Dunne on Wine

Nebbiolo, the wine equivalent of winter’s woodpile

G.D Vajra 2015 Langhe Clare J.C
G.D Vajra 2015 Langhe Clare J.C Mike Dunne

Winter is nebbiolo’s season. We’re talking an old-fashioned winter – a winter when pipes freeze, rivers threaten to breach levees, fog settles in like a cat curled up in front of the fireplace, refusing to budge.

That’s the kind of winter that calls for venison sausages braised in wine, meatballs in a goulash sauce, Irish stew with dumplings heavy on the beef suet.

And alongside such hearty fare a glass of hefty red wine, like Barolo or Barbaresco from Piemonte in northern Italy, the most aggressive, layered and enduring wines made from the small but potent black grape nebbiolo.

But regardless of source, nebbiolo inflames passions among wine enthusiasts like few other grape varieties. In and about California, its most avid partisans are the “Nebs” – members of Nebbiolo Enthusiasts & Believers, a loose confederation of consumers, distributors, merchants and vintners rabid about the variety.

They don’t wait for winter to convene one of their periodic reviews and debates. Like people eager to collect and stack firewood before inclement weather sets in, they are more apt to meet in spring or summer to taste and ponder wines based on nebbiolo.

One such gathering was last June at the Sugar Mill in Clarksburg. Wines made solely or largely with nebbiolo from Italy and California circulated through the group, eliciting brief reflections on the nature of each.

At the conclusion, the consensus seemed to be that there’s hope for nebbiolo in styles other than Barolo or Barbaresco. Those are the noble models on which many winemakers have based their aspirations, but the results as often as not have been disappointing – too ripe, too astringent, too heavy with oak from barrels in which it had been stored.

“Nebbiolo has many faces, it makes many different kinds of wines,” said Sacramento wine merchant Darrell Corti, a longtime importer of Italian wines and one of the principal speakers at the Clarksburg gathering.

His observation became more apparent with each subsequent wine. As Barolo and Barbaresco, nebbiolo yields formidable wines inviting in floral aromatics, intriguing in suggestions of licorice, leather and ripe dark fruits like prunes and figs, and tannins so fierce the wines are notorious for taking two or three decades to mellow.

“Charm” isn’t a word often used to describe Barolo or Barbaresco, especially in their youth. Yet, several of the wines passed around by the Nebs were downright charming. Their aromas ran to hints of violets and roses, their flavors to fresh cherries, their textures supple and occasionally juicy, their tannins bracing without being intimidating, the influence of oak not nearly as prevalent as it had been a decade earlier.

They weren’t Barolo or Barbaresco, though several were from other villages of Piemonte. Several also were from California, where just 138 acres of nebbiolo were being cultivated as of 2016, an increase of only 20 acres over the past decade, persuasive evidence that nebbiolo maybe isn’t meant to be cultivated beyond Italy, at least not without diligent attention.

At any rate, the Italian contingent was led by the exceptionally fragrant, sweetly fruity and persistent Cantalupo 2005 Ghemme Collis Breclemae ($55), made entirely with nebbiolo grown on a hillside at Ghemme, an appellation in northern Piemonte. Despite the wine’s age, tannins still spoke sharply, but not so harshly that they would be noticed if a succulent roast also was on the table.

Equally as impressive, but more velveteen, with brighter acidity and fresher suggestions of strawberries, cherries and walnuts, was the La Prevostura 2013 Lessona ($50), which while largely nebbiolo also includes 5 percent vespolina. Though the vineyard has been producing fruit for more than a century, the winery, run by two brothers in the cellar of their restaurant overlooking the vines at Lessona in northern Piemonte, was established only in 2001.

For another readily accessible take on nebbiolo from Italy, grab a bottle of the Marco Porello 2015 Nebbiolo d’Alba ($19) from the Roero area in Piemonte, a charmingly youthful and vivid interpretation of the variety, just big enough for beef but also agile enough for salmon.

The most unusual wine in the day’s lineup was the G.D. Vajra 2015 Langhe Claré J.C. Nebbiolo ($26), a delicately sweet, spicy and spritzy take on the variety. This is a style of nebbiolo that Thomas Jefferson apparently tasted and noted in 1787: “It is about as sweet as the silky Madeira, as astringent on the palate as Bordeaux and as brisk as Champagne. It is a pleasing wine.”

By comparison, the 2015 Vajra was toned down when it came to sweetness and astringency, making it perhaps even more pleasing than the wine Jefferson tasted. The “J.C.” of the label, incidentally, is in tribute to Jefferson and to Darrell Corti, who several years ago introduced the Jefferson quote to the family responsible for the G.D. Vajra estate and challenged it to make a similarly spirited wine. (The 2016 version of the wine is at Corti Brothers.)

In looking to spring, put on the shopping list the Le Pianelle 2016 Coste Della Sesia Al Posto Dei Fiori Rosato ($23), a light-to-medium-bodied pink wine threaded with refreshing suggestions of orange and strawberry, finishing on the quick with tart acidity. Also from northern Piemonte, the wine consists of 90 percent nebbiolo with 5 percent each of croatina and vespolina.

Though California takes on nebbiolo generally have tilted to the dense and rigid, the Clarksburg meeting showed that several of the state’s vintners smitten with the variety are loosening up in their approach, no longer letting Barolo and Barbaresco define their stylistic goals.

The most graceful representative of the grape among the California bottles was the Castelli Vineyards 2012 Green Valley of Russian River Valley Nebbiolo ($34), notable for its welcoming fragrance and complex yet lilting red-fruit flavors. The iron of its tannic spine will bend with a few years of age or with decanting for drinking now.

Equally composed and elegant was the brilliantly colored, flamboyantly floral and freshly fruity Lepiane Wines 2013 Sisquoc Vineyard Nebbiolo ($45), which Darrell Corti calls “the most expressive and best varietally typical nebbiolo” he has tasted from California. Lepiane Wines and Sisquoc Vineyard are in Santa Barbara County.

A theme is developing here – that California’s more assured nebbiolos come from some of the state’s cooler microclimates. Reinforcing that impression were three recent vintages of nebbiolo by Jacuzzi Family Vineyards of Sonoma, which isn’t cool, though the vineyards for its nebbiolos are in cooler areas, the Carneros district at the southern reaches of Sonoma County and the Sonoma Coast.

The winery’s current release is the Jacuzzi Family Vineyards 2013 Sonoma County Nebbiolo ($30), a frank yet friendly take on the variety – light in color and relatively light in body, but forward with cheeky cherry fruit against a backdrop of tannins more sketchy than bold-lined. (The wine is available only at the winery’s tasting room.)

And while Paso Robles is one of California’s warmer appellations, it does have relatively cool pockets, which explain the limber thrust of the Terrane Wines 2013 Paso Robles Nebbiolo ($35). Grapes that went into this collected and focused take on nebbiolo came from two vineyards on the cooler west side of Paso Robles, one at 1,750 feet up the coastal range, the other in the Templeton Gap, caressed by marine air off the nearby Pacific.

As their Clarksburg session wrapped up, nebbiolo enthusiasts were more upbeat about the grape’s prospects than they had been at earlier conclaves. Their optimism was best summarized by Darrell Corti’s concluding comment: “You have shown me today that by loving the grape you make some very interesting wines.”

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.