Just a two-hour drive north from Milano, the Valtellina Valley is one of the hidden gems of Northern Italy. After visiting Milano, most of the tourists will generally head to the magnificent Garda or Como Lakes in Lombardy. Those interested in wines would probably decide to visit the Piedmont and the famous Langhe, Barbaresco and Barolo areas. Don’t get me wrong, Lombardy Lakes and Barolo are awesome, but if you’re looking for holidays a bit more off the beaten track, Valtellina should be on your bucket list. With its stunning alpine landscapes, its picturesque terraced vineyards built over centuries, the elegance of its wines and its genuine gastronomy, Valtellina, if not the most renowned, is one of the most beautiful and underrated regions in Italy.
Geography and History
The Valtellina region is located on the extreme north of Lombardy, close to the Swiss border. The valley, crossed by the river Adda, is limited to the West by Lake Como and to the East by the Bormio Mountains.
Wine producing in the area dates back as far as the first human settlements in the region. Before the Romans, the Etruscans were already fermenting grape juice in the area. Leonardo da Vinci himself was describing the local wines as powerful and exciting. For a long time until the early 19th century, Valtellina, which was under Swiss influence, was exporting its wine to its northern neighbor. The locals realized that the vines won in maturity in altitude and then decided to build terraces, shaping the landscapes of the region.
Local winegrowers are now currently advocating UNESCO to recognize the beautiful vineyard terraces as a World Heritage site, and thus get the same recognition as regions like Burgundy, Champagne or the Douro Valley.
Nebbiolo: the King of Grapes in Valtellina
Valtellina produces almost exclusively red wines, made of Chiavennasca, the local name for the Nebbiolo grape. Local wines made with Chiavennasca have developed different characteristics from their cousins in Barolo or Barbaresco. Less tannic and powerful, the nebbiolos of Valtellina are more delicate, with a lot of elegance. Because of the topography and the terraces, mechanization is impossible and everything in the vineyards is done by hand, from growing the grape to harvesting.
Understanding the wine denominations
In Valtellina, you’ll find the following designations of origin:
One IGT, Terrazze Retiche di Sondrio;
One DOC, Rosso di Valtellina (made with at least 90% nebbiolo); and
Two DOCG, Valtellina Superiore (at least 90% nebbiolo, and a minimum ageing time of 24 months in barrel) and Sforzato di Valtellina, an appassimento wine (like Amarone della Valpollicella, but a drier version). The grapes used in the Sforzato di Valtellina come from the highest vineyards in altitude. The minimum level of alcohol has to reach 14 percent and the wines need to be aged a minimum of 20 months in oak.
I had the chance to visit four wineries during my stay in Valtellina and all of them were incredibly welcoming and are worth a visit. Those wineries are ARPEPE in Sondrio, Nino Negri in Chiuro, Agricola Fay in San Giacomo di Teglio, and Dirupi in Montagna in Valtellina. I would also recommend Aldo Rainoldi, Alberto Marsetti and Mamete Prevostini.
Let’s imagine you’re passing by the region but unfortunately have no time for winery visits. No worries! Head to Il Tabernario – Enoteca delle Alpi in Sondrio. The owner Gabriele, has a huge selection of Valtellina wines, in this nice wine bar and shop. He also organizes personal or group tastings on request.
What to Do in Valtellina?
Valtellina is not just about wine. Nature or sports enthusiasts, families, everyone will find interesting activities in the region. Winter sports, of course, are very popular here, with more than 400 kilometers of ski-slopes in the heart of the Alps, in ski resorts like Livigno, Bormio, Santa Caterina, Chiesa in Valmalenco or Valgerola.
Active people will enjoy Valtellina. The Stelvio National Park and the Orobie Valtellinesi Regional Park offer plenty of hiking trails and outdoor activities. “Thirsty” hikers will choose to discover the splendid vineyard landscapes by walking the Via dei Terrazzamenti, a 70-kilometer hiking trail through the vines between the cities of Morbegno and Tirano. The wine route can also be discovered by bike on the beautiful Strada di Valtellina. Finally, for the most athletic people, The Valtellina Wine Trail is a foot race through the vineyards held each year in November with distances of 11, 20 or 40 kilometers.
Do you prefer to relax? Go to Bormio and its famous thermal spas, which have been in use since Roman times. Terme di Bormio, with its charming Bagni Vecchi (old thermal spa) or the luxurious Bagni Nuovi (new spa), are great options to regenerate.
The small municipality of Sondrio is the main town of Valtellina. It’s a good starting point to tour the most interesting wineries. A great resource to plan your trip is Valtellina’s official tourism office website: www.valtellina.it/en. If you want information on the wines of Valtellina and some winery suggestions, please consult the Valtellina Wine Consortium’s website: www.vinidivaltellina.it.
When to Visit?
Every season is great for outdoor activities. Of course, winter is the best option for skiing and mountaineering. But you can ski as well during summer on the Stelvio Pass (north of Bormio). Summer is the best for high-altitude trekking. Try to avoid early fall if your main interest is in wines, since the wineries can be quite busy during harvest time.
How to get there?
The Valtellina Valley is a two-hour drive from Milano and three hours from Torino. It is also a 90-minute drive from the Swiss towns of Lugano or St. Moritz. The closest airports are Malpensa (both domestic and international flights) and Linate (mostly domestic flights) airports in Milano and Orio al Serio airport in Bergamo (domestic and international). Of course, renting a car will give you more freedom to visit the region, but you can also reach Sondrio by train (2 to 3 hours from Milano depending on the train).
Where to stay?
Sondrio is the main town of Valtellina and where you will find more accommodation options. You can also stay in many of the small villages along Route SS 38. If you plan to go skiing, choose Chiesa in Valmalenco, which is close to ski slopes.
Here are a few accommodation recommendations:
Grand Hotel della Posta, opened in 1862, it is the historical hotel of Sondrio, located on the main square, Piazza Garibaldi. Spa facilities.
Retici Balzi Wine Hotel, in Poggiridenti, in the heart of the vineyards, just a three-minute drive from Sondrio. It has 11 rooms, each of which is named after a Valtellina wine.
Panemiele B&B, in Sondrio. For travelers on a budget, this is a very nice bed and breakfast. The rooms are clean, comfy, and the breakfast served is made of local and organic products.
Hotel Tremoggia, ideal for ski lovers, in Chiesa in Valmalenco, in the heart of the Central Alps. The view on the surrounding mountains is stunning.
Where to eat?
Valtellina is an agricultural area with many cheese and cold meat specialties (like the famous bresaola di Valtellina, air-dried salted beef). You have to try pizzoccheri, pasta made with buckwheat floor, topped with casera cheese, butter and cabbage. Not light, but very good. Also try the sciatt, delicious cheese-filled buckwheat fritters, or the polenta taragna.
To buy good local cheeses, you can visit Fratelli Ciaponni, in Morbegno. For cold meats, go to Macelleria Irroneo (Via Roma, 21, Tovo di Sant’Agata, +39 0342 775758) or Bresesti Giorgio (32, Via Nazionale S. Giacomo, 23036 Teglio, +39 0342 786104).
The following are recommendations for good restaurants where you can enjoy the traditional and authentic cuisine of Valtellina:
Ristorante Ca d’Otello (sciatt and pizzoccheri): Via Ca d’Otello 15, Trevisio, +39 0342 43 10 2
Ristorante Trippi (risotto and meat): Via Stelvio, 297, 23020 Montagna in Valtellina, +39 0342 615584
Osteria del Crotto (cold meats and cheeses, pizzoccheri): Via Pedemontana, 22, Morbegno, Tel : +39 0342 614800
Ristoro Castel Grumello (x), Via San Antonio, 11, 23020 Montagna in Valtellina, +39 0342 380994
Ristorante Il Poggio (x): Via Panoramica, 4 23020 Poggiridenti (SO), +39 0342 380800