Nebbiolo: King of the Langhe (ie: Barolo & Barbaresco). Is its noble status achievable in some Australian regions?

14 Jun
2011

NEBBIOLO IS REGARDED AS THE ‘KING OF THE LANGHE’ WITH THE BEST – BAROLO AND BARBARESCO – POSSESSING OUTSTANDING AROMATIC COMPLEXITY, TANNIC POWER AND EXCEPTIONAL AGEING POTENTIAL. WHAT GIVES THIS GRAPE VARIETY ITS UNDENIABLE DISTINCTIVENESS IN ITS HOMELAND AND CAN IT ACHIEVE SOMETHING SIMILAR IN AUSTRALIA? DISCUSS WITH REFERENCE TO THE VINE, SOIL, CLIMATE, VINIFICATION, MATURATION AND SENSORY CHARACTERISTICS.

Introduction

Ancient Greeks referred to Italy as Oenotria – the land of wine 1. It is an apt description for the geographical ‘boot’ of Italy, which embraces a variety of climates and soils allowing for diverse opportunities in grape cultivation 2. The native grape of particular fame is Nebbiolo from the Barolo and Barbaresco zones, which herald from north-western Italy in the Langhe hills of the Piemonte region 3. Ample reasons exist for its elite status, but discussion will also be directed towards how Nebbiolo fares in Australia, where the illustrious qualities of Italian Nebbiolo wines convinced many Australian winemakers to plant the fickle grape, perhaps not always in areas best suited to the representation of its classic tar and roses character.

The Rise in Fame of Barolo and Barbaresco 

Nebbiolo has been cultivated since the 14th century 4 and despite commencing its life as a sweeter style of wine, it has continually been in a class of excellence. The mid 19th century saw Nebbiolo diverge from its former sweet self to a dry wine after the mayor of Grinzane Cavour requested French oenologist Louis Oudart to improve the overall quality of Barolo wines with subsequent goals to enhance its global potential. The metamorphosis was well received by the nobility of Turin and the ruling House of Savoy, earning it the attractive title, ‘The wine of kings, the king of wines’. Conversely, Barbaresco made its first dry wine fifty years later than Barolo, was not embraced by the royal court and so remained inconspicuous on the wine stage until the 1960’s when the efforts of Angelo Gaja and Bruno Giacosa were finally noticed.6

Nowadays, mention Barolo or Barbaresco and its ardent aficionado’s comment wax lyrically about the wines of autumnal colour, of delicate bouquets of tar, violets, roses, tobacco, truffles and autumn smoke, of profound structural complexity with high acidity and balanced tannic power on the palate plus an enviable ageing potential. 7 Just as the great Burgundies of France made winemakers worldwide attempt to replicate the style in their home country, the same can be said for Nebbiolo. 8 Renowned consulting winemaker Alberto Antonini warns Australia to embrace their climate, identity and sense of place and not endeavour to replicate Barolo/Barbaresco. Australia’s success with Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay lies not with emulating Côte du Rhone, Bordeaux or Burgundy, but because of their Australian uniqueness that makes them sought after. He suggests this philosophy be applied to Nebbiolo. 9

The Vine

The Nebbiolo grapevine is very dependent on site, requiring great dedication and commitment to quality in the vineyard to obtain the best balance in the resultant wine. Characteristics of the vine include the long growing cycle (budburst before Chardonnay, harvesting after Cabernet Sauvignon), low basal bud fertility, high vigour (low-medium fertility soils), necessity for efficient cane pruning, essential bunch thinning (controlling yield for optimal ripening and concentration), and an adequate leaf exposure to bunch ratio through the correct trellising system (eg: VSP, modified Guyot).10 11

Nebbiolo is a variety with large clonal variation. Fortunately with extensive collaborated research conducted by the likes of Mark Walpole, Garry Crittenden and the Pizzini family thirty years ago, Australia already has some of the best Nebbiolo planting material available from the great vineyards of Italy.12 The three classic clones that dominate the Langhe are Lampia (eg. CN 230, 142, 36), Michet and Rosé (III). In Australia the Lampia clones predominate because of their greater adaptability to various soils and climates. The Rosé clone favours a lighter colour but provides a more perfumed bouquet and is a desirable blending component.13 In Australia, advice is to avoid risky monoclonal vineyards and experiment with two, three or more clones to provide greater blending material options as Barolo and Barbaresco too are generally blends of the three common Nebbiolo subvarieties. 14 15

Soil Considerations

The Europeans have long understood the significance of site selection with centuries of experience enabling them to refine their choices and learn from their mistakes. The proverb Bacchus amat colles (Bacchus loves the hills) was a result of their experience thus the vines in Italy are usually planted on south-facing hillsides. 16 The hills of the Langhe are located on the right bank of the Tanaro River and include two distinct soil types of alkaline, mostly calcareous soil but with varying levels of sand and clay. The land around La Morra and Barolo is derived from mineral-rich calcareous marl from the Tortonian epoch and offers a softer and more perfumed Nebbiolo wine. The earth of Barbaresco also originates from the Tortonian epoch, but it tends to be more acidic on the lower slopes and produces feminine and more approachable wines at an earlier stage. Crossing east of the Alba-Barolo road the soil dates from the Helvetian epoch cradling the townships of Monforte d’Alba, Serralunga d’Alba and Castiglione Falletto. This soil has a higher percentage of compressed sandstone of lower fertility resulting in wines with more intense characters and increased ageing potential. 17 18 19

In the late 20th century Renato Ratti’s Carta del Barolo research improved the standing of Nebbiolo on a universal stage by identifying terroirs of particular qualitative importance. 20 By the 1980’s, single vineyard Nebbiolo wines had received international acclaim. 21 Australia’s Nebbiolo pioneers have worked tirelessly to identify possible optimal sites throughout the country. The result is that in 2008, despite Nebbiolo production in Australia accounting for a mere 0.02% of the total  crush, it is being grown in a vast array of regions despite viticultural limitations.22 Australia does not comply with strong regulations on what can be grown and where, allowing experimentation with a wide variety of soil types in diverse regions. However, this does open the scope for the potential detriment of the grape’s reputation with unsuitable sites being used for Nebbiolo production.

The Importance of Climate in Site Selection

Soil and viticultural tactics greatly influence the vine, however climate alone is the ultimate element determining what grape varieties can be grown and broadly the styles created. 23 A distinct shift in seasons is beneficial for Nebbiolo as strongly maritime climates of little variation like Margaret River can induce early budburst or rather uneven flowering.24 The Langhe region experiences a continental climate with cold winters and hot summers. Barolo is ringed by the Langhe hills and the Alps.25 Its undulating slopes and cool change from summer to autumn in October result in the most significant element that distinguishes the climate of Piemonte from Australia’s grapegrowing areas. The nebbia (fog). A thick nebbia has the potential to greatly affect the degree of photosynthesis by reducing ambient light by 20-40%. 26 This slows sugar ripening, retains acidity and allows for skin tannin accumulation, which essentially results in high tannin, focused, classic Barolo wines with greater ageing potential.

None of Australia’s viticultural regions are particularly foggy. There are alternative options to limiting the amount of direct light including east-facing slopes and eastwest row orientation. Ultimately, the vine is best suited to cooler climates where it can get the optimum level of hang time to accumulate the flavours, tannins, and sugars essential for longevity and to capture the essence of Nebbiolo. Interestingly with climate change, Giaconda’s Rick Kinzbrunner has noticed Beechworth growing in suitability to Nebbiolo over Pinot Noir.27 Warmer climatic regions, such as Heathcote where lately Nebbiolo is picked in early March, should be avoided due to their longer sunshine hours and heat not treating vulnerable varieties like Nebbiolo favourably. Some of the great viticultural regions of the world cultivate grapes that just achieve ripeness and sometimes not every year. It makes sense to plant a variety somewhere that uses every day of its respective growing season.28 Whilst it is difficult to remove the sunshine sweetness out of Australian Nebbiolo which makes the production of dry, savoury, Italianate styles very difficult, some areas of the Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills and the King Valley have excelled in producing Nebbiolo wines of excellent quality due to the long, slow ripening period in its cooler climates and the development of extra layers in flavour and firmer structure that this extended hang time creates.

Vinification Techniques

The old adage of Old World versus New World winemaking techniques is irrelevant given that there are producers from both sides who favour modernist approaches and those who stick with tradition.29 Some winemakers in Australia are experimenting with the effects on Nebbiolo using a quick fermentation versus an extended maceration on skins (e.g.: trials at Henschke winery 2010), whether to use old or new oak (where the oak-derived aldehyde vanillin can dominate over the characteristic Nebbiolo tannins and allowing the grape to express itself 30), barriques or large wooden botti casks, and how long to mature the wine for (regulated in Italy, but not in Australia). Vignerons in Piemonte such as Roberto Voerzio and Principiano continue questioning their principles and reverting to some traditional methods of production and maturation using the botti, less mechanization and more manual labour for a mix of the modernist/traditionalist approach now common in Old-World winemaking.31 In conjunction with understanding Nebbiolo, continued experimentation and risk-taking in the relatively youthful stages of many Italophile producers in Australia is key to the variety’s future acceptance.

The Verdict

The internationalization of Australian and Italian wines only occurred in the 1980’s. However the Italians have had more profound viticultural experience with Nebbiolo and optimal site selection after centuries of trial and error.32 For Australia, there is promising news with additional progress amongst several notable Nebbiolo producers. Arrivo have worked meticulously on their clones, site, and viticultural management and experiment with styles, such as the Lunga Macerazione.33 Steve Pannell, Pizzini and Luke Lambert embody the risk takers who made a keen effort to select the best possible sites to express their fruit.34 As a vino d’arrivo, a wine to be arrived at, Nebbiolo represents the ‘holy grail’ to vignerons who hold the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco on a pedestal and it will continue presenting challenges to many grapegrowers worldwide.35 36 We may not have the nebbia, but Nebbiolo in this country should continue to progress with pertinent attention towards climate and site selection and understanding our own unique Australian style.

1 p. 359 Foulkes, Christopher. ‘Italy’ in Larousse Encyclopedia of Wine, London, Hamlyn, 2001.

2 p. 12 Belfrage, Nicholas, Barolo to Valpolicella – the wines of Northern Italy, London, Faber and Faber Ltd, 1999.

3 p. 63, Robinson, Jancis, The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd ed, Oxford University Press, 2006.

4 Chalmers Nurseries, ‘Nebbiolo’ http://www.chalmersnurseries.com/www/varieties/nebbiolo/nebbiolo.htm

5 p. 63-64, 471, Robinson, op. cit.

6 p. 62, Robinson, op. cit.

7 p. 2, Garner, Michael and Merritt, Paul, ‘Barolo Tar and Roses’, The Wine Appreciation Guild Ltd, San Francisco, 1990.

8 p. 365, Foulkes op. cit.

9 p. 73, Antonini, Alberto in ‘Old World knowledge blends with Australian wine style’, The Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Journal, Vol. 21:4.

10 Cowham, Simon, ‘Nebbiolo – a literature review’, March 1999, http://www.yalumbanursery.com/pdf/news/Nebbiolo.pdf

11 Chalmers Nurseries, op. cit.

12 Harrop, Matt, 2010, pers. comm. Sept 20th

13 Cowham, op. cit.

14 Hampton, Paul, 2010, pers. comm. May 16th

15 Cowham, op. cit.

16 p. 196, Dry, Peter & Coombe, Bryan, ‘Viticulture– Vol 1 Resources, Winetitles, Ashford, 2005

17 p. 367, Foulkes, op. cit.

18 p. 70, Pizzini, Joel in ‘Nebbiolo Report’, Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Journal, Vol. 21:4, July/Aug 2006

19 p. 64, Robinson, op. cit.

20 p. 9, Petrini, Carlo, ‘Atlante delle vigne di Langa’ Slow Food Editore, Bra, 2008.

21 p. 562, Robinson, op. cit.

22 Wine Australia, Australian Winegrape Prices & Tonnes Crushed. http://www.wineaustralia.com/australia/desktopmodules/smartdnnmodulecontroller/usercontrols/WAN_Cube Viewer.aspx?productid=139&issamplecube=False

23 p. 90, Dry & Coombe, op. cit.

24 p. 30, Halliday, James & Johnson, Hugh, ‘The Art and Science of Wine’, Hardie Grant Books, Prahran. 2006.

25 Cowham, op. cit

26 2010, Lambet, Luke, pers. comm., 16th Sept

27 2010, Kinzbrunner, Rick in, ‘The Giaconda returns to Italy, 19th July 2010, http://bbrblog.com/2-1-/07/19/the-giaconda-returns-to-italy-an-interview-with-rick-kinzbrunner-in-piedmont/.

28 2010, Lambert, Luke, pers. comm., 16th Sept

29 p. 45, Garner and Merritt, op. cit.

30 Ziliani, Franco, ‘Winegrowers seek a challenge in planting Nebbiolo’, Wine Business Monthly, July 2006. http://www.winebusiness.com/wbm/?go=getArticle&dataid=43867

31 p. 20, Garner, Michael, ‘Barolo-20 years on’, Decanter-the 2010 Italy Issue, 2010.

32 p. 362, Foulkes, op. cit.

33 Faulkner, Jane, ‘Nebbiolo, Nectar of the Godden’, The Age A2, December 8th 2007.

34 Pizzini, op. cit.

35 p. 54, Belfrage, op. cit.

36 p. 3, Garner and Merritt, op. cit.

Bibliography

Antonini, Alberto in ‘Old World knowledge blends with Australian wine style, The Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Journal, Vol. 21, No. 4. Jul/Aug 2006. Belfrage, Nicholas, Barolo to Valpolicella – the wines of Northern Italy, Faber and Faber Ltd, London. 1999.

Chalmers Nurseries, Nebbiolo, http://www.chalmersnurseries.com/www/varieties/nebbiolo/nebbiolo.htm.

Cowham, Simon, Nebbiolo – a literature review, March 8th 1999. www.yalumbanursery.com/pdf/news/Nebbiolo.pdf.

Dry, Peter R. & Coombe, Bryan G., Viticulture – Vol 1 – Resources, 2nd ed, Winetitles, Ashford. 2005.

Faulkner, Jane, ‘Nebbiolo, Nectar of the Godden’, The Age A2, December 8th 2007.

Foulkes, Christopher, Larousse Encyclopedia of Wine, Hamlyn, London. 2001.

Garner, Michael, ‘Barolo – 20 years on’, Decanter – The 2010 Italy Issue. 2010.

Garner, Michael & Merritt, Paul, ‘Barolo Tar and Roses – A Study of the Wines of Alba’, The Wine Appreciation Guild Ltd, San Francisco, 1990.

Halliday, James & Johnson, Hugh, The Art and Science of Wine, Hardie Grant Books, Prahran. 2006.

Kinzbrunner, Rick, in ‘The Giaconda returns to Italy-an interview with Rick Kinzbrunner in Piedmont, 19th July 2010, http://bbrblog.com/2-1-/07/19/thegiaconda-

returns-to-italy-an-interview-with-rick-kinzbrunner-in-piedmont/.

McKay, Alex, ‘Nebbiolo – Varietal Report’, Wine Business Monthly, October 2001, www.winebusiness.com/wbm/?go=getArticle&dataid=12773.

Petrini, Carlo, ‘Atlante delle vigne di Langa – I grandi Cru del Barolo e del Barbaresco’, Slow Food Editore, Bra, 2008.

Pizzini, Joel in ‘Nebbiolo Report’ in Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Journal, Vol. 21:4, 2006.

Robinson, Jancis, ‘Nebbiolo’, ‘Barolo’, ‘Barbaresco’ and ‘Renato Ratti’ in The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd ed, Oxford University Press. 2006.

Wine Australia, Australian Winegrape Prices & Tonnes Crushed. www.wineaustralia.com/australia/desktopmodules/smartdnnmodulecontroller/usercontrols/WAN_CubeViewer.aspx?productid=139&issamplecube=False

Ziliani, Franco, ‘Winegrowers Seek a Challenge in Planting Nebbiolo’, Wine Business Monthly, July 2006, http://www.winebusiness.com/wbm/?go=getArticle&dataid=43867.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to the following for sharing their expertise and wisdom:

Paul Hampton of Henschke Winery

Matt Harrop of Shadowfax Winery

Luke Lambert of Luke Lambert Wines

Giorgio Rivetti of La Spinetta.

6 Responses to “Nebbiolo: King of the Langhe (ie: Barolo & Barbaresco). Is its noble status achievable in some Australian regions?”

  1. matt paul June 15, 2011 at 11:39 AM #

    Complimenti, this is a great article Krystina. With time, we will discover sites that can make good Nebbiolo in Australia (and you have mentioned a few quality producers) but it will literally only be a few. Their success will no doubt encourage other growers to continue the scattergun approach and plant the variety in the wrong places, resulting in wines that are nothing like Nebbiolo – I’m reminded here of Nick Stock’s recent comments. One thing that does concern me is the price of some of these wines. They are mostly experimental, from young vines with no track record (in the cellar or market) and yet they are charging more, sometimes much more, than benchmark examples from Piedmont. If they can get away with it, good luck, but I’ll continue to buy the real thing. What do you think?

    • La Donna del Vino June 15, 2011 at 1:00 PM #

      Thanks for the feedback Matt. Just like you I think it will only be a few producers/growers who will do justice to Neb in Australia. There are still too many out there who are yes, giving it a go, but not making a fair representation of the variety at all, which can then just lead to confused consumers.

      I tried the Carpe Diem Nebbiolo 2007 (Margaret River region) last night under the precedence that I hadn’t yet sampled a WA Neb before and really should to see how it fares in the scheme of things. Not discouraging other Nebs from WA as this was only my first, but the colour and nose and palate would suggest some blending was involved (perhaps with a slosh of Merlot? Chissa’)! The ribena notes and deep purple colour did nothing to make me think of the nebbiolo grape at all. The price of this wine wasn’t extreme in the experimental side of things, I think costing about $25 from my goldfish memory. Yet, I think the point that we’re both trying to make here is that you can spend $30-$50 on a really excellent Italian Nebbiolo that actually respects the true characteristics of the grape. With our Aussie dollar doing so well now prices have come down a fair deal so there are plenty of wines on offer. Vietti’s Perbacco Langhe Nebbiolo, Produttori del Barbaresco’s Langhe Nebbiolo, Marcarini’s Lasarin Langhe Nebbiolo, Matteo Correggia’s Roero, Borgogne’s Nebbiolo d’Alba, Vajra’s Langhe Nebbiolo, etc. For some of the co-ops you can even pay just an extra $30 and get a decent, value representation of Barbaresco and Barolo! I suppose that after being exposed to a lot of this grape from its traditional place of origin in the past I can get a bit skeptical about the prices that some of the Aussie examples command. Good on them if it’s worth it. In the wake of increasing interest in the Neb grape demand may mean these wines get snapped up all too easily but I think with more exposure to the various styles, consumers will eventually realise when they should and shouldn’t be spending so much moolah on certain wines.

      Yesiree, I will always buy Italian Nebbiolo, but I will also continue searching for the Aussie Neb that can make me just as proud. 🙂

  2. Dan Sims June 15, 2011 at 8:10 PM #

    Great post young lady. Well thought out, researched and written … bravo.

    Yes, I tend to agree with Matt (& others); time will tell for Nebbiolo in Australia though I am continually impressed with Mr S.C. Pannell’s example as well as Mr Stocks ‘Solita’. Both find that balance between being ‘Nebbiolo’ and ‘Australian’.

    Great work and keep it up …

    • La Donna del Vino June 15, 2011 at 8:23 PM #

      🙂 Thank’ya Dan for the encouragement. Haven’t seen Solita around…would like to try it one day.

      P.S. Aren’t you on holiday?!

  3. Brendan McManus December 21, 2011 at 3:41 PM #

    I tried to find the reference to:- “Garner, Michael, ‘Barolo – 20 years on’, Decanter – The 2010 Italy Issue”. 2010. Is it in May 2010? Can you send me a copy of the article? I have a copy of his book. It is my bible for Barolos. I will be at the March 16th event at the Barolo Bar. I had an interest in a vineyard where we grew 250 nebbiolo vines but failed to make any decent wine. I think it was too cold. So I have to put up with drinking the real stuff. My favourite Aussie Nebbiolo is made by Colin Mitchell at yandoit, but it is so hard to get any from him, followed by Pizzini’s.
    Surely they are the greatest wines in the world.
    Brendan McManus

    • La Donna del Vino December 21, 2011 at 3:55 PM #

      Hi Brendan,

      I do not have the magazine with me at the moment, but I will try get it to you in the next couple of days. I could not find reference to it online, so I assume it was just within the actual Italy Issue printed magazine that I picked up last year.
      Gee, that is such a shame that you must now succumb to drinking the ‘real stuff’. Haha only joking.
      You can certainly get your value for money with regards to the Italian imports nowadays with so many well-respected and unique producers having their wines brought in.
      Lucky us 🙂

      LDdV

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: