Sunday, January 10, 2021

King Nebbiolo

 "Wine is like the incarnation and it is both divine and human."  Paul Tillich, existentialist philosopher


Recent Barolo Vintages - 2014, 2015 And The Promise Of A Memorable 2016
In the Piedmont hils

For as long as I have been writing about wine, more than 50 years, Barolo has been proclaimed the "king" of Piedmont red wines.

Simply put, Barolo is at the head of the Piedmont realm.  Barolo is considered by many to be the best expression of the Nebbiolo grape.  Barolo and Nebbiolo is the only royal team in Italy to challenge the country's other royalty: Sangiovese and the members of its court, Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

In Italy's northern region of Piedmont, Nebbiolo is the grape, not only for Barolo, but also Barbaresco, a noble red that some say is equal to Barolo.  And it is these two great wines that is the subject of this essay. 

The name Nebbiolo is derived from nebbia, the Italian word for fog.  Before the grape got its present name, it went through many clonal variations. The first written mention of Nebbiolo was in the 13th century and by the 19th century, the grape was widely planted in Piedmont.  

Think of that: Written records showing that the same grape (or close to it) has been planted in the same part of Italy for 600 years!

At first blush, Nebbiolo is not a grape that causes wine drinkers to gush about how great it is.  In the wrong hands, Nebbiolo can make a hard wine that hides its lush fruit behind a wall of tannin.  And the acidity, well, it can make your mouth water!  But then, there is the intriguing scent of roses, mingled with an earthy note of road tar, as improbable as that may sound. 

Although these pluses and minuses are to be found in the best examples of Barolo and Barbaresco, Nebbiolo also shines in Gattinara and Ghemme and the lesser known Roero and Valtellina.  But more latter on Nebbiolo's other faces. 

Barolo --  The modern history of Barolo is, of course, full of Italian drama.  At its core, are five townships, including the area around the village of Barolo.  In 1934, the local commission established a new definition of the zone, dropping the townships of Barolo and Castiglione Falletto.  The error was corrected by DOC decree in 1966, with DOCG status granted latter.

Much has been written about the stylistic differences in Barolos from one township to the other and the two soil types that define these differences. The vineyards of La Morra and Barolo are rich with a calcareous marl, producing a softer more aromatic wine, while the soils in the other three townships -- Montforte d'Alba, Serralunga d'Alba, Castiglione Falletto -- are less fertile with more sandstone, yielding more intense wines that age more slowly. 

1,096 Nebbiolo Grape Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos from  Dreamstime
A large cluster of "blue" Nebbiolo grapes

Barolo is 100% Nebbiolo and is required by DOCG rules to be aged a total of 38 months, 18 of which must be in oak.  Until the 1970s, the practice in Barolo was to ferment in large old oak.  Younger winemakers began to look at ways to mitigate Nebbiolo's tannins, adopting the use of small French oak barriques (Bordeaux type 59 gallon barrels).  This change caused many old timers to say that an Italian red wine aged in French oak, is no longer "Italian."

Barbaresco -- For years, this rich and powerful red wine from the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, was not thought to be the equal to Barolo.  That changed in the 1960s as the wine world found Barbaresco, based on Nebbiolo, to be a complex wine of interest and not a "Baby Barolo."

Bruno Giacosa and Giovanni Gaja, and later his son, Angelo, demonstrated the potential of Nebbiolo in Barbaresco.  As in Barolo, soils are important, with calcareous clay soil producing wines with more forward fruit flavors, and marl composed soil yielding more tannic wines. 

Gaia Gaja: I want to play by the rules
Gaia Gaja with her eponymous Chardonnay

Personal aside --  In wine, like any other discipline, change can be difficult to accept, especially when you have made wine under one set of unchanging rules. In the 1980s, I asked Angelo Gaja, at his winery in Barbaresco, about the introduction of his Gaia & Rey Chardonnay.  The French variety is not permitted under DOCG Barbaresco.  Gaja said his father objected to releasing a Chardonnay under the Gaja name, because the grape was not authorized in DOC Barbaresco and, "he wouldn't taste my Chardonnay for a long time."

Another difference in the Barolo/Barbaresco comparison are the required aging times.  Barbaresco is required to age a minimum of 26 months, with at least nine months in oak, compared with 38 and 18 for Barolo.  Barbaresco Riserva is aged a minimum of 50 months. 

Generally speaking, Barbaresco is lighter and ages faster than Barolo, but grape source and wine making styles are the controlling factors. Barbaresco is known for the delicate scent of violets, often with citrus zest and road tar accents.  The presence of these characteristics, of course, can be muted by too much new oak. 

French Oak Barrels | Home beer wine cheese
Branded French oak barrel head

French Oak -- There is a quality to the oaks from a few French forests that is compatible with most wine.  Although oak trees are grown in other places in the world, Quercus robur (and Quercus petraea) oaks from Limousin, Vosges, Never and Allier are used worldwide by winemakers to impart just the right amount of desired seasoning to their wines.  Grain structure is important to the kind and amount of seasoning: Limousin is wide grained and more tannic, usually preferred more for aging brandy, while Never, Allier and Vosges are tight grained and better suited to aging wine.  French oaks are identified by their individual names, although Never and Allier are often combined and identified as "Central France."

Barolo and Barbaresco are the Nebbiolo super stars of Piedmont, but the softer Roero is 100% Nebbiolo as well.  Other Nebbiolo-based Piedmont wines include Ghemme and Gattinara, plus the varietal Nebbiolo and Spanna, the latter a synonym of Nebbiolo. 

Outside Italy, Nebbiolo is grown in small amounts in California, Oregon, Washington state, Australia and South America. 

Next time you're looking for a red wine to have with a red meat meal or just a good crusty bread and cheese, break the cabernet lock step with Barolo or Barbaresco.


Next Blog: My Life in Wine Episode 10

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