The Nebbiolo wines of Valtellina, Italy

xThis was a tasting of the wines of Valtellina, a northern Italian province in Lombardy, just next door to the more famous vineyards of Piedmont. Valtellina is as well-known as a ski-resort and for its local cheeses, as for its Nebbiolo wines; the same grape as Piedmont’s renowned Barbaresco and Barolo.

Valtellina is a mountainous and dramatic area, with grapes grown on the slopes of a transverse valley (running east-west), which means maximum light exposure: the vineyards enjoy similar sunshine hours to those in Mediterranean Sicily. Vines are almost all planted on terraces carved into the granite and slate rock. Like similar vineyard landscapes in the Douro valley, all picking is by hand, as is the heavy work of hauling grapes up and down the slopes – around three-times more man-hours are required to work these vines than the gentler slopes of Piedmont. A few growers have invested in funicular transporters, and even helicopters to aid this back-breaking work.

Nebbiolo has always been the only grape variety bottled in the region’s red wines, though recently some experimental plantings of Merlot and Pinot Noir are being watched with interest. Some IGT wines (Indicazione Geografica Tipica, a similar concept to France’s Vin de Pays) are already produced from these blends, and white wines too – both “blush”-style white Nebbiolo and small parcels of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay.

In general these Nebbiolos were rather softer and more approachable than many Barolo’s of a similar age, and though few examples really stood out as “great” wines, I was very pleasantly surprised at the good quality drinking from a region I have rarely encountered previously. Some wines from the Valtellina region are designated Sforzato; a very similar style to Recioto Amarone, with the powerful wines having been fermented from air-dried grapes.

List all stockists of Valtellina wines on

The tasting

Fratelli Bettini (Italy) Sant’Andrea Rosso 1999
This 13% alcohol wine spends six months in new French oak, then a further year in bottle before release. It is quite a pale, slightly browning ruby colour. The nose is gently hazelnutty, with a vegetal edge. Quite rich in the mouth, with full texture and a slightly cloying sweetness. A big, broad, juicy background of savoury leather and game fills out, and there is a bit of tannic structure, before plenty of crisp, tangy cherry acidity. This is very good, though a little overripe perhaps.

Nino Negri (Italy) La Tense Sassella Valtellina Superiore 2000
This 13.5% alcohol wine spends an extended period (over two years) in wood: 80% is one- and two-year-old French and American oak, and 20% is large Slovenian casks. It is much darker and denser in colour, and more modern in many ways, with coffee and toast and a big, prune-like character. Again a real sweetness of fruit on the palate suggesting raspberry and cherry, and then some kirsch and plum with notes of spices and leather. It has a dense, chewy mid-palate, and the soft, coffeeish flavour re-emerges, with softish tannins and balanced acidity. Very good.

Sandro Fey (Italy) Ca Morei Valtellina Superiore 2000
13.5% again, and spends time in French barriques, about 30% new and 70% used. This has a very dark, black-coffee colour, and a definite hint of rot on the nose, though it does give a sous-bois, truffly Burgundian quality to toffeeish notes and red fruit. The palate has a thick texture with plenty of sweet, glossy damson and black fruit character, and a jammy sweet edge. It is balanced, though the tannins are soft, and good acidity freshens it up. Approachable now and very good.

Sertoli Salis (Italy) Valtellina Sforzato Canua 2000
The first of the Sforzato wines from dried grapes. It spends two years in small oak barrels, then six months in bottle before release. This has a heady 15% alcohol. It is quite dark in colour, but with some brick on the rim. It is quite elegant and perfumed, with notes of toffee and tobacco, dried fruits, clove and dried spices and herbs. The palate is concentrated, with a bittersweet quality and plenty of rich, meaty, stock-cube character set against curranty, dried fruit. There is more spice about this wine, and a savoury appeal through polished, warming tannins and smooth, balanced acidity. Very good indeed.

Aldo Rainoldi (Italy) Sforzato Fruttaio Cà Rainoldi 2000
Unusually, both fermentation and ageing takes place in lightly-toasted Alliers oak barriques for 15 months. This 14.5% alcohol wine then has another year in bottle before release. It has a very deep, dark garnet colour. It is quite closed at first, with a tight, muscular, concentrated character and glimpses of brown sugar, meat and a leathery, smoky note. The palate has a lovely tension between sweet, dried fruits (raisins and prunes) and a much juicier, firm cherry character. It is intense and mouthfilling, with a sheen of tannin adding grip and good cherryish acidity. Very good indeed/excellent.

Prevostini (Italy) Sforzato Albareda 2000
This is a selection of the best bunches from the vineyards, which spends a total of three years ageing, two in barrique and one in bottle. It has 14.5% alcohol. It is dark, with some lighter ruby at the rim, but quite dense. It has a really powerful, sweet, aromatic nose with loads of dried cherry and currant, sweet coffee notes, caramel and plenty of spice. Easily the most arresting wine on the nose so far. The palate is lovely too, with lots of freshness thanks to a crisp edge of cherry acidity and finely-wrought, bittersweet fruit. Good balance, with quite firm tannins and good length. Very good indeed/excellent.

Caven Camuna (Italy) Sforzato Messere 1999
14.5% alcohol, this wine is only aged in large oak botti for the first year, before transferring to barrique for a few months finishing. It has a solid, dark colour with a glow of ruby. Quite an elegant nose, with tight, sweet, glossy aromas suggesting muscular structure immediately, with a blue-black, polished quality. Palate is medium- to full-bodied, with lots of savoury, tart black cherry and a note of olive. There is cleansing acidity, and tight-grained, polished tannins with just a tiny suggestion of spicy oak into a long finish. Real elegance here, suggesting the superiority of this vintage perhaps? Excellent.

Plozza (Italy) Vin da Ca’ Sfursat 1998
“Sfursat” is the alternative name for the Sforzato classification. This 14.5% wine spends no less than five years in large oak casks, with no barriques. I would guess this is the traditional Valtellina way, much like in neighbouring Piedmont, where the move from botti to barriques by some top producers still splits fans into “new” and “old” style Barolo followers. It has a dark, dried-blood colour and lots of sweaty, dense, sous-bois and leather character: this is all about these game and vegetal aromas, with some dried fruit just showing through. As is often the case with such wines, this leads to terrific fruit sweetness on the palate, with currant, cherries and Christmas spices, and a fine sweetness and ripeness to both fruit and tannins. Good body and balance into a long finish, this is delicious and very good indeed/excellent.