Nebbiolo: Old World vs. New World

Nebbiolo. The grape conjures images of deep, powerful wines with telltale aromas of tar and roses. Despite its excellent aging potential and incredible power, Nebbiolo is simply not that successful on international soils. It can’t compete with prolific grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, which seem to have found multiple locations across the globe where they can be grown consistently and successfully. No, Nebbiolo is finicky and stubborn, and thus prefers to stay close to home; like a true native of Piemonte.

But that hasn’t stopped people from trying to grow it. While most prolific in Piemonte, Nebbiolo can indeed be found in small enclaves across the globe. The best wines from Nebbiolo come from the Langhe, the part of Piemonte where its most recognized products, Barolo and Barbaresco, are located. Other nearby regions, such as Roero, Ghemme and Gattinara, produce pretty Nebbiolo wines but they don’t enjoy nearly the same reputation as those from the Langhe. Nebbiolo spots the hills of the rest of Piemonte, spreading out into Valtellina in Lombardia and into Valle d’Aosta, but in none of these places does it attain the prestige that it does in the Langhe.

So why hasn’t Nebbiolo yet enjoyed much fortune beyond the Langhe hills? Well the Langhe Piemontese have over 700 years of experience with it. They have grown up with Nebbiolo at their sides from generation to generation, and learned all of its little idiosyncracies. As well, the unique climate and soils, especially the foggy mornings that frequent the area, contribute to an ideal growing environment for a very finicky grape.

So what is really going on with this grape in the new world? Nebbiolo is a wine of distinct personalities. It’s light in color, not unlike Pinot Noir, but is full-bodied and intense. Its flavors tend towards bright red fruits but gravitate towards unfathomable complexity. The tannins come out of nowhere, beating on your palate like a thousand jackhammers. With just 166 acres planted statewide, based on the 2011 California Grape Acreage Report, and a total 2011 crush of 380 tons, the volume and availability of Nebbiolo limits the ability to increase the market for the variety, and to introduce it to potential customers. It can often be found as a quasi-oddity; something available on reserve wine club lists and in very small releases.

For all that, when the right microclimate is secured, Nebbiolo can produce some surprisingly fantastic results in the right hands. Corks’ Nebbiolo on tap is from the Santa Barbara County area, representing a style very pleasing to both our customers and our palates. Our tap Nebbiolo (by the liter) is a seriously rich and racy style; a flavor profile rarely evident from any Old World location. As with so many wine grapes taken from their native soils and transported to the laid back California sun and life style, it too becomes strong and tan like a regular at Venice Beach. Cheers!

tony gilmore