House Pour: Your Guide to Italian Nebbiolo

“There are no small parts, only small actors”. I’m sure you’ve heard this expression before and while it’s adjustably applicable to acting, the wine world doesn’t tend to beat around the bush. Big grapes are big for a reason. You commit to them properly and know your shit in both vineyard and winery, you’re in for some mind-altering experiences.

When I saw Nebbiolo drawn for our second House Pour event, I have to admit, I was taken aback. Not a lot of people know about this grape, let alone appreciate it (at least those outside the industry). It’s a shame, because there are a ton of reasons to lift the fog off this variety and dive straight into its delicious wines. The irrefutable motherland of Nebbiolo is north-western Italy, specifically Piemonte. Some speculations state that it was first discovered in Lombardy, but I couldn’t find any solid evidence for these claims. Outside of these two regions, tiny plantings can be found in Valle d’Aosta and New World countries such as Australia, Argentina, the US and Mexico.

Because we’re evaluating the quality of Italian Nebbiolo this time, here is what you have to be aware of in the two major regions. Piemonte sits just ‘behind’ Provence, surrounded comfortably by the chain of Western Alps. To the southeast the Apennine Mountains fan out. Now you can see where the phrase ‘at the foot of the mountain’ comes from. Besides all these walloping natural statues, the Po Valley acts as an essential contributor to the area’s popular fog, which aides in the ripening of the grapes (more warmth = more sugar). This is crucial considering the effects of the chilly continental climate that prevails here (spring frosts, delayed ripening, lower yields…). Being land-locked, Lombardy gets this warming effect from various lakes in the area. The diurnal variation (difference between night and day temperatures) is quite high though, so winemakers really have to surf the waves steadily here or else the grape’s expression can be lost in a blink of an eye.

Wherever it’s grown, some characteristics remain invariable. First of all, Nebbiolo is highly tannic and highly acidic, two out of three main elements responsible for its longevity. It is easily recognizable in a blind tasting by its pale ruby red color (that quickly tends to turn brick orange with age) and expressive aromatic profile of ‘tar & roses’. As it ages, it develops notes of mushrooms, forest floor and tobacco. Fruit notes come into focus only when they manage to push through the wall of tannins. The main reason why Nebbiolo is blended (w/Barbera, Bonarda, Croatina, Arneis) is to add color and soften harsh tannins and just like Pinot Noir, it’s rather fussy about site selection. It’s sensitive to the soil, to the air, to the rain, to the cold, to the warmth, to basically everything that can screw it up. It ripens late, but flowers early. But when a winemaker ploughs through these barriers, damn, does he get exceptional juice. That’s what makes this grape so grand. It’s like that woman or man that you’ve had a crush on since you were in high school, but they didn’t really notice you, so you kept on stalking them in elevators, commenting on their family field trips on Facebook, signing up for the same yoga classes. Then one day, they talk to you, you guys go on a date, then go on a few more dates, then make some babies and finally come to the realization that all those years of desperation were worth it, that this is the person that you can look up to fo’ life.

We unfortunately failed to organoleptically asses all Italian regions growing Nebbiolo, missing out on examples from Roero (medium-bodied, fragrant reds) and Gattinara (aromatic, rustic and capable of aging forever), but luckily, we did open some very delicious bottles. Everybody reacted differently and the discussions were extremely fun. So, without further ado, let’s jump into it. Below are combined tasting notes of all eight participants.

Germano Ettore Langhe Nebbiolo 2015
Langhe, Piemonte

For people that get easily confused with Italian wine laws and (sub) regions – stop being confused, ‘cause we’re about to get down to the bottom of things. Let’s start with Langhe. Wines made here come from a large area within which the iconic Barolo and Barbaresco appellations are located BUT some grapes are declassified. What does this mean? Well, to put it harshly, they’re just not good enough for the big guys and they go into making simpler, early-drinking wines. It doesn’t mean that these wines are bad, but rather that there is more leeway provided in production methods, site selection and yields. Ettore is more well-known for his Barolo, while his Langhe Nebbiolo provides acceptable value for money. Made solely in stainless steel, it’s marked by subtle aromatics, predominantly floral (violets, roses, iris), opening up to red fruit along the way. No big complexity here, no “wow” effect, but gives just enough character to make you thirsty for a higher tier.

Price: S$60 (€37)
Purchased: Dellarosa Wines
You might also like: Roagna Langhe Rosso, Massolino Langhe Nebbiolo

 

G.D. Vajra ‘Clare J.C.’ Langhe Nebbiolo 2016
Langhe, Piemonte

Aldo Vajra is renowned as “the most modern of the traditionalists and the most traditional of the modernists”. His wines are famed for their intensity, purity of flavor and elegance, while his organically grown vineyards are planted on an alluring 350-400m elevation. “Like I care about how high they are, just get to the goddamn wine.” Well, this is a crucial piece of information to look out for when taking into account the source of this Nebbiolo’s expressed aromatics and crisp. This was a real people-pleaser. It nearly leans into New World, the total opposite of the previously tasted Ettore. Attractive aromas of fig, black cherry, cloves and raisins. A bit of fizz on the entry with piercingly high acidity that contributes to the playful image of this Nebbiolo. The alcohol could’ve been lower (14.5%) in order to put bolder accent on the freshness, which is, at the end, what we’re here for. Rated fourth best.

Price: S$60 (€37)
Purchased: The Straits Wine Company
You might also like: Gaja Sito Moresco, La Spinetta Langhe Nebbiolo, Paolo Scavino Langhe Nebbiolo

 

Nino Negri Sfursat 5 Stelle 2009
Valtellina, Lombardy

Casimiro Maule is perhaps single-handedly responsible for elevating Valtellina to the world stage. He has been at the estate since 1971 and has been named “Winemaker of the Year” in 2007 by Italian wine authority Gambero Rosso. What he does with Chiavennasca (local name for Nebbiolo) is inconceivable. He selects only 25% of the total crop off the 400m high slopes (and only in the best vintages), naturally dries the grapes until January, ferments that sugary goodness and then ages it for two years in French oak. The result is a deep, garnet colored wine with aromas of licorice, dried cranberry, plum, raisins, gingerbread and dark chocolate. Rich, luscious palate that integrates the alcohol and acidity impeccably, finishing off with discerning finesse. The only thing I’m disappointed about is the price, which is unreal compared to buying this wine in Europe, so I’ll consider it a treat from now on.

Price: S$125 (€79)
Purchased: Intervino
You might also like: Sandro Fay Ca Morei, Conti Sertoli Salis Canua, Mamete Prevostini Albareda

 

Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo ‘Anno Primo’ Ghemme 2006
Ghemme, Piemonte

This was a gem heavily discussed throughout the evening and was the runner up to 5 Stelle. Ghemme is a region that is dismally underappreciated, but that closely brushes shoulders with its neighbors Barolo and Barbaresco. Graceful wines made from Nebbiolo (locally known as Spanna) for a superb price. The acidic soils here are morainic – a mixture of materials picked up by a glacier, very poor – and the resulting wines have highlighted rusticity, but are still very cleanly made. The nose on the Cantalupo is profoundly gamey, with dried fruit and savory notes opening up generously on the palate. Some were reminded of winter rain, of that wet earth scent combined with thick smog in the middle of January, while others called it an “old man wine”, as in “I’ve seen some shit, sit down and let me tell you a few stories”. Full-body blast with amazing initial balance that unfortunately starts to wobble into the weak aftertaste, telling you that it could’ve been big, but gave out along the way.

Price: S$68 (€43)
Purchased: Intervino
You might also like: Torraccia del Piantavigna Ghemme, Rovellotti Chioso dei Pomi

 

Duchessa Lia Nebbiolo d’Alba 2015
Nebbiolo d’Alba, Piemonte

In this area, the soils are sandier and richer in minerals than those of nearby Barolo and Barbaresco, contributing to the production of softer, less intense and more approachable wines in early stages. The climate here is close to perfect due to its below average rainfall (mostly during the spring) and loads of sunny days throughout the year. Duchessa Lia is the largest producer and distributor of wines in Piemonte, so it won’t surprise you that the next two wines we tasted stylistically represent their regions to an extent, but inevitably fall into the commercial batch of mass production. Their Nebbiolo d’Alba is fruit-driven with notes of cranberry, cherry and raspberry. Hints of Mediterranean herbs, violets, apricot pit and a bit of VA come in on the palate. Aged in large oak for 12 months. Rather simple structure, made to be drunk immediately off the shelf. Floral aftertaste which could use a better balance.

Price: S$28 (€18)
Purchased: Bottles & Bottles
You might also like: Prunotto Occhetti Nebbiolo d’Alba, Poderi Colla Nebbiolo d’Alba

 

Duchessa Lia Barbaresco 2013
Barbaresco, Piemonte

You’re probably wondering how on earth did eight people bring two bottles of the exact same producer to the table. Don’t worry, you’re not alone, it was foolishly remarkable to me as well. But hey, at least this Barbaresco was a level up from the previous wine, offering much more bang for the buck. The limestone-rich vineyards of this DOCG are situated in the Langhe, right beside the Tanaro River at about 400m altitude. Barbaresco shares the iconic status of its sibling Barolo, but because the grapes here ripen earlier, the wines are less tannic and more approachable when young. This wasn’t the quality, nor the expression you’d expect from Gaja or Giacosa, but for the price paid, I won’t complain too much. Good nose, showing nice depth. Balanced, but I believe it would do better with more strength and structure. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening with this winery any time soon. They’re here to sell you the cheap shit so you can go out and brag to your friends that you drink Barbaresco for peanuts. Such is life.

Price: S$40 (€25)
Purchased: Redmart
You might also like: Prunotto Barbaresco DOCG, La Spinetta Bordini, Produttori del Barbaresco Pora

 

Prunotto Barolo 2013
Barolo, Piemonte

Enter Prunotto. This is where things started heating up (and we had two more wines to go). A colab between Marchese Antinori and the Colla brothers (two gentlemen pledged to introduce single vineyard Barolo to consumers). This is a wine not made to destroy your palate with its might, but to polish it with its finesse. Restrained nose, showing aromas of a black fruit basket, vanilla, cinnamon stick, mushrooms, lavender and tobacco. Blossoms on the palate beautifully, turning onto a more floral path. So easy-drinking, you don’t even feel it. I can only imagine what this would be like with some proper food – we’re talking truffle risotto preceded by a hearty rabbit stew. Oh, lawd have mercy. Somebody compared this to a sturdy man by which everybody is blown away as he enters the room. Then he starts talking and you’re already thinking how the level of sexiness is simply unbearable for all standards of life. Guys, let’s all strive towards becoming this wine, seriously.

Price: S$79 (€50)
Purchased: Century Cellars
You might also like: Fontanafredda Barolo DOCG, Gaja Dagromis, Vietti Castiglione

 

Giacomo Borgogno & Figli No Name 2013
Langhe, Piemonte

Human conditioning is a bizarre occurrence. If you, a casual wine lover, were tasting an ’86 Margaux blind and somebody told you that it was in the $50-$100 price range, it would be hard to reprogram your brain and sharpen your senses for resistance. That’s where we get all those ridiculous “$10 vs $100 Wine” Youtube videos from. A few years back, a malicious consorzio told Borgogno that they had followed all vineyard and production rules, but because of somebody’s important opinions and expectations, they couldn’t call in Barolo, thus denying its place of origin. As a sign of revolt, “Etichetta di Protesta” was created. For our group, this was a wine that came lick-close to the Prunotto, which was voted third best. The reason why it didn’t get a higher score is because it’s too young to drink now. We decanted it for a couple of hours, but the tannins, density and acidity wouldn’t budge. Give it a couple of years. Or a decade.

Price: S$101 (€63)
Purchased: The Oaks Cellars
You might also like: Pio Cesare Barolo DOCG, Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco

House Pour is an approachable guide to the world’s (not so) famous grapes. We’re a group of friends that meet once a month, bring bottles to the table and have a good ol’ time. If you’re inspired by the idea, please spread the love within your wine community. If you’re based in Singapore, don’t hesitate to join us or enquire on hosting your own event! DM at @grapenomad or email at grapenomad@gmail.com.

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