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!

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