The Valtellina production area stretches from west to east, from Lake Como to Tirano. It is a terroir unique in the world, a rugged area surrounded by the impressive peaks of the Alps. The biodiversity is great and there is an enormous geological and morphological variety. On the Rhaetian side, grapes thrive on more than 1,000 hectares, between 270 and 900 metres above sea level, of which 420 hectares alone are above 500 metres. Over the centuries, this landscape has been shaped by terracing and is now the largest terraced area in Italy, where a viticulture often described as "heroic" is practiced.
The Valtellina offers a lot of nature and is a popular destination for hikers, trekking enthusiasts, nature lovers and, of course, wine lovers. Nevertheless, the request to include the wine-growing region as a whole in the list of World Heritage Sites has not been granted yet. However, the Rhaetian railway line that runs through the Albula/Bernina landscape has been on this list since 2008. The line was completed in 1904 and 1910 and is considered a technical masterpiece from the pioneering days of the railway. At the time, the bid was submitted jointly with Switzerland.
In Valtellina, people believe in combining ecological, economic and productive parameters. After working for many years to improve the quality of wine throughout the territory, today the main focus is on sustainability and preservation of biodiversity in the vineyard to produce wines of great personality, freshness and finesse. In this unique area with spectacular scenery, almost only one grape variety is cultivated on the terraces: Nebbiolo, a native clone called Chiavennasca. It produces complex, yet generally not complicated wines that are appreciated by experts in the industry and wine lovers alike.
Originating as a deprived breadwinner to serve the local and nearby market in the Swiss canton of Graubünden via the Alpine passes, wine now plays an important role in the local economy. On the modern sales market it has to compete with other large wine-growing areas, which are often incomparably better known and less problematic to cultivate. Valtellina scores with nature, fantasy and tradition in motion.
The consortium has chosen the slogan "Il Nebbiolo delle Alpi" for itself because it wants to underline the indissoluble connection between the noble grape variety Nebbiolo, the viticulture in the mountains and the wines of Valtellina.
The Chiavennasca grape is considered autochthonous to the Valtellina area. However, this designation has nothing to do with the name of the town of Chiavenna, which historically has had more to do with the wine trade than with its cultivation. The name comes from the local dialect "ciüinasca", which means "better suited for wine production". This regional variety of the famous vine has been cultivated in Valtellina since the 16th century, as evidenced by a document containing instructions from the landowners to their vine-growers on how to improve the vines: In addition to the grape varieties for new plantings (Ciüinasca, Pignola, Rossoladura), it also listed the forbidden varieties, which were and are more productive but of lower quality.
Although the Chiavennasca has adapted over the centuries to the particular climatic conditions of Valtellina, it still possesses the main characteristics of the Nebbiolo grape from which it originally descended. It is a late-ripening variety that requires optimal exposure to sunlight. It produces complex wines with relatively high acidity and tannin content. Besides the better known Nebbiolo areas of Barolo, Barbaresco, Ghemme, Gattinara and others in Piedmont, Valtellina is the only major contiguous growing area for this grape variety.
In Valtellina, it is easy to talk about ecology and sustainability in viticulture. The vineyards are cultivated manually without the help of heavy equipment. Furthermore, the Chiavennasca vine has genetic characteristics that make it less susceptible to the main vine pests, unlike other grape varieties. This characteristic, together with the favourable climatic conditions, greatly reduces the necessary interventions. To further support sustainability in the vineyard, beyond what nature already provides, there is a technical network that assists the winegrowers in rational management and allows them to perfect critical interventions for plant protection, weed management and fertilization.
The stacked retaining walls are over 2,500 km long and are the result of centuries of painstaking work and ancestral knowledge. In this way, the sunniest spots have been carved out of the mountains in order to plant vines that can ripen ideally there. To encourage terracing, which involved filling in crevices and hollows in the terrain with soil from the valley and consolidating them with dry stone walls, there were special leases in place at the time, which had been common practice since the 13th century. One received a right of use over an area, which could also be inherited, and paid for it in kind, the amount of which depended on improvements in the soil conditions and could also be paid out if the contract was rescinded. This is the only explanation for the almost superhuman amount of work that went into creating the vineyards of the Valtellina.
The arrangement of the plantings is also special, taking advantage of both the morning sun in the east and the afternoon and evening sun in the west by having the rows of vines follow the rock formations vertically. The difficult and often steep access to the mostly small areas makes any use of even minimal mechanical aids difficult and consequently all work is done exclusively by hand. This makes the cultivation of vines in Valtellina very costly. It is estimated that 1,300 to 1,600 hours of work are required for one hectare of vineyard (as opposed to the average 300 hours required for a vineyard in the hills of Tuscany).
In Valtellina today, efforts are being made to gain a place at the forefront of quality wine production. The specific characteristics of the wines from this mountainous region are being exploited. These efforts were rewarded in 1998 with the highest quality level envisaged for wines in Italian legislation: Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), the controlled and guaranteed designation of origin. At the same time, it also means strict controls, as laid down in the production regulations issued by the Ministry of Agriculture.
We give with a current tasting, here in Wine-Plusan overview of the current state of development.
The production regulations of Valtellina Superiore DOCG stipulate a minimum percentage of 90% Nebbiolo (Chiavennasca), to which up to 10% grape varieties permitted in the Lombardy region may be added. The vines grow on soils that are not very deep (filled-in soil on rocky ground). The yield must not exceed 8,000 kg per hectare. The minimum alcohol content for this type of wine is 12% by volume. Aging for at least two years, one of which must be in a wooden barrel, is obligatory. After three years of aging in wooden barrels, the wine is allowed to bear the predicate Riserva.
Due to the particular adaptability of the Nebbiolo vine to the different environmental conditions, different aroma profiles result depending on the location, microclimate and soil composition, from which, with a little experience, one can in turn conclude the cultivation area, as long as the producers do not overdo it with the cellar measures. For this reason, the grapes from each individual growing zone are vinified separately. The production area extends over 850 hectares from the village of Buglio in Monte to Tirano and includes the geographical subzones that give their name to the most famous wines of VValtellina Grumello, Inferno, Maroggia, Sassella and Valgella.
In addition to the production area itself, Valtellina Superiore DOCG may also be aged and bottled in Puschlav. This side valley of the Adda, which belongs to Switzerland, is geographically closely linked to the province of Sondrio. These wines bear the additional designation "Stagafassli" on the label.
The Superiore with the appellation Grumello is produced on the slopes located northeast of Sondrio, on about 74 hectares, on terraces. The area was named after the castle of the same name (Castello di Grumello) that dominated the valley since the 13th century. Like all good Valtellina Superior wines, it lends itself to many years of bottle aging. However, it is usually distinguished from the other sub-zones by a more delicate color that more quickly takes on a brown hue.
The Inferno subzone has a particularly impressive name. It is due to the harsh and inhospitable working conditions on the small, rugged terraces that are difficult to reach. It also gets very warm in summer, due to the particular morphology of the area, which is shaped like a large bay. This subzone extends to the east of Grumello, between Poggiridenti and Tresivio. It is the smallest subzone with 55 hectares.
Maroggia is the most recent area recognized as a subzone since 2002. Its name seems to come from "malaroggia" (literally: evil channel), a river in an impassable area. But in reality, the area in the middle of the municipality of Berbenno presents itself appealing and sunny. Maroggia is linked to the person of Benigno De' Medici, who stayed here in the mid-15th century, did good deeds and is still revered locally. The subzone covers about 25 hectares and almost all the vineyards are owned by the "Consorzio Assovino".
The oldest and probably best known production zone for Valtellina Superiore extends over the territory of the municipality of Castione Andevenno and to the west of Sondrio, the main town of the province of the same name. The area is rough but particularly sunny. Its name probably comes from the Marian Sanctuary of the same name, which rises picturesquely directly on the steep rock (stone sasso -> Sassella). Sassella is produced on about 116 hectares. The best of these often very elegant wines can age amazingly well.
Valgella, with its 137 hectares, is the most extensive subzone in the Valtellina Superior area and is located in the municipalities of Teglio and Chiuro. The production area stretches like a wide ribbon along the cliffs, its individual parcels of Nebbiolo vines oriented vertically towards the south. In the past, the wine was mostly exported to nearby Switzerland. The name Valgella comes from the dialectal expression "Valgel", which refers to a small torrent that flows from the Alps down to the valley.
On the website of the consortium you can find here a rudimentary interactive map showing approximately the location of the production areas.
Sforzato is a special wine produced according to a very ancient traditional technique, in which the grapes are left to dry or rosin after harvesting. After drying, the grapes have lost 40% of their weight, the grape juice is concentrated and has developed very particular aromas. The vinification is followed by 20 months of ageing in wood and in bottle. Only then, and with a minimum alcohol content of 14% vol. is it put on the market. The Sfursàt is made from the same grape blend as the Superiore. The wine is dry.
This is the largest area of the DOC area and extends for 50 km along the Rhaetian side of the valley, from Ardenno to Tirano, covering about 130 hectares. Here the soil is rather less steep than in the DOCG zones. Rosso di Valtellina DOC, with its lower alcohol content (at least 11% is prescribed) and its fruity-fresh taste, is supposed to be a rather light wine for everyday enjoyment. The grape blend is the same as for the DOCG wine. A maximum of 100 quintals per hectare may be harvested and the wine must be aged for at least 6 months.
The range of wine production in the province of Sondrio is rounded off with the wines of the geographical indication (Indicazione Geografica Tipica-IGT, German g. A.) Terrazze Retiche di Sondrio. This indication of origin covers red wines as well as rosé and white wines, still wines as well as frizzante, passito, Spätlese and even Novello. The production of these wines does not have to follow too strict production guidelines. Nevertheless, here too, first-class wines are sometimes produced.
Founded in 1976, the Consortium was restructured in 1997 and now represents all the grape producers, wineries and bottlers in the area. The Consortium is committed to the continuous improvement of wine quality and ensures protective measures during the grape harvest, controls the specified yields and coordinates all marketing activities. It also participated in the creation of the Fondazione Provinea in 2003, a foundation dedicated to the protection of the terraces.