Great Nebbiolo and a Possible Pretender

nebbiolo-update

Nebbiolo grapeAs most wine fanciers know, the Nebbiolo grape achieves its greatest expression in Barolo and Barbaresco, with serious runner-ups in the wines of sub-Alpine Piedmont – e.g., Carema, Gattinara, Boca, and a few others. But in that same Barolo/Barbaresco heartland, there are two other DOCs for the grape: Nebbiolo d’Alba and Nebbiolo delle Langhe. These wines deserve more publicity than they usually get, because they offer not just true Nebbiolo flavors but also the nuances provided by that very special terroir – and usually at a price considerably lower than any Barolo or Barbaresco.

nebbiolo colla bottleI was reminded of this just a few nights ago when I opened a bottle of 2013 Nebbiolo d’Alba and spent a happy dinner hour enjoying bright cherry/berry fruit laced with hints of tobacco, mushroom, and forest floor – very much the young-Barolo range of flavors. The wine was not as big as a Barolo, of course, nor as substantially structured for aging, but it was nevertheless a real wine that interacted happily with all parts of my meal, as well as with me. This particular bottle was from a fine maker – Colla, a family that produces the whole gamut of red Alba wines at the top level. Their winemaking style allowed the grape and the local soil to speak, and what the two had to say was unequivocally lovely. The whole dining experience was a welcome reminder that you don’t need to wait for a great occasion, nor go to great expense, to enjoy some of the best that a great grape variety can offer.

That happy state, of course, depends on things continuing as they now stand, with the Nebbiolo DOC confined to those two appellations and zones, Alba and Langhe, the grape’s unquestionably best growing area. Apparently, as alertly reported by Kerin O’Keefe, there is a proposal afoot, originating in the Asti and Monferrato Barbera zones, to create a Nebbiolo Piemonte DOC, covering the whole of Piedmont. This is causing serious concern among Barolo and Barbaresco growers for a number of reasons.

First, it is an obvious attempt to ride on the coattails of their great wines, which have begun commanding impressive prices. Moreover, Barolo and Barbaresco producers fear – rightly, it seems to me – that such a potentially huge-volume appellation as Nebbiolo Piemonte would undermine the prestige of their wines by churning out large amounts of low-priced and mediocre Nebbiolo, which would confuse consumers about the true character of the variety and destroy the reputation that Barolo and Barbaresco makers have worked decades to achieve.

Piemonte map

That’s not just snobbishness on their part, nor is it a purely commercial consideration. Any great wine results from a special, often unique, conjunction of grape and soil – and a look at the map will show you just how small the present Nebbiolo DOC zones (in lavender) are in comparison to the Barbera zones to the north and east, not to mention the rest of Piedmont.

There is already a related cause for concern in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones. The market success of those wines over recent decades has pushed a good number of only marginally suitable vineyards to be replanted to Nebbiolo – vineyards that used to grow Barbera and Dolcetto and even Freisa and Grignolino. And that doesn’t even figure in all the acres of forests and woods that, over that same period, I have watched being turned into Nebbiolo vineyards. (This is one of the reasons the Alba area now produces far fewer white truffles than it once did.)

The proposed legislation would allow Nebbiolo to be grown almost anywhere in Piedmont – and no matter how you figure it, that would be a disaster. Nebbiolo is a very finicky variety, extremely site-sensitive. You can’t plant it just anywhere and expect to produce a quality wine, as anyone familiar with the vast majority of attempts to grow Nebbiolo in California can testify. It needs just the right soil. Around Alba, it does its best in calcareous, tufa-based soils.

colla vineyard edited

A Colla Nebbiolo Vineyard

It wants south-facing slopes, at altitudes of between 200 and 450 meters, with a substantial day-night temperature change – and it especially needs a very long growing season, since it usually buds around the middle of April and ripens around the middle of October. Not too many places, even in Piedmont, can fill that bill.

Support for the new Piemonte Nebbiolo DOC seems mostly to be coming from growers in Barbera-growing areas – especially larger ones whose abundant hectares could be converted from modestly priced Barbera to better-paying Nebbiolo. But those are the areas that have always, for sound agricultural reasons, been regarded as completely inappropriate for growing Nebbiolo – thus my fear that if this new proposal is adopted, long-suffering consumers will be subjected to a flood of inferior Nebbiolo wines. Absit omen, as the Romans used to say: Let’s hope it’s not so.

9 Responses to “Great Nebbiolo and a Possible Pretender”

  1. Kerin O'Keefe (@KerinOKeefe) Says:

    Great piece Tom, and thanks for the shout out. Just last night, producers and their consorzi met with the Region, and the proposal was shot down. Not enough votes in favor, thankfully. Monferrato and Asti now considering a Monferrato Nebbiolo DOC, which producers in Langhe won’t oppose, since it clearly states where the wines will come from.

  2. Ed Mccarthy Says:

    Sadly, the appellation Nebbiolo Piemonte DOC was approved. This is bound to hurt the reputation of the bet
    ter Nebbolo -based wines.

  3. Ernest J DeSalvo Says:

    Tom, your fears are not missed placed. Look at what has happened to Tuscany. It seems that everywhere money always trumps quality.

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