026 acres under vine. Planted predominantly in terraced, dry stone-wall vineyards, Nebbiolo thrives in the area’s unique growing conditions. These include high-altitude vineyards that are protected from strong winds and fierce storms by the Rhaetian Alps. The grape further benefits from mild breezes from Lake Como below and southern exposures, all of which add up to a long growing season that generates aromatic complexity while rocky soils impart elegance and mineral sensations.

The results are graceful, fragrant reds that are naturally lighter on their feet and have lower alcohol levels than Barolo and Barbaresco but feature depth, finesse and serious longevity. These wines deliver their varietal pedigree, offering enticing sensations of rose, red berry, camphor and new leather as well as Alpine herb accents, bright acidity, taut yet refined tannins and savory mineral notes.

“The tannic power and quantity of tannins in the Langhe are higher because the clayey, calcareous soils favor their production,” says Danilo Drocco, managing director and winemaker at historic firm Nino Negri, who has ample experience with Nebbiolo. Before joining Nino Negri, he worked at leading firms in the Langhe, home to Barolo and Barbaresco. “However, the tannins of Nebbiolo from Valtellina, where the soil is rocky and acidic, are supported by fresh acidity and minerality that make the wines similar to the great Pinot Noirs of Burgundy. These are wines that find tannic harmony after a short aging period but that can have a long life thanks to the perfect balance between tannins and acidity.”

Valgella vineyards
Terraced vineyards of Chiavennasca vines above the Adda Valley at Valgella. Lombardy, Italy. / Photo by: Mick Cephas

The Valtellina Range

Valtellina has four different appellations. Rosso di Valtellina Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) is fresh, lithe and made to be enjoyed young. It can be produced throughout the province of Sondrio and two areas to the left of the Adda river. Mandatory aging is only six months before release to highlight the wine’s fruitiness and youthful vibrancy.

Alpi Retiche Indicazione Geografico Tipico (IGT) is a flexible designation that encompasses white, red, rosato, passito and sparkling wines made from native and international grapes.

The Differences Between High- and Low-Elevation Wine

Valtellina also boasts two Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) offerings, Valtellina Superiore and Sforzato di Valtellina. Like Rosso di Valtellina, these must be at least 90% Nebbiolo, locally called Chiavennasca; most producers use 100% of the aristocratic grape.

Of the region’s four appellations, these last two are the most important.

Tirano Landscape with vineyards and mountains
Tirano Landscape with vineyards and mountains. / Photo by: Massimo Ripani

Valtellina Superiore

The leading wine in terms of volume and the one that best reflects the area’s Alpine growing zone, Valtellina Superiore is made with grapes hailing from the best-exposed vineyards between the towns of Buglio in Monte and Tirano. Here in the steep, rocky, terraced vineyards that cling to the Rhaetian mountainsides, almost everything is done exclusively by manual labor.

Valtellina Superiore is also the only denomination allowed to use five distinct subzones that further highlight the wine’s terroir-driven identity: Maroggia, Sassella, Grumello, Inferno and Valgella.

“Valtellina Superiore is made in the most suitable areas for grape cultivation and expresses the best of the territory,” says Marco Triacca, an agronomist, oenologist and owner of La Perla di Marco Triacca, which he founded in 2009. “Every subzone is different, but even more important is that every single vineyard can be considered its own ‘cru’ and becomes a specific expression of Nebbiolo thanks to the distinct microclimate in each vineyard and the work of the grower. This in turn creates wines that are both diverse and unique. But they’re all tied together by elegance, finesse and freshness, the true characteristics of Nebbiolo from the Alps.”

Triacca benefits from expertise handed down through the generations. His father, Domenico, is one of the pioneers in improving viticulture in Valtellina.

Valtellina Superiore must undergo a minimum of 24 months aging before release, including at least one year in wood. It also comes in a Riserva version, with or without subzone references, which needs a minimum of 36 months aging before release.

Inferno Vineyards. / Photo by: Mick Cephas
Inferno Vineyards. / Photo by: Mick Cephas

Sassella Rocks

Of the five subzones, the most storied are Inferno, the hottest; Grumello, named after a castle; and Sassella, referring to the subzone’s numerous stones. Out of these three, Sassella is the most celebrated. Named after the Madonna della Sassella sanctuary, Sassella produces some of the most refined, austere and long-lived wines in Valtellina. Sassella wines further boast exceptional mineral energy imparted by the soils composed of sedimentary rock of morainic and alluvial origin, including granite.

“Sassella is rockier, with very little soil,” says Isabella Pelizzatti Perego, fifth-generation winemaker at Arpepe, who runs the family firm along with her brothers Emanuele and Guido. “Sassella wines need more time to evolve; they’re a bit shier and closed at the beginning but with time they’ll give you more and more.”

She points out that the family’s 27 acres “are in the most historical part of the area. Sassella was enlarged in 1968, when the DOC was created to include parts that have different exposures and were not called Sassella until 50 years ago.”

Arpepe is one of the most traditionally minded producers in Valtellina. Fermentation and maceration for its single-vineyard selections takes place in large wooden vats and can last up to 69 days depending on the vintage. This is followed by lengthy aging in the cellars first in large casks, mostly chestnut for the cru bottlings, followed by time in cement and then in bottle before release. Made only in exceptional vintages, the firm’s 2009 Sassella Rocce Rosse Riserva, named after the parcel’s iron-rich, red rocks, was released in 2020 while the 2013 was released in 2021.  

Arpepe’s luminous Sassella Rocce Rosse Riserva and other cru offerings boast exceptional class, ethereal elegance and tension. They’re some of the most coveted wines produced in the denomination and while drinkable upon release, they’ll age for decades.  

“We believe a very long time with micro-oxygenation in big, neutral wood, together with additional long bottle aging, is crucial to obtain more complexity but also great versatility and drinkability,” says Pelizzatti Perego. 

Grumello_Castle_Photo_Shutterstock_1920x1280
Grumello Castle. / Shutterstock

Sforzato di Valtellina 

Also known as Sfursat di Valtellina, Sforzato is made with dried grapes and technically known as a passito. Sforzato, like Amarone della Valpolicella and unlike most other passitos, is dry. Production is tiny, with only about 236,350 total bottles produced in 2020.   

It starts with harvesting healthy Nebbiolo grapes in sparse bunches that are then put in drying rooms to slowly dry out until at least the beginning of December. The results are brawny, velvety reds that have more structure and are much higher in alcohol than Valtellina Superiore. The wine’s origins stretch back through local history as producers wanted to craft a wine with greater structure and power. And while it’s less about terroir and more about technique, Valtellina’s growing zone plays a role in Sforzato production too. 

Nebbiolo Finds its Footing Worldwide

“The temperate wind from Lake Como together with the alpine morning breezes allow the Nebbiolo grapes to dry naturally at a very low temperature,” says Drocco. “At the end of the drying process, the Nebbiolo fruit changes flavor and becomes rich in black fruit without losing the elegance of the aromas typical of Nebbiolo from the Alps. The drying process concentrates the sugars but above all the tannins and acidity. The result is a wine as rich as Barolo and Barbaresco but with a complex and delicate fragrance at the same time. The acidity balances the power of the wine.”  

Nino Negri’s compelling Sfursat Carlo Negri and Sfursat 5 Stelle helped put Sforzato on the world wine map.     

Clocking in between 15.5–16% alcohol by volume (abv), the best are well-balanced, with chewy fruit and fresh acidity.  

Sforzato has a minimum aging period of 20 months, at least one of which has to be in wood.  

 dried Nebbiolo grapes for Sforzato; Tirano vineyards
Winemakers sorting dried Nebbiolo grapes for Sforzato; Tirano vineyards. / Photo by: Livio Piatta

Late-Harvest Wines 

While not an official designation, some producers make late-harvest wines that combine structure and finesse.  

“The idea for our late-harvest wine was to have three different wines from a single grape, Nebbiolo, all in a single vineyard with the difference being harvest time,” says Triacca. “For the late harvest, or vendemmia tardiva, I cut the fruit-bearing shoot when the grapes are already mature and pick two or three weeks after the normal harvest time. During this period, grapes undergo a light appassimento or drying on the plant and also benefit from marked day and night temperature changes. The process yields a rounder, more structured wine with complexity but still very elegant that falls somewhere between the normal harvest wine and Sforzato.”  

Triacca’s vibrant, late-harvested Vigna Elena Riserva shows great balance between structure and finesse.  

Other native grapes 

Other native red grapes include Rossola, which can still be found in some of the oldest vineyards, and Pignola. The latter shows serious potential for sparkling wines.  

Suggested Wines 

Arpepe 2013 Sassella Rocce Rosse Riserva (Valtellina Superiore); $110. Made in high-altitude mountain vineyards, this classy, fragrant Nebbiolo combines…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

La Perla Marco Triacca 2015 Elisa Riserva (Valtellina Superiore); $42. Showing its Valltellina and Nebbiolo pedigree, this stunner opens with heady scents of…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Nino Negri 2017 Sfursat Carlo Negri (Sforzato di Valtellina); $50. Underbrush, incense, date and crushed mint aromas…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Cantina Menegola 2013 Sassella Riserva (Valtellina Superiore); $33. Gioia Wines. Camphor, underbrush, smoky flint and oak-driven spices…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

La Spia 2016 Valtellina Superiore; $40. Earthy aromas of leather, truffle and ripe dark-skinned fruit mingle with whiffs of…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Nera 2015 Grumello Riserva (Valtellina Superiore); $38. Made from partially-withered late harvest grapes…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Published on December 1, 2021
Topics: Italy