In Negri’s Inferno

Extreme Nebbiolo, Part 1: Harvesting by helicopter in Alpine Italy
Nov 24, 2014

Casimiro Maule, tall and elegant in a pin-striped suit and supple black shoes, races across some of Northern Italy's most rugged terraced vineyards like a mountain goat. 

The 65-year-old winemaker, who over the past four decades has led Nino Negri through ups and downs to its place as one of Italy's leading quality producers, darts over a makeshift plank bridge and bounds over a series of ditches where the vertiginous terrace walls have eroded.

"Attenzione!" he warns younger visitors trying to keep up in hiking boots.

It is end-of-October harvest, and we are traversing the ominously named Inferno—one of five wine zones in Italy's steep Valtellina valley. Its dramatic 25 miles of vineyards cling to the lower slopes of the Alps that form the border with Switzerland.

The Valtellina produces light, acid- and mineral-laced "mountain Nebbiolo" (also called Chiavennasca) that's been compared to Pinot Noir from Burgundy, as well as a more concentrated Amarone-style Sforzato, or Sfursat, made from partially dried grapes.

Each vineyard area has a style. And Inferno is known for relatively "hot" wines from tough, rocky soils baked by summer temperatures above 110° F. It can also be perilous for harvesters, who still carry the grapes on their backs.

Maule points out the rusted tower and fallen cable from a 1940s-era motorized lift that, up until about a decade ago, was used to take grapes to the valley floor. "It was difficult to use and dangerous," he says. 

Yet, carrying grapes out to the nearest road was time-consuming and also risky. So, Maule came up with another solution: airlifting grapes out from inaccessible areas by helicopter.

Today, at the edges of some terraces, bathed in afternoon mountain light, are pairs of plastic bins holding the day's haul. Each pair is wrapped in thick netting and weighs more than half a ton.

A helicopter rented for 23 euros a minute (about $30) arrives from the east trailing a long, thick cord and hook. As the chopper arrives above us, it creates a fierce windstorm of dust and leaves. A pair of vineyard workers hustles to attach the hook to the haul, and the helicopter quickly rises and banks away.

"This is the most extreme terroir of Northern Italy," says Maule, who knows it well.

Nino Negri was founded in 1897 in the Negri family's home and cellars, built from a medieval fortress. In 1971, the founder's son, Carluccio, recruited the young Maule (a top enology school graduate) by traveling to Trento to talk with Maule's mamma.

The early 1970s were boom days for the Valtellina, which produced rivers of often low-grade wine for Switzerland. A Swiss company bought Negri and two other major producers, but by the end of that decade, the market collapsed and many local vineyards were abandoned. In 1986, Negri was sold to the conglomerate Gruppo Italiano Vini.

As a forward-thinking enologist, Maule recognized something before his corporate bosses: "We had to make a big move from quantity to quality." He started by slashing Negri's production on estate vineyards and by convincing small contract growers to produce smaller amounts of better grapes.

The wine that convinced Mauro that the Valtellina could reach greatness was his first 5 Stelle Sfursat, in 1983. Made from grapes dried in vineyard huts for three months, after vinification, it was aged for 20 months in new French oak barriques.

"I understood we could produce a great wine," Maule says of 5 Stelle. (The 2010 scored 92 points and is priced at $81.) "Then the whole winery followed."

Today, Negri's 18 wines are grouped in two lines—a traditional one of long-aging in large casks, and a modern one with shorter fermentations followed by aging in smaller, Bordeaux-style barriques.

Making the entire lineup requires a good harvest. And 2014—a poor, cold-summer vintage—has been one of the worst in decades. That means quality producers will make fewer wines to maintain their standards.

"There are very few grapes worthy of a great wine," says the winemaker who has experienced more vintages than anyone here. "So we have to choose what we produce."

Coming Dec. 8, "Extreme Nebbiolo, Part 2: Tradition at Ar.Pe.Pe."


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