ONE OF Italy's best winemakers is one of that country's least known win personalities.
One of the first great Italian wines I ever tasted was a 1955 spanna from the firm of Antonio Vallana in the town of Maggiora located in northern Piedmont. Since that time, I have never passed up an opportunity to try one of Vallana's spannas, wines which to this day remain impressively rich, with a depth of flavor and multitude of interesting aromas that put them in the top league of Italian red wines.
Ironically, Vallana's spannas have received very little publicity, and in talking to other producers in Gattinara, Barolo and Barbaresco, I discovered that Vallana is clearly considered to be somewhat of a renegade. The allegations against Vallana are that his spannas have questionable quality and authenticity since his vineyards are not governed by the Italian wine laws, commonly called the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC).
A month ago, I spent a day with Bernardo Vallana, his daughter and son-in-law, all of whom take part in running the Vallana winery. What I concluded from my discussions with Vallana was what I suspected after following his wines for the last decade, that his critics are either totally misguided, or simply engaging in jealous trade tactics. Vallana is aware of his critics, and feels that while the reputation of his spannas has not been hurt, the general reputation of spanna as a wine has been. Vallana attributes the criticism of him to his position as "an outsider" in the Piedmont community of winemakers. As he is not subject to the DOC regulations, his critics automatically assume the worst about the quality and authenticity of his wines. Such charges cannot be further from the truth.
Vallana is one of Piedmont's most traditional winemakers, still preferring to make wine as his family did 100 years ago. Against most modern vinification techniques, he adamantly believes in a very long and warm fermentation, usually 30 to 40 days, to extract as much flavor, color and tannin as possible for his spannas. Afterward, Vallana puts his wine in glass-lined cement tanks for 4 to 6 years. When he feels the wine has shed some of its tannin and softened a bit, he transfers the wine to large oak casks for 6 months to a year, then bottles it. Vallana never filters his wine; consequently his wine tends to throw a heavy sediment, and almost always must be decanted prior to drinking.
Wine enthusiasts who have tried a Vallana spanna know that his are well-colored, rich and spicy wines with earthy, tarry, scented aromas and viscous, well-textured flavors. For years, Vallana offered his spannas under six separate vineyard labels. The best of this group, available locally, were from the vineyards called Campa Raudii, San Lorenzo and Tre Torri Di Traversagna.
Vallana has had to give up these vineyard names, however, in his effort to obtain DOC approval. The result is an assortment of interesting spannas still under three different labels. They all merit serious consideration. All three are slightly different, but typically spicy, richly flavored and admirably made wines.
Consumers who are fond of this style of traditional Piedmontese red wine should take note of the current releases from Vallana. The 1967 Spanna Traversagna ($11.99), 1968 Spanna Del Piemonte ($8.99) and the 1969 Spanna Montalbano ($8.99)* are all well-made, fully mature wines, but are from rather mediocre vintages. The 1971 Vallana Spannas, which are nothing short of great, and the 1974 Spannas, which are quite successful, should also be given serious attention when any appear locally. Vallana also produces a seldom-seen Piedmontese red wine called boca. It is primarily made from nebbiolo grapes, and when produced by Vallana it is a very intense, yet supple wine with layers of fruit. Small quantities of the 1976 ($7.99) are available. Vallana's wines are imported to this country by C. Danielle and Company in New York, and carried by A & A Liquors in Washington.
Another interesting and noteworthy aspect of Vallana's operation is that he maintains an old stock of his spannas from different vineyards back to 1955. All these selections can be purchased at the winery in Maggiora; many of the splendid 1964s and 1961s are remarkably priced at under $15 a bottle. In case this is not enough to entice you to visit Vallana, one of Piedmont's finest restaurants, the Ristorante Pinocchio of Bertinotti Piero in Borgonanero, is within a five-minute drive of Vallana's winery. This particular restaurant has, in addition to its excellent food, one of the finest wine cellars in Piedmont, including an array of Vallana spannas.