Mystical and magical, Nebbiolo wines are the stuff of wine legend. They captivate the senses, and once you experience a well-aged Nebbiolo, its memory will haunt you. Delicate and ethereal when swirled in the glass, its perfumed aromatics cast a spell with a complex bouquet, of tar and roses, woodsmoke and forest floor, leather and truffle. High in acidity and tannin, its vibrant palate slowly reveals itself with age, a bewitching brew of high toned fruit and earthy funk, with a finish that seemingly lasts forever.
Produced in scattered regions of northwest Italy, Nebbiolo is best known as Barolo from Piemonte, powerful wines of dark fruit and tannin. But in Valtellina, Nebbiolo, locally known as Chiavannasca, is delicate, wines of hauntingly beautiful aromas and finesse. Ar.Pe.Pe is one of the most respected Nebbiolo producers in the region, whose ethereal wines have achieved cult status among those in the know. This lighter “mountain Nebbiolo” is sublime and sensuous, acid and mineral laced, with silky tannins that resonate through a seductively long finish. And now, more Ar.Pe.Pe bottles are making their way to the US, giving wine drinkers an opportunity to discover these special wines.
Ar.Pe.Pe has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of a family dispute over 40 years ago. When Guido Pelizzatti died in 1973, battles between his heirs forced the sale of the Pelizzatti winery and brand. Under the new owners, overproduction diminished the wine’s reputation. But then, in 1984, his son, Arturo, started a new winery, vowing to restore his family’s glory. Unable to use the Pelizzatti name, Ar.Pe.Pe was christened by constructing an acronym of his full name, ARturo PElizzatti PErego. Going back to his roots, Arturo was determined to produce a range of top quality wines that would express Valtellina’s unique terroir. Uncompromising in his dedication to quality, precision viticulture and traditional techniques brought Ar.Pe.Pe wines rave reviews in the 1990’s. When Arturo passed away in 2004, his children, Isabella, Guido, and Emanuele, picked up the torch, carrying their father’s legacy forward, expanding their position as the quality leader of the region.
Never heard of Valtellina? This mountainous valley in Lombardia, northeast of Milan and beyond Lake Como, is the spot where Italy and Switzerland meet. Twenty-five miles of vineyards run east-west throughout the valley, snaking along the Adda River. In this rarefied air of the Italian Alps foothills, Nebbiolo struggles to ripen in the cool temperatures but when it does, an enchanting and complex wine is produced.
Ar.Pe.Pe produces a range of eight Nebbiolo wines, from the entry level Rosso di Valtellina (a young, lower altitude Nebbiolo) to Cru (single vineyard) wines from the Sassella, Grumello, and Inferno subzones, hillside vineyards which face south and get good sun all day. Only 5000 cases are produced each year, even though the winery has the capacity to produce more. The effort to craft these wines is amazing. In the vineyard, it’s heroic viticulture, because the steep and stony slopes can’t be worked by machines. During the growing season, workers climb the steep trails between terraces, manually tending to the vines. It takes 3-4 times more man hours to cultivate the Nebbiolo grapes here than normal hill vineyards, adding to the cost of production. During harvest, grapes are collected and carried in small baskets on workers’ shoulders. In the hillside cellar carved out of the steep Grumello vineyard rock, the berries are macerated long and slow, with a gentle extraction of tannins. Fermented with native yeasts, the wines undergo extended aging in large chestnut and oak casks, never new or toasted inside, which age the wine to perfection.
Ar.Pe.Pe produces wines according to vintage conditions. Winemaker Isabella Pelizzatti Perego visited Los Angeles recently to promote her family’s wines. “Every vintage has its own personality, you have to accept that not every year will be superior”, she explained. Ar.Pe.Pe releases their wines only when ready, and staggers the good and exceptional bottles in alternate years. Bottle shape defines the harvest. Burgundy bottles denote outstanding vintages, while Bordeaux bottles are used for the simply good years.
Every year, an easy drinking Rosso di Valtellina is made. In good years, three Valtellina Superiore Riservas from three vineyard zones are bottled; Grumello, Inferno, and Sassella, aged three years in barrel and one year in bottle. In the best vintages, three single vineyard crus are made; Grumello Buon Consiglio, Sassella Rocce Rosse, and Sassella Vigna Regina, released eight years after harvest. And a prestige bottling of Ultimi Raggi, a late harvest wine made from partially dried grapes, is only produced in “perfect” years, maybe 3-4 times during a decade.
The different sub-zones stamp the wines with their own character. Inferno gets the most sun on its stony slopes, producing riper wines with balsamic notes. Sassella shares Inferno’s heat and rocky soils, but gets an infusion of cool breezes from other valleys, making fresh and mineral wines, more delicate, with mountain strawberry fruit, and more acidity. Grumello produces lighter, easy drinking wines with more raspberry fruit flavors.
At a trade tasting for Ar.Pe.Pe at Terroni Downtown LA, I was able to sample seven of their eight wines. The Grumello wines, Grumello “Rocca Piro” Riserva and Grumello “Buon Consiglio” Riserva, are softer, with more fruit and less tannin, and ready to drink. The Sassella wines are the most elegant, with the Sassella “Stella Retica” Riserva the less expensive option, and the single vineyard Sassella “Rocce Rosse” Riserva and Sassella “Ultimi Raggi” truly outstanding, just babies in the glass, with many more years of wine life ahead. The “Rocce Rosse” is incredibly complex, with cherry and raspberry fruit, dried rose petals, spice, a meaty note, tar, leather, tobacco, cinnamon, and chestnut honey, with a streak of minerality. You can get lost in this kaleidoscope of aromas and flavors, finding something different with each whiff of the wine.
These Alpine Nebbiolos are mineral and balanced, easy to pair with food, and easy to drink, similar to a Pinot Noir from Burgundy. And certainly more affordable than Barolo or Barbaresco from Piemonte. A swirl, one sip, and you’ll be smitten with Ar.Pe.Pe’s enchanting Nebbiolo wines.