Letter from Europe: In Negri's Inferno

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Extreme Nebbiolo Part 1: A helicopter harvest in Alpine Italy

 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...Read the full blog at Wine Spectator