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  • Pietro Buttitta

On Growing and Making Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo winemaker

I did the snoopy dance when I heard about it. Deep in Napa Valley, on a warm afternoon we gathered at Silenus to discuss making - wait for it - Nebbiolo. Not Cabernet or Merlot, but Nebbiolo. The king of wines, King pink himself. We opened 28 bottles of California Nebbiolo and a nice battalion of Italian reference points at the end. California Nebbiolo is the heartbreak grape, and every Pinot maker in attendance commiserated over just how damn difficult the viticulture is and the winemaking with this uber-sensitive beast. Face-ripping tannins, high acid (3.01pH for one of them in the bottle) in need of extensive aging and reacting unpredictably with oak were only part of the aired grievances. Nebbiolo just makes no damn sense, and that is why the good ones are so amazing and the unbalanced ones are the mother-in-laws of the wine world - just horribly abrasive and charmless. As they say, one must kiss many frogs... Full disclosure: the Italian wine moment that altered my consciousness forever was a tasting with Paolo di Gresy of Marchesi di Gresy side by side 1999 and 2000 Martinenga and Camp Gros Barbaresco bottlings. I had the opportunity to share a bottle of 2000 Martinenga last year and it was at least as good as I remembered, probably better and I wanted everyone else at the table to leave so I could selfishly spoon the bottle. How many times does that happen in life?

Viticulture: Nebbiolo does not like sun and it does like sun. Like Grenache it will not develop color if it is in the shade, and it will not color if in direct light. But, it will grow exuberantly in warmth producing massive vegetative growth without a thought toward fruit quality. Nebbiolo bunches can be huge, easily a pound each. The quality thinning is one bunch per cane without exception; shoulders, wings or bottoms optional. Nebbiolo wants a type of limestone-y marine soil we have very little of in California, so good luck with that. Rocks are the second choice. It is also an inbreeding nightmare. It is the wine first to bud in Spring, practically guaranteeing frost damage. It will be one of the last to be harvested, so if it starts to rain = screwed. It must be cane pruned 95% of the time which means you can't just prune to two buds per spur and pretend to forget it. Clone 01 is the exception. Fact is the Nebbiolo vine just does not like you and there is nothing you can do about it. It will always seem astringent, for that is its nature. If that is a problem for you, choose something else.


Enology: One of the fundamental things about Nebbiolo is that its tannin is not "noble". It will not polymerize a la modern Bordeaux into rich silkiness. It is dry and grippy with long chains just sucking and zippering to saliva on your tongue. From a nerd viewpoint it would be fascinating to hear of micro-oxygenation attempts. Nebbiolo is just sandpaper dry with high acid, the opposite of modern wine. The tannin will fade but they will never resemble an aged Cabernet. It is a slap and tickle in all the wrong places that inevitably has you coming back for more, creeping into your daydreams. Fermentations themselves seem to be fairly normal amongst all of us with tannin management calling the shots. Some used enzymes and yeast products, others just let it go man, all natural. The general concensus is treat it like Pinot with hand-punch downs - don't beat it up but don't let it oxidize too much. Color you can't really control, and adding Barbera is a common antidote (field blending is the unspoken and silently practiced solution in some of Piedmont). Most of us agreed that keeping it 100% pure is important ethically. Large format wood is a dream for many of us but seems to be the best bet (we use very old Burgundy barrels whose thick staves tend not to breath after many years). Two years in wood is the minimum with stronger vintages able to go longer. Racking may be as low as once per year. Topping up is always a balancing act between do it too frequently and promoting oxidation or not doing it often enough and risking, um, oxidation and VA problems. Due to the low pH sulfur should be used carefully. Errata: It came up once with Emilio that rootstock may have a greater impact on the qualities of Nebbiolo than the scion choice. We (including I) often regard clonal options as a grocery-store, choosing some qualities (small berries, low vigor, open bunches) over others and imagining that we will get those things. But, in the real world, site usually overrides selection. And with something as touchy and finicky as Nebbiolo, rootstock/site combinations may be more important that whether it is Lampia 01 or 10. Two years ago Adam Lee opined the same vein. We are still very much in the dark regarding rootstock interaction when it comes to enology, not just shatter and nematodes. Much work remains to be done here.

Clone 08 ripening in Dunnigan, pre-thinning

Carving a giant: Roundabout to the first paragraph is that the (potential) beauty of Nebbiolo lies in its Nietzschean agglomeration of the greatest number of opposing forces retained within the simplest and most grounded dialectical structure. What can be right about Nebbiolo is the sum of things potentially wrong squared. When fermenting Nebbiolo its true soul as a white grape comes out, and when DNA testing finds the mother to be Viognier it is not surprising to anyone. Its bizarre ephemeral delicacy is apparent. It does smell like roses and lilacs, cinnamon and a little clean lavender. But, it should also smell eventually like tar, truffles and all manner of wonderful stank, almost like a homeless guy in Starbucks eating seared foie gras while smoking a Havana. It should have this beauty but also this animalistic kinky visceral component and unpleasant acid/tannin thing that would be horrible were it not for this perplexing, dignified charade. It is the tension between light and dark, tenuous integration and looming collapse that is possibly most important. It is almost ecstatic in the aesthetic sense, showing us everything all at once were it not for that fact that it fails most of the time. To moderate the tannin is heretical though this would be the "correct" think to do in the modern idiom. Lower the acid, eviscerate the soul. Augment the color, corrupt the flesh.

Tasting notes:

Prima Materia Winery

These tasting notes were written and compiled by Tom Hill, tasting guru at from the first Nebbiolo Producers' meeting two years ago (tasting notes from this year's event will be forthcoming). His notes are quite good. Being one of the interested producers it does not seem quite right to pass notes on others wines in this context, and I was too busy asking questions anyway, so having his experience to rely on is a blessing. In general, I was surprised and impressed, feeling that we actually had more uniformity and cohesion than expected. The level of insecurity most of us had while pouring our own was pretty charming too. Oak levels varied but for the most part varietal typicity held strong, though California-inflected. The fruit was often beautiful and of even greater delicacy, but it also seemed that we in general missed the basso profundo part of the puzzle. Tar and truffle were hardly ever seen, missing the critical polar anchor. Several bottles from Paso Robles I thought were quite good provided they did not verge into jamminess and excessive hang-time tannin. The future may rely in either working with viticulture to produce fruit that can successfully go reductive and dig deep, or abandoning that part of the paradigm and concentrating on high-toned tannic elegance. As Tom says, Valtellina may be our model in many cases, not Barolo.

A few tasting notes:

2. Naked Lady Castelli Estate Nebbiolo 2005: Med.lighht color;

attractive floral/violets/Nebb slight tarry/

pungent light toasty/smokey/oak very attractive nose; rather

tannic/acid/hard strong floral/violets light

toasty/oak very slight brett light pungent/tarry flavor; med.long bit

hard/tannic/acid strong floral/

violets/Nebb light tarry/pungent finish; needs more time; lots of

classic Nebb aromatics.


3. Novy StolpmanVnyd Nebbbiolo 2005: Med.color; light floral/lilacs

somewhat pencilly/toasty/oak nose; tart

fairly smooth/textured some floral/violets some pencilly/oak light

tannic flavor; med.long light floral/

violets some toasty/pencilly/oak slight tannic finish; speaks gently

of Nebb but more like a Siduri

Pinot in style because of the oak.


4. JeffPisoni StolpmanVnyd Nebbiolo 2006: Light color; very

fragrant/perfumed floral/violets/spicy light

toasty/oak nose; tart/lean bit tannic/hard slight

tarry/smokey/pungent rather floral/violets/lilacs

some toasty/oak flavor; med.long spicy/floral/lilacs/violets light

toasty/oak bit hard/tannic finish;

needs some age; lots of floral almost-Pinotish character.


5. Novy StolpmanVnyd Nebbiolo 2006: Fairly light color; somewhat

tarry/pungent very light floral/lilacs

rather tight/closed nose; tart/lean/tannic slight floral/lilacs/tarry

tight/shut-down flavor; med.long

tart/tannic/lean/hard lighht floral/lilacs very light tarry/licorice

finish; mare angular & hard than

the '05 and seems somewhat tight & closed.


7. DueVigna ElDorado Nebbiolo 2006: Med.light color; light

toasty/oak/pencilly slight herbal/earthy fairly

floral/lilacs interesting nose; tart bit tannic light floral/lilacs

light toasty/oak slight herbal/

earthy flavor; med.long light floral/lilacs/herbal/earthy/dusty bit

hard/tannic finish; good Nebb

character and some of that earthy ElDorado terroir.


8. WindGap GlenroseVnyd/PasoRobles Nebbiolo 2006: Med.color; very

strong/fragrant/perfumed violets/floral/

Nebb very spicy almost Pinotish nose; tart bit lean/hard/tannic very

floral/violets/spicy quite perfumey

flavor; very long very perfumed/floral/violets/lilacs some

tannic/haard/tart finish; speaks loud & clear

of Nebbiolo w/ very perfumed/fragrant character; bright pretty Nebb.


9. WindGap LunaMattaVnyd/PasoRobles (100% whole cluster) Nebbiolo 2007:

Med.light color; bit more toasty/oak

strong floral/lilacs/perfumed/Nebb lovely nose; tart bit tannic/hard

strong floral/lilacs/Nebb some low-

key toasty/oak flavor; very long lovely/floral/lilacs/Nebb light

toasty/charred/oak some tannic/hard

finish; lovely expression of Nebbiolo; more base notes and less

high-toned character than the '06.


10. Novy StolpmanVnyd Nebbiolo 2007: Very light color; light

floral/violets vey slight tarry/pungent some

tight/closed nose; softer light/floral/violets light tannic very

slight pungent/tarry flavor; med.long

light floral/violets/aromatic somewhat softer light tannic finish;

seems a bit tight & closed; lighter

more elegant expression of Nebb; quite a pretty wine but needs age.


11. Novy StolpmanVnyd Nebbiolo 2008: Light color; strong

blackberry/floral/lilacs/spicy almost Zin-like

fragrant/spicy nose; tart lush/grapey/floral/berry/lilacs bit

hard/tannic flavor; long ripe/lush

floral/lilacs spicy/berry finish w/ some tannins; lots of lush fruit

and almost Zin-like in character.


12. WindGap Glenrose&LunaMatta/PasoRobles Nebbiolo 2007: Med.dark color;

lovely floral/lilacs/berry/Nebb

very light toasty/oak almost Pinotish nose; tart bit tannic/hard

bright/floral/violets somewhat cherry/

Pinotish very perfumed flavor; long bit hard/tannic tart

pretty/bright/floral/violets/cherry finish;

needs more age; a very pretty/perfumed/fragrant almost Pinotish

rendition of Nebb.


13. WindGap Nebbiolo 2008: Med.color; much more

floral/lilacs/violets/Nebb-like quite perfumed/aromatic

slight road tar/pungent nose; tart/hard/tannic very

floral/perfumed/lilacs/violets/spicy light tarry/

pungent flavor; very long perfumed/floral/lilacs/violets/classic Nebb

some hard/tannic finish; needs

more age; probably the most classic Nabb of Pax's Nebbs.

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