About The Author:

"Roger, The Wine Guy" is Roger Yazell, CWS. He is a member of the International Wine Guild and has had a long time admiration of wine. After careers in broadcasting, advertising and marketing account management, he explored his love of wine in hospitality, wholesale and retail sales. The intent of Roger's Grapevine is to share stories, history and information that will add to the reader's love, enjoyment and appreciation of wine and sake'.

Questions, requests for topics and comments are always welcome via email: rogerthewineguy@gmail.com.

(Note: The Wine Guy is currently undergoing chemotherapy and this blog will be on hiatus for the duration and into a recovery period. The Wine Guy is planning to celebrate his recovery with a trip to the two wine producing regions in Argentina and that should provide for some interesting new blogs. Meanwhile please enjoy the archives and feel free to email in the interim.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Nebbiolo: "A finicky grape that makes fabulous wine"

Wine consumers who have seen the movie “Sideways” may well remember Miles elaborating on the difficulty in growing Pinot Noir and the care needed in making a good Pinot Noir wine. There is, however, another grape that outdoes this popular grape in being “finicky” to grow. It also presents bold challenges in winemaking but it rewards the patient with some of the best aromatic and best aging wines in the world. That grape is nebbiolo.

Nebbiolo is principally grown in the Peidmont region of Italy but is also utilized in Italy’s Lombardy and Valle d’Aosta regions. In some parts of Italy, it also answers to the names Spanna, Picutener and Chiavenessa. There is some debate over whether the Nebbiolo name derives from the Italian word “nebbia” which means fog or the Italian word “nobile” meaning noble. Certainly the presence of fog in the regions where the best example of Nebbiolo wines comes from is a factor in the quality of grapes harvested (not unlike Miles’ beloved Pinot Noir!). There is also a milky clouding to maturing Nebbiolo grapes that could be described as fog-like. The noble connotation would certainly apply to the quality of the wines produced and to its historical regard, particularly by the British prior to the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century. Prior to that, many Brits had turned to Nebbiolo as an alternative to fine Bordeaux as their many conflicts with the French made them seek viable alternatives.

Today, however, Nebbiolo accounts for only single digit percentages of the vineyard grapes in its Piedmont homeland but it does produce some of its finest wines. Nebbiolo d’Alba, Barolo, Babaresco, Gattinara and Ghemme are among the wines that owe their strength and character to this grape. This grape produces lightly colored but bold wines that can be highly tannic (and, sometimes almost bitter in their youth). They are always aromatic, even more so with ageing and the wines can take on a uniquely characteristic reddish-orange hue at the edge as they age. Aromas and flavors that have been identified in these wines include, Roses, violets, tar, wild herbs, red fruits, truffles, tobacco and even rich prunes. The wines are often capable of developing after ageing for more than a decade.

The terroir in the Piedmont is very well suited to this grape, as it grows best in highly calcareous soils. It is a grape that is very early to bud but very late to harvest. Harvest occurs in mid to late October, when the weather is colder, not only challenging the harvest but the length of time required in fermentation as well. (Modern technology has helped address some of that difficulty but most Nebbiolo winemakers moderate the usage of technology controls during fermentation as it tends to weaken some of the stronger characteristics of the grape.) It also susceptible to buds not developing into fruit especially if exposed to a lot of wetness during the bud development stage. Excessive wetness during ripening can also have a negative impact on the quality of the grapes. Add to that a genetic instability that makes it prone to mutation and you’ve got a grape that is very challenging to grow and very challenging to make wine from.

Patience and effort are usually rewarded, however, with some of Italy’s finest red wine. The best Barolos can challenge Brunello di Montalcino for the right to be called the King of Italian wines. They are bold, expressive wines, with long, lingering finishes and rival Brunello in the ability to age and develop when properly cellared. Barollos must be aged a minimum of 1 year in oak and 3 years in total with 57 months required to achieve Riserva status. The lighter Barbaresco requires 9 months on oak with 21 months total aging with 45 months needed for a Riserva. The care and time needed in these wines plus their limited production does add to the cost. While many good examples can be found under $40.00, the cost of the very best of these wines rises rapidly and may reach into the four-figure range.

Italy is the primary source for Nebbiolo and certainly the dominant one in terms of both quantity and quality. Scatterings of Nebbiolo have occurred in Australia, California, New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa but with very limited acclaim as to the results. The most productive area for Nebbiolo outside Italy is Baja Norte in Mexico principally under one producer, L.A. Cetto. The Nebbiolo Riserva produced there is also quite singular in having achieved a consistent measure of critical acclaim. Many of my fellow bloggers have referred to it as the best Nebbiolo made outside Italy. I would concur. I also don’t mind its affordability when I can find it.

Here are a few other affordable recommendations from The Wine Guy for wines you may want to try if you’re interested in exploring Nebbiolo.

Michele Chiarlo Barolo Toroniano

Michele Chiarlo Barbaresco

Produttori di Barbaresco Nebbiolo Delle Langhe

Pio Cesare Nebbiolo d’ Alba

Fontanfredda Barbaresco Cuvee

L.A. Cetto Nebbiolo Riserva Privada

All are Italian with the exception of the last which is the Mexican wine I referred to earlier. That one may be hard for many of you to find. The Wine Guy always has a bottle whenever he travels to Mexico and I invariably return with one (Mrs. Wine Guy, who loves Italian wine, will always insist that I do). If you plan to travel to Mexico, it’s worth the effort to try to do the same.

One final tip: Nebbiolo is a very tannic wine when young, so be prepared to be patient and devote the appropriate decanting time to allow the wine to air and soften before consuming. At least an hour or more would be my minimum recommendation on most of the choices above. If you find one you enjoy, and you have storage capabilities, buy some for now and some to cellar. Then, continue to restock the cellar as you pull an older wine that has aged and further developed.


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