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Language barriers

Published:  23 July, 2008

It may be hard to believe, but Lombardy, the most industrial region in Italy (its capital Milan is also the capital of the Italian press, Italian culture, Italian commerce and finance, and the fashion world), is also one of the most important Italian regions for agriculture. Not only does it produce grain, milk and cheese, but it also produces wine.

Many of the provinces of Lombardy (Milan, Bergamo, Brescia, Como, Mantua, Pavia, Sondrio) are wine producing, and its average annual production total is slightly over one million hectolitres per annum, one third of that of Piedmont and level with Sardinia (in 2004). At Vinitaly 2005, Lombardy was even represented by a mega-pavilion of its own, with 200 producers. The region has a problem, though: vinous Lombardy may be important on paper, but it moves forward at two distinct speeds, speaking two very different languages.

On the one hand there are the two zones associated with quality, Franciacorta and Valtellina, which have succeeded in securing a respectable market within Italy and to some extent abroad. These zones speak the language of renewal, of intelligent modernity, and have learned how to comport themselves on various markets. Between these zones is Oltrep Pavese, which is trying to cultivate an international image while remaining very much the wine source for nearby Milan. At the other extreme from Franciacorta and Valtellina are little denominations like Valcalepio, Cellatica, Colli Mantovani, Botticino, Capriano del Colle, Garda Classico and San Colombano, whose wines not only remain almost entirely of local interest but which communicate in a language calculated to condemn them forever to that fate.

Valcalepio, a little DOC in the province of Bergamo, its whites based on Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, its reds on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, is a case in point. The Valcalepio consortium presented itself at Vinitaly with the slogan: 'Merlot + Cabernet = Valcalepio DOC'. This was hardly likely to cause a stampede in Bergamo's direction, given the large number of wine-producing zones in the world capable of making a similar claim, most of which would lay greater claim to recognisability than Valcalepio.

Lombardy can count 15 DOCs and three DOCGs (Franciacorta, Valtellina Superiore and Valtellina Sforzato), comprising 80% of total regional production. From 23,000 hectares (ha) of vineyard are produced 85 million bottles, but when it comes to the numbers game one zone dominates: Oltrep Pavese, with 14,000ha and (in 2004) 440,000 hectolitres of wine produced. The other zones are much smaller: 2,150ha for Franciacorta, 'Italy's little Champagne', in the province of Brescia; 1,250 mountainous hectares for Valtellina; 1,400ha in the area of Mantua (generally better known for salame, Grana Padano cheese and Rigoletto than for wine), comprising DOCs Garda, Garda Colli Mantovani and Lambrusco Mantovano. And there are areas smaller still for Garda Classico (950ha), Lugana (700ha), San Colombano (160ha), Capriano del Colle (54ha), Cellatica and Botticino (43ha each).

These denominations are not only small, with quality levels in some in need of improvement, but they are mainly with the exception of Lugana, which has managed to create for itself something of an international image among tourists to Lake Garda with its Trebbiano-based whites geared strictly to local markets. In any case, Lugana is only technically in Lombardy, being considered as it is generally a member of the Veronese portfolio.

This is why, in speaking of the wines of Lombardy, it is necessary to concentrate on only three zones: Oltrep Pavese, south of Milan, on the border with Piedmont; Franciacorta, halfway between Milan and Verona; and Valtellina, in the north on the frontier with Switzerland.

Oltrep Pavese

This is a large, hilly region, so named because from the point of view of Milan it is 'beyond' (oltre) the Po river in the province of Pavia. Perhaps Oltrep Pavese's chief claim to fame is as the major producer, in Italy, of Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir). Unfortunately, this heritage, the roots of which go back to the 19th century, has been taken rather for granted, Oltrep Pavese Pinot Nero never having been the subject either of clonal studies or of zonal research to identify the most suitable growing areas. It is used today as much for the production of sparkling wines as it is for still red wines. These are wines that, in their most superior versions (which are not entirely lacking: consider the wines of Tenuta Mazzolino, Doria and De Cardenas), need much time years even in bottle in order to express their character and the so-called 'genius of terroir'. They therefore struggle to find their best expression in youth, which is why such a large part of the production of Oltrep Pavese Pinot Nero is vinified white for use as base wine for the frizzante or spumante wines much consumed in Milan.

Oltrep Pavese's other big problem, apart from an excess of vine varieties cultivated and a surfeit of large co-operatives mainly churning out low-price wines with few pretensions about quality, consists in the difficulty of delineating precise strategies. Oltrep Pavese's consortium has proposed a sort of quality pyramid with, at the top, Pinot Nero (vinified in red or used for Champagne-method sparkling wine), Rhein Riesling and Barbera, followed by the other wine types. Unfortunately, this tends to penalise the more interesting wines of the zone, such as Buttafuoco and Oltrep Pavese Rosso Riserva, made with a blend of Barbera, Croatina, Pinot Nero and minor local grapes like Vespolina and Uva Rara. The insistence on producing Blanc de Noirs wines is a mistake, especially when they lack the balancing influence of Chardonnay.


With a mere 40 years of history behind it (the first Champagne-method wines were made in the early 1960s), Franciacorta has rapidly confirmed its position as one of the two capitals (with Trentino) of Italian metodo classico wines. This is due to the efforts of houses like Ca'del Bosco, Bellavista, Cavalleri and Uberti, which have established themselves as brands thanks to the constant quality of their 'bubbles'. The weak point of the area, which also turns out good still wines Chardonnay- or Pinot Bianco-based whites, Bordeaux-style reds has been the limited quantity of bottles produced, but this seems today to have been resolved. In 2004, production of Franciacorta DOCG (100% Blanc de Blancs Chardonnay, or with a bit of Pinot Bianco, or blended with Pinot Nero) totalled 5,300,000 bottles. According to the forecasts of the consortium, which speaks of a steady increase of 10% per year, by 2010 there will be a production capacity of 10 million bottles of Franciacorta.

The forte of the Franciacorta DOCG lies particularly in the style called Satn (crmant), which successfully combines elegance and sheer drinkability. There are, too, a few more ambitious cuves, generally vintage wines like Ca'del Bosco's Cuve Anna Maria Clementi, Uberti's Magnificentia and Cumar, and Bellavista's Gran Cuve Pas Oper. These are the highest expressions of a zone which, without in any way wishing to ape Champagne, which would in any case be ridiculous, has found an identity that enables it to measure itself without disgrace against the great French model.


Last but not least comes Lombardy's Valtellina, with its 1,064 vine growers every one of whom deserves a monument for the tenacity and self-denial with which they pursue their work in conditions of extreme difficulty, on steeply sloping terraced vineyards that require an appreciably higher number of work-hours than do vineyards of the plain and that render almost impossible the use of any form of mechanisation and its 28 bottling cellars associated with the consortium. This zone, with its 1,250ha of spectacular vineyards, deserves an article to itself.

The king of Valtellina is a vine variety that itself is very difficult to tame, Nebbiolo (here called Chiavennasca). The wines, thanks to a very different set of geological factors (sandy granitic rock) and to a tendency to high fixed acidity, are quite different from the great Nebbiolos of Piedmont. They are characterised by their diversity, capacity to exalt finesse and elegance of perfume, hints of blackcurrant and raspberry, minerality and sapidity, solid tannin structure, and freshness and natural energy (which come out in extraordinary old-style wines like the Valtellina Superiore Sassella Rocce Rosse Riserva of Pelizzatti Perego, the Valtellina Superiore Sassella Riserva of Rainoldi and the wines of the Fondazione Fojanini).

But these wines appear under threat from a tendency to seek wines of greater concentration that are richer and softer and riper, deeper in colour and more impressive in a tasting (but perhaps less so in drinking). The new wave in Valtellina, represented by houses like Negri (the largest in the zone), but also by smaller producers like Fay, Conti Sertoli Salis and Prevostini, is turning to more modern methods of vinification and maturation including barriques of medium to high toast, as distinct from the large botti of Slavonian oak on which the reputation of Valtellina Superiore, with its five sub-zones (Sassella, Grumello, Inferno, Valgella and Maroggia) as well as Sforzato (made by the same method as Amarone in Verona, by the drying for several months of the grapes) was built.

The debate here, as elsewhere in Italy, is between those who would maintain the uniqueness of the local style and those who, claiming 'unique' wines do not sell, would tend towards styles of more international recognisability. An ideal synthesis between tradition and innovation is represented by the house of Triacca, whose wines reflect important changes made in the vineyard (such as an element of drying on the plant, for the Valtellina Superiore Prestigio, and new methods of training) and which has turned to ageing in a mix of woods, some small, new and French, some large and more traditional. The result could be said to be the best range of wines in Valtellina today.