May 19, 2020 – Published in Design & Decor Spring 2013 issue
Nebbiolo & Piedmont
Words: Albert Cilia-Vincenti
The Langhe hills in Piedmont (Piemonte – literally, “foot of the mountain”) are the spiritual home of Italy’s greatest indigenous grape, Nebbiolo, of Barolo and Barbaresco wine appellations, the former regarded as Italy’s greatest red wine. These two wine areas are divided by the river Tanaro and the city of Alba, with Barolo being two and half times larger than Barbaresco.
The name Nebbiolo is usually said to derive from the word nebbia (fog), which is common in September and October in Piedmont, when Nebbiolo is at last ripening. In the 19th century it was far more widely planted in Piedmont than it is today but, when phylloxera wiped out the vineyards, growers took the opportunity to replant with Barbera, which yields more generously and more reliably. Nebbiolo now covers only about 6% of Piedmont vineyards, hogging the warmest sites because it needs them – its colleagues Barbera and Dolcetto can be picked and fermented before Nebbiolo is ready to harvest.
Like Burgundy’s Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo is difficult for both grower and drinker. Bad bottles abound. Like Pinot, home is a region of limestone hills and doesn’t much like leaving home. Although there are already noteworthy new world Pinot Noir challengers to red Burgundy, no Nebbiolo grown outside Italy yet remotely resembles that of Piedmont. Like Pinot, it inspires irrational devotion among those who have seen the light. So what’s all the fuss about? Again, similar to Pinot, a strange combination of alluring subtle perfumed scents combining fruits, stones and flowers. Unlike Pinot, however, Nebbiolo matches all this with generous mouth-puckering tannins and high acidity, and it is the latter two taste characteristics that makes Nebbiolo-based wines such a fearsome challenge for the unwary. The reward is wines of unique gastronomic authority and intrinsic complexity.
Piedmont has been through years of ferment as it tried to determine how best to coax out Nebbiolo’s undoubted beauty. Traditionalists and modernists have raged at each other as they tried to unlock Nebbiolo’s splendour without resorting to the all-too-common international methods of over-extraction, over-ripeness and over-oaking. Ancient vinification faults have been replaced by the modern faults of excess zeal and excess pride. And out of all the tumult will come more good, and some great wine – but not that much great wine. Nebbiolo is not an easy grape to handle, nor will it ever be, and producers with the sensitivity, the subtlety and the skill to tease out the grape into greatness are few and far between.
Officially, Barolo and Barbaresco are 100% Nebbiolo, although some tasters claim to have noted smells of Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah in Barolo; others have pointed to the suspiciously deep colours in wines from this rather poorly coloured grape. Some go so far as to suggest that Barbera was the traditional blending grape in Barolo, although no one admits to doing so.
In 1998 there was a proposal to make it legal to add 10-15% of other grapes to Barbaresco, but the idea got a bad press and was discarded, although some commentators believe that it’s being done on the quiet.
The traditional view is that not only does Nebbiolo age well, but that it needs ageing for decades to be drinkable. However, modern Nebbiolo is approachable young. The classic description of Nebbiolo’s scent is tar and roses – sounds an improbable combination, but Nebbiolo is an improbable grape, combining lots of tannin with high acidity and some of the most complex, exotic red wine scents. Th ere is often a certain austerity about Barolo and Barbaresco, though it is less common in wines from modernist producers where the fruit is fleshier and rounded out by ageing in new oak barriques. Barolo and Barbaresco should, however, not smell strongly of new oak – any wine from anywhere can do this, but only Nebbiolo has this extraordinary haunting aroma – to mask it with addon scents is to lose the point of the wine completely.
Barbaresco is supposed to be lighter than Barolo, but there are as many differences between the wines and communes in Barolo as there are between Barolo and Barbaresco themselves. Lighter wines from both regions may be at their best before their 10th birthday, but the top most concentrated ones should probably not be drunk before about 8 years old, and will easily live 20 to 30 years. Th e wine name Barbaresco was introduced only as recent as 1894, although the locals always knew what they had and knew the best hillside vineyards. So today, as in Barolo, one sees numerous Barbaresco bottlings designating single vineyard origin. Nebbiolo, like Pinot Noir, is immensely expressive, and these vineyard differences are evident and distinctive even to interested outsiders.
In our “Il-Qatra” blind-tasting wine club we recently tasted four Nebbiolo wines during dinner at the Radisson Blu in St Julian’s. Giacomo Conterno’s Barolo Cascina Francia 2000 (14% alcohol) was the last preference of the general score. Th is producer is ultra-traditionalist and his Barolos are said to last for decades. Th is Barolo gets very high ratings in both Italy and internationally. I found only a faint nose with a hint of shellfish at times, but it had very little of special note in its palate and length. It came from the same source and storage conditions as the Sandrone wine, so these factors cannot be blamed for its poor performance with our members. Th e reason must be the strictly traditional winemaking style which appears to be a loser with the majority. It is a good example of how careful one needs to be sometimes about relying too much on international critics’ ratings rather than on one’s own judgment – and not seeing the label beforehand helps.
Mario Marengo’s Nebbiolo D’Alba Valmaggiore 2007 (13%), the overall third preference, gets reasonable critic ratings, but it came across to me as a simple wine with no special merits – apart from the fact it was the cheapest.
Aldo Conterno’s Barolo 2004 (14.5%) had a very refined nose, lovely balance, a gentle palate and good length. It was the members’ second preference. This wine gets good ratings in wine guides (e.g., Gambero Rosso “Due Bicchieri”) and is “good value”. Although Aldo’s Barolo style is considered traditional, because of ageing in large Slavonian oak, other vinification aspects are more modern. His other single vineyard Barolos are very highly rated.
Luciano Sandrone’s Barolo Cannubi Boschis 2003 (14%) had a refined fruity nose, probably the best one of this bunch, with lovely balance to the palate and good length, and was the overall 1st preference. Sandrone is a leading exponent of the modern style in Piedmont, and this wine is very highly rated in Italy and internationally.