Nebbiolo: Seeking Wines With Stories To Tell
Mike Dunne, A Year in Wine, June 29, 2012Under a bright white marquee on a patio just outside the tasting room, they first chirped inquisitively, apprehensively and affectionately about their favorite black grape, then they hopped over to tables on which were spread some 20 examples of wines made from the grape. They looked into their wine glasses as if searching for sediment they could read like tea leaves, hoping to find answers to the question that has puzzled California grape growers and winemakers for decades: Does this grape and the wines made from it have a future in the state?
"Nebs" are members of Nebbiolo Enthusiasts & Believers (NEB), a casual group of farmers, vintners and wine enthusiasts who, as their nickname suggests, form the leading tip of a movement to better understand the grape they regard with an abiding admiration and curiosity, nebbiolo.
Nebbiolo is grown principally in Italy, mostly in the northwest province of Piemonte, where it is responsible for the wines Barbaresco and Barolo, widely seen as the most noble grapes the country produces, though growers and winemakers in the Chianti Classico district of Tuscany are likely to quibble with that conclusion.
Though nebbiolo is grown in a few places outside Italy, its wines from elsewhere haven't come close to receiving the acclaim given Barbaresco and Barolo, but the "nebs" are undaunted, hopeful if not quite convinced that the grape and the wines it yields someday will find a receptive place and audience in California.
They're a stubborn group, preferring to look beyond innate difficulties in tending nebbiolo's vines and in the uneven history of wines made from them in California. Indeed, the impetus to create NEB came about a few years ago when noted wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. claimed that nebbiolo was a failure in California, recalled Tom Hill, a longtime New Mexico wine enthusiast who has been instrumental in rallying nebbiolo boosters. (He's being assisted by Ken Musso, winemaker/partner of the winery Due Vigne di Famiglia of Napa, which has a stand of nebbiolo at Garden Valley in El Dorado County.) Parker's remark irked a handful of California growers and vintners who see possibilities in nebbiolo. As a consequence, three years ago they began to meet to swap insight and to measure the varietal's progress in the state - or lack of it - by opening and tasting several bottles.
|Grocer Darrell Corti lectures the "nebs"|
He'd brought along an unfair ally to drive home his point, a bottle of the 1970 Gaja Barbaresco, which demonstrated with its dark, haunting, multi-layered concentration and enthralling vitality just how grand a nebbiolo-based wine can be. Nebbiolo virtually was unheard of in California when the Gaja was made. Corti also brought alone the oldest example of California nebbiolo he could find in his cellar, a 1975 made by Cary Gott, founder of Montevina Winery not far from Karmere. It was a genuine antique, to be admired for its workmanship and its sturdy, enduring lines, but it wasn't a wine of complexity, freshness or charm. It had good bones, but the flesh that may have made it alluring early on was sagged and pale.
As to more contemporary California takes on nebbiolo, they represented the full range of nebbiolo's strengths and weaknesses. Nebbiolo produces an orange-tinged wine so faint of color that it often can be taken - or mistaken - as a rose. Nevertheless, its tannins are as rigid and demanding as an old-school nun. They're forboding, but beyond them lurks a core of playful cherry fruitiness. Many of them echoed an 1885 assessment of nebbiolo by California wine authorities that Corti mentioned; it predicted that nebbiolo yielded wines too tannic, too low in color and too high in acidty to succeed in California.
|Participants help themselves to assorted nebbiolos|
Might rose be nebbiolo's best shot at establishing a following in California? Perhaps, to judge by both the plushness and length of a 2006 rendition by Rosa d'Oro in Lake County, still very much alive after all these years, and a surprisingly accessible and fresh 2011 by Madrona Vineyards. I suspect, however, that nebs won't be happy to have nebbiolo relegated to rose stature; it produces a seriously sophisticated wine in Piemonte, and California fans aren't likely to be satisfied with anything less, even if it isn't Barbaresco or Barolo.
The wines were tasted open, and as I made my way through the lineup I was most surprised to find that the smoother, more complex, more accessible and better balanced California nebbiolos tended to be from San Luis Obispo County. It could be that nebbiolo in San Luis Obispo County generally is planted in areas that while warm nonetheless are influenced by at least occasional fog, as are nebbiolo vineyards in Piemonte. The name "nebbiolo," in fact, is thought to stem from the Italian "nebbia," for "fog" or "mist."
While several of the California wines struggled to butt into the conversation with a coherent comment, the Italian contingent on hand was at ease with what it had to say, which generally ran to statements about sweet cherry fruit, a quiet complexity, and a stretched-out finish, despite their grippy tannins. Whether nebbiolo grown in California can produce similarly cohesive and approachable wines remains to be seen, but the nebs are confident it can and already are planning a migration next year to Paso Robles.