Imagine that afternoon fog rolling over The City leaving just the peaks of the Sutro Tower, the
TransAmerica Building and other high rises visible along with rows of Nebbiolo grapes. Well,
you know it’s a dream since Nebbiolo isn’t grown in San Francisco or most of America for that
matter. However, Nebbiolo is propagated in the Piedmont region of Italy and actually gets its
name from the fog – or nebbia – in Northern Italy. What? You’ve never tried Nebbiolo? Well,
have you heard of those mouthwatering Barolos or Barbarescos from Italy? Then you’ve heard of
or tried Nebbiolo. That King (or Queen) of grapes from the land of white truffles, the last
Winter Olympics and the Italian Alps.
The Nebbiolo Code
Whether its name is derived from the “foggy” appearance on its skin, or if it ripens during foggy
weather or whether its name is a derivation of “Nobile” or noble origin, one thing is for certain,
Nebbiolo is one of the MOST difficult grapes to propagate. Most will argue that Nebbiolo is
harder to propagate than Pinot Noir – at least we know that good Pinot Noir can be made
outside of Burgundy. And whereas a certain colorful Central Coast grower may have smuggled
Pinot Noir clippings from La Tache in his underwear back to the states, no such smuggling has
occurred thus far with Nebbiolo.
For starters, the Piedmontese growers are very secretive about their viticulture. Add this to a
grape that only develops with enough warmth but hates warm ambient temperatures (hence
growing with enough sun exposure just above the fog line) and a degree of genetic instability
and you see why Barolo and Barbaresco have a lock on Nebbiolo.
King of the Piedmont
The acclaimed King of the Piedmont is Barolo which in its best years produces tannic red wines
with essence of cherries, licorice, leather, truffles, violets, spice and mineral that can age until
your newborn infant becomes a grandparent. In bad years, it simply produces an acidic, tannic
wine that can remove nail polish and paint stains from your walls. In the last several years, a new
generation of Piedmontese vintners are producing more fruit driven wines to meet international
tastes (probably also due to high Parker scores given to concentrated fruit driven wines). Since I’
m in the latter half of my years, I don’t disagree with this approach since I can’t wait 40 years
for a wine to develop and I certainly can’t afford a 40 year old Barolo. What I fear is simply
turning Barolo into another fruit bomb Aussie Shiraz or California Cab. Most my love of Barolo
is for its complexity and layers of tastes and aromas with its fruit concentration as a secondary
quality. Making Barolo drinkable younger is okay as long as you maintain the primary focus of
Queen of the Piedmont
If there’s a King then there must be a Queen and her name is Barbaresco. Located slightly north
of Barolo on slightly lower and warmer terrain, Barbaresco used to sit in Barolo’s shadow until
Angelo Gaja in his designer sweaters created his Sori Tilden, Sori San Lorenzo and Costa Russi
labeled Barbarescos… well not exactly. Gaja was never one to shy away from controversy and
used new winemaking techniques to produce his fabulous wines. In an act of defiance to the
strict DOCG laws in Italy, he declassified his own wines and simply labeled them as Langhe
Nebbiolo (kind of like Chateau Lafite Rothschild simply labeling itself as Bordeaux wine).
Like Barolo, Barbaresco has a good bit of tannin that takes several years of bottle aging to tame
though if you do have the patience – say 10 years or so – you will be rewarded with a wine with
several layers of aroma and taste sensations. Or if you’re lucky enough, your local wine purveyor
or restaurant will carry a relatively affordable supply of aged wines.
The Rest of the Bunch
Nebbiolo based wine from the Piedmont also takes the form of Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo
d’Alba which essentially are wines primarily based on the Nebbiolo grape with a touch of non-
traditional red grapes like Cabernet or Merlot or they simply weren’t grown within the strict
regions of Barolo or Barbaresco. These are still very good examples of the foggy grape with
raspberry and cherry flavors with leather, tar, cedar, cigar or mushrooms and a hefty dose of
tannins and while they are not the same as Barolo or Barbaresco, they do carry affordable price
tags. Whereas the B & B wines cost anywhere from $50 to $150, declassified Nebbiolo based
wines are usually in the $25 to $35 range. Perfect for your best barbecue faire or imported stinky
Nebbiolo in the States?
This is one of the few grape varietals that doesn’t travel well outside of its native region. Heck, it
doesn’t even travel well outside of the Piedmont. However, due to the cool coastal climate of
the Central Coast in California, there are a few wineries experimenting with these difficult grape
varietals. One wine that is relatively available is Palmina’s Sisquoc which is Nebbiolo grown in
the Santa Ynez valley. It has a beautiful nose of concentrated sour cherries with a hint of earth
and if drunk young, tannins that can clear your palate of pure manteca (lard). This is probably
the one time where Eisch crystal stemware with its “oxidizing/softening” qualities actually
makes a difference compared to other stemware – but that’s another column.
Where Should You Start?
I would start with the Langhe Nebbiolo or Nebbiolo d’Alba wines. If you find them interesting
then your next step would be Barolo or Barbaresco – there are Barolos and Barbarescos in the
$40 range. If you find these wines exciting then your next step would be to brown bag lunch for
a month (to save enough $$$) then look for producers like Sandrone, La Spinetta, Conterno or
Gaja and save it for your next big anniversary! Remember though that unless it’s an aged wine,
it was meant for food… or to strip several layers of your buccal membranes.
The Foggy Grape