Q: What are the biggest challenges when drying grapes for sfursat wines? Do these partially dried grapes require different winemaking techniques?
A: Nebbiolo for drying must be harvested in vineyards that provide ripe grapes at the right level of polyphenols (tannins) but without too high sugar concentrations, around 12 potential ABV. Nino Negri’s long tradition of growing Nebbiolo for drying has allowed us to select vineyards accordingly; that is, vineyards where the Nebbiolo clones produce grapes with a slightly larger grape than normal with loose bunches more suitable for drying. The vineyards are equally distributed between medium and high altitudes. Based on the conditions of the year, having a homogeneous distribution of vineyards throughout the territory allows to choose the best grapes: normally “higher” vineyards in hot years and “lower” vineyards in colder ones.
Sforzato is the result of the knowledge and experience that are used to maintain the premium quality level of the wine, as it is the result of two different harvests. The first is carried out between the end of September and the beginning of October when the grapes are harvested in boxes. The second takes place after at least 100 days of drying in the fruttaio. Only after the two selections do we decide which grapes are suitable for our Sforzato.
The uniqueness of Sforzato is certainly linked to the Nebbiolo grape which expresses unique aromas and tastes, but it is also linked to the traditional drying method. The weight loss of about 30% takes place over around 100 days in an alpine environment characterised by winds typical of the valley that blow in the morning from the top to the bottom of the mountain, and in the afternoon in the opposite direction, therefore from Lake Como towards the top of the mountains. The alternation of winds but above all the low temperature typical of the valley in the months of December and January allow the Nebbiolo a slow and constant drying that gives rise to unique and unrepeatable aromas. The vinification takes place in January when the outside temperatures are very low. Consequently, fermentations are slow and last for a long time, producing high percentages of natural glycerin which increases the softness of the wine.
Q: Many wine lovers will know Nebbiolo as Barolo, but Chiavennasca may draw a blank. You have worked with the variety in both places; how does it express itself differently in Valtellina? Do you treat it differently?
A: We can say that the two Nebbiolo qualities are “brothers”, but having adapted them to extremely different environments, they are characterized by some peculiarities: the cold, the wind and the rocks have developed in Chiavennasca a greater resistance to rain with thicker skins and looser bunches, while the tannins that mature in soils rich in calcareous clay (Langa) are characterized by power and volume, those that mature on the mother rock are more delicate and silky. The aromas are similar but the Valtellina’s wines produce tertiary aromas more quickly. The big difference is in the fresh acidity of the Alps, but above all in the minerality and length given by the rocks. The vinification is the same in the Langa and in the Valtellina.
Q: Tannins are an essential part of the structure of red wines, yet they can seem aggressive to some people. Chiavennasca is notoriously tannic; how do you ‘tame the tannins?
A: Tannins are the “backbone” of Nebbiolo and of all great wines. It is important to achieve a balance between the tannic structure and the rest of the flavours and components of the wine. This harmony is certainly born in the vineyard by looking for the right ripening of the grapes. The reduced quantity of grapes per plant determines greater harmony in the tannins as well as the choice of the harvest time. In Valtellina the Alpine climate has improved in recent years, providing warmer and brighter summers. This favoured the maturation of Nebbiolo by providing denser and more mature tannins. Fortunately, the autumn period during the harvest maintains strong temperature variations between day and night which develops aromatics and maintains acidity and freshness. Fermentation with careful maceration and the correct use of wood in the cellar contribute to the right balance. But the distinctive character of the tannin of Valtellina wines is linked to the sweetness that originates with the minerality typical of mountain wines, which is expressed with a savoury and long flavour.
Q: What is your ‘go-to’ wine at Christmas, and why?
A: A good wine, because life is too short to drink bad wines.