Spotlight on nebbiolo

The famous Gaja label. Baghera Wine Auctions

Barolo & Barbaresco Feature Week

“Chambolle-Musigny with tannin” is how some Barolo lovers depict the taste of their most revered red.

I know what they mean. Drinkers fascinated by Burgundy are often similarly besotted with Barolo and Barbaresco, the ‘king and queen’ of Piedmontese red wines.

It’s the perfumes that get you in first. Gloriously aerial and fragrant, summoning old-fashioned roses, violets, balsamic herbs and sundry red fruits, sometimes with a hint of dried leather or more commonly, ferrous nuances that elicit shouts of ‘rusty bucket’ or ‘iron filings’ or even ‘dried blood’ from euphoric drinkers.

Australia is probably making as much or more progress with nebbiolo than any country other than Italy.

Then the taste. Once you get over the stumbling block of tannin and realise that not all Barolo is ferociously tannic, and good Barolo no matter how generous its tannins is never green or astringent, you are on your way to discovering its joys. The tannins of nebbiolo can be quite firm and gripping, but only when you make the mistake of imbibing without food. It only takes a small morsel of protein to loosen the grip. There is some mysterious and wondrous interaction between tannin and protein that softens these wines, at the same time releasing more aromas into your mouth—as if the union of the two unlocks aromatic components that were previously bound to the tannin molecules.

It’s almost a cliché that Italy makes wines to go with food, not win medals at wine competitions where wine is judged without food—its natural partner. Hence the great Italian red wines, made principally from either nebbiolo or sangiovese, are not ‘fruity’ wines in the New World tradition, but can best be described as savoury, the opposite of fruity. And this is the secret of their great compatibility with food.

Great nebbiolo wines are wonderful food companions, and it’s at the dinner table where we can not only enjoy their interactions with food, but allow them enough time to unfold their mystery. They often need time to fully emerge. One has to seek the charms of a nebbiolo wine: while other varieties come to you, nebbiolo requires you to go to it. They are not ‘obvious’ wines.

On a rare visit to Australia in 2006, the famous Piedmontese winemaker Angelo Gaja related this explanation to a group of Sydney wine people. It’s not a direct quote so it’s not in inverted commas.

Nebbiolo is quite different to, say, cabernet sauvignon. In fact, they are opposites. Cabernet sauvignon is like a brash American, a John Wayne of grapes. Nebbiolo is like Marcello Mastroianni. John Wayne is big and loud, with a big hat. He strides into a room, stands in the centre of the room, and commands everyone’s attention. He makes an immediate impression and is impossible to miss.

Mastroianni is furtive and shy, he’s hiding in a corner unnoticed by most people, he’s got a three-day growth and he’s wearing discreet clothes. He doesn’t want to be the centre of attention, and if you want to meet him, you have to seek him out. He’s a man of mystery.

So much for cinematic references.

While The Real Review has Steve Blandford tasting and reviewing Langhe wines from Piedmont, I’m fortunate to taste many Barolo and Barbaresco wines in Australia.

In recent months the highlights have been:

Barbaresco

Barolo

Where else does nebbiolo produce interesting wine?

Some grape varieties are great travellers, witness chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, but others are home-bodies and make notable wine only in a few places on Earth. Nebbiolo is one of those.

Australia is probably making as much or more progress with nebbiolo than any country other than Italy. It’s not an easy grape to grow or make wine from. The Pizzini family and others in the King Valley, Pipan Steel, Billy Button and others in Alpine Valleys and Beechworth, Vinea Marson and others in Heathcote, Joe Grilli (with the Joseph brand) and others in McLaren Vale, Stephen Pannell and others in the Adelaide Hills, Luke Lambert and others in the Yarra Valley, and several producers using Pyrenees grapes, are all making strides.

However, as with New World pinot noir compared to Burgundy, the best of Piedmont’s Langhe region remain in a class of their own.


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