The charms of lesser nebbiolo wines

March 29, 2011

Rarely do you find the words “affordable” and “nebbiolo” in the same sentence. You probably don’t even see them very often in the same paragraph. For most of us, the idea of an affordable nebbiolo exists in some alternate realm where we all ride unicorns and no one ever goes bald or gray and the weather is always sunny and 75 degrees with no humidity.

Nebbiolo, after all, is the grape upon which Italy’s two greatest, and priciest, red wines are based: Barbaresco and Barolo. The latter, the so-called “king of wines,” is particularly expensive, with good ones starting around $80 and rising into the hundreds.

Now, I love Barolo, one of the handful of wines in the world that I would call profound. I love it so much that when people ask what my favorite wine is, I often exclaim, “Barolo!” And they nod, and say, “Ah, yes. Barolo, of course.” But saying Barolo is a favorite is very much a misrepresentation of my everyday drinking habits. I mean, how often do I drink it? Outside of professional tastings, when I’m buying wine to serve at home or when I order it in restaurants, I probably have Barolo three or four times a year. Maybe five if I’m particularly flush.

Don’t cry for me. Those times are always memorable. Lately, though, I’ve been interested in finding a way to experience the charms of nebbiolo on a more regular basis. So I’ve been looking for younger nebbiolo wines, or else nebbiolo wines from nontraditional regions.

They exist, I promise. Many of them cost $25 or less, and some less than $20.

First, as always with Italian wine, there are a few quick points of geography and winemaking to keep in mind. Nebbiolo (taken from the word “nebbia” or fog) is a finicky grape that grows well in only a few places, most predominantly in Piedmont, the foggy northwest corner of Italy. That is also the same spot where the rare white truffle flourishes, and so we might reasonably assume that something strange and mysterious is going on in the soil there.

Barolo and Barbaresco are produced from 100 percent nebbiolo grapes grown in specific zones near Alba. Beyond geographic specificity, what separates Barolo and Barbaresco are their aging regulations. For instance, Barolo must spend at least a year in oak and then three years aging in the bottle, or at least 57 months for riserva. As a Barolo ages, the color turns brick orange, and its silky tannins, complex aromas of dried rose and violet, of leather and truffle and tar, deep cherry and plum flavors emerge. The finish lasts forever. It’s a wine to meditate, brood and ponder over.

However, nearly every producer of Barolo also makes wine bottled as either Nebbiolo d’Alba or Langhe Nebbiolo. Nebbiolo d’Alba is basically made from the same grapes that would become Barolo, only aged less. Langhe is nebbiolo from an even wider geographic area, but still the same basic neighborhood. These wines are not as complex as Barolo; they’re lighter, fresher, racier and completely enjoyable.

For example, Vietti, one of the most highly regarded Barolo producers, makes a Langhe Nebbiolo called Perbacco, which is so close to the real thing that the winemaker calls it a “baby Barolo.” Perbacco sells for $25. Vietti’s Barolos start at around $80.

Moving away from Alba, but still in Piedmont, look for nebbiolo from Roero, Langhe’s neighboring region. Malvira’s Roero nebbiolos are a wonderful value, and I wish we saw them more often in Washington, Maryland and Virginia. (Attention, local wine shops.)

Leaving Piedmont, the other region where nebbiolo is king is in the mountains of Lombardy, in Valtellina. Here, they call nebbiolo grape Chiavennasca, and the wine’s name is Sforzato di Valtellina, produced by drying the grapes before pressing, in a style similar to amarone. It falls somewhere in price between young nebbiolo and Barolo, but still usually less than $50.

Finally, leaving Italy entirely, some brave souls have attempted to grow nebbiolo in unlikely places such as Mexico (L.A. Cetto); Santa Barbara, Calif. (Palmina); and, closer to home, Virginia (Barboursville Vineyards and Breaux Vineyards). While not playing on the same field as Italy, those wines offer an interesting glimpse into nebbiolo’s potential outside its traditional home.

It’s a bold choice to grow nebbiolo in Virginia. I asked Jason Tesauro of Barboursville Vineyards a simple question: Why? He replied that his part of Virginia is also called Piedmont, and so why not?

“Nebbiolo is my desert island grape,” he says. “If I had to pick one grape only for the rest of my life, this is it.”

Given that as the reason, I can certainly understand the impulse to want to grow nebbiolo in Virginia. Or anywhere else.

Wilson is filling in for Dave McIntyre, whose Wine column will return next week. He is the author of “Boozehound” and can be reached at jason@jasonwilson.com. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

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