Italy’s Valtellina Wines: Chiavennasca (aka Nebbiolo)

Italy’s Valtellina denomination, based in the region of Lombardia, offers some great, under-appreciated value wines. Although they do not quite reach the same heights as in Piedmont, nebbiolo-based wines from Lombardy are impressive and worth trying. If you are a lover of nebbiolo, this zone is worth exploring!

Map of Italy's wine regions

Map of Italy’s wine regions

About the Valtellina

  • The Valtellina. The best area for chiavannasca, the Valtellina zone located in the mountainous northern reaches of the region, along the Adda river in the province of Sondrio, where rocky clay-based soils prevail.
  • Classifications. The denomination’s basic wines — labelled as Rosso di Valtellina DOC — are made from a minimum of 80% nebbiolo and aged for six months in wood barrels. The premier wines — labelled as Valtellina Superiore DOCG% — are made from grapes grown on the premier plots within the same geographic area, comprised of at least 90% nebbiolo and aged for a minimum of 24 months (12 in oak barrels).
  • Versus nebbiolo from Piedmont. As compared to those from Piedmont, Valtellina nebbiolos lack the same dark fruit punch due to the modestly cooler temperatures that make it challenging for this very late-maturing variety to reach optimal ripeness. What they lack in power and harmony, however, they make up for in finesse, aroma and earthy concentration. Further, they typically hit more attractive price points, which makes them worth checking out.

While all Valtellina wines are of generally high quality, look for the following five Valtellina Superiore DOCG sub-areas for the best experience:

  • Grumello. Fruit forward and aromatic with notes of almonds due to small amounts of the local brugnola grape in the blend.
  • Inferno. Most powerful, concentrated and austere versions.
  • Maroggia. Lowest production with medium- to full-bodied, fruity versions.
  • Sassella. Viewed as the best of the Valtellina, richer and fuller-bodied versions requiring 3-5 years of aging.
  • Valgella. The most delicate, floral-perfumed expressions of nebbiolo.

What about Sforzato

Made from a minimum of 90% nebbiolo grapes, sforzato wines (aka Valtellina Sfursat) are unique to Lombardy’s Valtellina. Following a similar process to that used with the Veneto’s Amarone, they are made by drying out the grapes until they are raisins and their sugars are concentrated. Since all of the sugar is allowed to convert to alcohol, the resulting wine is totally dry; this results in high alcohol levels, usually around 14%. As with Amarone, the final result is a rich, almost syrupy, wine with low acid levels. While slightly less mouth filling, sforzato wines deliver a greater level of spiciness. Look for them in the Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG.

About the nebbiolo grape (chiavennasca)

Nebbiolo, known locally in Lombardia as chiavennasca, produces the most sophisticated red wines in Italy.

  • Trademark characteristics. The light-colored wines are characterized by large amounts of acidity and tannin, which typically require many years of bottle aging to balance and integrate. Despite their power, nebbiolo-based wines are never dense, jammy or distinctly fruity. Showcasing powerful aromas redolent of red cherries, roses and truffles, they also have notes of eucalyptus, violets, pine needle, herbs, mushrooms and cinnamon spice. As the wines age, they take on darker notes of tar, tobacco, leather and earth.
  • Name origin. The name nebbiolo is derived from the Italian word for fog, nebbia. The grape’s fog association could be derived from one of two possibilities: the fog that typically settles over the area of the Langhe in October or the characteristic white-colored coating that appears on the skin of the grape late in the growing season. The grape is also known by the following names: chiavennasca (Lombardy’s Valtellina), picotendro (Valle d’Aosta) and spanna (northern Piedmont).

Italian Wine iPhone & iPad App

Learn about the wines of Italy with Approach Guides wine app for iPhone and iPad. The app profiles all of Italy’s winemaking regions, grape varieties, appellations, and vintages, giving you everything you need to know to choose a wine that meets your preferences.