A challenging climb up Passo Stelvio, one of the highest paved roads in the Alps with 47 switchbacks, calls for a top notch wine to celebrate. Luckily, our stop in Bormio that evening puts us in the Valtellina wine region, one of Italy’s most dramatic wine areas. Located in the far northern corner of the region of Lombardy, close to the Swiss border, Valtellina stretches along the Adda River from Morbegno in the west, through Sondrio and to Tirano.
The vineyards in this area are located on the south-facing slopes along the Adda river at high altitudes, around 2,500 feet. Wine has been produced in this region for over 1000 years, and over the centuries farmers discovered that the higher altitude improved the wine, including raising its alcohol content. Vineyards here lie on intricate terraces along the Valtellina´s precipitously steep hillsides.
The steep terraced vineyards are difficult, if not impossible, for mechanical harvesting, so most vineyards are tended by hand which is expensive and limits yield. The nearby mountains provide protection from cold alpine winds and help to trap heat in the valley. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote about the wines of this area, saying Valtellina was a “valley surrounded by tall and fearsome mountains” and that it made wines that are “heady and strong”.
The red wines of the Valtellina regions are traditionally light to medium bodied, but fuller bodied wines are becoming increasingly available. For most of its history, the Valtellina region's primary market for these lighter wines was Switzerland. In more recent times, Valtellina has attracted international attention for being the only major Italian region outside of Piedmont to focus on the Nebbiolo grape (the grape used in Barolo wines), locally known as Chiavennasca. The Valtellina Nebbiolos are noticeably less tannic and acidic than their Piedmont counterparts.
The Valtellina DOC regulations cover the production of the basic level wines. The Rosso di Valtellina DOC requires at least 80% of the blend be Chiavennasca and does not have minimum aging requirements.
There are two DOCGs in Valtellina. The Valtellina Superiore DOCG is broken down into different crus, all of which are aged at least 24 months. The crus are Valgella (the most delicate wines tend to come from here), Grumello, Inferno (the most powerful wines tend to come from here), Maroggia, and Sassella. The DOCG wines are comprised of at least 90% Chiavennasca (Nebbiolo), blended with other local grapes like Brugnola, Rossola, and Pignola. The Valtellina Superiore Riserva DOCG wines are reserve-style wines that must be aged for at least 36 months.
The Sforzato/Sfursat di Valtellina DOCG wine is a dry red “Passito” style wine, produced from dried grapes in a method similar to that used for Amarone. The highest quality Chiavennasca grapes are selected and laid out on special mats in aerated cellars to dry. The “breva” wind which blows through this region provides the perfect environment for rot-free dehydration. The grapes spend about 3 and a half months drying like this and towards the end of January the grapes will have lost about 40% of their original weight, concentrating the sugars. The Sforzsato wine is then produced from these raisins, including a minimum of 2 years of ageing in barrel and bottle. The result is an intense, dry, elegant and full-bodied red wine with approximately 14% alcohol.