Thursday, June 28, 2012

Nebbiolo: Is There Charm Beyond The Wall?

With the nervous energy of a small flock of hungry birds, "nebs" descended on Karmere Vineyards & Winery in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley the other day.

Vintner Paul Bush approves his rose for pouring
Under 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"
At the Karmere gathering, about 20 examples of nebbiolo wines were tasted, including a couple of rare antiques contributed by Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, who at the outset of the session lectured on the history and aspirations of nebbiolo. His conclusion on nebbiolo's prospects in California: Whatever comes of it here, it won't be Barbaresco or Barolo, but the wines probably could be very good, especially if they are made somewhat in the style of pinot noir - light, graceful, charming. "It may be possible to make a new product, a good wine, and sometimes it may be like Barolo," said Corti at his most optimistic.

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
Nevertheless, several interpretations were bright colored and aromatic, their smell often more floral than fruity. At their best they possessed a nuttiness in flavor not far removed from sherry, and a structure that would make them perfect foils for the juiciest sausages and richest rib-eye steaks. Their fruit could be ripe and sweet if fleeting, while their tannins almost without exception were grippy. Their finishes were more abrupt than lingering. Even a 10-year-old nebbiolo brought by Paul Bush of Madrona Vineyards on Apple Hill in El Dorado County was still as hard as Sierra granite, though not without sunny fruit.

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.


  1. wow i would love to have been there

  2. Was there last year, Somehow missed it this time, thought I am still an enthusiast...see you guys and gals next year.

  3. I have made serious Nebbiolo since 1990. I have a good collection of Barolos from special vintages. I have tasted quite a few Nebbiolos from four comtinents literally around the world. I was chosen by the Italian Govt to speak at the first World Conference on Nebbiolo in 2004 (on their "dime"). That event was held in Sondrio (Lombardy) Italy where the grape actually originated. The wineries from Piedmonte had to travel to attend. (The second conference in 2006 was held in Piedmonte).
    Let me say that this grape is far and away the most difficult to grow and the wine is most difficult to make. The best place in California to grow this in on Napa Avenue east of the square in the town of Sonoma in Sonoma Valley just north of Carneros where the fog settles in early evenings and early mornings. But it has very warm afternoons.
    Less than one half of the vintages would produce wines that could stand up to Barolos or Barbarescos. Another vintage or two might produce simple Nebbiolos. Several vintages did not produce anything other than a generic blender. I have aged five vintages between 42 and 54 months to produce real Barolo styled wines over a 19 year span and another four more Barbaresco styled wines. The 1992, 1994, 1995, 2001 (chosen by the Italians to show at the first conference), the 2003 and 2004s were all very good and correct vintages. The 1992 is quite a spectacular world class wine today!

  4. Here's another place where New World Nebbiolo is promising: the Guadalupe Valley in Baja California near Ensenada. I have been consulting about three years now with a winery there named Villa Montefiori, owned by Paolo Paolonni, an Italian. He has been successful with Sangiovese, Montepulciano, and Aglianico, among other varieties. He has planted some Neb, and we made a couple of barrels last vintage that seemed excellent when I last visited there in March. He also bought a couple of tons from a vineyard in a valley about 60 miles south of there (not remembering the name right now), but these barrels were also showing well.