A Few Years Ago, I wrote a long introduction to Valcalepio, the Taglio Bordolese (a Merlot-Cabernet blend) made in the foothills behind Bergamo. This year I stopped at the Valcalepio stand at Vinitaly, and Sergio Cantoni, the consulting enologist who directs the Consorzio and advises many of the wineries, suggested I taste back through a number of vintages of Valcalepio Rosso. Which I did, and it was extremely interesting, because the wines held up very well. Before we get to them, the overview I wrote a few years ago, which is still current:
What do you do, especially given the current infatuation with autochthonous varietals, if the only really exceptional red grape your region boasts is an unusual Moscato that yields tiny amounts of a fascinating sweet wine with a stunning bouquet?
You can ask for advice, and one of the Valcalepio producers I talked with a few years ago told me that he did go to see Luigi Veronelli, the pioneering Italian food and wine writer who first recognized the importance of Sassicaia many years ago. Since Veronelli lived in Bergamo, and could look out in the direction of the Valcalepio production zone from the city's ramparts, asking him seemed like a good idea.
"He said, 'Plant Nebbiolo!'" the producer told me, adding that, given the success the nearby Valtellina has with Nebbiolo, the advice seemed sound. He paused and shuddered: "The wine was horrible."
The other option is to continue along the path forged by one's ancestors, who, faced with the same problem more than a century ago, decided to plant French varietals, in particular Cabernet and Merlot. Why go with the French? Because the French have been working to improve them for centuries -- they are, after all, the backbone of Bordeaux -- and in obtaining quality also obtained consistency. In other words, Cabernet and Merlot are much more likely to give good results in a new area than are the more finicky Italian varietals, say the above-mentioned Nebbiolo.
And it was precisely this reasoning that led the Cantina Sociale Bergamasca, the local cooperative winery, to settle upon a Bordeaux-style Cabernet-Merlot blend for the red wine when they requested the recognition of the Valcalepio Appellation in the mid-70s.
This was a time of dramatic change in the countryside around Bergamo: Industrialization was in full swing and the tenant farmers were abandoning the land they had farmed for generations in favor of newly created factory jobs; as a result the landowners, many of whom had no agricultural experience, found themselves forced either to roll up their sleeves and administer their estates directly, or to sell to others interested in taking up farming.
Given the state of flux, it would have been quite easy for the different producers to go off on a variety of tangents, as it were, and had this happened the region could well have suffered the sort of agricultural collapse that swept though Chianti in the early 70s. Instead, the establishment of the new appellation, coupled with the support and advice provided by the Cantina Sociale, helped stabilize the agricultural economy and lay the foundations for its future development.
The initial appellation allowed for the production of two wines:
* Valcalepio Rosso, which is 25-60% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the remainder Merlot; minimum alcohol content is 11.5%, minimum aging is a year, at least three months of which in wood, and maximum yield is 100 quintals/hectare.
* Valcalepio Bianco, which is a blend of 55-80% Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay, with the remainder Pinot Grigio; minimum alcohol content is 11.5%, and maximum yield is 90 quintals/hectare.
In 1993 two more wines were introduced:
* Valcalepio Rosso Riserva, which is 25-60% Cabernet Sauvignon and the remainder Merlot; minimum alcohol content is 12.5%, minimum aging is 3 years, at least one of which in wood, and maximum yield is 100 quintals/hectare.
* Valcalepio Moscato Passito, which is made from the Moscato di Scanzo grape; it has a minimum potential alcohol content of 17%, of which 15% must be effective, have a sugar content of 30-80 grams/liter, be aged at least 18 months, and a maximum yield of 6500 quintals/hectare, or 6000 if it's labeled Moscato di Scanzo, which can only be made in the township of Scanzo.
"Well and good," I hear you say, "but why should I be interested in an obscure Bordeaux-Style blend from Italy?"
Because both Cabernet and Merlot have adapted nicely to the hills around Bergamo, and the wines are pleasant, especially the Valcalepio Rosso, which tends to combine nice fruit with lively acidity that keeps the wine on its toes and makes it a good companion to meat-based pasta dishes, light stews, and grilled or roasted meats, including fattier cuts such as roast chicken with the skin or even ribs.
Valcalepio Rosso Superiore is also interesting, though here I have some reservations; it is, as one would expect from the word Superiore, more powerful than the Valcalepio Base, but there isn't quite as much a unity of vision among the producers. Some simply worked to achieve greater concentration, depth, and finesse within the pattern established by the Valcalepio Base, and these wines I liked. Others instead bulked up their Valcalepio Superiore, combining considerable concentration with equally considerable small wood, and in doing so achieved heavy handed and rather lumbering results.
Valcalepio Bianco can also be quite enjoyable, though to be frank, I found them to be less distinctive than the Valcalepio Rosso Base -- the international varietals used to grow them are perfectly happy in their new surroundings, but haven't really developed a local flavor. This for the official Valcalepio blend, which consists of Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio.
Bergamo does have some local varietals, however, and the Cantina Sociale Bergamasca is experimenting with an autochthonous white grape called Manzoni that favorably impressed me. I hope other producers will begin to experiment with it too -- they could find themselves with a good, distinctive wine to bring to market, and those are always nice to have.
Finally, the passiti made from Moscato di Scanzo are extremely interesting, and if you like passiti you will want to seek them out.
In short, the foothills behind the Bergamo are becoming a wine producing area. Much of the credit for this transformation is due to Count Grumelli Pedrocca Bonaventura, President of both the Cantina Sociale Bergamasca and the Consorzio Tutela Valcalepio, whose vision has guided the development of the Valcalepio Appellation. And to Sergio Cantoni, Director of the Consorzio, whose experience as an enologist has allowed him to help the winemakers improve the quality of their wines. And improve they have, since I first tasted through the region a few years ago. It's obvious that many winemakers are still getting a feel for their land, and I did encounter some wines that were technically deficient in the course of tasting this spring, but the average level has risen considerably, and I expect it to continue on this path in future years.
Thus ends my introduction written in 2006. And here are the wines tasted at Vinitaly, in April 2010:
Cantina Sociale Bergamasca Valcalepio Rosso 2008
Delicate ruby with pale pink rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with cherry fruit supported by dusky shadowy accents and some vegetal greenishness, and also some fairly bright vegetal acidity. On the palate it's light, with clean fresh berry fruit supported by some sour berry fruit acidity and by smooth sweet tannins that flow into a clean slightly sour finish. A simple, direct wine that will work nicely with first course dishes, and also with simple grilled meats and similar.
Medolago Albani Valcalepio Rosso DOC 2007
Deep cherry ruby with black reflections and cherry rim. The bouquet is fresh, with rather pungent berry fruit supported by greenish accents and some cedar. Still developoing, but pleasant to sniff. On the palate it's ample and soft, with rich fairly sweet jammy cherry fruit supported by delicate raspberry acidity and by a fair amount of warmth, while the tannins are very smooth and again sweet, almost sugary and flow into a delicate fairly sweet 8for a dry wine) berry fruit finish with some vanilla accents. Pleasant in a softer key, and will drink nicely with drier meats -- pork loin for example. It's quite ready now.
Castello Degli Angeli Barbariccia Valcalepio Rosso DOC 2006
Deep cherry ruby with black reflections and brilliant ruby highlights; the rim pales to white. The bouquet is powerful, with a fair amount of greenish cedar that does battle with greenish vegetal accents and red berry fruit, not quite winning, but certainly holding its own. A lot of oak, but nicely dosed and works well with the fruit. On the palate it's ample and quite smooth, with rich cherry fruit supported by some cedary accents and bright berry fruit acidity, while the tannins are pleasingly silky and flow into a fairly long berry fruit finish with some sweetish accents. Quite pleasant, and, because of the sweetness in the finish, will work well with succulent stews or roasts, including spicier dishes such as goulash. Worth seeking out.
Note: I also tasted the 2001 vintage of this wine.
Il Cipresso Bartolomeo Valcalepio Rosso Riserva DOC 2006
Deep cherry ruby with black reflections and cherry rim. The bouquet is intense, and stil quite young, with red berry fruit supported by considerable warmth and some penetrating acidity, with underlying pencil shavings and spice. On the palate it's ample and quite smooth, with moderately intense berry fruit supported by smooth sweet tannins and moderate acidity. A more delicate expression, and it's a touch more settled than I might have liked.
Cantina Sociale Bergamasca Akros Valcalepio Rosso Riserva DOC 2005
Deep black almandine ruby with black reflections and almandine rim. The bouquet is powerful, with rich prune laced berry fruit supported by greenish cedar and a fair amount of alcohol, mingled with dusky accents that bring dappled shade to mind. Quite a bit to say, and still quite young. On the palate it's ample, with rich prune cherry fruit supported by smooth sweet tannins that display slight pencil shaving bitterness, and by deft sour plum acidity that flows into a clean slightly sour berry fruit finish that's fairly long, settling into lasting warmth. Pleasant, and will work quite nicely with roasts or rich stews, from leg of lamb through stewed boar or venison. Worth seeking out.
Il Calepino Surie Valcalepio Rosso Riserva 2005
Elegant black almandine with black reflections and white rim. The bouquet is intense, with fairly sweet bef laced with cedar that balances the fruit, and some deft vegetal accents as well. Nice balance and harmonious. On the palate it's full and soft, with rich cherry fruit that gains direction from bright raspberry acidity, while the tannins are smooth and soft, with a slight vanilla underpinning, and flow into a clean fresh berry fruit finish that's fairly long. Pleasant, in a smooth soft (but not settled) key, and will drink well with roasts or stews. It also has the capacity to age well for another 5 years, though I found myself enjoying its freshness.
Collezione Tallarini San Giovannino Valcalepio Riserva Rosso DOC 2005
Deep black almandine with black reflections and almandine rim. The bouquet is ample, with rich cherry prune fruit supported by cedar and hints of cumin and sandalwood with some underlying sweetness. Nice balance and depth, and elegant. On the palate it's ample and rich, with pleasant cherry plum fruit supported by bright sour berry fruit acidity -- not quite red currant but that directions and by sweet tannins that have a splintery burr and flow into a fairly long fruit laced finish with tannic underpinning. Graceful, and will drink nicely with grilled meats, including -- thanks to the acidity -- fattier things such as lamb chops, and also with hearty roasts or stews. It also has the capacity to age for another 5-8 years at least. Because of its acidity and the splinteriness of the tannins it's a wine I would pour with foods rather than drink by the glass.
Medolago Albani I Due Lauri Valcalepio Rosso Riserva 2006
Deep black almandine ruby with black reflections and cherry rim. The bouquet is fresh, and still developing, but reveals dusky prune and berry fruit supported by some greenish accents and underbrush, with underlying fairly sweet cedar. Nice balance and depth, though it speaks quietly now -- one has to cup one's ear. On the palate it's ample, with rich cherry plum fruit that gains roundness from slight sweetness, and is supported by a combination of prune acidity, and by smooth tannins that have a dusky pencil saving bitterness to them, and flow into a clean fairly fruit laced finish that becomes drier as the tannins emerge with the fading of the fruit. It's a food wine, and will work quite well with succulent red meats, in particular roasts and stews.
La Tordela Campo Roccoli Vecchi Valcalepio Rosso Riserva DOC 2003
Fairly deep almandine with black reflections and almandine rim fading to orange. The bouquet is intense, and though not overripe has something about it that makes me think hot vintage; the fruit is sour berry fruit and it's supported by fairly intense leathery balsamic accents that also reveal some sage and mint as the wine opens, and fairly intense but not overly strong alcohol. Some petroleum too. On the palate it's ample and quite smooth, with ample sour cherry fruit supported by moderate acidity and by full very sweet tannins that flow into a clean slightly balsamic finish with some polished leather accents. It has held up very well, and is pleasant to drink, though it is the child of a hot vintage, and this comes out strongly on the palate in the softness of the acidity and the sweetness of the tannins. In terms of food wine pairings, I would go with drier meats.
Cantina Sociale Bergamasca Riserva della Casta Valcalepio Rosso Riserva DOC 2001
Deep black almandine with black reflections and almandine rim. The bouquet is mature, with some leaf tobacco and underbrush mingled with spice and some leathery acidity, also dried flowers and hints of wood smoke. Nice depth and pleasant in a mature key. On the palate it's ample, quite smooth, and still fresh, with rich cherry fruit supported by smooth sweet tannins and rather graceful berry fruit acidity that does have slight leathery overtones and flows into a clean fairly long sour berry fruit finish. Pleasant, and has held up very well; it's not at all tired, and should you have a bottle it will drink nicely with hearty foods; I might be tempted to pair it with a rich stew with polenta.
Castello Degli Angeli Barbaciccia Valcalepio Rosso DOC 2001
(See the 2006 above)
Deep black almandine with black reflections and almandine rim. The bouquet is fairly intense, with leathery berry fruit laced with leaf tobacco and spice with some cedar as well, and some sweetish jammy accents. Nice depth, and quite alive. On the palate it's ample, with rich plum prune fruit supported by moderately intense acidity and by smooth sweet tannins that have some sweet balsamic accents and flow into a clean fairly sweet prune laced finish with lasting warmth and some tannic underpinning. Pleasant, and quite alive; the tannins do have a touch of splinter to them and I would therefore serve it more with foods than by the glass, and likely serve it with a stew and polenta.
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