Sandro Fay, Valtellina Superiore Sassella “Il Glicine”
Sandro Fay, Valtellina Superiore Sassella “Il Glicine”

Sandro Fay, Valtellina Superiore Sassella “Il Glicine”

Lombardy, Italy 2019 (750mL)
Regular price$48.00
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Sandro Fay, Valtellina Superiore Sassella “Il Glicine”

It’s been a while since I’ve managed to put hands on a bottle of Sandro Fay, and after tasting this ’19 from the fabled Sassella subzone, there is no way I’ll let that much time pass again. This is mountain-grown Nebbiolo at its finest, blessed with an extra layer of concentration in this vintage but still an ethereal, electric expression of the Nebbiolo grape.

It is the alto sax to Barolo and Barbaresco’s tenors (maybe even the soprano), lighter in body but no less resonant, and Fay is right up there with greats like AR.PE.PE. as one of the standard-bearers of this tiny, terraced growing zone. Why are producers like Fay willing to tend vines on slopes so treacherously steep that harvest would be better carried out by helicopter? Because, as will be obvious upon tasting “Il Glicine,” the resulting wine so richly rewards the effort. At a time when so much red wine is becoming ever more heavy, inky, and punishingly alcoholic, this one combines lift and refreshment with breathtaking aromatic complexity. Plenty of domaines in Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits would be proud to call it their own!

The Sandro Fay estate dates to 1971, when its namesake began redeveloping some small family parcels in the village of San Giacomo di Teglio, in Lombardy’s Valtellina region. As we’ve noted many times before, the Valtellina is the ultimate example of “heroic” viticulture, right up there in degree of difficulty alongside Côte-Rôtie in France, the Mosel River Valley in Germany, Ribeira Sacra in Spain. The vines of Valtellina, which sit in the shadow of the Rhaetic Alps along Italy’s border with Switzerland, aren’t merely “hillside” vineyards: Valtellina is a sheer rock wall with vines that cling to it for dear life. Hand-laid stone terraces keep everything from sliding down to the Adda River Valley below. Everything must be done by hand. Following in the footsteps of their father, siblings Marco and Elena Fay tend to 14 hectares (an impressive total for Valtellina) of vineyards across several different subzones.

The soils in Valtellina are a highly variable, rocky mix of alluvial gravel, sand, granite, and limestone, since a lot of the material used to construct the terraces in the first place was hauled up from the banks of the river below. Because the Adda follows an East-West path, vineyards are planted only along the north bank, giving them full-south, all-day sun exposures in a climate that might otherwise be too cool to ripen grapes—especially the late-ripening Nebbiolo (called Chiavennasca in these parts). Just to the north are the snow-capped peaks of the Swiss Alps.

This is a tiny region, spanning only about 300 hectares of vines along a 30-mile stretch of the Adda. In addition to Sassella—perhaps the most famous of Valtellina’s “crus”—there are four other officially delimited subzones under the Valtellina DOCG umbrella: Inferno, Valgella, Grumello, and Maroggia. All these sites have a multiplicity of owners farming and bottling wines from them, and for a wine to be called Valtellina Superiore with a cru designation, it must be comprised of at least 90% Nebbiolo from said cru and be aged a total of 24 months (12 of which must be in wood barrels) before release.

Fay’s Sassella, called “Il Glicine” (“the wisteria”), is a beautifully polished wine that is aged in 500-liter French oak barrels, 20% of which are new. Although the grape (Nebbiolo) is the same, there’s no comparing this wine to anything from Barolo or Barbaresco, and there’s no need to—other than to say they are equally great. In the glass, it’s a translucent garnet-red, with aromas that make you feel like you’re picking berries in the woods: raspberry, black cherry, and cranberry scents are followed by an earthy wave of tobacco leaf, rose petals, fennel, sage, tar, leather, and black tea. 

The wine is just north of medium in body, with grainy tannins, refreshing acidity, and a long, lingering finish tinged with a hint of smoke. It’s kind of a Gevrey-Chambertin/Barbaresco love child, unmistakably Nebbiolo in its mineral savor but floral, finessed, and more gently tannic than most Barolo/Barbaresco. Decant this very approachable ’19 about 30 minutes before serving in large Burgundy stems at 60 degrees (the cooler temperature will accentuate the aromatics and the fruit component). Use it as a light, high-energy foil for Valtellina’s weighty signature pasta dish, Pizzoccheri alla Valtellinese. Enjoy!

Sandro Fay, Valtellina Superiore Sassella “Il Glicine”


Northwestern Italy


Italy’s Piedmont region is really a wine “nation”unto itself, producing world-class renditions of every type of wine imaginable: red, white, sparkling, name it! However, many wine lovers fixate on the region’s most famous appellations—Barolo and Barbaresco—and the inimitable native red that powers these wines:Nebbiolo.



The area known as “Chianti” covers a major chunk of Central Tuscany, from Pisa to Florence to Siena to Arezzo—and beyond. Any wine with “Chianti” in its name is going to contain somewhere between 70% to 100% Sangiovese, and there are eight geographically specific sub-regions under the broader Chianti umbrella.

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