There is little doubt that Thomas Jefferson's foremost imprint on history will be as the author of the Declaration of Independence and as the third President of the United States. Much more intriguing, however (at least for purposes of this blog), is Jefferson's oenological obsessions. Indeed, he was unequivocally America’s first (and best) Sommelier-in-Chief. Although this passion was primarily found in the vineyards of France, Jefferson was noted amongst the early admirers of Nebbiolo da Barolo during his vinous sojourn through northern Italy in 1785 (although the wine at this time was much different and notably sweeter). Throughout his years as Secretary of State and as President, Jefferson served up hundreds of bottles of Nebbiolo for his esteemed guests at Monticello.
Thomas Jefferson is in good company. I, too, am a huge fan of Nebbiolo.
Unfortunately, I lack access to a cellar that rivals Monticello. Fortunately, I have a few wine enthusiast friends with which to share a bottle and some vinous musings. As to the latter, I found opportunity to sit down with my good friends at Flavors of Italy (Honolulu's preeminent wine merchants) to discuss all things Nebbiolo. Discussion promptly proceeded to uncorking a few specimens (for the purpose of exhaustive research, of course), and pairing them with delicious local cuisine. Life doesn't get much better than this ...
There is often little question what is in the glass when it comes to Nebbiolo. It’s unique and distinct color is the first indication - brick red-orange, light and luminous in the glass. An absolutely stunning wine. Although the thin-skinned Nebbiolo is light in color, it is paradoxically powerful with ample tannin. My curiosity is peaked already. The true mark of Nebbiolo, however, is its tremendously penetrating yet elegant aromatics. A young Nebbiolo consistently showcases fresh cherry, raspberry and rose petals, gradually maturing over time to include notes of dried red fruit, leather, tar and truffle. A complex, structured, age-worthy wine.
Despite its noble character and stunning wines, Nebbiolo has a surprisingly limited diaspora. Nebbiolo is notoriously temperamental and demanding (or perhaps simply neurotic). As such, it only truly thrives in its hometown hills of Langhe, Piedmont, in northern Italy. For budding Nebbiolo enthusiasts, it is best to stick close to home.
Nestled between the French Maritime Alps to the west and the Apennines of the Italian Riviera to the south and east, the region of Langhe has a temperate continental climate with characteristically hot summers, cold winters, and excellent diurnal temperature variation, particularly in the summer months. This combination contributes to a long growing season that is ideal for Nebbiolo - the first grape to bud in the region and the last to ripen. Nebbiolo takes its time.
Due to its late-ripening and fussy tendencies, combined with its high market value, Nebbiolo commands the preeminent hillside sites in the region that consist of limestone-rich marl soils (a cool, crumbly clay that assists with slow ripening and acidity) and optimal sun exposure. Nebbiolo, like its more famous colleague, Pinot Noir, is extraordinary in its ability to express the subtleties of terroir, which creates demand for very specific vineyard locations. With Nebbiolo, as with real estate, it is about location, location, location.
Viticulture in Langhe highlights the region's extensive and expressive variation in altitude, sun exposure and soil composition. Every acre has been meticulously studied and charted. This is, indeed, one of the immense joys of Piedmont and Nebbiolo: it can easily become a lifetime pursuit of intricate vinous comparative study. Oenophiles fastidiously pour over subtle distinctions from town to town, vineyard to vineyard, cru to cru.
Nebbiolo particularly dazzles in the Lange Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) subregions of Barolo and Barbaresco. The best Nebbiolo from these appellations unequivocally rivals the finest wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Montalcino.
The King of Wines and Wine of Kings
Situated southwest of the village of Alba, Barolo is not a large region - comprised of approximately 4,500 acres of planted vineyards (by way of contrast, Napa Valley in California has approximately 45,000 acres under cultivation). Despite its rather small acreage, the region has developed an iconic reputation for quality and prestige. And this reputation is longstanding. Barolo's famed moniker, the "King of Wines and the Wine of Kings," is a reference to the Piedmont nobility that was fundamental to the region's winemaking ambitions in the mid-nineteenth century. Aristocratic vinters; a wine with regal intrigue.
Although early vinicultural traditions predominantly relied upon large, negociant-esque producers who blended wines from a variety of vineyard locations, the gold standard over the last 50 years has transitioned to the single-vineyard crus. The distinctive traits of these single vineyards across Barolo and neighboring Barbarescso lend themselves to careful (and repeated) study and comparison by Nebbiolo wonks across the globe.
Weather was particularly unkind to the 2012 vintage, with a brutally cold, harsh winter turning into an uneven, rain-plagued spring. Conditions slightly improved in the summer months with warmer weather, but two hailstorms late in the summer complicated the growing process. Rain persisted into early September, but Nebbiolo was spared the worst due to its late-ripening tendencies. The season finally dried out from mid-September through October. Sometimes it pays off to take your time.
Given the circumstances, wines from this vintage are highly variable. Although the season was difficult, experienced producers found a way to salvage a decent vintage. Oddero did just that. Plum, tart cherry, cedar and rose were the first aromatics to jump from the glass. On the palate, toasted spice, licorice and tobacco, with firm tannin, created a youthful wine with focused intensity. This wine is a good example of a general principle for the appellation: these wines benefit tremendously from time in the cellar. At six years, this wine is still in its infancy. Practice patience in the cellar until these wines pass the decade milestone. You will be richly rewarded.
Every King has His Queen
Barbaresco, to the northeast of Alba, is even smaller than Barolo, with a mere 1,900 acres of vines planted within its appellation boundaries. Traditionally, the wines of Barbaresco are characterized as finer and more feminine than those of its kingly neighbor. With vineyards slightly lower and warmer than Barolo, Nebbiolo in this region ripens earlier and its soils favor wines with a gentle personality. For this reason, Barbaresco has been betrothed as queen to its nearby Barolo king. This is not to say, however, that the queen cannot occasionally put on a show of strength. One can certainly procure from Barbaresco wines every bit as virile as those of their counterparts in Barolo. Beautiful and elegant, the queen also has some spunk.
A brilliant vintage across the region, 2013 showcased classic Barbaresco elements in a sophisticated, age-worthy wine. The growing season was long and stable, with a stunning September month packed with warm days and cool nights. As a result, the fickle Nebbiolo was pampered with a late harvest season, yielding highly structured, intense wines with wonderful acidity to balance the palate.
This wine, from one of the most reliable and consistent producers in the appellation, Produttori del Barbaresco, was a shining example from an epic vintage. Elegant aromatics of cherry, cranberry and rose are the first alluring invitation. The palate steps up the intensity with notes of tar, spice, and licorice, joined by a tannic backbone that provides great structure. A truly enjoyable wine from start to finish. I would recommend decanting for 45 minutes or, more preferably, stowing it away in the cellar for a few more years.
Bargain Hunting for Nebbiolo
Unfortunately, these prestigious regions carry a price tag to match. Not what I would consider a bargain wine for any casual occasion. Want to enjoy fabulous Nebbiolo without breaking the bank? The Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) of Langhe, with less stringent requirements than Barolo and Barbaresco, is your vinous destination.
To highlight this region, we pulled out the 2015 Cascina Luisin Langhe Nebbiolo. This wine carried all of the classic elements of Nebbiolo at a value price point. Wonderful aromatics of raspberry, cherry and floral elements of rose petals burst from the glass. The palate is structured and complex with firm tannins and wonderful red fruit. Admittedly, the wine is lighter, less tannic and did not rise to the level of complexity found in Barolo and Barbaresco. One cannot, however, always enjoy the best Nebbiolo at the weekday table. At approximately $23, this wine isn’t necessarily cheap, but nonetheless well worth the price tag for a noble grape that drinks fabulously on its own, and pairs easily with a variety of cuisines.
A Pabulum Pairing Paradigm
Speaking of food, Nebbiolo (unsurprisingly) pairs beautifully with the cuisine of its native region. Restaurants and homes in Langhe are filled with alluring aromas of truffle, wild mushrooms, chestnuts and hazelnuts. Cheese, of course, is a hallmark of many Italian dishes, and the Langhe region reigns supreme in its variety and quantity of high quality cheeses. The rich food of Piedmont is a collage of forest flavors, and Nebbiolo's rustic characteristics are the perfect companion.
Locally, a few dishes bearing a similar Piedmont profile shine with Nebbiolo. I choose three from a few of my favorite BYOB restaurants. Pick up a bottle of Nebbiolo and dine in style.
At the The Rice Place in Kaka'ako, the mushroom rice-otto hits all of the right notes with a glass of Nebbiolo. Cheese, mushrooms and herbs collide in an accord of rich, creamy, earthy flavors. A perfect date night meal.
In Manoa, pick up Fendu Boulangerie's Hamakua Mushroom Mania Pizza for an evening at home with a Barbaresco and Netflix binge. The more fine, elegant characteristics of Barbaresco are a good match for the thin crust and heavy mushroom toppings of this incredibly tasty pizza. And hey, a night in with Netflix means more to spend on the evening's vino selection. Win-win.
Finally, go big or go home with Barolo and braised oxtail from Kan Zaman in Honolulu's Chinatown district. The braised oxtail, prepared in a rich sauce with subtle Moroccan spice and served overtop saffron mashed potato, needs a bold wine to pair. Barolo delivers in spectacular fashion. The house ras el hanout carries wonderful and complex flavor without much heat, and the nutty elements famous to this cuisine complement the wine's classic cedar and tar characteristics. Barolo's acidity helps to cut through the rich dish and leave you ready for the next bite. Be sure to call ahead, braised oxtail is a special course and not always on the menu.