Sunday, November 25, 2007

Looking for Paradise in the Land of Inferno

The e-mails were crawling like snails towards beer. I was confirming my appointment with Nino Negri winery in the Valtellina. I wanted to spend some time with their legendary winemaker, Casimiro Maule.

“Yes, yes, we understand,” the e-mail assured. I worry when the Italians tell me they understand. “We will make every effort to assure your visit will show you a thorough picture of what the wines of the Valtellina are about.”

I had a late-morning appointment with Signore Maule, who is the hand, the voice and the spirit of a once-great wine region. I say it like that because the time I spent in the Valtellina, everyone I talked to spoke as if their moment had passed, generations ago. One can see the Valtellinese are still in shock over losing their place in the world wine market. It was huge in the first half of the 20th century, and somehow in the 1980’s it tanked, and they are still in purgatory over their loss. What happened? Where did that vision go blind?

A few hours with Casimiro and hopefully we would learn more about this lingering crisis in the Valtellina. Thankfully, we would also taste the greatness that still exists in their wines.

Chiavenna is a small area about 40 km northwest of Sondrio that gives the name to the local Nebbiolo, known as Chiavennasca. The wine is often regarded as a lighter, less formidable version of the more serious Barolo and Barbaresco wines from Piedmont.
I am not so sure of that. Yes, there are more producers of Nebbiolo in Piedmont, and, yes, they have been more visible in the last 25 years. That was about the time the market for Inferno, Grumello and Sassella took a back seat on the international market. According to Casimiro, when a Swiss company came in and bought the two largest wineries, Negri and Pelizzatti Perego, they decided to double the quantity of wine. At the turn of the 20th century, wines from Valtellina were imported to the USA, all through Europe, South America and were considered on a par with wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux. It was a golden period for this small, inaccessible region. Researchers believe this was the birthplace of the Nebbiolo vine and have been working with the local growers to save the older strains of the grape. The Piemontese see this area as a living laboratory for the revival of the forbears of the original Nebbiolo. The grape defines an area that reaches for the greatness of the past but cannot quite touch it. Yet.

My idea of the Valtellina was of this backwater, remote country where people spoke the ancient Ladino language and carried these huge baskets on their backs filled with grapes, along steep hillsides. The vision was one of maidens in folkloric dresses, singing country songs. Dark haired, curly and long, rustic, original, prehistoric.

As I looked from the road down into the town of Sondrio and saw the vines extended into the back yards of the modern apartment building, I realized that my preconceptions were based on the overly romanticized versions I had read in the older books by the likes of Cyril Ray, Charles Bode and T.A. Layton.

The wines suffer from the ghosts of the past, but also the economies of today. The dollar is weak, so an obscure Grumello or Sassella can seem out of range, approaching a retail price of $30.00. But labor-intensive is an understatement, and though the fields are not littered with virgins in braids anymore, someone has to do the work of gathering the grapes. The work is shared by local and immigrant labor from the once-Eastern bloc, not machines.

How did they lose their supremacy in the import market? In my opinion, greed was the force that doubled the quantity and halved the quality. The Swiss had to answer to their stockholders for the profitability and growth of their investment. The wines became weak and insipid. I remember an ancient bottle of wine from the Valtellina which was fashioned as a precursor to the IGT reds of today, a funny-shaped bottle with a name to capture the tongue of the American pronouncing it, with a low price and a lower quality. When I mentioned such a wine to Casimiro, he smiled and recalled the folly of those days.

Eventually the Swiss company tired of losing money and sold the wineries. They liquidated some back to the Pelizzatti Perego family. The Negri winery and much of the vineyards, they sold to Gruppo Italiano Vini.

Casimiro Maule is from Trento and graduated from the enology school at San Michele. He got a call from Negri 35 years ago, asking him to come to work as their winemaker. Casimiro is a man who could be as busy as Ferrini or Chioccioli or Cotarella. But he decided to go to Chiuro. The only problem, he didn’t know where Chiuro was, even though it was less than 100 miles from Trento. That was how inaccessible the Valtellina was to the mind of the Italians.

Casimiro found his way there, and along the route of time he made his life and his reputation. A tall man with large hands and a warm gaze. Winemaker of the year in 2007 by Gambero Rosso. Yes, his wines do well in their reviews, and yes they are precious.

What really impressed me – here is a man who could spread himself across Italy, consulting and building his treasury along with his reputation. Here is a man who decided to stay put, focus his efforts and work to bring back the glory of the wines from the Valtellina. In the time I spent tasting many wines from the area, the wines from Casimiro and Negri were luscious, focused, elegant wines. Wines that understand the modern tastes. Yes, there is fruit and a refrain of wood in the formula.

But I also tasted in many other cellars. Some were infected with TCA, making wines that were out of balance. Others were just too rustic, way too much volatile acidity through the roof of my mouth. Recalling the wines tasted with Casimiro in his office that afternoon confirmed that he is the one bringing prominence back to the wines of a region that had gone into a deep slumber. It takes a larger-than-life person to make something like this happen, and that person, Casimiro Maule, appeared on the doorstep 35 years ago. A life of meaning that has resuscitated a whole region, stopped history and reset the clock. They might just find their way back into the Promised Land.

Valtellina Tasting Notes

1 comment:

andrefass said...

great job Alfonso.
Meeting Casimiro Maule is a life experience. Huge charisma. A person you would listen to for hours. Not only history of wine but history of a part of Italy.

Real Time Analytics