Grapes of Summer: Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo Grape Clusters Ready for Harvest in Piedmont, Italy

To many, Nebbiolo is the greatest wine grape in the world. It produces big, expressive, mineral-driven wines that capture the poetry and majesty of Piedmont’s terroir and climat. The grape is indigenous to the region, which is surrounded by the high Alps that almost encircle the vines of Piedmont like a horseshoe, with the open end of the horseshoe pointing to the east. It is in these mountains where Nebbiolo is grown, with the tiny Barolo region considered to be it’s heartland. Intense grape flavors are developed as a result of extended growing time on the vine. Nebbiolo is one of the first varieties to bud and the last to ripen, typically harvested in October or even early November. The most highly rated bottles of Nebbiolo tend to come from vintages that had dry weather during September & October.

Early morning fog in a Nebbiolo vineyard

Early morning fog in a Nebbiolo vineyard

Thick clouds and dense fog linger on the slopes and valleys of the Italian Alps, protecting the grape and allowing it to ripen slowly.  It is after this fog (“nebbia” in Italian) that Nebbiolo inherits its name. Fog-like milky veils rest upon the temperamental berries as they ripen under cool cloud air.  This helps build the grape’s acidic structure and allows it to mature slowly.  Some winemakers say Nebbiolo is the most difficult wine grape to grow because it needs specific south-sloping site selection with maximum exposure to sunshine.  Nevertheless, it is considered to be one of Italy’s most noble grapes and is one of the few varietals you can identify simply by its color alone.  A brick-orange rim is signature of more mature Nebbiolo wine, while intense dark ruby hues suggest younger vintages. High in both tannin and acidity, it takes skilled winemakers to produce quality Nebbiolo that is both enjoyable in its youth and capable of refinement with extended aging.  No other red wine more magnificently rewards patient cellaring than great Italian Nebbiolo, which can develop into a “beverage of beauty” after decades in the bottle.  Despite bottle age, however, the wines listed below all brilliantly showcase the intoxicating perfume of the Nebbiolo grape.  Indulge in these Barolo and Barbaresco wines and experience juicy cherries, rose petals, violets, freshly picked blackberries and hot tar, all classic nuances of summer.

1171.Marcarini Barolo Brunate 2009 ($50)

The Brunate cru, in the communes of La Morra and Barolo, is one of the most famous in the Barolo region and expresses the elegance of La Morra to perfection. It is a most austere and majestic wine that is produced from single-vineyard grapes. Bold and imposing, a virile example displaying characteristic power and strength. Its classic style excites the nose with marvellous spice, tobacco, cinnamon, ripe fruit, tar and dry rose scents, with undertones of very fine wood. Color is garnet red, lively and intense, with slightly orange hues. On the palate this wine fully reveals its magnitude, character and complexity: velvety, round, with soft tannins, well balanced components and remarkable persistence. It confirms the bouquet’s spicy vein, with notes of licorice and vanilla. (Annual bottle production: 22,500)

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2.Ca’Rome Barbaresco Chiaramanti 2010 ($70)

Ca’ Rome is named after owner Romano Marengo’s home (the “Ca” comes from “Casa”). The Marengo family’s simplistic and sincere approach to winemaking has contributed to Barbaresco wines of great finesse. The 2010 Chiaramanti is the latest addition to the Marengo range, though from a very old single vineyard.  In the truest Barbaresco style, this wine is deep garnet with crimson reflections, has a rich bouquet of licorice, red berries, brushwood, violets, cinnamon and cloves. It has a well balanced palate showing complex flavors of ripe fruit with a persistent finish. (Annual bottle production: 4,000)

image_463676_full3.Cascina Bongiovanni Barolo Pernanno 2009 ($75)

Cascina Bongiovanni was born in 1950, the year in which the founder, John Bongiovanni, produced and began selling grapes for his Nebbiolo winemaking. In the 90s David Mozzone, winemaker and current owner of the company, marked a turning point by allocating these wines to foreign markets. As a result of years of meticulous rigor on the vineyards with respect for technique, cellar hygiene and suitable equipment, the demand for Bongiovanni wines has skyrocketed.  The combination of thirty year old vines, a high percentage of silty clay and twenty-four months spent aging in French oak has accrued older Bongiovanni Pernanno vintages numerous awards.  Classic Italian winemaking passion is tasted in the 2009 Pernanno and it is no wonder this impressive Barolo has clinched a spot on our list of top Nebbiolo wines of summer. Another fantastic wine from this producer worth searching out is their Dolcetto D’Alba.

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While shopping you may notice that some of these wines are sold out or listed as “future arrivals”. Regardless of vintage, these wines will perform consistently in “on and off” growing seasons.  In this case, the slightly higher price points are worth the investment since Nebbiolo is a challenging grape to grow; the most exceptional deriving from prestigious Italian land.  Nebbiolo wines often require years of aging to balance the tannins with other characteristics so go ahead and purchase with confidence. Resist the urge to drink now, stock your cellar and experience graceful Nebbiolo wines in the years to come.  We promise it will be well worth the wait.  – RWL

Recommended glassware: Riedel Nebbiolo Grape Series Glassware

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