Nebbiolo – the mysterious and temperamental grape from NW italy – is on the rise at the moment; with an increasing number of people discovering the traditional styles from the piedmont region and an ever increasing number of Australian winemakers starting to have a more serious crack at it.
In concert with the customer interest that I’m seeing at the moment, I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the last year or so trying to ‘get to know it’ a little better, so I thought it’s about time for a blog to shed some light on it.
One of the reasons (aside from that whole ‘parenting of a newborn’ thing) why I’ve been a bit more subdued on the blog over the last couple of months has been my application for a wine industry fellowship called ‘Working with Wine’, which aims to both educate the Australian wine trade on international style and recognise the highest performers with some pretty epic wine-education opportunities. I wrote a piece on the first session earlier in the year and with the second session focussing on Nebbiolo I’ve been studying hard and felt like I should capture some of this in a blog
So why all the hype?
For me, the current momentum around Nebbiolo is reflective of a broader move towards the ‘savoury’ in Australian palates; coinciding with the rise in value of the AUD over the last 5+ years and the subsequent explosion in cheap european options on our shelves. Nebbiolo is at once aromatic and brooding, with dancing acidity and muscular tannin. At first it can be a little hard to love; particularly the inimitable (and most would say the only true) expressions produced from it’s homeland.
Whilst the oft quoted mantra is that ‘Nebbiolo doesn’t travel well’, I’m going to challenge the relevance of that statement due to the role it’s playing in helping Australians look outside the common varietals and explore different flavours and textures. I’ll address this directly: It’s unlikely that Aussie neb will have the same structure , weight and depth that nebbiolo finds in Piedmont anytime in the near future – but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as there is nothing that says it needs to!
One of the many reasons for the difference is that the Italians have had a few thousand years head-start when it comes to finding out which grapes work in which sites, and with Nebbiolo being a particularly difficult varietal to grow the following anecdote should help explain things a little.
One of the most insightful parts of the Working with Wine Nebbiolo session came thanks to a member of the audience – Joel Pizzini of the King Valley ‘Pizzini’ winemaking dynasty (and a cellar door that you should not miss if you are in the region). While both Joel and panel member Joe Grilli (of Primo Estate) outlined the trials and tribulations that their families had experienced while trying to grow Nebbiolo, it was Joel’s story which best captured the masochistic experimentation that is required to learn a new grape.
The family first planted the varietal in ’83, with the first commercial release in 90-91. For many years they experimented with pruning methods to bring consistency to the harvest but instead ended up wildly varying yields from year to year. After working out how to prune for consistent yields, they discovered that they had a less-than-optimal clonal mix of vines and upgraded to better nebbiolo clones. After more years they found that the fully ripe grapes were almost exclusively located along ridges and they then planted more grapes along ridges that had the right soil structure. When you consider that every experiment/failure costs you a year of harvest and that it can take several years to be able to detect a trend, you start to understand just what has gone into making these wines (and why the Pizzini’s make such great versions of Nebbiolo).
I get a lot of enquiries about Australian Nebbiolo at the moment because people are really enjoying the aromatics found in these styles, while introducing themselves to wines that are chewier and more bitter than they would see from better know varietals. Rushing people into a full throttle Barolo would be alienating – until you get used to them these wines can seem angular and aggressive (but if you work up to it then it all makes much more sense). It’s not a matter of pretentious ‘appreciation’, simply what you like and what you’re used to – just remember what you thought about the flavour when you had your first ever sip of beer.
Keen to try some wines? Here are a few wines that LTLT recommends are worth your attention:
LTLT customers would be well familiar with the wines of Steve ‘SC’ Pannell, and his Adelaide Hills Nebbiolo ($50) is one of the finest examples in Australia – with a true-to-varietal flavour profile and lip-smacking savouriness. The 2010 has a greater tannin weight than previous years – showing that Steve is developing a more ‘serious’ style and bringing his customers along with him for the ride; it’s exciting stuff. For those looking to ‘dip the toe’ and spend a little less, he’s released an entry level Nebbiolo under his ‘by SCP‘ label and at $26.50 it’s a great way to meet the flavours.
As an introduction to the Italian style, it’s hard to go past the 2011 Matteo Correggia Roero Nebbiolo ($30). Coming from the Northern side of the Tanaro river that runs through Nebbiolo’s heartland near Alba, it’s textbook Neb but with the bitterness and tannin held in check. It’s also absolutely fantastic value and a fine accompaniment to a huge number of foods.
Taking a step up in quality, the 2010 Gianfranco Alessandria Barolo ($70) is a fantastic introduction to the king of Italian grapes from the region that it performs better than anywhere else, with aromatics that leap out of the glass and a beautiful palate core of cherries, briary wood, and warm brown spices. To drink it is pure joy, everything in its right place and it’s just deeeeeeelicious (not to mention very, very well priced for the quality).