With my wine I have created the union between extreme viticulture and feats of mountaineering.
It’s all in Gian Piero Ioli’s DNA: his passion for vineyards comes from his maternal grandparents and his devotion to the mountains from his father's family.
The restorative effects of adventure, the therapeutic value of gaining new experiences in life and the stimulating properties of exploring the unknown have been known for centuries. Indeed, during the 18th century, doctors used to prescribe holidays for a whole array of ills and ailments.
I well recognise this and know how lucky I am to have travelled so extensively throughout my life. I have lived in Foshan, surfed in the Pacific Ocean, slept in the Gorafe desert, travelled hundreds of kilometres in South America and sunbathed on many European coasts.
Each trip has allowed me to challenge myself outside my own little corner of the world and helped me escape the anxieties of everyday life.
However, going as far away as you can, although much more accessible than it once it was and hence more frequent, isn’t mandatory in order to find something truly unique, different and worth learning. I was able to find it a just a mere two hours from Milan, in surprising Valtellina, in the charisma of a person and his singular vision of life.
I am somewhat disoriented when I arrive in Via del Gesù in the centre of Sondrio. I find myself standing before Palazzo Guicciardi, a private mansion dating back to the 18th century that hosted Garibaldi in 1859, and I have to check several times that I’m in the right place. It is hard to believe that this is Gian Piero's winery.
I can't even ask Simona for assistance as she isn't with me on this trip, but busy at work on a film set. Just then, a 1984 Land Rover 90 emerges from a tiny side street and the man behind the wheel motions for me to get in: "Let's go to the vineyard now!"
A t-shirt and denim bermudas, a consummate athlete's physique and a powerful handshake; the man seated at the wheel is architect and extreme vigneron Gian Piero Ioli. A devotee of sustainable viticulture, in 2020 created Dislivelli: an ambitious and unconventional project, considered crazy and risky by many of valley’s inhabitants. After all, if it is called Extreme Viticulture,* then there must be a reason for it.
* Extreme viticulture is viticulture practiced in inaccessible terrains that, although highly challenging to cultivate, can nevertheless yield remarkable wines, which are in turn referred to as extreme or heroic. This type of viticulture is generally found in mountainous areas and, more rarely, on small islands. Cultivated vineyards must stand on terraces or steps, or have a minimum gradient of 30% or a minimum altitude of 500 metres. The vineyard must fulfil at least one of these characteristics in order to be defined as extreme.
As we drive up the mountainside and the Land Rover lurches back and forth on the ups and downs of the road, we pass by the pulley systems once used to transport grapes and skim past a myriad of dry-stone walls built to support the terraced vineyards.
In the meantime, Gian Piero, who is a blunt and straightforward person, begins by sharing what for him is the axiom behind his work.
“Drinking well is as important as eating well. I am determined to create something nutritious that can also be enjoyed physically.”
He goes on: "I try to intervene in the vineyard and winery as little as possible in order to bring the true flavour of the land to the glass, including grasses, insects and everything that can be found in a soil cultivated in the most natural way possible."
I concentrate, listening intently without uttering a word, as I gaze down at the valley below us, running from east to west following the river Adda. The brakes squeal and it's some metres before the car comes to a halt in the lay-by of the small road that is used as a parking area.
The view of the valley is dizzying. High above us, the plots of land of the Dislivelli rise steeply, obliging you to crane your head up. Gian Piero's organically farmed hectare of vines is located in the Sassella locality in the 'baffo' (trigioeu - pizzamëa) sub-zone, between 400 and 450 metres, right above the historic 'rocce rosse' cru.
Whilst I trudge like Frodo up the secret staircase of Cirith Ungol, my companion clambers up nimbly with all the ease of a born mountain guide. Grasping at rocks, creepers and weeds just to keep up with him, by the time we make our first stop, I’m utterly drenched in sweat, looking for all the world like a cyclist who has just tackled the Pordoi. My host, meanwhile, is enjoying the sun and breathing in deeply with meditative appreciation. "Can you just smell that grass? The cleanliness of the air?" Boy, can I smell it. There are no chemicals in the air here: just pure, unadulterated nature at its finest.
The terraces we stand upon have been wrested, strip by strip, from the very rock itself. An extraordinary job, because very little land can be taken away from the outcrops typical of Sassella's schistose soils.
Gian Piero's approach to viticulture is radically organic: for him the vigneron's role is that of a guardian, benevolently overseeing the vineyard and intervening only when absolutely necessary.
With this approach, nature is able to express itself and the Nebbiolo plant can grow freely, unstifled by the vigneron's decisions. In the words of Gian Piero: "Dislivelli is a spontaneous wine that comes into being of its own accord and I’m just there to accompany it."
I understand why many have labelled his work 'crazy and risky'; however, as I stumble up and down these sheer, rocky inclines, I’m able to appreciate up close just how very healthy the plants at Dislivelli are. Compared to other vineyards, where the vines spend their lives breathing in sulphur and copper, this mountain oasis exudes an aura of blissful health.
Dislivelli is the ultimate Nebbiolo delle Alpi from extreme viticulture. Born spontaneously, it grows wild, arriving fickle and unpredictable in your glass.
As we stroll between the rows of vines, I am captivated by the clarity with which Gian Piero expresses himself. Dislivelli is a fickle wine precisely because its creator wishes it so. Each individual plot always produces something different in terms of flavours and aromas and every terraced parcel of land has its own specific Clayver*. Within the Clayver, the wine then takes on a life of its own, never resulting in something standard or homogenised. Dislivelli is a unique wine in this sense: the way it arrives in the glass is always different, with nuances that are always surprising and never predictable.
*Clayver is the name of the Italian company of certified and traceable ceramic barrels used to ferment, store and refine wine. Clayver are made from a special homogeneous and compact natural ceramic stoneware, similar in many respects to natural granite, and hence impermeable to liquids. Their intrinsic microporous structure allows gaseous exchange with the air outside, but only in limited quantities and over extended time-spans. They are therefore also ideal for prolonged ageing.
Seated between two rows of centenarian vines, we rest awhile,. With our fingers digging into the lush grass and our skin exposed to the sun, we gaze out over the valley, breathing in peace and serenity.
But how did Dislivelli come into being?
"It was hidden in my DNA. My maternal grandparents were from Teglio and owned some vineyards, while my father's family is from Valmalenco and has always had strong ties with mountain life, mountain huts and mountain guides. Dislivelli is the project I created to marry extreme viticulture with the exploits that have made mountaineering history."
He sighs, perhaps anticipating a question that doesn't come. So he brightens up.
"You know, now that I think about it, it would have been nice to helicopter up to the Marco and Rosa hut below the Bernina. I could have shown you the gully where Cesare Folatti, Peppino Mitta and the photographer Luigi Bombardieri did a simultaneous ascent on 25 July 1933. Short, vertical and incredibly demanding for the very limited technical resources available at the time."
He is referring to the first ascent to the Colle d'Argient of the Upper Scerscen via the ice gully: a true milestone in the history of mountaineering.
"In the same way, with very limited means, I want to be able to make a contemporary wine. A true Alpine Nebbiolo. Next time we’ll go and drink Dislivelli at high altitude, 3,600 metres above sea level." As I daydream about this future promise, a distant squawk brings me back to the here and now.
It is the 25 running ducks recently introduced into the vineyard: another shrewd example of a strategy to eliminate the use of pesticides and chemical treatments.
With an upright posture similar to that of penguins, these ducks are flightless. However, unlike their exalted arctic brethren, they do not waddle but proceed at a brisk pace, sweeping through the vines and devouring slugs, insect larvae and other pests.
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We return to the winery, and I am eager to see the Clayver and taste their contents.
Inside Palazzo Guicciardi, Gian Piero, who started out as an architect, has created his contemporary wine cellar, giving it an austere atmosphere that strongly reminds me of Herdade Aldeia de Cima. Walking down the stairs leading deep below the mansion, it's as if I were entering an ancient, forgotten place of worship. The Clayvers are custodians of a treasure that Gian Piero allows me to savour: it is his land, it is the very concentration of the Valtellina in a precious liquid.
Back in the light, I finally give vent to my desire to taste bottled Dislivelli. The label always bears the number of the specific Clayver from which the wine comes. Once poured, it reveals its unique colour, quite different from any other Nebbiolo della Valtellina. The bouquet smells of flowers, herbs, earth and is a joy to inhale.
Meanwhile, leaning on the table, Gian Piero shows me all the original tools used by Peppino Mitta, his great-uncle, in the famous 1933 ascent. Pride for the creature from his vineyard merges with reverence for the incredible feats of mountain men.
He is about to decipher the label on the bottle for me and I can see that he is excited. However, before doing so, he first explains that the name Dislivelli doesn’t only refer to a difference in altitudes, but also a dissociation from levels.
I glance at him quizzically: what levels is he referring to?
By levels, he tells me, he means emphyteusis, once a very common contract between landowners and vineyard workers. According to this type of contract, in exchange for the worker's right to enjoy the land and its produce, the best grapes were allotted to the landowner. This type of right still exists, and is exercised by all those who deliver their grapes to third party wineries. "I therefore dissociate myself, because in no way do I share this vision of the winery and the land, this dichotomy between those who own and those who work."
And now for the label, something truly admirable.
“The vertical lines can be interpreted as the posts of the vine rows or the ropes used by climbers in their ascent. The two silhouettes in the centre are the two climbing heroes, Cesare Folatti and Peppino Mitta, while the blank space represents the third, because, in some cases, 1+1 equals 3. Indeed, the gap in question is the photographer Luigi Bombardieri who immortalised every moment of the undertaking and consequently often remained in the shadows, i.e. behind the camera lens."
If the wine excites me, then the label has really given me food for thought.
With their every twist and turn, my thoughts invite me to rejoice: not solely for those times when things turned out as I’d hoped, but also for every time they’ve taken a different, unplanned turn.
Some may call them mistakes, others call them failures, I prefer to call them unexpected turns.
Always better a remorse than a regret.
The unforeseen instead of boredom.
An extreme space instead of a comfort zone.