On the rugged, near-vertical slopes of northern Italy, minutes from the Swiss border, Nebbiolo is harvested by hand — and by helicopter. More than 25 miles of interconnected vineyards span this region, called the Valtellina valley, and its high-altitude grapes produce wines with zippy acidity, bright fruit, and food-friendly versatility.
Surprisingly, the helicopter harvest was born out of necessity. Nino Negri, one of the oldest producers in the Valtellina, pioneered the practice in pursuit of (wait for it) cost savings. In the most perilous sections of Valtellina vineyards, harvesters would have to complete 20-minute uphill hikes for every 60 pounds of grapes. It would take 10 workers about 10 days to bring in 30 percent of the harvest from Negri’s trickiest vineyards, situated in subzones Grumello and the aptly named Inferno. Hired choppers, however, slice the harvest time down to 90 minutes total for both vineyards — at 27 euros per minute (approximately $32.50).
Rigged with a trailing cord and massive hook, the helicopters retrieve two large plastic bins wrapped in military-grade webbing and containing close to a half-ton of hand-harvested grapes from the vineyards. A speedy, two-man ground crew maintains constant contact with the chopper’s pilot amidst swirling dust and roaring rotor wash to ensure that the bins are adequately packed and secured before liftoff.
“The chopper carries over 650 kilos in 43 seconds,” Claudio Alongi, a Nino Negri winemaker, says. Alongi believes that harvesting by helicopter is here to stay in the Valtellina because it makes the intense harvest zones “short, fast, and sustainable.”
Tucked into northern Italy’s Lombardy region, about 60 miles northeast of Milan, the Valtellina valley is flanked by Lake Como to the west and the dramatic foothills of the Swiss Alps to the east. The entire 132-mile valley runs on an east-west axis, strategically maximizing sun exposure and elevation, but the winemaking region spans a mere 30 miles surrounding a quaint mountain town, Sondrio. The majority of the region’s vineyards are quite small, just over a half-acre, and are heavily concentrated on the terraced slopes near the Alps. The Valtellina has five distinct subzones: Grumello, Sassella, Maroggia, Inferno, and Valgella, plus two high-powered DOCGs, Valtellina Superiore and Sforzato di Valtellina.
Grown on near-vertical slopes and pinned to the hillsides by 1,500 miles of ancient stone-terraced walls, the Valtellina valley produces a lighter, slightly less tannic style of Nebbiolo (dubbed Chiavennasca locally) than its powerful Piedmont cousin, Barolo. The Valtellina’s Nebbiolo is more akin to Piedmont’s softer, approachable Barbaresco clones. Nebbiolo makes up 95 percent of vineyard plantings, and all DOC and DOCG bottles require at least 90 percent of the grape.
According to Casimiro Maule, director of winemaking for Nino Negri, the sweet spot for cultivating Valtellina’s high-quality Nebbiolo is mid-slope at around 1,300 to 1,500 feet. The region’s rocky soils are composed of granite and schist topped with a shallow layer of sandy silt, and scattered with large stones reminiscent of Chateauneuf du Pape’s galets. These rocks act like mini solar panels to capture, retain, and reflect heat back into the vineyards. Scorching summer days and crisp, cool nights gift the grapes with a generous, 20-degree diurnal temperature change.
Valtellina is one of the few places outside Piedmont that successfully produce Nebbiolo-based wines. It makes two distinct styles. Bright crimson Valtellina Rosso DOC and Valtellina Superiore DOCG comprise most of the region’s production. They are amazing ambassadors for “mountain Nebbiolo,” with plenty of color, body, and palate pep, featuring ripe cherry fruit and ample pairing potential. They partner perfectly with the regional bresaola (a delicious air-dried, thinly sliced salted beef) and local Bitto cheese, produced by grass-fed cows grazing on high-altitude Alpine pastures along the Bitto River.
The second style of wine sipped and celebrated here is Sforzato (Sfursat) de Valtellina DOCG, a full-throttle red redolent of Veneto’s famed Amarone. The grapes themselves must be ripe, big berries because they lose 30 percent of their weight during a three-month extraction process that entails drying in single-layer bins in a well-ventilated warehouse. The resulting heavily concentrated wines are full-bodied and decidedly dry, and must maintain a minimum alcohol content of 14 percent. They dazzle with roasted game, aged cheese, or a comfy chair and cheery conversation.
The At-Home Experience
Ready to taste some mountain Nebbiolo? Here are a few bottles to get you started. All prices are via wine-searcher.com.
Nino Negri Quadrio Valtellina Superiore DOCG 2014 – A snappy red blend of 90 percent Nebbiolo and 10 percent Merlot, all aged in a heady combination of large French and Slavonian oak vats, brings a tandem team of raspberry-meets-cherry to the mix with an unmistakable elegance and ongoing finish. Average price: $20
Nino Negri Inferno Valtellina Superiore DOCG 2013 – From the Inferno subzone, this bottle carries grapes from the helicopter harvest every year. Built on 100 percent Nebbiolo, expect plenty of ripe red fruit underpinned by fresh acidity and an ongoing minerality. Average price: $24
Arpepe Rosso di Valtellina 2014 – A delicious introduction to Arpepe’s lengthy lineup of Alpine Nebbiolo, the 2014 Rosso di Valtellina plays an inviting dance of black plum and Bing cherry on the nose with a dash of truffle and a swirl of vanilla in the mix. The palate profile is easygoing with integrated tannins and bright acidity. This bottle is ready to rumble with a variety of foodie favorites. Average Price: $34
Nino Negri Valtellina Superiore Vigneto Fracia DOCG 2013 – Aged in French barrels for close to 20 months, there’s a fresh-faced fruit character that gives way to a happy blend of sun-dried herbs and sweet spice. Average price: $37
Aldo Rainoldi Sfursat di Valtellina Ca’ Rizzieri 2013 – Showing gorgeous concentration and carrying the classic notes of black cherry and raspberry with a twist of licorice all well-supported by tightly knit, well-ripened tannins and a lingering spice-driven finish. Average Price: $42
Nino Negri Valtellina Sfursat 5 Stelle DOCG 2013 – The Amarone of the Valtellina, Sfursat “5 Stelle” is built on the best Nebbiolo grapes from the best estate vineyards and only in the best vintage years. Made in the traditional appassimento method, expect a rich, full-bodied red that delivers incredible concentration with a laser-like focus on dried cherry, sweet tobacco, and an engaging mix of pumpkin pie spice. Average price: $55