Apart from Pinot Noir (‘Holy Grail’ #1) Nebbiolo seems to be the only other grape variety whose wines cause people to cluster into little sects to wonder and argue over its characters and complexities - and occasionally its cost. The other acknowledged members of the worlds’s Premier League of grape varieties - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Riesling and Chardonnay – just don’t evoke this phenomenon, these passions. This is why it’s regarded as the other ‘Holy Grail’; because that elusive challenge to make a great wine to rival those fabled reds of Piedmont’s Langhe has echoes of a similar yearning to emulate Burgundy’s greatest Pinots.
So why Nebbiolo and how is this quest going?
To start with, the world stirred to Nebbiolo rather later than Burgundy and the chase warmed up some 20 plus years later. What we began to realise was that behind this often tough exterior (those tannins) could be a fascinating wine, with a variety of thrills and nuances that could vary from one piece of soil to the other. The increasingly well made wines from this blessed part of Piedmont, in Italy’s North East, started to alert us to such an array of aromas, flavours, mouthfeels and finishes and intriguing variations from comune to comune and from vineyard to, often adjacent, vineyard. Is any other wine, even Burgundy, able to boast a lexicon of 40 plus descriptors? There’s flowers – roses, in fresh, dried, fading or wild form, and violets. Herbs, like rosemary, sage and various mints are described for many comunes and sub plots. An array of spices, whether fresh or dried, like cinnamon, clove, anise and pepper are frequently described. Fruits, like raspberry and cherries in various forms (fresh, dark, dried, sour, jam or liqueur), are the most frequently cited and others nuances, of oranges, other citrus and peach and peach, may help a Nebb nut identify the wine of a very particular terroir. Then there’s chocolate, earth, fennel, root vegetable, mushroom/porcini/truffle, raisin, prune, leather, soot, graphite, stock and…had enough? What have we left out? How about the ‘ethereal’ and perhaps more evocative ones – smoke, menthol, lipstick and lace. Crazy, delusional or just plain wanky?
So on the subject of where Nebb's at in Oz; shall we just say that the best efforts so far, from the likes of Pizzini, Langhi Ghiran, Arrivo and Steve Pannel, are mostly highly encouraging and would fare quite well if compared to any others from around the world – but still well short of the heartland wines of Barolo, Barbaresco, Langhe and Roero. So far these and the senior wines of Nebbiolo’s other little pockets of Italy’s north east – Gattinara, Ghemme and Carema in Piemonte and the Valtellina in nearby Lombardia – are simply too complete, too complex, fascinating and charismatic, compared to ours.
This fascination may not be for everyone, it might be just too much detail – but is it for you? Maybe not, if either that tannin is just too tough for you, or Nebbiolo wines are maybe not quite all-purpose enough for your daily use? Or maybe it’s just not your scene to pay $100, or more (much more, for the most recognized Barolo and Barbarescos)? But can we participate at a more economical price these days? Looking increasingly so – and most of these economy models are coming from Nebbs heartland.
Pinot Noir evolved and became more accessible and affordable not so much from its spiritual home of Burgundy, but rather from winemakers in New Zealand, California, Oregon and some parts of Victoria, provided not only juicier Pinot, but increasingly wines which had some of the complexities and thrill of the greats. Not as great as the greats, but certainly satisfying and even stimulating drinks at a fraction of the cost (of most Burgundy). It’s panning out that Nebbiolo’s popularization and accessibility is being driven from within and now it is frankly possible to get wines with more than just a fleeting touch of Barolo and Barbaresco. Just have a look at some of the wines on Mercato’s ‘Big Nebb’ offer. For around $50 wines like the Nebbiolo d’Alba or Langhe of Luigi Pira, Paitin or Vietti offer a real glimpse at Barolo, with their earthy, mushroom and fennel notes and the vivid red Bera echoes the raspberry and flowers of Barbaresco. Well under $50 there are also some superb, convincing wines; the stars being Azelia, close enough to the juicy dark red fruits of Barolo’s Castiglione Falletto or the best buy of all, the Giribaldi ‘Conca d’Oro’ a remarkable value which offers, raisin, dried herbs and evolution to open up to Barolo’s telltale fennel seed.
So no need to hold back!
These are also, just by the way, strong hints to Oz makers of Nebbiolo about keeping the prices affordable. We don’t need to pay them top dollar while they’re in the development stage? It’s about value. Nebbiolo can be value indeed.