There are some Italian wine regions you really have to see to believe. The Cinque Terre, whose terraced vines spill down toward the Ligurian sea, is surely one of them.

So is the Salento peninsula in Puglia, where giant bush vines, called alberelli (little trees), stretch on for miles in copper-red soils. And then there’s the Valtellina, hugging the Swiss border in northern Lombardia, where, again, vintners eke out a crop on steep, man-made terraces in the shadow of the Alps. Napa Valley this ain’t.

Physically as well as culturally, the Valtellina, like many parts of Alpine Italy, feels somewhat distinct from the rest of the peninsula. And yet its wines are a bridge to better-known regions, namely Barolo and Barbaresco in Piemonte, because Valtellina reds are made from nebbiolo (here called chiavennasca). How the great grape of Piemonte got all the way up here is something of a mystery, although it is known that the spectacular terraces of the Valtellina were built by ancient Ligurians, using rocks and other material dragged up from the riverbed below.

Drinking a Valtellina red is like drinking a more nervous, higher-altitude version of Barolo. The rosy aromatics and dried-fruit flavors of nebbiolo are all there, albeit in a tighter, lighter package, though this is not to say that the Valtellina versions lack for power. It seems impossible that the fickle nebbiolo would ripen at all in such a northerly latitude, but of course looks are always deceiving ¯ there’s enough sun power in the Valtellina to support tropical plants such as agave, which actually pop up here and there in the rocky Valtellina soils.

The nomenclature of Valtellina is akin to that of Burgundy, in that most of the Valtellina wine you see will be labeled with a vineyard designation. Around the city of Sondrio, there are four “classified” vineyards that are sort of the “Grand Crus” of the Valtellina: Inferno, Grumello, Sassella, and Valgella. Many different producers bottle wines from these vineyards, and the wines
are distinguished by the “Valtellina Superiore” designation. When you drink a “Valtellina Superiore Inferno,” for example, you are drinking a single-vineyard bottling from the Inferno cru. We always have several of these vineyard-designated Valtellina wines on our list, and they are fantastic, great-value alternatives to Piemontese nebbiolo ¯ they are packed with intense aromas of dried cherries, earl grey tea, wood smoke…think “Baby Barolo” and you get the picture.

Then there are the Valtellina reds labeled “Sfursat,” or “Sforsato,” in which the nebbiolo grapes used to make the wine are dried before pressing to concentrate their flavors. This process, exactly like the one used to make Amarone in the Veneto,
creates a wine that is richer, softer, and ever-so-slightly sweet ¯ an alternative to the sharp angles of a basic Valtellina Superiore. “Sfursat” means “strengthened” in local dialect, and these wines have some of the heft of Amarone while retaining the ethereal aromatics of nebbiolo. They are truly special wines, but they require an open mind.

Try one of these Valtellina wines on your next visit, and see another very fascinating side of the most noble red grape in Italy:

Valtellina Sfursat “Canua,” Conti Sertoli Salis 2000
Here’s a great example of the dried-grape “sfursat” style, sort of a cross between a Barolo and an Amarone. Soft and supple, with bright cherry aromas and a whiff of pipe tobacco and earth on the nose, this is a wine that keeps growing in stature in
the glass. As unique a wine as you’ll ever taste, period

Valtellina Superiore Inferno, Rainoldi 1998
Lean and fragrant, with lots of pinot noir-ish aromas. A terrific value at $28.
Lots of leather and spice in a lightweight package.