In October, I traveled to Italy with great excitement to participate in Nino Negri’s 120th Anniversary celebration. As I drove through the historic wine region of Valtellina, I was captivated by its breathtaking beauty and eager to participate in this year’s wine harvest.
Valtellina is a serene valley at the foot of the Lombardy Alps, on the Italian-Swiss border. The “vine”, the heart of this difficult mountainous terrain, has found perfect growing conditions here. The vineyards are protected by two high mountain chains, the Retiche Alps and the Orobie Pre-Alps.
Exposure to the sun at high altitude, as well as a significant temperature difference between night and day, allow the grapes to develop with lots of flavor – a trademark in the flavor profile of the Nebbiolo grape. The grapes are picked entirely by hand along vertical vineyards ranging up to 3,000 feet high.
The vines are held up by a myriad of ancient, stone retaining walls, a traditional characteristic of the area. Due the steep incline, mechanical harvesting is not an option.
As a result, the handiwork of the skilled employees plays a key role in the selection of the very best grapes during the harvest. It should be noted that since 2011, a helicopter transport has been added at carefully selected times to speed up the process of the harvest, transporting the crates of grapes back to the winery in a timely fashion.
During my visit I took time to walk in the vineyards and to work alongside a number employees. This experience greatly enriched my understanding of their daily responsibilities and tasks. As an added bonus, in recognition of Nino Negri’s 120th Anniversary, I enjoyed a guided tour with the world-renowned oenologist Casimiro Maule and winemaker Claudio Alongi.
Valtellina viticulture requires a great deal of effort to “get it right”. This effort has been the backbone of Nino Negri for 120 years. This success is embedded in the ability to realize the true potential of the grapes and a sincere promise to deliver fabulous red wines showcasing great elegance, complexity and personality. Without question, Casimiro Maule is truly the heart of Valtellina and has dedicated his career to carrying forward the commitment to excellence brought forward by Carlo Negri.
A little bit history will help you to understand and perhaps explain the passion that started it all. The Nino Negri Winery is based in Chiuro, a municipality in the Province of Sondrio in the Italian region of Lombardy. The winery is housed in a stunning fourteenth century “Castello Quadrio”, translated to “square castle.”
Nino Negri is a leader in Valtellina for wine making as well as creating a buzz around the name of Valtellina, specifically Nino Negri wines across the globe. The story of the winery dates back to 1897, when its eventual founder, Nino, married Amelia Galli. The family of the bride were the proud owners of the “Castello” (castle) in Chiuro, about 10 kilometers from Sondrio: a place ideal for producing and selling wine.
Carlo Negri, began working with his father in 1927. As he became more familiar with the business he bought new vineyards, improved harvesting techniques and perfected production processes. Carlo’s significant influence led to the adoption of a new distribution method where the Chiavennasca grape (Nebbiolo) would no longer be sold in bulk, but bottled and then exported to the rest of Europe and the United States. The history of wine in Valtellina, with its tiny terraced plots on the slopes of the hills, is forever linked with the history of the Negri family.
Sadly, Carlo Negri passed away in 1977 after exactly 50 years as head of the company. However, to ensure his vision endured, Carlo appointed a young oenologist named Casimiro Maule as the “visionary and chief winemaker” of Negro Negri. Over the years, Casimiro continues to bring his mixture of passion and vision, making quality his benchmark. Casimiro has 40 harvests under his belt. This is a tremendous achievement, admired by many for his outstanding efforts and intimate knowledge of the terroir.
During my visit, I was fortunate to dine with Casimiro Maule and his daughter and brand Ambassador, Sarah Maule. We were entertained at Restaurante Fracia, under Chef Luca Cantoni, and enjoyed a guided sampling of many of the exquisite wines of Nino Negri such as the well known Inferno, Sassella, Grumello, Fracia, and Sfursat. The unrivalled success of Nino Negri is embedded in their mantra ““Rediscovering tradition, to improve it.”
Later in the evening during an informal Q&A session Casimiro and Sara offered a wonderful opportunity to become more familiar with the sophistication and subtleties of Negri wines and heightened our appreciation for all of the hard work necessary for their creation.
For example, the Nino Negri Sciur is made by traditional methods combined with current know how and extremely skilled hands. This is evident throughout the vineyards of the Valtellina and in the wines that the oenologist Casimiro Maule has made in the past. Sciur is a reflection of the striking geographical features of the territory, giving it its essence and strong character. The fresh and fruity sensations of Sciur can be surprisingly discerned on both the nose and the palate.
Another highlight of the Anniversary celebration was a tour of the Cantina at Nino Negri with winemaker, Claudio Alongi. The dialogue was incredibly informative and enhanced our memorable images of the historic winery. I will always be inspired by the pristine conditions of the vineyard, the hard-working harvesters, the breathtaking scenery and the contagious passion of Casimiro Maule.
The winery is steeped in history. The walls, the barrels and the floors in the winery all tell a story – the walls are decorated with awards and memorabilia, stories of success, challenges, hardship, and everything in between. Another striking feature is an unmistakable feeling of family when you walk through the winery, a notable sense of unity. Specifically, the wine room in the basement holds some of their most valuable possessions – bottles from the 50’s and 60s – including some rare vintages later repurchased from wine collectors.
The tour wrapped up with a luncheon – feasting on local Valtellina bresola, risotto and all the trimmings. The dining room was warm, rustic and incredibly welcoming. After lunch the focus of the tour turned to the production side of things. Casimiro continued to lead a walk into the vineyards. He proceeded to share his expertise and wisdom, playing an ownership role filled with pride and passion.
As Casimiro explained, the Nino Negri winery adheres carefully to each step of the production process: cultivation of the vines, harvesting, vinification, maturing and bottling, all the while adhering to the expert and professional guidance of agronomists, oenologists and cellar managers.
Noticeably, as I stood in the warehouse the grapes were meticulously stacked in racks to start the 100-day drying process, after a very warm growing season. Typically this optic signifies the end of the harvest.
Later, as I walked through the vineyard I was very fortunate to spend time with Casimiro Maule. Immediately, I was struck by his gentle presence, and his unwavering passion for the Nino Negri wines that he has honed for the last 40 years.
Many people describe Casimiro as incredibly intelligent, exceedingly talented and of a breed that works relentlessly to find ways to achieve better results now and in the future. Although our walk together in the vineyard is difficult to put into words, for me, it was a dream come true.
He noticed everything with a caring and adoring eye and was not shy to share some tips and advice on how to choose only the very best. He invited us to harvest picking only the best grapes for our basket. As we stood together and watched the helicopter bolster the harvest– it was truly a magical moment.
The Nebbiolo grape (Chiavennasca – as it is known to locals) has its origins in Piedmonte in the small Barolo region. It is extremely picky about where it will grow and mature outside of that region, although many may attempt it.
Nebbiolo requires a well thought out plan by experienced growers – most know that it requires south or south west facing slopes at an altitude of somewhere between 820 and 1500 ft. Also, without maximum sunshine exposure, there will be no decent wine created from this late ripening, early flowering variety. There can also be no risk of spring frosts.
Nebbiolo is thought to take its name from nebbia, Italian for the characteristic fog that hangs throughout the Langhe hills in the Fall. Nebbiolo is also sensitive to the soil in which it is planted.
A striking difference between the soil in Piedmonte and that of Valtellina is that the soil in Valtellina is poor – the vines need to grow deeper into the soil to get their nutrients whereas the soil in Piedmonte is mostly clay and rich in nutrients, making it easier for the vine to grow and flourish.
This difference in soil creates a stark difference in the final product – the Nebbiolo wines from Piedmonte (namely Barolo and Barbaresco) tend to be richer with more aggressive tannins and less tannic from Valtellina. Generally speaking, as far as expression – “Nebbiolo” is well known for its characteristic perfume, with an unraveling bouquet of rich soil, rose petals, tar, smoke and violets.
The palate is generally high in acidity and tannins. Top quality wines of this nature are the slowest maturing wines in the world, capable of aging for 5 decades in bottle.
Now for the gala evening celebrating the 120th anniversary of Nino Negri in Milan at the Palazzo delle Stelline. It proved to be a spectacular event from start to finish.
The evening began with a tasting from the best of Nino Negri including local products from the Valtellina area. Shortly afterward, we were escorted into a private room for a “Vertical tasting” of Sfursat 5 Stelle led by Luciano Ferraro (Corriere della Sera) and Casimiro Maule (Oenologist Nino Negri) with vintages 2013, 2009, 2001, 1999, 1997, 1989.
The famous Nino Negri flagship wine, 5 Stelle Sfursat di Valtellina DOCG, is made from a selection of the best Nebbiolo grapes in the best years. Sfursat (strained or forced) is a wine made from Nebbiolo grapes that have dried for 100 days in the cool, dry, alpine air. Sfursat is described as combining “the opulence of Amarone with the elegant complexity of Barolo.”
Prior to dinner, the evening became even more memorable with a private visit to “The Last Supper” by Leonardo Da Vinci. We were greeted with a prelude of Cuvee Carlo Negri Metodo Classico, 2016, followed by a tour of the grand Basilica of Santa Maria delle Grazie and Bramante’s Sacristy. Needless to say, both were absolutely breathtaking and a beautiful addition to the evening.
The celebratory anniversary dinner was executed by the Valtellina Chefs– Luca Cantoni (Ristorante Fracia – Teglio) and Pierino Canclini (Ristorante Buca 19 – Bormio). The meal was accompanied by a selection of Nino Negri wines including the new and limited numbered edition of Castel Chiuro Valtellina Superiore DOCG Riserva 2009.
The pairings with this exquisite wine were extraordinary. The chefs creations included “Taroz” pumpkin tortellini, with casera cheese soup, black garlic and smoked pepper, followed by a succulent sirloin of venison with a potato flan, caramelized chestnuts, apple and cranberry.
Without question, this extraordinary wine coming from Nebbiolo grapes is the product of the best ‘crus” of Valtellina, Grumello and Valgella. This wine was created to pay tribute to Carlo Negri and to celebrate his relentless commitment to the vines and wines, and to recognize his most celebrated wine first produced in the 1950s.
The grapes for the harvest of 2009 were picked by hand at the end of October in the vineyards of Grumello and Valgella at altitudes higher than 500 meters. Matured in wood for 5 years, then transferred to steel and aged a further 10 months in the bottle, encouraging the mountain sharpness and ruggedness to give way to the elegance and sophistication of Castel Chiuro.
As an aside, it should be noted that every label on each bottle of Riserva Castel Chiuro 2009 is printed on marble paper and hand decorated by Florentine artisans. A special play of colors forms a pattern, which is always different so that every label is unique. The wine has been packaged to mark this special for the occasion in boxes containing an exclusive booklet recounting the history of Nino Negri.
A standing ovation and grand applause ended the spectacular evening focused on celebrating a milestone for the Nino Negri winery and the man who is truly the heart of Valtellina. I believe Casimiro’s happiest moments are spent in the vineyard cultivating and crafting his wines into the end product that his predecessor, Carlo Negri, would be so proud of.
Please visit the Nino Negri website to learn more about their wines and the history of the winery! Make sure that when you plan your next visit to Italy that you contact the winery for a tour! They love to take guests on a tour throughout the winery and the vineyard. It is an absolutely memorable experience! Salut – cheers to your wine happiness and health!
Sommelier & Nutritionist, www.rachelleoconnor.com
As a practicing consultant in the food & wine industry, Rachelle is in constant pursuit of discovering the worlds tastiest morsels made from quality ingredients and divine wines crafted from passionate winemakers and sharing it with like minded souls. She is a proud graduate of St. Francis Xavier University, the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition, and the Algonquin College Sommelier program.
Rachelle actively sits on the board for the program and plays a vital role as a judge for potential graduates. Her experience in the hospitality industry spans almost three decades having owned and operated her own restaurant in the Byward Market of Ottawa (Black Thorn Cafe).
Rachelle also spent many years honing her skills with the highly regarded Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, executing countless prestigious events such as Politics & the Pen, FIFA Women’s Cup, the NHL All Star Conference and hosting a long list of Prime Ministers, Foreign dignitaries and celebrities.