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Valtellinas that are worth the labour and physical challenges
IF you ever doubt the value that humanity has placed on the fermented juice of the grape, take a look at the labour-intensive, death-defying challenges that people have accepted to tend vines on some of the most perilous hillsides in the world.
Whether in the Mosel Valley of Germany, the Northern Rhône Valley of France or Ribeira Sacra in north-western Spain, to name a few, farmers since ancient times have embraced the idea that wine is worth the enormous effort and possible hazards that go along with such precarious vineyards.
These are areas that have been farmed for centuries without the aid of mechanisation. Diverse societies concluded that good wine required both risk and sweat. Not that machinery would have mattered. Even today, these sorts of vineyards must be farmed by hand, though getting to them now takes far less time.
Very much in this discussion are the hillside vineyards of Valtellina in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, where the Italian border with Switzerland bisects the Alps.
In sunny south-facing valleys, grapes have been cultivated on steep, terraced slopes for 2,000 years or more. Nowadays, the grape of choice is chiavennasca, better known to the rest of the world as nebbiolo.
Here at Wine School, we cannot look at a bottle of Valtellina (or Mosel or Cornas, for that matter) without marvelling at the sheer determination of its maker to overcome danger, nature and the limits of human endurance in the pursuit of good wine. It is why we emphatically do not subscribe to the oft-repeated saw: "All that matters is what's in the glass."
We will stipulate, of course, that the wine has to be good. Using an enticing story to sell poor wine is among the oldest of marketing techniques. That is why good wine requires from consumers not just the ability to discern its worth, but also to know its context in order to understand its meaning. Otherwise it os just points on a scale, and where is the joy in that?
For the last month, we have been exploring Valtellina, pretty much without the context. This led at least one reader to question the point of Valtellina, given that one could just as easily be drinking more famous, higher-status wines made of nebbiolo.
"Why wouldn't I just purchase Barolo or Barbaresco?" he asked.
This is an excellent question, directly pertinent to all we do at Wine School.
The place where grapes are grown and the people who tend the vineyards and make the wines are crucial to the nature of the wine. These influences contribute to the notion of terroir, which holds that certain places have specific, sometimes unique characteristics that give a wine its particular identity.
Ancient people recognised places that could make the best, most distinctive wines. This was part of the motivation to trudge up steep hillsides day after day to tend vines.
These days, certain grapes such as chardonnay are grown internationally, far from their places of origin. It is essential to ask why one should buy a chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast or Meursault when one can buy a much cheaper California chardonnay from the fertile, irrigated fields of the Central Valley.
How you answer that question depends on your priorities. For not much money, the Central Valley chardonnay may well be pleasant, but it will not offer much character.
The bottles from the Sonoma Coast and Meursault will cost a lot more. But if they are good, they each have the potential to encourage senses of wonder. This is where priorities, discernment and context all come in.
The Valtellinas I tasted were: ArPePe Rosso di Valtellina 2014, Sandro Fay Valtellina Superiore Valgella Cà Moréi 2015 and Aldo Rainoldi Valtellina Superiore Grumello 2015.
These were three excellent yet very different expressions of Valtellina. The Rosso di Valtellina, made either from younger vines or from grapes determined not to have the potential for long ageing, was intended to be more accessible than the two Valtellina Superiores. It was also a year older than the others.
Indeed, the Rosso was simpler. Yet it was beautifully balanced with all the delicious hallmarks of nebbiolo: red fruit, menthol, aromas of herbs and flowers, a touch of tar.
It also had a high-toned elegance, a zing of citrus zestiness and a light body that spoke more of a mountain wine than, say, the richer expressions that one might find from the Langhe, the home of Barolo and Barbaresco.
The two Valtellina Superiores were intended to be more serious and age-worthy. These wines may come only from sites judged to be the region's best, which are generally situated in about five villages: Grumello, Inferno, Maroggia, Sassella and Valgella.
The Fay, from Valgella, was discernibly richer and more tannic than the Rosso. It seemed riper and more powerful, with flavours of darker fruits, liquorice, flowers and minerals, yet still quite enjoyable at three years or so of age.
I had a sense that it was both rustic and refined, with layered flavours that offered much more pleasure than a Barolo might have at a similarly young age.
The Rainoldi, from Grumello, seemed more brooding. That is, the fruit was dark-tinged and denser, with complex flavours of tobacco, liquorice, menthol and flowers. It, too, was medium-bodied, and its grippy tannins gave it a sense of refined rusticity similar to that I found in the Fay.
Each of these wines, I thought, offered a clear response to the question: Why Valtellina? They are different from Barolo and Barbaresco, just as other expressions of nebbiolo from northern Italy, like Ghemme, Gattinara and Carema, are distinctive in their own ways.
"These wines reside on a spectrum between Barbaresco and red Burgundy," wrote Kevin Day of Denver, who also happens to be a wine writer.
It is a tribute to the transparent beauty of the nebbiolo grape that it can express these sometimes subtle differences with such articulation. It also makes you wonder what nebbiolo, which has been notoriously difficult to grow outside northern Italy, could do elsewhere in the world. NYTIMES