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Hidden Gems a Stone's Throw from Lake Como

It is definitely the season to be fed up. The days are short, dark, cold and miserable; the politics is a mess of strutting egos; the virus does what it likes and we are all locked up to one extent or another. The simple pleasures of sharing a good glass, a laugh and some food with friends seem to belong to distant nostalgia. And, to add to the melancholy, wine prices seem like tech shares, on an inexorable, idiotic ascent into the unaffordable.

So why not sit down in front of the fire with a good glass of real wine that you can afford, and dream of long wistful summer evenings watching the sun set over a glorious backdrop where the mountains touch the sky with their feet bathed in sparkling water, where history and ever more beautiful villas abound and you can sip an aperitif in post-vaccinated comfort? Come on, a touch of optimism please?

Lake Como. Ah you say, any excuse for the author to throw in pretty pictures, but what’s this got to do with wine and who can afford to chink glasses with George Clooney anyway? And Lombardy is hardly known as one of the great wine regions of Italy is it?

Maybe not, though I think the cognoscenti would mutter that Franciacorta is a more interesting set of bubbles than the ubiquitous Prosecco that lines the supermarket shelves these days, and we found Ca dei Frati (on the banks of Lake Garda) to be a very enjoyable and inexpensive white aperitif made from the local turbiana grape.

But I am here to discuss reds, and serious ones. Wines made just an hour or so from the top of Lake Como from, many would argue, Italy’s greatest grape, and with an extra traditional Italian twist thrown in. Wines that cost half the price (or less) of their better-known cousins from the Langhe, and which are still relatively unknown. Wines of terroir and stupidly steep terraces, of hairpin bends and mountain valley views, of elegance, rusticity or intoxicating power, you take your pick.

Valtellina. Mountain Nebbiolo, but in Lombardy not the Alto Piemonte. Look at the snowy peaks (even in August) and behind them is St. Moritz, Switzerland and all those Russian fur coats. But between the millionaire ski resorts and aristocratic villas lies a sometimes rather industrial looking valley road and above it, vines. Beside you rushes the Adda, its waters that tell-tale snowmelt turquoise, in a hurry to get to its final destination, the wondrous Lago di Como. Yes, I told you, just a short drive away. You also are in the home of bresaola, (air dried salted beef), bitto cheese (which they age until I think it perambulates around the cheese cellars on its own) and the famed picturesque Bernina Pass and the Trenino Rosso railway line to St Moritz. It was here that Mussolini wanted to make his last fascist stand against the invading Allies in 1945, and resistance partisans from the villages around Como used Valtellina as their potential escape route to Swiss neutrality. Indeed for several centuries, Valtellina was ruled by the Swiss and until 1980 most of the wine was exported there under a very generous trade and free tax deal. Indeed, when it was undone, sales plummeted and the area under vine began to shrink, sadly.

But on the north side of the valley, the Rhaetian Alps harbour the wine villages of Grumello, Sassella, Inferno, Valgella and Maroggia, impossibly precipitous slopes somehow criss-crossed by vines, Nebbiolo vines, that, in the right hands, produce wines that take the aromatics of the more renowned Barolo and Barbaresco and throw in a refreshing blast of Alpine air, less weight, hopefully a little less tannin, but lovely floral, candied red fruit aromatics. Less of the power, more of the airy florality. They may not age as well, though a decade softens them into a very attractive place and they have the feel more of a pinot than a Barolo, though the Nebbiolo tannins can still bite.

We visited one of the larger wineries, Rainoldi, and were taken on a beautiful tour of the vineyards, curving our way up the incline to the ruins of the 13th/14th century Grumello Castle, owned by the Ghibelline De Piro family until destroyed by the Grisons in 1526. It towers above the valley and town of Sondrio, the wine valley centre. Dry stone walls stop the vines from tumbling down to the valley floor, vines that have been here since the Benedictine monks planted ‘ciu venasca’ (‘more winey’ in dialect) which is now known locally as chiavennasca or, to you and me, Nebbiolo. Vines are old, day to night temperature spreads large and diseases rare due to the Alpine breezes, but for this privilege you have such crazy gradients that Rainoldi says it takes 1200 working hours per hectare per year, four times what you’d need further south. You have a lot of toil and sweat mixed in with your history. Indeed, they sometimes use helicopters to speed up the transit of picked grapes to the crushers on the valley floor, and the vineyards are covered with trolleys and pulleys like telephone lines built to get the grape baskets somehow back to earth.

You might think that with all this Swiss Alpine influence, and altitude, you’d be struggling to ripen grapes here, and, yes, they ripen about two weeks later than down south in the Langhe, and Nebbiolo is a late-ripening varietal, so you can run into November. But this is not due to the cold. Au contraire, the Valtellina micro-climate, shielded by mountains to north and south, is the same as southern Italy or Sicily, and due to the heat the vines actually shut down during high summer. The valley is littered with prickly pears (Indian figs), flat, paddle shaped cactus leaves with prickles and topped with red flowers. And yes, the last time I saw them on the road verges was indeed in Sicily. Oh, and oleander too, just to add to the Mediterranean feel.

The walls, like in Scotland and Ireland, are built without mortar or cement, retaining soil and warmth but free circulation of those mountain airs. Line up all the muretti and you’d have a 1500 mile long Hadrian’s wall nominated as a UNESCO world heritage site. How did they build them? Back in the middle ages there were no cranes, no cars, just horses, carts and men. You see why they call it here the ‘heroic wine’.

But Valtellina also hides another secret old Italian tradition, but this time with a nod to the east and the Veneto, where they dry the Valpolicella grapes to make Amarone. Since the 17th century here they have made sforzato/sfurzat in the same method, drying the grapes (appassimento) in specially aerated fruttai buildings up on the hillsides. At Rainoldi they have two versions, one coming from a particular fruittai (Ca Rizzieri) where the grapes are shrivelled for a couple of months at 500 metres up the slope. The bunches lose up to a third of the weight. Like Amarone, the alcohol is high, up to 16%, but this is nebbiolo not corvina, rondinella and molinara. The aromatics are incredible – much that I struggle to find a good moment to drink these powerful wines, you just want to sit in front of that fire and stick a glass under your nose, it’s akin to a liquid, alcoholic basket of red fruit and flowers, a truly intense perfume. Sforzato gained its DOCG status 7 years before Amarone, and straw wines date back to the Romans (& Ancient Greeks).

For the standard, non-dried wines of Inferno, Grumello and Sasella, we have the calling cards of Nebbiolo, almonds, red fruit, cherry, some caramel oak and floral scents. The weight of the wine depends on the producer and so does the rusticity of the tannins. Better examples, from Walter Menegola for example, throw a line north west (you can, on certain days, see Mont Blanc – or Monte Bianco – from Burgundy). We discovered the two brothers’ wines sitting outside in the Osteria del Governo in Lezzeno under a fig pergola aside Lake Como, and their Sassella Riserva is from century old vines and is just remarkable value for its price. For the cost of a Langhe Nebbiolo you find something much more serious. The restaurant is also super, with an eighteenth century cellar to visit.

I am very far from expert in the region, but the star winery of the area (with prices more to match) seems to be Ar.Pe.Pe which we first tasted at the excellent Ristorante San Carlo in Sondrio (as recommended by Rainoldi and just down the road). Like so many Italian restaurants the wine prices seemed magical – a mature wine for less than the retail price today of a new vintage, and, yes, they are well worth drinking, again, floral, elegant red fruit, flowers and cherries, lovely. If only Parisian or English restaurants could follow the same pricing mechanism.

So, when you are depressed at the prices in the ever more ecstatic critic reviews and merchant offerings of 2016 barolo, don’t forget the Valtellina. The dried beef is also delicious (and cheaper than parma ham for sure) and bitto (if not too old and crawling) is (like aged parmesan) super with a meditational glass of sforzato. If you are holidaying in Como (lucky you) then the valley joins the lake at its northern end. You wont see many more spectacular vineyard sites. And by the way, if you are visiting Valtellina, make sure you take a small detour to Morbegno and visit Fratelli Ciapponi, best described as a grocery museum, a shop where the owner sits smiling outside (a man who transcends the ages, like history itself), and where the inside seems not to have changed for a century or more, (they started in 1883), an Aladdin’s cave of well-chosen super produce at super sensible prices, getting more exciting as you descend the wooden steps to the lower levels and discover the cheese cellars and, lower still, the wines… Bring the car and load it up!

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