The Monday morning train from Milan to Sondrio clatters along through several tunnels, the track snaking along the valley floor. It is April, and fog hangs low over the great lake Como, as we race through tiny villages. Terraced vineyards start to appear on the sheer-drop hillsides with four foot tall lettering announcing the names of different cantinas. We are in Valtellina, land of apples, chestnuts and vines.
Simone Nera picks us up at the station, with open arms and a charming smile. The overcast sky casts a dramatic tone as we traverse the valley floor, and Simone starts to recount the lay of the land. The river Adda rises in the Swiss Alps and flows through Sondrio to Como. Here, in the trough of two ascending mountains alongside the flowing body of water, resides Casa Vinicola Pietro Nera.
“This is a very particular microclimate,” says Simone, “The Valtellina denomination or DOCG is one long south-facing mountainside that receives sunshine all day, when we get any!”
It’s true that aspect and the climate mean everything; the opposing North-facing slopes bear nothing but shrubs. Although Valtellina is in one of the Northernmost areas of Italy, its climate is surprisingly balmy. Lucky then, that the extremely steep lateral valley sides funnel cooling breezes over the valley to the slopes. The entire DOCG is 282 hectares of rocky vineyards with random outlines, creating natural borders for sub-sections of the denomination- five little parcels of land with fantastical names: Valgella, Sassella, Grumello, Inferno, and Maroggia.
Stefano Nera, brother of Simone, joins us and we turn into the slope that zig-zags up the mountain-side, swiftly rising in altitude. For Stefano, the role of winemaker was in his blood. Intuitively, he elected to study viticulture at the prestigious University in Conegliano, Veneto, and took his newfound knowledge back to the Nera family winery.
After a few years at the reigns, Simone and Stefano decided to create a new label within the winery named Azienda Agricola Caven as a symbol of their era. Their personalities form a perfect professional partnership, both jovial and generous, and deadly serious when it comes to making wine.
The first vineyards we visit, at around 550 meters above sea level, are dizzyingly steep and obviously well-draining. Here we find the prized Nebbiolo, known locally as Chiavennasca. Keen to point out the masterful pruning and training job just completed, Stefano jumps in:
“The old Nebbiolo vines have been cultivated by our family over many years. It took a long time to get the training right, because left to its own devices this vine will run and run!” he explains, “We realized that if we loop the vine back on itself and under, it has a similar effect to holding a water hose- the pressure builds up and the shoots burst forth vertically!”
The training is a work of art, and a labor of love done by hand like everything else at this great height. In the same vineyard are three newer clones that were selected by Stefano, particularly to yield the correct number of bunches for the climate, and always erring on the lower end of the spectrum.
Stefano digs under a vine to unearth una nottuna, otherwise known as the cotton bollworm. A moth larva that plagues many plants in Southern Europe. They attack the roots of the vine which can lead to a fruitless plant.
“We are anti-pesticide,” says Stefano, seriously, “So my only option is to come here at night with a head torch on and dig them out by hand!”
We don’t think he’s joking!
The brothers lead us to a dramatically angular lower vineyard, where we find a couple of their staff tending the field. We are lucky to visit at such a crucial time of the year to see first-hand the planting of new Nebbiolo plants grafted onto American rootstock. Tommy digs a hole, using the only mechanical tool employed in the vineyard, and Costantino shows us how the new vines are implanted. Tommy and Costantino have been working at Nera for more than a decade, due in part to the brothers’ infectious geniality, and a genuine love for manually working the earth.
“Just one more thing to see, before we drink!” laughs Simone, taking sharp corners in the car.
From a vantage point just below the village of Tellio and its Roman tower, Simone tells us the story of the Camunni, an ancient Iron Age tribe whose 2000-year-old inscriptions have been found on stones around Valtellina.
“They worshipped a mother deity who was a symbol of fertility,” explains Simone, “And we try to keep that same level of respect for mother nature in everything we do in this abundant land.”
With midday bells chiming all around, we wind down the hill to the winery to taste the fruits of their labor.
The cantina is vast and silent. The large wood fermenters and aging barrels have a stoic beauty with their great planks of Slavonian wood. One has been fitted out as an impromptu resting spot, and Stefano and Simone take the opportunity to talk through the wines in the Enotria portfolio- ‘Tirso’ Grumello, ‘Efesto’ Inferno, ‘Alisio’ Sassella, and Sforzato di Valtellina.
Named for their individual sites, all four wines fall into the Valtellina Superiore DOCG which stipulates 24 months aging, of which at least 12 must be in wood. The Tirso Grumello is rounded and warming, with classic Nebbiolo aromas of cherries and raspberries with a whiff of wild herbs. The Efesto Inferno is slightly richer, with some deeper prune and tar aromas to the palate. Both are exceptional examples of high-altitude Nebbiolo, with thrilling acidity and fine, integrated tannins.
The Sforzato di Valtellina takes a slightly different approach, using the passito method the grapes are harvested late when the bunches are partly raisined. And then they undergo further drying in aerated crates.
“It is quite unusual to do so with Nebbiolo,” says Stefano, “But it really enhances the wine in color, aroma and flavour.”
He swirls the glass in his hand, and we are mesmerized as the deep red liquid catches the light. The air is filled with a structured perfume, both delicate and bold. The Sforzato is world-class, and its having recently won gold at the Mondial des Vins Extremes, an award for quality wines from vineyards of great altitude and aspect, cements its special status.
Thirsty and hungry after our hiking in the vineyards, we head upstairs to taste some local dishes, accompanied finally by Pietro Nera himself. He is 83 years old and dapper, with a charming sense of humor. Pietro has supposedly retired from winemaking although he says he finds himself here every day! He insists we all grab a plate so we can dig into the laden table of local cheeses, salumi, and pizzoccheri- a gooey, cheesy local delicacy made from buckwheat flour that is milled down the road. The wines are delightful, cutting through fat, enhancing saltiness, and all the time encouraging us to have another sip.
We are full, happy, and sleepy as we head for the train back to Milan, thanking the brothers for their hospitality. Casa Vinicola Pietro Nera is a very special place, where holistic tradition shakes hand with a modern pragmatism, and the utmost belief that terroir and love for the land create stunning wines.