Hidden treasures, wines from Valtellina: Balgera

Like in every craft you have craftsmen who prefer working the classical way according to traditions and others prefer searching/ trying new things. In wine making this is exactly the same. That is why during my last trip to Valtellina I was very keen on visiting one of each. Rivetti & Lauro to see what result blending the Nebbiolo (Chiavennasca) with non autochthon grapes would give and Balgera to see how Valtellina wines are made according to tradition.  Which one I prefer? It all depends on the occasion when drinking a particular wine. Sometimes I prefer drinking myself a ‘classically made Sfurzat’, other times I feel like going for a Nebbiolo blend wine… There’s no wrong or right, rather a choice for every occasion and somebody’s taste 🙂

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Valtellina DOC is a magnificent series of terraced vineyards on the southern hillside of the Rhaetian Alps!! A beautiful and unique landscape  (I can’t say it enough as my love for this region is enormous) at an altitude of 750 meters above sea level. Viticultur in Valtellina is often called ‘heroic viticulture’ as no machines can be used during harvest due to the location of the terraces that are sometimes on very steep hillsides.

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Azienda Agricola Balgera is one of the oldest winemakers in Valtellina and was founded in 1885 by Pietro Balgera. Balgera, that now is run by the 5th generation, calls itself ‘protector of traditions’ as they find it important to continue making the product(s) that has put Valtellina on the map. I say tradition, they basically combine the ancient ‘know how’  with the modern winemaking techniques.  What Paolo Balgera offers is wines of an exceptional elegance, great structure and exquisite aromatics of fragrance!!

Balgera since 1885

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Something both winemakers I’ve met have in common is the pride and passion for what they do!! Passionate men/women are always the best ones to learn from and producers of the best end product. A remarkable detail is that Balgera keeps the wines in large barrels for up to ten years before bottling, yet they are fresh and delicious (you would think they wouldn’t be after all that time). When I asked Paolo why he sometimes waits up to ten years to bottle wine he replied “I bottle my wines when they are ready, if this takes one or more years extra this is how it shall be”. What I understand from this is that for Paolo a wine can only leave towards the consumers when they are “perfect” and not a moment sooner. No matter if it is a ‘regular’ Sassella or a top bottle of Sfurzat that a consumer opens, the experience must equally be exceptional. I believe this is the key to be a good winemaker.

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When you taste the wines you clearly taste the craftsmanship. Their Sassella for example ( a Nebbiolo, Rossola Nera and Pignola blend) is a beautiful expressive, long, fresh wine combining acidity with depth of flavor. What makes this wine as nice is probably because of the process it goes through. After the harvest the grapes get destemmed and lightly crushed, where after the fermentation is carried out with indigenous yeasts. The Sassella is macerated for a total of around 15 days, then spends a year in tank and up to 10 more years in large (3,000L) barrels. To think this is not even their “top” wine and yet they do take their time making it.

Sassella

A wine whose name always intrigued me or rather it’s name was the Inferno which basically means ‘hell’ 🙂  not that I’m a Satan worshiper, but when I was as small boy I had a lot of imagination… anyway the reason why it is called inferno is because of the particular heat found here; the soil is also different from the other zones of the Valtellina in that it is chalky, rather than a morenic combination. The inferno is a lovely wine with excellent acidity

But my all time favorite ( no matter what) in the region is the Sfurzat or Sforzato (100% Nebbiolo aka Chiavenasca)!! Full, warm and persistent, very structured and yet very fine with hints of violets and dried blackberry jam but a very complex… just how I like my wines. We did also taste other wines, but nothing beats my beloved Sforzato 🙂

Sforzato

I hope that during my next trip to Valtellina (which is probably very soon) I’ll be discovering more hidden treasures of this wonderful region!

Hidden treasures: Wines from Valtellina

I like wines from all over the world, I’m not a wine snob nor am I too chauvinistic but most of my preferred wines come from Italy 🙂 . That I’m a big fan of Valpolicella wines you already found out when I spoke to you about my wine trip through the Valpolicella wine region. The wine region that is on top of my list (and I have to admit also lays closest to my heart) is Valtellina! It is not only my preferred region because my family roots are here (most of my family lives in Valtellina), but also because this region produces the most wonderful wines!!

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For many people it is still an unknown region and lots of times a forgotten region, unfairly if you ask me. I’m also not sure why this region isn’t more well known? Valtellina is a small region in the moutains in the North of Lombardy somewhere inbetween the Como lake and the Swiss border. Valtellina is mostly known amongst ski lovers as Valtellina has some of the most renowned ski areas in the world with towns like Bormio and Livigno (also known as it is taxfree) as the most famous.  Every time I visit this region I fall in love with it over and over again.

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Bormio 2000

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The wines in the Valtellina region are mostly made with the Chiavennasca grape that is better known as Nebbiolo… YES indeed the grapes used to make that other Italian beauty called Barolo 🙂 . In this region however the wines go with names like Sassella, Inferno, Valgella and Sforzato which are bascially the names of area’s between  Villapunta and Tirano with exception for Sforzato. The Sforzato wine is the Valtellina version of Valpolicella’s Amarone. Sforzato gets made in the same way by using partially ‘dried’ grapes aka the appassimento method (The drying process concentrates sugars and results in higher alcohol wines).

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The wine estate that has put the Valtellina wines on the map on an International level (and I think everybody agrees on this) is Nino Negri. I’ve known Nino Negri my whole life as my dad also used to sell their wines in his restaurant… mainly because back then you didn’t find any other producers from the region in Belgium, but also that to my opinion they were and still are one of the best producers in the area. I wouldn’t be able to name a favorite from their gamma as I like all, but if you are a wine lover do try their Le Tense, Mazer, Sfurzat and if the budget allows it the 5 stelle which is an indescribable beautiful wine. It does warm up my heart that more and more wines from other wine producers from Valtellina found their way to Belgium  or even to other countries all over the world. All or most Valtellina winemakers have joined forces and created a consortium that represents the whole wine region. I see this as a positive thing as together they are stronger then separately.

Nino Negri

5 stelle

When I am in the region I do always try to taste as many “new” producers (or maybe just ones that I didn’t know about). A few weeks ago (as you might have see on my FB or Instagram) I was in Valtellina for a family visit with my dad. Normally my babygirl was coming along, but unfortunately she became ill the night before leaving… so she stayed at home with my wife. I was sad she couldn’t come, but at the other hand this way we had the liberty of visiting some wine estates 🙂 🙂 If it were up to me I would have visited many more, but our main purpose for travelling to Valtellina was to visit family and the vineyard visits had to happen in between the family visits.

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Initially I planned to visit 3 vineyards: Rivetti & Lauro, Balgera and Menegola. However we sadly didn’t manage to visit the last (Menegola) due to time issues, but I’m really sad about it because I was really looking forward to it… next time without any doubt!!!

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The diffrences between the Rivetti & Lauro estate and Balgera couldn’t have been bigger. Rivetti is only producing wines for 3 years, whereas Balgera was one of the first estates to make wine in the region and it now already the 5th generation of winemakers. Balgera is rather a classical style wine maker who respects the traditions, Rivetti on the other hand is a more modern estate that experiments with new methods and grapes…. I wouldn’t say that I prefer one over the other. They both have a different style of wine and depending on the circumstances I’ll prefer drinking one over the other 🙂 but I guess that’s the case with every wine

Balgera rivetti & lauro

To be continued….

Refined mountain food

The connection between mountains and food doesn’t lead to the thought of refined food (and surely not ‘light’ food), but it is possible! As you might know, my family in Italy comes from beautiful Valtellina (North of Lombardy) located in the heart of the Italian Alps close to the Swiss border. It is also nice to know that even after 31 years I travel here, my family always succeeds in letting us discover great new places in the area… thanks to my zia Loredana and Barbara this year’s discovery was restaurant Fracia. Ristorante Fracia thanks its name because of its location in the middle of the Nino Negri Fracia vines. As the vines are located in the altitude you can imagine the beautiful panoramic views you have up there. The moment arrived at the entrance of this restaurant, I already had a feeling it would be good (see picture below)

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Ristorante Fracia will prove to you mountain food can be lighter and more refined than you think! What ristorante Fracia tries to do is serve dishes most people in the mountains wouldn’t be eating every day and serves a few traditional dishes with a twist. The red wire between all dishes is the use of fresh ingredients, homemade products and if possible most of them local! FYI me and my dad enjoyed our meal so much we returned the day after we had our family lunch. So I guess we liked it 🙂

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A dish on the menu and you should try when you are in Valtellina is Pizzoccheri (slightly heavy) that also happens to be one of my favourites. I didn’t have at Fracia as I already had it at my aunt Barbara’s place, but if it is as good as the other dishes you’re safe. As we ate there 2 days in a row I think we tried almost all the dishes on the menu :-). Feast your eyes on the dishes we had…

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Although all dishes might look simple, but if you want to prepare them in the correct way it is more difficult than you might think! Our compliments to chef Luca Cantoni as he did a really good job  of making us an even bigger fan of the region than we already were. The biggest surprise was definitely the fresh tuna, I liked  the fact that  Chef Luca combined this non mountain product with local ingredients like the the finferli mushrooms . BTW the tuna itself was cooked with perfection!! Damn, this is the reason why I don’t write as many blogposts anymore as I used too…I always become sooooo hungry when I write blogposts like this (especially seeing the pictures) with a result I will go out to eat more and my intent to eat less is all out of the window 😉 😉 Aaah well you only live once right?!

The cherry on the cake are the wines they have at ristorante Fracia (or in Valtellina in general). I don’t want to seem too patriotic, but the wines from Valtellina are in my top 3 of favourite wines (with as preferred the Sfurzat). Something many people don’t know is that the grapes used for the wines here are the Nebbiolo grapes. These are the same grapes used for the Barolo wine, only in Valtellina they call the grapes chiavennasca (just a synonym). For me the Sassella or Sfurzat is in my eyes a better price/quality product to buy than a Barolo as Barolo tends to be very expensive (what doens’t mean I don’t like them, as I do a lot!! Just a bit pricy from time to time if you want a good one). It is a fact that the other wines (from other Italian regions or Champagnes) on the winelist are also great, but I’m of the opinion it is always better to taste the local products… So go for a nice Sassella or Sfurzat (or a Sfurzat 5 Stelle, which is basically the top of the bill). We had the Sfurzat 🙂 just FYI 😉

I do hope you guys one day find the time to travel to Valtellina and enjoy the best this region has to offer of which Fracia is definitely one!! (Let me know if you want a few more) If I would be living in Valtellina Fracia would be what Pazzo is for me in Antwerp (somewhere I tend to be a lot).

Ristorante Fracia:

Address: Località Fracia – 23036 Teglio (SO), Italy

Phone n°: +39 0342 482671