Valtellina – the land of the “other” Nebbiolo – an afterthought at best in a world awash with an oversaturation of oak laden Piemontese bottlings. Never mind trying to say “Chiavennasca” let alone trying to spell it. This Nebbiolo of the Alps evoked my curiosity to the fullest extent and I wanted to experience and learn as much about the region and wines as possible. A mere taste of this very special and seemingly cast aside haven during Springtime, has provoked a return – as I find myself back in my “home” this Autumn.
The longest stone retained vineyard in Italia, a one hundred and twenty kilometre valley stretching from Lago di Como to the Stelvio Pass, still somehow sliding under the radar of wine enthusiasts and tourists alike. The beautiful and edible fichi d’india adorn the “Muretti” terraces like crown jewels in this seemingly segregated region; with a microclimate so unique despite its very Northern location. With the Rhaetian Alps in the background, the South facing vineyards are mesmerizing, a view so spectacular, yet so everyday to the people that inhabit it. A mere two hour drive from Milano or rather a three hour drive from Verona – the valley is a dream for wine lovers, outdoor enthusiasts; full of unique gastronomic experiences, culture, history, landscape and beauty.
Perched up in the oldest part of Sondrio, amongst the historic Scarpatetti community, I relish in the priceless views and immerse myself in the still very traditional way of life as exuded by the locals. My return is not without purpose as I dedicate my time in assisting Alfio Mozzi; the man behind the small family run Cantina in Castione Andevenno, only ten minutes East of Sondrio City Center. With production hovering between fifteen and twenty-thousand bottles per year, employees are not feasible and the period of vendemmia is an all hands on deck moment for the small yet quality focused producer that is Alfio.
First meeting in the spring with zero Italian words in my back pocket, communication was unconventional and yet a friendship blossomed as did my Italian fluency over the summer months, in the growing anticipation of my return. Located in Sassella, Alfio produces three labels – Valtellina Superiore, Valtellina Riserva and the coveted Sforzato; the later two only coming to fruition in the best vintages.
They say the first step is always the hardest and nothing could hold more truth than my first day in the vineyard. Arms full of home baked cookies - conjured up the evening before and a few prayers that I remember some useful conjugations, I walk up the hill to the Mozzi household. Warm smiles, mutual gratitude, thanks and an indication “sopra” I head up to meet his family already hard at work. First pick of the season is the careful selection of the very best bunches of Nebbiolo; to be dried until December for the Sforzato bottling. Important words filling up my memory bank, faster than I can think of the English equivalent, together we select only the most pristine and perfect bunches; discarding even the slightest of imperfections. Next I discover, the most important time of the day in this household and especially during harvest; pranzo. Lunch time is the biggest meal of the day in this household and surely the most important. Wine from the “fondo” (bottom) of the barrel blended from all three labels is their daily red – probably the best table wine to have ever met my palate. Freshly baked bread, salumi, and cheese adorn the table as the courses are served out. Tomato pasta is the usual first course, followed by olive oil and aceto tossed garden greens – always prepared by Alfio. What is most memorable is not the food but the faces of those gathering. His wife, sister, nephew, children, friends, parents and countless dogs and cats which make up this tight knit family. The long awkward silences as I try to come up with correct sentences – you could hear a pin drop as the room comes to a standstill in anticipation for my response. The gem of Alfio’s household is his mother, with a predominant dialect vocabulary and a heavily clouded memory; her words become a reoccurring joke with the family as my time passes here in the valley. “Prima Volta in Italia?” The golden question I was asked every pranzo; and subsequently had more than enough opportunities to provide colorful responses to satisfy her curiosity in the solo young woman from Canada… here seemingly working without rhyme or reason.
Through all the language struggles, long pauses, cacti scars, headaches and heart melting moments I discover the realism of hard work, family, friendship, struggles, patience and understanding – through circumstances I never imagined possible. A mutual kindness and respect that goes beyond language barriers – from strangers, to friends to family.
From vineyard to cassette to cantina to tank – the real world tangibility, behind the bottle passion and belief of one’s life work holds not only a sense of pride but an important piece in the identity of the region as a whole. How many wine regions believe so strongly in their heritage and traditions as to remain firmly loyal to a single grape varietal representation? They hold in the highest ranking, the continuous personality of each sub region, producer and vintage to stand with trust and faith in the valley, and the ability of the people. The place and its people are very much in alignment with the wines: bright and vivid, welcoming and open but not without firm structure, loyalty, and headstrong values.
Valtellina – the quiet, softly concealed territory of alpine wines that speak so loudly to those who will listen.