Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Nebbiolo—Italy’s Noble (and finicky) Grape

Most people who know me at the store will attest to my love of Italian wines. So it was inevitable that I’d write about Italy’s noblest of grapes, Nebbiolo. It is essentially found only in the region of Piedmont, in northwestern Italy at the foot of the Alps, and is grown almost nowhere else in Italy or in the world for that matter—only a few small and relatively unsuccessful attempts in the U.S, Australia, South America, and Mexico. That is because the region’s unique continental climate tempered by the Tanaro River combined with the soil type cannot be replicated anywhere else.

Nebbiolo is derived from nebbia, which is Piedmontese for the fog that envelopes the region during harvest in October. It dates back to the fourteenth century, and plantings in the region increased until around 1860, when phylloxera wiped many vineyards. Many were replanted with other varietals, especially Barbera. Nebbiolo is the first grape in the region to bud and the last to ripen, being harvested in mid to late October, long after the more prevalent Dolcetto and Barbera. It needs to be planted on south and southwestern facing slopes at an altitude of 820 to 1500 feet. It is susceptible to coulure (failure to form fruit after flowering), is genetically unstable with frequent mutations, and is very sensitive to soil type. It is so difficult to grow that only about 3% of Piedmont’s (and therefore, the world’s) production consists of Nebbiolo wines.

So why bother with such a temperamental grape? Because the WINES…oh my God, the wines! The wines produced, especially those from the tiny DOCGs of Barolo and Barbaresco, begin as lightly colored, very tannic, highly acidic wines with characteristic aromatics of roses and tar. After proper aging (and some of these wines require ten years and many improve over forty years), they transform into majestic, complex wines, intensely aromatic with notes of tar, roses, violets cherries, tobacco, herbs, and raspberries on the nose and palate. The characteristic almost brick–orange color and medium body belies the complexity and power that sits in the glass before you. These wines are among the most extraordinary in the world.

Nebbiolo wines are made with traditional or more modern methods, resulting in very different wines. The traditional methods include long maceration (20 to 30 days) and maturation in older large barrels. Modern methods include shorter maceration at cooler temperatures and aging in small new oak barrels, resulting in wines that are more approachable earlier. Many producers are now combining the techniques with good success.

Nebbiolo wines are produced mainly in the Lange appellation of Piedmont, and the most famous come from the vineyards surrounding the small towns of Babaresco and Barolo. Barbarescos are a bit lighter and more elegant of the two, and DOCG rules require that they are aged in oak at least nine months and a total of at least twenty-one for ormale wines and forty-five for Riservas. Barolos are more powerful and require one year of oak aging and at least thirty-six months total aging for the normale and a whopping fifty-seven months for the Riservas. With the tiny amount of plantings and the fact that a producer’s wines may not be sold until up to almost five years after vinifying them, it’s small wonder that they are so pricey on the shelf. Consequently, it’s hard to find a decent Barolo or Barbaresco for under $35.00, and you are more likely to pay over $50.00 or $60.00. Some of the great producers command hundreds of dollars for their wines, and they still sell out quickly.

We have lots of great Barolos in the store. Brovia is a great one, with the entry level 2010 selling for $51.99. However the otherworldy Brovia Rocche 2008, rated 96 points by Critic Robert Parker, will cost you $94.99. The Ceretto 2010 DOCG Barolo 2010 and Barbaresco 2011 are wonderful to taste side by side at 59.99 each. The Vietti Barolo 2010 Castiglione is wonderful at $52.99. Finally, if you want to taste what a Barolo or Barbaresco tastes like without breaking the bank, Natale Verga makes very good, if not world class, examples for $27.99 and $24.99.

Nebbiolo wines are being made from younger vines and vinified by more modern techniques. They are very approachable young and are delicious (and much more affordable), often being a bit bigger in fruit than the more traditional wines and they are delicious! Eugenio Bocchino’s Roccabella Nebbiolo 2012 is fantastic at $20.99. Vietti Perbacco 2011 at $25.99 is worth every penny. Rivetto makes a nice lighter version for $18.99.

If you want to venture outside of Langhe to the far northern reaches of Piedmont, the areas of Gheme and Gattinara make wonderful Nebbiolo wines that are a bit lighter and earthier. Travaglini Gattinara is awesome at $33.99.

While Nebbiolo wines are not cheap, they are incredibly good. Anyone truly interested in experiencing the best the wine world has to offer needs to try them. Cheers!

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