Eleven Shades of Nebbiolo

To begin with I didn’t get it. Drinking Nebbiolo seemed like trying to swallow a cube, cut from a tree. It was hard, it was sharp, it was dry; and sometimes it tasted of wood. But the more I persevered I realised it was more like a beautiful but sadistic lover. It can be a rough ride, but still enjoyable; and sometimes it tastes of leather. Chiara Boschis, owner of the excellent Barolo estate E. Pira puts it slightly differently: Nebbiolo is “a beautiful woman who is always pissed off at something”. Don’t worry, the opportunistic bondage references end here: the ‘eleven shades’ refer to the wines I tasted: the differences between them were striking.

Pick up any wine book that touches on Nebbiolo and you’ll read the same thing: it doesn’t travel outside of its tiny home region of Piemonte in north west Italy. Even the grape’s name refers to the local weather conditions of this misty bowl of tumbling hills – nebbia means fog. So I’ve always avoided Nebbiolos from other countries. But what if I was missing out? What does happen if you grow it elsewhere? I pulled together nine examples from outside Italy (and a couple of ringers from Piemonte) for a blind tasting to test this received wisdom. The full results are below.

In Piemonte winemakers agree that Nebbiolo is the trickiest local variety to manage and very fussy about the soil it’s grown in. It’s the first variety to bud (so susceptible to frost), the last to ripen (second half of October usually) and needs a long, hot growing season. The grape is native to this region, and its potential quality has been documented since 1303; in statute books of 1431 it’s noted that cutting down a Nebbiolo vine was punishable by heavy fines, amputation or death. So they’ve had a while to get used to it.

Elsewhere, people are just getting used to its fickle ways. Winemaker Luke Lambert from Heathcote confirms it is “very site specific and [has] such a long growing season that it is the most difficult of all varieties to grow I’m sure. In the winery the options for style are endless… but you can’t take your eye off it!” Lawrence Camp from Breaux Vineyards in Virginia agrees: out of 18 varieties produced “we find Nebbiolo to be the most difficult grape we grow”. Other Australian producers Trentham and Thorn Clark both echo this, but for First Drop’s Matt Gant “it’s not so much that it’s a difficult variety to grow, more that site selection is vital.”

So if it is so difficult to produce, why bother? Their reasons are as variable as the wines themselves; a point of difference; a tribute to Italian ancestors; an experiment; having being inspired by a great Barolo; and for Luke Lambert is was an attempt to make a more food friendly style of wine: “I’d grown up with lots of Australian wine that lacked drinkability and food compatibility, and Nebbiolo was a revelation. It was built for food but had such elegance and finesse it was a very different style of wine to what Australia was producing.”

The sheer variety of the wines tasted points towards this being a very malleable variety, and one that needs a delicate touch. Any or all of the elements in the wines seem quite happy to shoot off the scale at any opportunity: acidity, alcohol – and tannin in particular. Vinifying Nebbiolo must be like driving a car on ice. Also, like Pinot Noir, it can lose freshness and resort to jamminess in hotter climates. I asked winemaker Matteo Ascheri from Piemonte whether regions outside of his could ever create a Nebbiolo in the style of a fine Barolo: “no way” he replied.

Few of the wines I tasted had the restrained power of Barolo, but as vines age and new sites are planted, this could change. What I love about Nebbiolo is that funereal mix of flowers and earth. When it’s on song, there’s something almost supernatural about it: it smells like a ghost, like a memory. Only one or two of the international Nebbiolos I tasted hinted at this, though to be fair it is something that comes with age, and the wines I tasted were young.

Very good Nebbiolos are being made in Australia, South Africa, Virginia and even Mexico. The best in the line up I tasted was from Roero; in joint second place came wines from Barolo, Virginia and Heathcote. These international versions largely aren’t trying to directly replicate Barolo, so shouldn’t be compared to them but judged on their own merits. You wouldn’t judge a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc against a Sancerre after all – they are different styles of wines, each with their own qualities and characteristics.

As plantings increase in cooler regions like Adelaide Hills and the Yarra Valley in Australia and Loudoun in Virginia soon there will be even more to explore. Matt Gant from First Drop: “Having just judged the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show again in Mildura, I can say that the Nebbiolo class was the most exciting of the show – in terms of progress since I last judged it… and number of entries (22). And the trophy for Best Wine of Show – 2008 SC Pannell Adelaide Hills Nebbiolo.”

On the basis of what I tasted, Nebbiolo does indeed seem reluctant to fly the nest, but it doesn’t mean that examples from elsewhere should be discounted by any means. Its more pressing problem is being compared to its illustrious but overbearing parents back home.


The wines, tasted blind

2006Negro Sudisfá Riserva, Roero, Italy (14%, £29.95, Cambridge Wine Merchants)

Dark ruby/mahogany. Intense nose – tar, rose, black cherry. Mocha and dried herbs. Full-bodied. Intense, mouthfilling and coating tannins. Dry, long. Intense, but fragrant too. Big chunky structure, but with fruit and aromatics all in balance. Long and seriously good. Great balance and well-managed tannins. 94 points, good value.

2005 Breaux Nebbiolo, Virginia, USA (13.8%, £29.99, The Oxford Wine Company)

Pale brick red, clearly very mature. Leather, smoke, dried herbs, cranberry and a touch balsamic. Spicy too (white pepper). Mature and complex. High acidity, medium tannins still, but they build on tasting – as does the acidity. Medium length, the fruit does drop away a bit sooner than you’d like perhaps. But good. Dry, savoury and complex, but surprisingly mature and developed. 92 points, fair value.

2007 Fontanafredda ‘Vigna La Rosa’, Barolo, Italy (14%. £47.23, Excel Wines)

Deep ruby/mahogany. New oak and sweet plum/cherry fruit – young still. Tarry nose. Full-bodied; lots of ripe fruit enveloped in big ripe tannins. Finishes long and dry but not drying. Balanced, nicely done. 92 points, just about fair value.

2010 Luke Lambert Nebbiolo, Heathcote, Australia (13.5%, £40.49, Caves de Pyrene)

Transparent mahogany colour: looks quite mature. Dried flowers, bitter chocolate, toffee on the nose, and some dried red fruits (cranberry). Full-bodied, dried fruits again on the palate but not without some sweetness to the fruit. Dry tannins. Quite traditional, old world style but feels a little too plush to be from Italy. Long fruity finish, well-balanced, well made. Satisfying and savoury. Good. 92 points, not great value.

2009 Thorn Clarke ‘Morello’ Nebbiolo, Barossa, Australia (13%, £12.75, Cooden Cellars)

Dark ruby. Strawberry jam, green herbs (mint) and a hint of spice. Full-bodied. Ripe tannin. Lots of intense expressive fruit. Tannic finish, but in a good way. This needs a bit more time. Quite friendly for a young Nebbiolo. Well balanced. Delicious fruit, and long. Not hugely Neb, but a good wine in its own right. 90 points, good value.

2009 Steenberg Nebbiolo, Constantia, South Africa (14.5%, £28.67, Armit Wines)

Dark, medium depth of colour. Attractive fruity nose (black cherry) with a touch of toasty oak. Quite oaky, sweet fruit. Tannins really build on the finish (quite drying without food). Acidity is quite pointed too. Not that complex, but savoury, enjoyable and identifiable as Nebbiolo. 90 points, just about fair value.

2009 Trentham La Famiglia Nebbiolo, New South Wales, Australia (13%, £10.79, SH Jones)

Mid ruby. High toned, enticing spicy nose. Expressive, aromatic and smoky. Star anise and clove. This has some complexity. Medium to full-bodied, quite mature, autumn leaves and sweet plummy fruit – bit too sweet perhaps. Lovely mouthfeel, tannins surprisingly low for a Nebbiolo. Good acidity though, and nicely balanced. Very expressive, lots to enjoy. 89 points, good value.

2010 First Drop ‘The Big Blind’ Nebbiolo Barbera, Adelaide Hills, Australia (14%, £20.99, Hennings Wine Merchants)

Medium ruby. Fair whack of oak on the nose, smells quite high-toned and a bit smoky. Fruit opens up after time. Flavours like old wood, dried black fruits. Full bodied and intense. Lots of extraction of fruit and tannin. Long. Certainly interesting, some complexity, but showing some unusual aromas for Nebbiolo. The more I taste it the more I like it. 89 points, fair value.

2006 L.A. Cetto Nebbiolo Private Reserve, Baja California, Mexico (14%, £12.95, Albion Wine Shippers)

Dark, opaque black/purple. Sweet black cherry fruit, touch of lemon and that slightly smoky Nebbiolo tang some equate to hot tar. Takes a while to open up. Full-bodied, lots of ripe tannin. Grippy on the finish, a touch grainy, and a little bit boozy. Long, intense cherry fruit and a bit oaky. Good, if a bit ungainly. Warmer climate? Lacks a bit of that Nebbiolo perfume. 88 points, good value.

2008 Barboursville Nebbiolo Reserve, Virginia, USA (13.5%, £24.06, Christopher Piper Wines)

Transparent mahogany, clearly has a few years behind it. Lot of new oak – a bit shoe polish/varnishy. Sweet ripe fruit and very full-bodied. Alcohol is kept in check, but big drying tannins on the finish. Not terribly resolved, a bit disjointed at present. 86 points, poor value.

2006 Viña Alicia Nebbiolo Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina (15%, £44.00, Ruta 40)

Opaque black/purple. Sweaty/meaty nose. Full-bodied, ripe fruit, explosively flavoursome. Shedloads of ripe tannin. High alcohol – a bit aggressive in fact, and not obviously Nebbiolo. All just too much, a might be hard to get through more than a glass of this. 85 points, poor value.

First published on www.timatkin.com.