July 31, 2008

1999 Balgera Valtellina Superior Sassella

I wrote recently about my trip to the iconoclastic wine shop in Santa Monica, CA, called Wine Expo. The shop specializes in unusual (at least in the U.S.) wines from around the world, with a specialization in all things Italian.

Looking for Otrepo Pavese? This is your shop. So, too, with Valtellina and its red wines from nebbiolo from a remote area in Lombardy.

Valtellina has its fans, and I've had some interesting examples from Conti Sertoli Selis, a producer I recognized at Wine Expo that I see a lot here in Portland. But I must admit that I've never had anything from this region that really excited me.

So it was with unusual interest that I observed one of the many dust ups over at the discussion group at erobertparker.com, this one featuring Valtellina.

Wine Expo's main guy, Roberto Giovanni Rogness, champions the wines of Valtellina on the board, to the chagrin of some who think he's a shill. Well one day, if it wasn't old Robert Parker himself who threw down the gauntlet to Roberto. Send some wines and I'll taste through them, he said, and see what I think.

Roberto selected some things and promptly sent them off. Needless to say, Parker wasn't impressed. You can read his amusing notes and the ensuing discussion here.

Of course, we know that no one is going to like all wines. Clearly Valtellina isn't to everyone's taste, yet the region has long had a reputation for good wine. However, Parker's raison d'etre has long been to call such reputations to the carpet, that wines live on reputations rather than intrinsic quality, and that he can taste the difference and let the world know what's what.

I'm conflicted by this. In the wine world, it seems you either agree with Parker and all that matters is in the glass. Or you disagree and believe he fails to see the beauty in wines that aren't bursting with gobs of fresh fruit and oak flavors, that other flavors may be difficult on their own yet shine in wine's true calling, as a companion to dinner.

Me, I see it a little bit both ways, and rather than explain all that, I thought I'd try one of the producers Roberto sent Parker (admittedly a cheaper, simpler bottling more fitting my pocketbook) to see how things go.

So I brought the 1999 Balgera Valtellina Superiore Sassera to meat night with some friends last night, finishing up the rest at home tonight. Balgera is reputedly a classic, old school Valtellina producer. Wine Expo has lots of Balgera bottlings to choose from if you're interested.

This wine, from the vineyards of Sassera, showed a translucent but rich ruby color that suggests some longer aging in larger wood vats. The aroma was reticent, with an oxidized notes that with time showed more dried flowers, dried cherries, nuts and old wood spice. At times it seemed tired, then at other times bursting with a complex, gorgeously integrated perfume that defies description. Then a bit flat and oxidized again.

In the mouth, the wine was more consistent lean with a slight sour character that required food to resolve. The texture though was pretty, with soft, light tannin and good length, with that high thread count feeling that instantly tells me there's something special in here.

This wasn't heat damaged wine, despite how it sounds. Rather, long aged and perhaps too long. In winemaker speak, you'd call this aldehydic or sherried in a pleasing but undeniable way. It may be the new world guy in me, or the puppet strings of Robert Parker, but I can't help wondering what this wine tasted like after a year or two in cask, and whether a bit less time wouldn't have helped find a more pleasing balance of elements.

Overall, I enjoyed this wine, but honestly I wouldn't seek it out again. Though I might look for other Balgera wines. I'm intrigued, and I know as with some of the best music, it might take time to let this wine sink in. Parker would likely call that an apology for bad wine. I think it's something more, even if I know I'd have to be pretty careful about whom I open something like this for. This kind of wine demands close attention, and even then it might not deliver.


Steve & Melissa said...

Hi Vincent,

I enjoyed your post. One of the producers Parker slammed in that thread was Sandro Fay; I have not had their Sforzato, but L&E carried their basic Valtellina for $15 and their Sassella for $18. I stocked up on both long before "Roberto's Revenge," and they're really well-made wines.

I was sorry to see Fay get such a bad rap from Parker, because I don't think they ever had a chance. That thread was more about putting Roberto in his place than giving any of the wines a fair shot.

Anyway, here are my notes (from one year ago today) on the '01 Fay Sassella, which was really good. It wasn't at all maderized, but I don't plan to hold my two remaining bottles much longer.


The nose is more focused than it was on the basic bottling, with juicy bing cherry, sassafras, gravel, and thyme. My first sip reminded me why I went through the others so quickly. This is not a powerful, gripping wine-- it's a balanced wine. There's plenty of acidity, but the wine doesn't feel acidic. There's sweet fruit, but the wine's not sweet. There are still-resolving tannins, but the wine's not tannic. It's just... balanced. Equally enjoyable with grilled flank steak and the next night's simple pasta primavera.

Vincent Fritzsche said...


Thanks for the comment. Nice to have a link to your blog too.

Also, nice to know the Fay wine was available at L&E. We really do have a terrific selection of Italian wines here in Portland.

You're right about that thread, though Roberto sort of has it coming. He's not shy with his opinions, and while I'm a lover, not a fighter, I know that if I'm that way too much, I'll get popped in the nose as he did. I must admit though that the "bat dung" comment was pretty funny.