By Ben Hilzinger
The more I learn, the more I find out there’s so much that I don’t know. When it comes to wine, I will forever be a gracious, excited student searching for answers around every corner. Early in my wine career (who am I kidding, it’s still very early), I initially fell in love with Washington wines. Odd huh…being a Seattle native myself. But what young wine drinker doesn’t love bold, velvety tannins with ripened, fruit forward flavors? For the most part, they’re all extremely easy to drink and provide a perfect place to start one’s lifelong passion of this mystical juice. As I’ve grown into a more well-rounded wino, however, Italian grapes have caught more of my attention, especially Nebbiolo. This little spitfire has peaked my curiosity solely for its ability to keep me surprised every time.
Nebbiolo is a black-skinned grape that makes lightly colored wine with characteristics of “tar and roses” most commonly known for its role in Barolo wines from Piedmont, Italy. It gets its name from the root word nebbia or the early morning October fog that covers most of the vineyards in the Langhe region of Italy during harvest where most Nebbiolo vineyards are planted. Of the few consistencies it DOES have, a noticeable tannic structure and high acidity brings hope of wine that improves with age. Sometimes, it can even take 30 years for certain bottles of Nebbiolo to mature. I hope that the same goes for some of my friends. When it comes to viticulture (the growing of the grapes) this little guy is imfamously picky as can be. It desperately needs good drainage, a warm climate, and is usually the first to bud, but the last to ripen. Sounds a little like “that guy” huh? Perhaps, this is why it grows so well in sub-alpine Italy. Maybe thats why I like Nebbiolo so much. He’s particular and epitomizes the complexities that make up the wonderful world of wine.
One of Nebbiolo’s very few agricultural strengths is its ability to ward off the “noble rot” botrytis. It does, however, have an extreme weakness to phylloxera, the arch nemesis and inevitable demise of many grapevines. Back in the 1860’s when the entirety of Europe was stricken with this horrible bacteria, everything had to be re-planted. With its higher yields per ace, Barbera became the preferred varietal and remains to be a more widely planted grape to this day. Many attempts have been made in numerous region’s around the world to redefine the grape including California and Australia. In California, growers had difficulties finding a correct placement for Nebbiolo and it never gained the same steam as Barbera, Sangiovese, or Primitivo. Most Nebbiolo coming out of California these days is jug wine from the Central Valley. In Australia, it took years of trial and error to finally find light success in the Piedmont-style climate of Victoria’s King Valley.
Why would any producer tackle such a grape? Sadly, I cannot answer this question myself as I am not a professional winemaker. It seems to me, however, that the desire to find that perfect home outside of Piedmont is the continuous driving force. Nebbiolo is SUCH a complex, rewarding grape when its coddled, pampered and grown in the right terroir. The reward of finding a perfect spot stateside would be the next big craze. An American Nebbiolo rivaling the great Barolo’s and Barbaresco’s of Italy? I can’t even type this without a huge smile on my face. All in all, Nebbiolo is a fun bottle to snag once you know a little bit about the regions in which its grown. Its the perfect grape to show your friends, or yourself, how drastically terroir can affect a grape’s flavor profile. It keeps me guessing, which might not be good for my bank account (as you get more misses than hits with this grape outside of its known homes), but the wino in me loves the element of surprise. I always will. Cheers!