Nebbiolo: An Unsung Hero

Four times a year I belong to a wine club that gets together to have a blind tasting. For those unfamiliar with this, it’s where you taste wines blind.  In our case, we brown bag all the bottles and take turns pouring the wines. Sometimes everyone just brings whatever they want or we have a theme. We score all the wines using the 100 point scale. At the end we tally all the scores and then remove the bags to reveal what was poured. This past weekend we got together and the theme was the Nebbiolo grape, our first time having a dedicated meeting to wines made from this grape.

For those of you unfamiliar with the grape, let me fill you in. Nebbiolo was made famous in the Piedmont region of Italy. Although not the most widely planted grape in the region (the workhorse Barbara grape has that claim), it is by far the most famous. It makes the distinctive wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, which some people actually think are the grape names but they would be wrong. Unlike the United States, old world grape producing countries like France, Italy and Spain categorize their wines by region instead of the grape. So a Red Bordeaux from France, for example, could be Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc or any other grapes used to make red wine. The Barolo and Barbaresco regions are only allowed to make red wines from Nebbiolo, so we always know what the grape is. The same can’t be said for the rest of the Piedmont region though. The grape is grown in other regions outside of Italy but unlike other grapes that have found popularity in other parts of the world, this one has not.

The Nebbiolo grape produces very distinct wines. These red wines are typically lighter in color but get more orange as they age. Nebbiolo has a very pronounced tar scent and flavor, which evolves as it ages. Typically they don’t even start getting good until about 10 years of age but these are some of the longest lived red wines in the world because they can be very tannic. Drinking a 30 year old Barolo is an unforgettable experience because there really is nothing out there like it because Nebbiolo is so distinctive. It is often compared to Burgundy but not because of the aromas or flavors but because of structure of the wine and the region.

Now that I’ve given you some background information onto the wines! We tasted 5 wines that night. All wines below are in the order tasted.

nebbiolo-wine-tasting-042316

Wine 1 – 1998 Vallana Gattinara – Off to a good start. For an 18 year old wine this wasn’t showing any obvious signs of aging. The nose on this was very nice with the classic tar aroma along with roses and cherry. For flavors, this had some nice raspberry, tar, tomato and tobacco with again no real signs of aging. Had a lot of fruit but a tad more elegant than the other wines that night. Maybe that was a sign? The wines ended with a nice finish of about 25 seconds that played on the fruit and tar theme. Tannins were there but not overwhelming, probably because I decanted this for 4 hours. Yes this was the wine I brought and Gattinara is located in Northern Piedmont. I gave it 92 points and it finished tied for last place.

Wine 2 – 2009 Villadoria Barolo – This wine’s nose was a touch bigger than the last wine and more complex. Had some nice aromas of cherry (more intense than the last wine), tomato leaf, roses and earth. I found this to be more tannic than Wine 1 but was still showing quite nicely. Flavors of earth, tobacco and cherry really stood out here. Like the first wine, the finish was about 25 seconds. I gave this an extra point because the nose was a touch more complex. So 93 points and it finished tied for last.

Wine 3 – 2011 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco – What immediately struck me about this wine was the biggest nose yet. A big aroma of cherry just jumped out of the glass with secondary aromas of lavender and cedar. The funny thing on this was besides the big blast of cherry, Wine 2 still had the more complex nose for me. Once tasted, it was easy to see that this wine was just a baby. Flavors of tar, cherry earth and a touch of spice danced across my palate. My wife brought this wine and it was also decanted for 4 hours. Definitely tasted good but only just starting to realize its potential. I gave it 92 points and it finished in 3rd on the night.

Wine 4 – 2005 Cascina Bruciata Barbaresco – This wine changed things up a bit on the nose with a very prominent matchstick aroma but familiar cherry, tar and roses. It’s tough when you have all the same grape and basically the same region because they share a lot of similarities. You could tell that this was starting to tie things together on the palate with again cherry and tar but more raspberry flavors as well as game mixed in. It ended with a 30 second finish that just eclipsed all the other wines. This was well structured and edges the other wines out along with Wine 2 as my favorites of the night. I gave this 93 points and it finished tied for 1st.

Wine 5 – 2010 Massolino Barolo – The final wine of the night was another strong showing. More aromas of cherry, tar, game and roses danced across the nose. Similar to the last wine, this had some nice cherry, raspberry, game and tar flavors. The finish was a touch shorter than Wine 4 but this was a excellent wine. Massolino is a very strong name in Barolo and it’s not surprising to see this wine finish strong. 2010 was one of the best vintages in probably the last 15 years in Barolo. The other 4 wines were all over the place in other members scores but this wine was consistent which is why it finished tied for 1st. I gave it 92 points.

Overall, this was one of our strongest meetings in recent memory. Typically we usually have one wine that shines above the rest with a few outliers people don’t like as much. The average score for each wine was over 90 points and I can’t remember that ever happening. Nebbiolo tends to be on the more expensive side with the average price to entry around $30, which is more expensive than most other grapes. On the flip side, for $50-$75 you can really get some top wines from the grape/region where you would be spending well over $100 or even $200 in places like Napa Valley or Bordeaux. If you have never had a chance to try this grape now is the time with a lot of 2010’s still widely available and if you see anything older make sure to jump on it.