Saturday, November 19, 2011

NEBBIOLO: A Dark Mystery to Celebrate

Serralunga a'Alba - Piemonte
At the foot of the mountains, and surrounded by the imposing Alps, lies hilly Piemonte(Piedmont). Its waters collected throughout these hills ramble and snake under a cool continental climate to converge at the mighty, easterly flowing Po. Above these fertile lowlands, a broad crescent of rolling hills are the home to grazing livestock, dark forests rich with game, and the much sought-after white truffles of Alba. Politically, Piedmont is composed of eight (8) provinces surrounding its capital of Torino(Turin), but our study will take us to Cuneo, Asti, and Alessandria.

Indigenous grape varieties here are the widely planted, low-tannin Barbera; the fruity Brachetto, Dolcetto, and Grignolino; as well as the tannic Freisa and Nebbiolo. Piedmont is also home to a number of white grapes, including a grapey grape, producing the lake-sized volumes and spectrum of wine styles of the popular Moscato d'Asti.

Nebbiolo can be found here in many corners north of the Langhe Hills, in the DOCG frontier wines of Ghemme and Gattinara, and the DOC's Nebbiolo d'Alba and Langhe Nebbiolo, but its greatest incarnation is to be found in the regions more temperate southern hillsides, where the best sites are planted near the hilltops, facing south. Here, the noble Nebbiolo grapes in these vineyards are among the first to bud, and the last to ripen. Every vintage they must fight the frosts of spring and the occasional early snows of October. As a internationally recognized variety, Nebbiolo surprisingly doesn't adapt well, preferring the calcareous marl and sandy soils of its foggy homelands. Being naturally high in acid and high tannin, Nebbiolo had often been traditionally blended with lighter regional grapes to modify its course personality. Fortunately, today's DOCG Barbaresco and Barolo's use newer equipment and modern techniques to meet the stringent requirements of artfully producing un-blended 100% Nebbiolos.

Often described as feminine, the Barbaresco production zone includes three Cuneo communes to the east of Alba: Barbaresco, Treiso, and Neive. As a smaller demarcated zone, Barbaresco wines generally have more continuity, but less production than the robust Barolo's. If declared DOCG wines, a minimum 2 years aging is required. The more masculine, longer historied Barolo's are of produced in eleven(11)communes located along the region's Tanaro River, west of the commercial center of Alba. Of these cooler communes, La Morra, Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d'Alba and Serralunga d'Alba, represent the majority of DOCG production in the steep demarcated zone. Reflecting their tannic nature, current regulations require a minimum of 38 months aging prior to their release for these prestigious DOCG wines.

Lesser Nebbiolo's are cultivated in a limited areas outside these important zones. In some vintages, and some of these producers, as in Nebbiolo d'Alba,  can produce Nebbiolo's of great power while offering considerable value. In Piedmont's extreme north, the communes of Gattinara and Ghemme produce blended, long-lived Nebbiolo's under the synonym of Spanna. Even further north on the steep hillsides neighboring Lombardy, locally cultivated Nebbiolo grows in a very cool climate, producing a even lighter-style and blended Nebbiolo from the local Chiavennasca. Here Nebbiolo can also be produced with Amarone-style dried grapes, called Sforzato.

Barbaresco's Triesco
Opaquely dark, sometimes with an orange-tinted rim, with rich perfumes of dried fruits and even tar, these long-lived wines can be a prized memory for wine lovers. But, their scarcity keeps pricing high, which is one reason why I can count my Nebbiolo experiences on both hands, but I do remember each isolated discovery.
In spite of it's international prestige, dark, brooding Nebbiolo remains today a minor grape in its home region of Piemonte, and undeveloped in the rest of the viticultural world.  Now that's a mystery!

As I continue to await results from September's Wine Educator's exam, I raise a glass and wish all a Happy Thanksgiving!

To Your Health!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

BRAMBLES: Harvest This!

An annual right of passage, this year's harvest is all but over. Reuters reported on November 08, that the globes wine grape harvest was quite mixed, with temperate zones of Italy, Spain and most of the U.S. having cooler growing/harvest seasons and significant declines in winegrape volume. Only the northern extreme latitudes of British Columbia, Ontario and upper New York State; northern appellations of France, Germany and Austria appear to have had satisfactory harvest levels. The southern hemisphere, which harvests in the Spring, from New Zealand to Argentina, are conversely calling it a, "beautiful harvest".  Regardless of climate abnormality or climate change or global warming, the Old World and the U.S. and the New World will continue to produce great quality wines each and every vintage; and value conscience consumers will continue to seek them out. Even as per capita wine consumption may be going down in France, the growing numbers of the rest of us wine lovers continue finding great value in the quality wines from around the globes many resources.  You just need to know where to look.

Domestically, little known wine growing regions like Santa Barbara's Happy Canyon AVA(American Viticultural Area), Santa Maria AVA and Santa Ynez AVA, enjoyed a dry, warm harvest in 2011 unlike their neighbors to the north. In spite of a rainy harvest, the Central Coast's Paso Robles region continues to grow in quality and quantity with each vintage, having currently over 200 wineries where there were just a handful twenty years ago. Free wine market lobbyists like the noble, Free the Grapes, continue to fight Prohibition-era consumer laws for us, and today we number only 12 states that prohibit direct shipping to consumers like you and me. And, this week Washington State's Initiative 1183 was overwhelming passed by voters, effectively ending that states 78-year monopoly on controlling wine sales. In spite of a locally challenging harvest, it is still a great time for consumers of quality wines who explore the world of wine.
Autumn in Burgundy
Our Sonoma County Pistachio trees are ablaze in rustic colors now, and their fallen leaves have begun to blanket the roadways. In the nearby sustainable vineyards, grape leafs are turning annually to yellow, as they lose the green pigment, chlorophyll, which absorbs the light that allows the plant to produce the vital energy for photosynthesis(carbon dioxide converted to organic compounds and sugars). Chronic vineyard maladies, like leafroll virus, which can be slowly spread by the grape mealybug, are beginning to show on the down-turned leaves flaming reddish-purple hues. With the first frosts of the season, these vines will begin to lose their leaves and cycle into dormancy, storing energy for the awakening that is Spring. Another annual rite from wines rich history, our busy regional wine cellars now practice the orchestrated march of barrels and the seemingly endless coils of tank hoses, moving the newborn cuvees(blends) throughout their nurseries. Outside, it will soon be time to plant sustainable cover crops that limit unwanted weeds and contribute soil nutrients, repair the vineyard trellising so necessary to support the sunshine vine requirements and then the essential art/science of Winter pruning that controls quality grape yields. As with the wine in the bottle, there remains a need for balance in the vineyard.
Medieval Harvest tapestry

The change of colors, shorter days and the chill in the night air announce that winter is on its way, so it is a good time to find our favorite winery's winemakers in the cellar.  This is a wonderful time of year for wine lovers to explore a wine country, either near or far. Each year this is that anticipated time  to celebrate the harvest and its newborn wines, plan a feast or to explore the riches that our earth offer's us, just as we have for centuries. On the West Coast there are seasonal wine festivals stretching from Yakima Valley to Gold Country to the Santa Ynez Valley on the Fall calendar to enjoy, with great wines from almost every venue. The sense of wine discovery can be found at every venue, with many surprises along the way. Even if we are not available to travel beyond our local wine merchant, the exploration of the world of wine can take us out of our comfort zone and across to the wine treasures of the globe. Here each of us can savour these many wonderful morsels of natures bounty this season, if only we would seek them out!

Congratulations to the pioneering winegrape growers and vintners of northern Sonoma countie's Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak region.  Our federal regulators, the Tax & Tariff Bureau, just announced the areas demarcation as our newest, and the counties 14th, American Viticultural Area. Currently at around 230 growing acres sitting above 1500 feet in hillside elevation, this creates yet another opportunity for a dedicated growing region to create its own identity by the culturing of native grapes in a distinct environment. It is just one more reason to seek out the grape harvest!
Racking Oregon Pinot Noir