Emerging from ‘chiusura‘ here in Italia, I reflect on that February visit to Lombardia’s stunning Valtellina region, north-east of Milano. Outside of the Langhe & Roero, I think it would be fair to say that Valtellina joins Alto Piemonte as a source of fine Nebbiolo-based wines, or should I say Chiavennasca…
And just as with Alto Piemonte, & indeed Etna, so the risorgimento of Valtellina also seems to date back to the early 2000s, when a new generation of vignaioli (vignerons) appeared, prompted by a drop in the market (price) & hence the possibility to rent decent vineyards & buy fruit affordably. This situation was triggered by the then largest bottler, Nino Negri, apparently changing their grape supply policy; while in 2010 the cantina sociale, ‘Enologica Valtellina’, went bust. These events encouraged small producers such as Dirupi, Mozzi, Barbacàn, Boffalora, Mattia Franzina & others to enter the market & begin making artisan wines from terraces of old masale selection vines, embroidered by wild fichi d’india – all uncanny similarities to Etna. And as with Etna & Alto Piemonte, so Valtellina was once ‘carpeted’ with 6,000 hectares of vines during the 19th century, before rapidly contracting post WWII to today’s coverage of circa 850ha, so the equivalent of Barbaresco.
The valley of Valtellina runs in a west-east line that begins almost on the banks of the Lago di Como – itself an influence. The valley topography recalls more the Côte d’Or than for example the cross-like shape of Alto Piemonte, or the volcanic apron effect around Etna, or indeed compared to the twisting, curving complexity of the Langhe & Roero. This regional symmetry makes it simpler to understand & to navigate. For just as the RN74 runs along Burgundy’s 50km ‘Golden Slope’, with only the village order to remember, so in Valtellina it’s the SS38 – running alongside the river Adda – that delivers you from one end of the valley to the other, from the villages of Ardenno in the west to Tirano further east, a distance of 45km.
Given the steep gradient, most of the key vineyards are terraced & largely face South West, South or South East, ensuring a certain consistency of ripeness. The river Adda tempers the valley mesoclimate, especially during winter as the Valtellina region lies on the 46 latitude. In summer, the terraces are air-conditioned, west to east, by breezes originating from the Lago di Como; the river Adda carrying lively air currents back & forth. The vines are also protected by the presence of two mountain ranges: in front facing the vines, the Alpi Orbie protects from any torrid southerlies or indeed from burning sun (so the slopes warm up gradually!); while lying on Valtellina’s back are the Alpi Retiche, keeping the cold from the North at bay.
These mountain ranges also affect rainfall, reducing it to an average of 900mm/during the growing season compared to more than 2000mm outside the valley. Aspect & altitude of the vineyards seem more important than the actual composition of the soils, which are quite similar the length of the valley: a mix of schist, granite/sand, mica, gneiss, & morainic. And as per the likes of the Carema region, so in the past alluvial soil from the Adda was carried up to infill the terraces. Assessing site, there appear to be three bands of terraced vineyards: up to 250m asl, between 250 -450m, & above 450metres. The pancia (250-450m) lies in the heart of the slope & is the place to be. Consequently there’s good diurnal shift in temperature, preserving acidities & perfumes.
Nebbiolo (Chiavennasca) is key, but other local varieties such as Rossola, Pignola & Merlina also add nuance & can make up 10% of the final wine (along with any non-indigenous varieties). The four levels of Valtellina wines are: DOC Rosso di Valtellina, DOCG Valtellina Superiore (215ha), Valtellina Superiore ‘Sottozona/MGA/Cru’ (25ha Maroggia, 114ha Sassella, 78ha Grumello, 55ha Inferno, & 137ha Valgella), Valtellina Superiore Riserva, plus ‘Sforzato di Valtellina’, a passito version popular with the locals. Permited yields are similar to the Langhe: Rosso at 65hl/ha (100 quintals), & Valtellina Superiore at 52hl/ha (80 q.); but in hectolitres of wine, Valtellina Superiore can yield more per hectare (60hl) than Barolo at 56hl. Ageing of Valtellina Superiore & VS Sottozone/Cru is 24mths, of which 12 mths must be in wood barrels; for Riserva, 36 mths. Valtellina Superiore was awarded DOC in 1968, & DOCG in 1998.
As for the wines, & agreeing with the conclusions of Alessandro Masnaghetti Editore/ENOGEA (2015 2nd edition), the general characteristics of the key Sottozone/MGA/Crus appear to be: gentle contoured Maroggia (2 producers in 2015) at the western, open end of the valley, offers suave delicacy; steep Sassella (21 producers) at the heart of the Valtellina Superiore zone is more vertical & taut (even if aspect swings from SE to SW); pure south, deep soils of Grumello (13 producers) give more volume & flesh; alongside, rich in clay, Inferno (14 producers) offers power & structure; while at the eastern end, the Valgella (15 producers) zone is well extended, but generally is high & cool, giving nervy wines.
Comparing Valtellina wines to those of Alto Piemonte & Basso Piemonte (Roero & Langhe), one might assume that the wines of Alto Piemonte & Valtellina would be similar, given their pre-Alp locations & (essentially) acidic soils, & yet they’re very different. Looking at approximate analysis of alcohol, total acidity, & pH. Valtellina alcohols are c.14%, total acidity at a softer 4.50/5g/litro, & their pH at a malleable c.3.60/70.
Meanwhile, a bit further south on the 45th parallel, Alto Piemonte is more exposed & cooler, its gentler slopes (not terraces) often surrounded by woods, lower in altitude, its vyd. aspects more varied, & it endures a higher average rainfall (c.1000mm). Therefore Alto Piemonte wines tend to be fresh (acidity 5.50/6.00), with modest alcohol (13.5/14%), a sinewy body (pH3.64), & a crunchier structure than those of Valtellina. The use of other grapes in Alto Piemonte wines, such as the lighter Vespolina, only re-inforce their pretty, perfumed character.
In contrast, on the 44th parallel, among the sandy hills of the Roero alcohols generally arrive at (14.5/15%), bright acidities of 5/5.30, & minerally pHs of c.3.60; the (fruit) tannins tend to be gentler too, due to younger soils. Meanwhile the Barolos of the Langhe have significant alcohol (c.14.5+%) from a warmer drier climate further south, but balanced by a sapid calcareous minerality of pH3.50, good acidity (5.50) & a prominent tannic structure due to the cool, damp marne bedrock; Langhe wines benefit from more time in bottle.
The Superiore wines of Valtellina would therefore seem to display the presence/volume of the Langhe without the richness (alc%), nor (tannic) structure or (sedimentary) sapidity. This may be due to terroir, & to the above analysis, or because ageing is for a shorter period in less oak (2 yrs vs 3yrs for Barolo); a factor maybe also the 10% presence of other varieties permitted in the final wine. This translates into a medium/full bodied, distinctly fleshy but fresh Nebbiolo wine that’s more approachable younger.
While not as famous as the other ‘Bs’ (Barbaresco & Barolo) to the west, the relatively new DOC, Buttafuoco, is clearly a player in the Full Bodied Italian Rosso squad – probably in defence – & justifies its selection on several counts: geographically, geologically, historically, & ampelographically (grapes!). The name ‘Buttafuoco’ seems to have two origins: from the blazing paean of colours displayed by the grapes Croatina, Barbera, Ughetta di Canneto & Uva Rara at harvest time (a sight enjoyed also in the vineyards of the Alto Piemonte); & secondly from the dialect “butafeug”, literally ‘burning mouth’, as exclaimed by the Milanese poet Carlo Porta (18th century) on drinking the strong, sapido, flavoursome wines!
The hilly Buttafuoco region is located in Lombardia’s provincia di Pavia, 90 mins drive east of the Langhe & Roero, on the notable 45th parallel & forms the most northern part, a spur-shaped area (‘lo sperone di Stradella’) closest to the river Pò, of the larger Oltrepò Pavese – 15km due south of Pavia (Ticinum), & 52km south of Milano, with the towns of Broni & Stradella at its head; it’s a tapered slice of Lombardo land that’s sandwiched between Piemonte (to the west), Liguria (to the South), & Emilia-Romagna (to the east), which makes for a heady mix of rich cultures (& delicious salami!). The river Pò runs west to east, below the Buttafuoco hills – similar in a way to the Tanaro river as it ebbs its way past Barbaresco & Barolo. The zone is additionally influenced & delimited by the important presence of two smaller rivers, once glaciers, Scuropasso & Versa, that run from the Apennines above to the Pò below. There are seven comunes within the Buttafuoco DOC: Broni, Stradella, Canneto Pavese, Montescano, Castana, Cigognola & Pietra de’ Giorgi. And all except Broni (famous for its Barbacarlo DOC) & Stradella make up the core Buttafuoco ‘storico’/historical. Elevations at circa 250 – 300m asl.
A glance at any geological map of Italia will show that the Buttafuoco dell’Oltrepò Pavese region is a continuation of the Tortonian Marne Sant’Agata Fossile that forms the bedrock of Piemonte’s Langhe & Roero regions, dating back to the Miocene period circa 15 million years ago; the sedimentary remains of when the wide Padana valley was occupied by the greater Mediterranean Sea, before the Gibraltar’s gap was prized open, emptying the Sea into the Atlantic ocean, & leaving behind shelves/banks of seabed through which subsequent glacial movements created the spectacular Oltrepò Pavese valleys & hills. In particular the historical zone of Buttafuoco is located on three bands of soil: ghiaie (conglomerated sands & gravels), arenaria (sandstone), & argilla (clay), that impart their own character to the wines thereof: supple/juicy (ghiaie), austere/sapidità (arenaria), & compact/dark flesh (argilla). The region is climatically influenced by the nearby Apennines up to 2000m asl, creating downdrafts, by the close proximity of the Mediterranean sea, & of course by the river Pò just the north, bringing cool air currents from Piemonte & the west. The climate is similar to that of Piemonte, being (semi) continental, with cold winters, hot summers & long autumns.
Historically, & according to the esteemed writer/sommelier/educator Roberto Vinci (robertovinci.org), the ‘Oltre del Pò’/Oltrepò Pavese region, including Buttafuoco, has been well-documented over the centuries by the likes of Strabone, Maragliano, Robolini, cav.Giuletti, Prof. Marescalchi et al…plus more recently, the wines were highlighted by Burton Anderson & praised by Luigi Veronelli. Indeed, for centuries the hills & villages of the Buttafuoco zone, perched above the river Pò, would have been familiar to anyone being transported along the river Pò, or by foot sulla Via del Sale (the salt route) making their way between Milano & Genova. During the second war of Italian independance (1859), the defending Austrian army apparently sought refuge among the Buttafuoco hills, drank too much of their rich red wine & then named a naval ship after it – hence the motif on the bottle. The 100ha Buttafuoco DOC region contained within the Oltrepò Pavese (itself famous for base wine for making Spumante) was only recognized as such in 1970. Meanwhile the bijoux 20ha (100k bts/anno) zone of Buttafuoco ‘Storico’ dates back to 7th February 1996 when a group of 16 producers came together to shine a light on the core zone for making full bodied dry reds from local varieties; the Buttafuoco DOC was eventually codified into law in 2010. Enshrined in the Buttafuoco ‘Storico statute is the ability to feature the vineyard name (vigna X) on the label, of which 17 across the five communes have been identified & delimited.
Until Italian reunification in 1861, the region was always referred to as l’Antico Piemonte on account of it being part of the Savoia kingdom. Little surprise then that the grapes planted among the hills of Buttafuoco are also widely dispersed in Piemonte, notably Croatina, Barbera, Ughetta di Canneto (Vespolina) & Uva Rara. And perhaps unlike other viticultural regions, the grapes form part of a field blend in the same vineyard, harvested at the same time & co-fermented; the timing of harvest being crucial (as with Nebbiolo!) The proportions of the grapes in the vineyard vary between cantine, but are roughly: 50% Croatina, 25% Barbera, 15% Ughetta di Canneto (Vespolina) & 10% Uva Rara; all four are required to qualify for Buttafuoco ‘Storico’ status, & the privilege of using the embellished ‘Storico’ bottle (photo). A minimum 36 mths ageing is required prior to release, of which 12 mths affinamento in legno; traditionally using the 900Litre ‘ciüf’, whose oval shape is reproduced on the bottle, surrounding the ship!
So the small, delimited Buttafuoco zone offers rich dry reds of a seriously superior quality & defined character thanks to a unique, & very Italian blend of ancient geological, historical, geographically, & culturally diverse, ampelographical roots. Indeed, roots & traditions that owe much to l’Antico Piemonte!
As we emerge from our cocoons, I fear we have become accustomed to a sedentary life, too happy to zoom in on whatever’s served up to us, often without question or murmur. Fatigued by the CV years, I sense there’s a risk – in the wine trade – that we’re unconsciously lapsing (back) into a binary world, where wines & vintages are either ‘great’ or ‘poor’, with no further room for nuance…a trend echoed in the divisive politics of ‘Freedom’ or ‘Lockdown’, with no space or alternatives in between.
My father would have referred to the Langhe vintage 2018 as a ‘wine merchant’s vintage’; one in which the (UK) trade would have to ‘roll up their sleeves’, visit the region, ‘get amongst the wines’ in order to a) understand better the vintage, its character, quality & attributes b) identify those producers who have ‘dug deep’ (as they needed to in 2017, but for diverse reasons) & those who made key decisions, & c) personally select wines to recommend to their customers, based on quality & price.
Tasting vintage 2018 across our DBGitalia producers in the Langhe, what’s fascinating is that with each producer there are wines that have performed more or less in line with the vintage, wines that have benefitted or not from advantageous or less advantageous expositions, differing soil types be they rich or poor, the products of choices in & around the cantina, during vinification, affinamento (elevage), assemblaggio, & even to the bottling date. This is a vintage, as in 2017, where producers had to know their vines, wines & make important decisions. So many variables that need to be taken into consideration.
This is a classic, regular Langhe vintage: the preceding winter was generally cold & white, spring was wet, June & July temperatures tracked the 14 year average & remained largely dry, while the harvest months of September & October were slightly warmer than normal, with the occasional downpour. Harvest took place during the normal October window; indeed Bartolo Mascarello kicked off the harvest in Cannubi on 4th Oct. But the crop was actually down in places due to the preceding 2017 drought drying up 2018’s buds. Being a regular vintage, the 2018 vines were unstressed, versus the stressed, thick-skinned 2017 crop, & the 2018 berries were relatively thin-skinned & pulpy. This is a vintage were site & soil count, where the producer had to be ‘on his game’. On the part of those buying the wines – the trade – it’s a vintage that requires attention & diligence.
Here are my notes from my balcony in Barolo as the year unfolded…
‘ The season started propitiously with a deep, long winter, replenishing the marne ‘aquifers’. Early spring was relatively normal, although a warm followed by cold week in March seemed to have persuaded certain buds, especially those in well-exposed vyds weakened by 2017’s drought, not to bother & dry up, so reducing the yield. May was very wet, the wettest on record, followed by a normal warm to hot June through to August. Though flowering occurred without incident, 2018 was marked by great humidity & hence peronospera (downy mildew) that challenged biologico producers not to exceed their copper quota of 6kg/hectare. Summer was hot but topped up by the occasional downpour; perfect weather for black truffles (tarfufi neri), the best I’ve ever smelled & tasted (but not one for tartufi bianchi interestingly)! Days of 28/30 degrees celsius continued through August, with a slight drop during the second half of Aug. September was atypical in that it began unseasonally warm & remained as such for two/three wks until wc 24th Sept. Then the Bora wind arrived from the NE, bringing cool nights & a drying wind. With the prospect of rain on 8th October plus a new moon on 9th October (that could seal the weather for 40 days), producers on the Astiano (Roero) & Tortonian soils have picked this week; while those in Serralunga, Monforte, Castiglione Falletto are waiting (& praying). The suspense recalled 2005 when Sept rain swept in for a whole week. The warm first two weeks of Sept. has pushed up the sugar levels to 22 Babo (baume) or 14.5%, & encouraged the drosophila suzuki fly in places. Wednesday 10 Oct. it rained, followed by further warm dry days! Vintage 2018 seems to have produced plenty of ‘succo’, finissimi tannins & decent alcohols. More plentiful & eye-catching then than 2019, with more pulp to skin…the acidities dropping off during the unusually warm & humid Sept when alcohols also rose. Barbaresco seem to have fared well, as they enjoyed less humidity than in Barolo. Indeed there’s already an indication that some Barolo producers are considering bottling early, taking the 2018s out of wood earlier, in order to preserve the wines’ delicate, Pinot Noir-esque structures.’
A classic vintage with fresh, fruity & finissimo structures, reminding me of 2008, 1998, 1988…but maybe not of 1978! (as I’m not that old!)