Nino Negri 2004 Sassella Valtellina Superiore 'Le Tense,' Lombardy, Italy ($33, Frederick Wildman & Sons): In 1976, I traveled by car from Sicily to Italy's northernmost reaches, on my personal Italian wine odyssey. One of my fondest memories from that trip was an audience (yes, as if with the Pope!) with Mr. Nino Negri, the frail head of the leading winery in Lombardy's remote Valtellina district. Of the relatively few brands of Italian wines available then in the U.S., Negri was one of the best. To sit with Mr. Negri at his winery was an honor I never forgot.
Everything has changed in Italian wines since then. Among Nebbiolo-based wines, Valtellina reds have been eclipsed by Barolo and Barbaresco. Stylistically, the gentle, earthy style of Valtellina reds has lost favor to the vibrancy of Chianti Classico, Barbera, and so many other modern reds. But Valtellina wines, from a range of hills that are the most northerly site for Nebbiolo in Italy, still exist. And the Nino Negri winery still is the leader in Valtellina.
I recently tasted through the Negri range and was delighted to find wines that remain true to the Valtellina style despite being subtly modern. The winery's big gun is its '5 Stelle' Sfursat ($60), a wine made with dried grapes, a la Amarone. It's a great wine, for sure. But my favorites were those that to me are more representative of Valtellina as a whole. In particular, the 2004 Le Tense Sassella captivated me.
Sassella is one of four named hillsides within the Valtellina Superiore zone. The wine is entirely Nebbiolo, locally called Chiavennasca. The name Le Tense refers to a particular vineyard plot, and in spirit translates as 'Keep out.' The 2004 Le Tense has a vibrant aroma of red fruits--raspberry, strawberry, cherry--with herbal accents and a slight note of tobacco. It's a dry, medium-plus bodied wine with good concentration of fresh fruit character and rear-palate tannins that are firm but not aggressive. Flavors similar to the aromas are fairly intense and carry long across the tongue. Freshness, balance and liveliness characterize the wine, especially when you taste it from a large Nebbiolo or Burgundy glass.
Casimiro Maule, who has been head winemaker at Nino Negri for more than 30 years, explained that this wine is aged half in large oak casks and half in barriques, of which half are new. The maceration (skin contact) time during fermentation is fairly brief, only four days, before the wine is pressed off the skin to finish its fermentation in wood; this process limits the wine's tannic force. To my mind, such a winemaking technique is downright revolutionary for this remote, forgotten area. No wonder that Maule recently earned the accolade Winemaker of the Year from Gambero Rosso magazine.
Thoroughly enjoyable now, the 2004 Le Tense will also be drinking well ten years from now, in my opinion. For a different Valtellina experience--less fruit, more tobacco and leather, more edginess--try Negri's 2004 Vigneto Fracia Valtellina Superiore ($40), a wine mainly from the Valgella hillside that ages entirely in barriques. For ultimate gentleness and an earthy flavor profile, try the 2004 'Quadrio' ($20), aged in Slavonian oak casks.
Mr. Nino Negri must be smiling to know that his legacy is intact.