Aldo Rainoldi from the Valtellina DOCG, Italy
They call them viticoltori eroici (heroic winemakers) and looking from the valley floor up to the steep slopes above us, it seems most appropriate that any winemaker who chooses to plant his vines on the slopes of the foothills of the Alps deserves that moniker. We were driving through the province of Sondrio, in the AOC of Valtellina, where the nebbiolo grape is grown on the slopes of the Adda River valley. The valley faces east to west and is the only one of it’s kind in Italy. The vineyards here are located at between 300 – 600 metres and are south facing to catch as much sun as possible. They are a series of stonewall supported terraces that climb high up the sides of the mountains. It was hard not to be impressed by the patchwork of vines scattered on the hillsides.
Wine has been made here since at least the 5th century and the wines have been famous within the region for almost as long but they haven’t achieved much renown beyond Switzerland or Middle Europe which is a pity because outside of Piedmont, the nebbiolo (or chiavennasca as it’s locally known) grape thrives in the long, cool growing season of Valtellina.
There are 4 classes of wine in the valley but we were lucky enough to be treated to some of the best, the Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG and Valtellina Superiore DOC. The criteria for the wines for the DOCG and DOC that they must be 90% nebbiolo and the other 10% can only be non-aromatic red grapes. The Sforzata has an added condition in that the grapes are air dryed until Dec 10th and must come from Valtellina Superiore and/or rosso di Valtellina. The Sforzata wines have often been compared to Amarone because the process is the similar but the wine that is produced is very different due to factors such as climate, terroir, clones, etc.
Lorenzo, our guide for the trip, wanted us to meet one of his favourite producers and so we soon found ourselves seated in the cellar of Aldo Rainoldi. The vineyard were founded by Aldo Rainoldi in 1925 and the current Aldo makes the wine today. The grapes come from some of the best sub-zones of the Valtellina Superiore DOCG, Sassella, Grumello and Inferno. The Inferno sub-region gets it’s name because in the summer it gets hot as hell up there.
The first wine we sampled was an experiment of Aldo’s, a 2006 sparkling rose made from100% nebbiolo. Aldo noted that this was an extreme wine and that the colour, an orangish-pink hue was all natrual. Made in the traditional method, spending 36 months on the lees, it was a lean and austere sparkling wine, very dry with red fruit flavours and a very yeasty, bready nose. Interesting, a wine for connossieurs. Only 5000 bottles made.
We moved onto the Sassella 2006 and the Inferno 2006 both being quiet mouthwatering with the stony soil character showing itself along with a certain spikiness, gripping tannins and a hot cinnamon spicy finish. The Inferno was a bit softer, tobacco and leather with cherry and cinnamon once again making an appearance. Both wines had plenty of structure and were still youngsters. They reminded me of german shepard puppies, all gangly big feet but you just know they are going to grow into powerhouses.
Aldo then brought out the big guns, the Sforzata, a vertical of the ’06,’01 and ’97. Interestingly, he had us taste the oldest first which is not the way verticals are usually done but he thought we’d get more out of it. The ’97 had a most inviting nose of orange peel, cloves, tea and leather. A lively wine with velvety tannins, medium bodied with a fantastic savoury black tea finish. It really did feel as if I’d just drunk a cup of black tea. In comparison, the ’01 was very different, smelling of baked cherry cookies mixed in with leather shop notes, tar and spice, a powerful wine with excellent tannic structure, could possibly steamroll you over! The ’06 was a teenybopper compared to the first two, cherries and spice, very fresh, with plenty of acidity, talk about a mouthwatering wine.
Aldo refers to his Sforzata as “something new but with a long tradition,” showing the tipicity of the region while also adhering to the traditions of the region while ensuring maximum quality. He likes to refer to them as “meditative wines” and I could certainly take the ’97 and meditate on that on a long winter’s evening.