“A valley surrounded by tall and fearsome mountains'' is how Leonardo Da Vinci described the region of Valtellina in his Codex Atlanticus. Da Vinci (apparently a clandestine wine critic), imagined the extreme nature of the terrain to be what gave the local wine its “heady and strong” character. In many ways he was right, Valtellina’s steep and imposing slopes have an undeniable effect on the region’s vines. Just a stone’s throw from the Italian/Swiss border, Valtellina has a long and storied wine history.
Nebbiolo has long been its major cultivar and today accounts for more than 90% of the region’s vines. Referred to locally as Chiavennasca, there is some (oft disputed) evidence to suggest the grape may have originated here. Chiavennasca expresses itself differently this far north than it does in the more famed regions of Barolo and Barbaresco. Aromatically, it is unmistakably Nebbiolo, but the structure of the wine can be a good deal softer, more open-knit, and while the wines are certainly age-worthy they are often more approachable in their youth than their Piedmontese counterparts.
Valtellina’s extreme terrain is the definitive challenge for winemakers in the region. The valley lies between the Rhaetian and Orobic Alps and the vineyards sit almost exclusively on the south-facing slopes, a favorable orientation that enjoys the most potential sunlight. All vineyard land has to be terraced and can sit anywhere from 230-765 meters above sea level. The steepness of the slopes can’t be overstated and work in the vineyards is almost invariably carried out by hand out of necessity. This manual labor is said to account for nearly 1,500 hours of work per hectare per year.
A series of handmade dry, stone walls line the terraces, affixing them in place, and are locally referred to as muretti. Were all the murretti placed end to end they would stretch well over 1,000 miles long. Such a feat of masonry are these walls, that they’ve helped earn the region a nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Without these walls, the soil (particularly in the highest elevations) would likely slide down the mountain faces, as they are composed mostly of loose rock. This feature is spectacular for drainage, helping the wines of Valtellina achieve their ethereal lift and elegance, but wildly challenging to maintain.
Valtellina is amongst the most prestigious appellations in Lombardia and produces some of the most fascinating wines in northern Italy. The whole of Italy’s northern territory has changed hands amongst its neighboring countries for centuries, with Valtellina at one time being Swiss territory, later Austrian, and finally returning to the Kingdom of Italy by 1859. With approximately 800 hectares of land under vine today, there are nearly 2000 wine growers in the region. One can imagine with this density, achieving the economy of scale necessary to run an independent winery rather than contribute to an established cooperative would be a feat, in and of itself. Ar.Pe.Pe. is one of Valtellina’s great success stories - a family run winery whose reputation is practically synonymous with the region, with five generations of history as leaders in the local viticulture.
Ar.Pe.Pe. gets its name from the winery’s modern day savior, Arturo Pelizzatti Perego. In the 1970s, with over 100 years of family winemaking and vineyard holdings at his back, Arturo’s father Guido was sadly diagnosed with cancer. Among Guido’s four sons, only Arturo had taken to the family business and with the passing of his father he faced the inevitable dissolution of his family’s legacy. The estate was divided amongst him and his brothers and large swathes of the land and business were sold off. Arturo chose to lease out his holdings, rather than sell them outright, in the hopes of someday reinstating the family winery. That day came in 1984, when Arturo bought back the contracts on six hectares of land and established the winery under his own initials. Slowly, he began to reacquire pieces of the old family estate, including the cellar he and Guido had built in Grumello. Dedicated to the traditions of the region, he sought to rebuild his family’s reputation of making fresh, elegant, ageworthy Nebbiolo.
Arturo’s three children now run the estate, with their father’s philosophies on winemaking as their guiding light. Long maceration times in neutral oak vessels, single vineyard expressions from Valtellina’s major crus, and proper aging time at the winery are the fenceposts of Ar.Pe.Pe.’s overall philosophy. Isabella Pelizzatti Perego spoke with us recently about her family’s legendary estate.
Stefanie Harris: What are some of the unique challenges of working at Alpine elevations? And how do you find these elevations affect the resulting wines?
Isabella Pelizzatti Perego: The biggest challenge is that everything needs manual work. There's no possibility of mechanization at all. And so it's always important to find the right people. We have been lucky that finally we have an agricultural school in the valley. So a lot of young people that are doing these are ready to remain in the valley and work. And so we found a really young team, and we are very happy for this, because I'm actually the eldest of the company nowadays, so they could be all my kids. And it's beautiful because they are ready to learn. Having a young team sometimes, it's probably easier because they are being more flexible and open-minded to try and to experiment more.
And so I have to say that the climate changes also quite recently have been in a way favorable to Valtellina, because sometimes in the old days it was hard to reach 12.5% alcohol in your base because that was kind of colder. So we are for sure in a cool climate area in comparison to the Langhe and also to North Piemonte. But, at the same time, what we do fear most with the climate change are this kind of monsoon of rains where you get the rain of a month in a couple of days. That's the biggest risk, because, believe it or not, all the vineyards have been grown over this whole dry stone wall. So it's been a crazy work of generations and generations.
If you think that we should put linear all the walls, we will reach 2,500 kilometers of walls, which means Italy one way and return. But that also gives you the idea of how many generations and generations have been working on it. And, again, these dry stone walls help the rain drain quite easily. But, again, if you get a monsoon rain, that's very hard because that can put a serious risk at the stability of the mountain itself. And so it's very important that we always have an eye ready to understand what's going on if there is any change, any movement, because we need to be prompt and ready to do something if something goes wrong.
You mentioned that you're working in a much cooler climate than that of the Langhe, and I wonder if you could speak a little bit to what characterizes Nebbiolo grown in Valtellina as opposed to the rest of Italy.
We are so lucky that also together with a different environment we have a difference in soil, because our soils are much more rocky and sandy and more poor soils where plants need to go very deep with roots into the soil. Sometimes they go down five meters or more into the rocks. And so there's even no clay, or apart from little areas where we have a bit of clay, clay is nearly missing everywhere. So it's much more poor and it's also an acidic soil. And because the way the walls have been made, destroying the rocks on the mountainside, making the dry stone walls, and then the soil was taken up from the bottom of the valley up on your shoulders. So it was a massive work of generations and generations. And it's more or less the soil of the river.
But also having the special microclimate with the valley being a perpendicular valley. So it creates in every small piece of land a different microclimate. So even going up in elevation, there are so many differences. But because of all these characteristics, our Chiavennasca/Nebbiolo is much more floral and delicate and very full of saltiness and minerality, which makes our wines always super easy to drink. Sometimes people think our bottles have a hole because they disappear on the table very fast when people are enjoying them. And also what I love, is really the flexibility to taste this wine nearly with whatever food you like.
And so what I love most when I am able to travel around the world with my babies, to show them around and match with the cuisine of the world, it's so beautiful because you never get any disappointment tasting the wines because they are very, very flexible. I think this, to me, it's the beauty of our wine. Also, sometimes people think if they are white wine dressing red, because the structure is much more of a white wine in terms of freshness and minerality and easy to drink, but then they have a red color. What I love, it's a very transparent color, very vibrant, full of light. I love a description that [was given to us] of our wine that they called “crystal clear.” I love that, because you can see through and, to me, it's a beautiful sign.
The inaugural vintage for the Rosso di Valtellina was 2003. Can you tell us a little bit about that growing season and the decision to make the Rosso?
Absolutely. So 2003 was probably the hottest vintage we ever faced. And even though we own all the vineyards in Sassella, Grumello and Inferno, the final result was so incredible, ready to drink and easy to drink straight away after the vinification, that we thought it was best to sell this wine younger, because it was extremely ready to drink.
Because for Valtellina Superiore you need to wait minimum two years, and minimum one year in wood, while instead for the Rosso di Valtellina, for example, you could be start selling the Rosso di Valtellina 2020 from July 2021, just to give you an idea. So you can be much more flexible with the Rosso. And so for this reason, we decided to transport all of our production into Rosso Valtellina.
So this wine, everyone loved it, either nationally and internationally. And then everyone was expecting this wine to be available every year after 2003, and it was not exactly that way. What can we do now? Because this wine is becoming like a business card, people start knowing us through this wine, and then they want to discover more. And so we decided to dedicate the grapes that we picked first, normally in the lowest part, below 400 meters, either in Sassella and Grumello, to the Rosso di Valtellina. And so that's what's happening now. The lowest part of Sassella and Grumello are going into the Rosso di Valtellina, there's probably a little bit more Sassella than Grumello, but there's not a fixed rule, let's say.
I noticed in your lineup you have certain bottlings that spend 100-plus days on the skins, certain bottles that spend maybe 50 to 60. Do you mind speaking a little bit to what goes into those decisions around maceration times?
This has always been part of the learning process. Because we've been able to start experimenting the vinification in wood in 2005, and then in 2006. And we started a big learning process on this.
And when we had the vintage 2014, that like for a 2003, for opposite reasons, because it was colder, we decided to make only Rosso Di Valtellina. And I always call it the super Rosso, because all the Crus were in this bottle, and we didn't produce anything else. So we experiment in that vintage a longer maceration, try to get a little bit extra balance into the wines. Because we had a lot of acidity, very low alcohol, and we were trying to get a better balance into the wine.
Normally for the Rosso we were only doing 10, 15 days maximum maceration before 2014. And in that year we reached 65 days of maceration for the Rosso. And we noticed that it was so amazingly good, even the Rosso. And so we thought, maybe we made a mistake until before. And whenever we could, even before, we were doing the malolactic in presence of the skins, straight after the alcoholic fermentation. And doing this, you really get much more roundness into the wine, much more stability. And you get a wine that is much more harmonious from the very beginning.
I think we learned a lot from that vintage. And after '14 in fact we decided to experiment, and to go even further. Again, it's not a rule, but we try to be very flexible by the time we do vinify. And if we see that we keep seeing improvement, why not do a little bit longer. For example, in '18, nearly everything is above 130 days. Because that was a fabulous vintage, excellent skins, great maceration, great extraction. We could have been going even longer, but at some point we had to deliver the skins to the distillery. So we're kind of at breaking point.
Do you have an overall summary of the philosophy of winemaking at Ar.Pe.Pe.?
So first of all, the quality, you [make it] in the vineyard. So that's something the maestro, our father, was always telling us. If you work well in the vineyard, really you have to do very little in the cellar. And you have to try not to destroy the good quality in the cellar, to deliver the wine. That's the first thing. And doing this, it's a beautiful way of working. And normally we work with the natural yeast, because we have a lot of biodiversity also in terms of yeast. And funnily enough, also a lot of biodiversity of malolactic bacteria as well. Because we've never been having problems in the malolactic process.
And funnily enough, I can tell you a joke. Once there was a project going on locally, selecting some lacticus bacteria from the grapes. And they asked whether we wanted to try those. But the funny thing is that our own spontaneous skins were full of malolactic, and the small batch with the trial was not working so well. It was proof that we have plenty of spontaneous malolactic acid bacteria in the region, that we do not have to go and find any extra, because we don't need it.
Also what we like to do is to work with the lower sulfur as possible during the aging. Again, we cannot proceed without sulfur, and also the yeast are producing sulfur, so it cannot be without sulfur. But we always want to get the wines evolved, to the big wood, but in the right way.
And also, we are very happy that using Nomacorc, for example, it's fantastic, because controlling the amount of oxygen that you are getting through the entrance into the bottle, you can even control the amount of sulfur that you can use. And so we can minimize the amount of sulfur. And in fact, all our wines have an amount of sulfur that are below the biological ones. Because we are always below 80 milligram per liter. And so in this way, I think it's even beautiful, because when you open the wines, they are even more prompt and ready to drink, because they are less closed by the sulfur that is naturally there.
And the long aging, of course, it's what we love. The time is what we love most, when the vintage is so special. What we love is that you really get big details out of every single vineyard.