October 25, 2012
There is a long standing theory that the truly noble grapes of this world are transplantable to other countries: that their basic, identifiable characteristics will manifest themselves in the wines produced at these new locations. Pundits point to Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Riesling as proof of success around the globe. Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir are generally included in this hierarchy, although more than one dissenter has quibbled with Pinot Noir, saying it simply belongs to the Côte d’Or, Burgundy, France. The lines get fuzzier as the list progresses, but the ultimate counter-argument persists: if a grape truly flourishes in only one area and produces a wine that is remarkable, unique in flavor, and sought after all over the world–well, then, isn’t this a noble grape, too?
Our subject goes by the name of Chiavenasca and Picutener, also known as Spanna. Its classical name is Nebbiolo. Those of you still “in the mist” will certainly recognize the names of the two greatest wines made from this inimitable grape: Barolo and Barbaresco.
Nebbiolo, which literally means “from the fog”, flourishes on the steep hillsides among the Apennine Mountains, south of the Alps. The grape thrives on the moist, misty air these fogs are infamous for producing. England does not have exclusive rights to pea soup fog! I remember riding in a car in this area with my grandfather, and there was literally no visibility ahead of us. It made a lasting impression. Some of the hillside regions among the villages of Barolo and Barbaresco are Monferrat, Langhe, Serralunga, Alba, Nieve, and Cuneo. These are classic growing areas with a long history.
In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his journal from Turin: “There is a red wine called Nebiule [sic] made in the neighborhood, which is very singular. 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.”
These words are certainly wise counsel, and the Nebbiolo of 200 years later continues to please. True, it is astringent, tannic, and nature harsh in the raw. Barrel age is essential even in the lighter wines. A year is mandatory for all; two years is optimal for lighter vintages, and three years is best for great years. Some producers (especially of Barolo) age for four or more years, yielding the “Riserva Speciale”, but this can be too much of a good thing. These wines are very full bodied and often benefit from a few hours of breathing between opening and drinking.
Barbaresco is generally the less enormous of the two. Styles vary greatly, but on occasion the Barbaresco can achieve the better balance of fruit and size. Barolo simply attacks! Another two stars of the Piedmont are Gattinara and Ghemme. These wines, also from Nebbiolo grapes, come from 40 miles further north in the hills of Novarra, close to the city of Vercelli. Gattinara is 100% Nebbiolo, and a bruiser of a wine it is. It has an illustrious history. Its sister village produces Ghemme, a blended wine including 70% Nebbiolo for a more graceful punch. Both are hard to find in the US, but worth a trip to Italy to experience.