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A First Course in Wine: From Grape to Glass. Copyright 2013; Race Point Publishers, NY. 224 pages. Forward by Mario Batali.

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The b-side of Nebbiolo: Valtellina

Lombardia is one of Italy’s northernmost territories and winemaking has long been a farming practice with records of vineyard

The air up there; vineyards feelin' the elevation in Valtellina

plantings dating to the thirteenth century.  Many agricultural products, such as wine, often play second fiddle to the plush silks and fabrics that regularly grace the runways of the metropolis city.  The good news is that many of the wines produced are often high quality and full of character.

The region’s most important wine areas are all geographically different in many ways.  The high-elevation terraced vineyards of Valtellina in the north produce elegant and structured wines from Nebbiolo, locally referred to as Chiavennesca or Chiavennasca.  The rolling hills of the Oltrepò Pavese in the south produce feminine wines that compliment a wide variety of food, and Franciacorta at the foothills of the Alps is the most important area for sparkling wine production in the entire country.  Most notable of these is Valtellina.

Valtellina is located at the foothills of the Italian Alps near the border with Switzerland.  Most of the vineyards are planted on the steep mountain slopes along the banks of the Adda River.  Warming winds known as the “breva” creep up the Adda River Valley from Lake Como giving the grapes the ideal conditions for a balanced growing season.  Any wine bearing the designation must be produced from at least ninety percent Chiavennesca, although a small fraction of producers ever broach the subject as most Valtellina wines are exclusively made using the aforementioned grape.

In the following video, friend and colleague, Jeff Porter, explains the splendors of Valtellina.

The terms sforzato, sfurzat, or sfursat on a wine label refer to the process of appassimento, or drying of the grapes after harvest (the same process used in the Veneto for Amarone wines).  These wines must obtain a minimum alcohol content of fourteen and a half percent.  As a result of increased alcohol levels, the majority of sfursat wines offer up more intense aromatics on the nose and a powefrul glyceric mouthfeel with savory flavors of tobacco and tar.  The “superiore” zone is divided into five sub-zones:  Grumello, Inferno, Valgella, Sassella, and Maroggia.

Grumello is one of the larger growing areas producing more approachable and fruit-forward wines.  The rocky soil of Inferno traps solar energy and creates a “hot, inferno-like environment”.  These wines tend to be the most deeply colored and powerful wines.  Valgella is the highest-altitude area of the four zones and the wines tend to be more on the delicate and aromatic side.  Sassella is considered the rockiest of the four zones, and is aptly dervied from the word, “sasso”, meaning stone.

In a nutshell, Valtellina wines are lean and mean.  The grip and tannin associated with the grape is unparalleled, and the wines pack a punch similar to Barolo, but there’s a different kind of grace and elegance associated with Valtellina.  For pleasant introductions into the world of these Lombardian reds,the following producers are worth exploring:  Triacca, Nino Negri, Rainoldi, Sandro Fay, Arpepe, and Prevostini.

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