The History and Territory: Between Granite and Heroic Viticulture
Valtellina Superiore is certainly among the finest expressions of red wine from the Lombardy region, both in terms of finesse and intensity of taste, and owes this greatness to the particular territory that hosts the vineyards from which it is produced. The first evidence of vine cultivation in the Valtellina mountains dates back to the Carolingian era, when work intensified to increase the area under vine on plots of land during the late Middle Ages. The land was reclaimed from the rocky terrain of the surrounding mountains and the work was carried out mainly by the Benedictine monks present in the valley. Only one grape variety plays the leading role here, Nebbiolo, which grows in this viticultural area in the biotype called 'Chiavennasca', and remains a sample of great elegance and structure. This Alpine valley is particularly interesting, however, as it is precisely divided between two separate mountain groups, where the only slope suitable for the cultivation of vineyards is the one facing south and belonging to the geological block of the Rhaetian Alps. Here, exposure to light is much more favourable to vegetation than the colder and shadier Orobic slope on the opposite side.
The steep soils have large quantities of granite, which is reflected in these great ageing red wines through a distinct rocky savouriness, which at times is almost saline in nature due to the wealth of mineral substances that the grapes contain. The vineyards are cultivated on steep, inaccessible terraces, which force the producers to carry out a heroic and strictly manual viticulture, with techniques that are difficult but highly productive.
The 5 Sub-Areas: Unmistakable Indicators of the Terroir
Across all of Lombardy's wine areas, it is rare to find a territory with such clearly differentiated characteristics in its individual sub-areas. Each of the 5 sub-zones in fact develops differences that faithfully define the different origins, which are listed and described below. Inferno: the name of this area ('hell' in English) probably derives from the high temperatures that the terraces between the municipalities of Poggiridenti and Tresivio reach during the summer, although it could also stem from the inaccessible and decidedly difficult hilly environment. It is the smallest of the subzones and covers 55 hectares. Inferno is certainly the most stern among the expressions of this territory, especially in the Valtellina Superiore Riserva version, where it is characterised by enveloping fragrances, a balanced taste and nobler, more delicate tannins. Sassella: undoubtedly the most famous sub-zone in terms of reputation. It stretches from the village of Castione Stivenno to the west of the city of Sondrio in an area with excellent exposure but poor accessibility and is named after the church of the same name. Its enveloping scent is intensified with ageing and appears full-bodied and slightly tannic. Sassella is probably the most well-balanced of all the Valtellina reds and is especially notable for its vibrant freshness. Grumello: situated to the north-east of the main town, it takes its name from the castle of the same name (dating back to the 13th century) that proudly imposes itself on the valley. It covers 78 hectares, and its aroma is the most subtle and elegant, while the taste is amply velvety and harmonious, dry and full-bodied. Valgella: its 137 hectares make it the largest sub-zone in the valley, situated between the municipalities of Chiuro and Teglio. Its name originates from the Latin term for "small valley", or "vallicula". It is the smoothest of all although it features a more ethereal and delicate bouquet, which is round and soft, with fascinating floral scents that make it particularly tasty also when it is enjoyed in its youth. Maroggia: the first evidence of this area is attributed to Benigno de Medici who, during the mid 15th century, came into contact with the local gastronomy and defined the Nebbiolo of the area as "firmum et dulce", or full-bodied and sweet. Located within the municipality of Berbenno in Valtellina, it is the sub-zone that was most recently recognised by the consortium, in 2002. The mere 25 hectares of vineyard force this area to a very limited production and it is distinguished by a distinctly ethereal bouquet and a harmonious, velvety and appropriately tannic taste.
The Sensory Analysis of Valtellina Superiore
Despite the very clear differences between the sub-zones, the Nebbiolo of the Alps displays similar and consistent characteristics. These include a clear and transparent garnet colour that turns to orange as it ages, and a bouquet that is often reminiscent of alpine herbs, wilted roses and dark fruit that is not necessarily ripe but more often fresh, citrusy and crunchy, such as raspberries and redcurrants. Similarly to the Dirupi Valtellina Superiore, this wine offers a full and enveloping taste, with a fresher vein than its Langhe relatives, but with a mineral flavour that is incredibly reminiscent of wet rock, granite and salt.
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