Nathaniel Hawthorne, in recording his travels through Italian wine country, grew rhapsodic about "the mist that dreamed among the hills." In Piedmont and northern Lombardy, where the choice nebbiolo grapes grow, that same misty fog still clings to the hillside vineyards on autumn mornings. Perhaps early winemakers linked the mist to the choice grapes, for their name comes from the word for fog, nebbia. After tasting their way through 41 nebbiolos, the group we assembled could be forgiven had they found themselves in a fog. But their critical faculties stayed with them through a range of mostly pleasing, often surprisingly good wines.
The happiest news came in our second and third sessions when a collection of virtual unknowns ran away with all the honors.
The sweepstakes winner of the second tasting and the acclaimed favorite of all three was the 1967 ghemme from Cantina Sociale. Richly-flavored, well-balanced and, perhaps most significant of all, ready to drink, it is a good buy at under $6, an excellent one at $4.99 (A & A). If you have yet to try an Italian nebbiolo, start with this one.
As with nearly all nebbiolos, ghemme takes its name from a small town, this one located amid the vineyards a few miles southwest of Lake Maggiore in Piedmont.
Ghemme differs from its peers by remaining longer in barrel (three years) and containing less nebbiolo (the law says only 60 percent is necessary but the better producers use around 80).
The1969 and 1971 Cantina Sociale ghemmes are younger carbon copies of the 1967, though I doubt if the '69 (which I tasted separately) will attain the level of '67 or '71.
From the same cooperative winery comes a 1971 sizzano ($3.69) which, while lacking ghemme's greater complexity, is drinking well now and will probably be better in a year or so.
Geographically close to ghemme but light years away by reputation is gattinara. From the middle ages on it has never lacked enthusiasts. Some claim it is superior to barolo and barbaresco. More finesse, more style, they say. More bland, our tasters said.
Perhaps the limited selection locally available is not a fair representation or perhaps the producers are going through a dry spell but the storied gattinara qualitites were not present in our bottles.
Around the town of Gattinara the local name for the nebbiolo is spanna. And spanna is what the wines are called that don't come from the choice hillside vineyards and thus don't fall under the DOC lows. Many of them are rather light and fruity, though perfectly drinkable, but those produced by Vallana are something else again: big, rich wines of character and quality that easily outclass the current corp of gattinaras.
Several vineyard designations are used by Vallana, with gaudy, eye-catching labels for each - Campi Raudii, San Lorenzo, Montalbano, Travesagna, etc. - but only a handful in just three vintages are locally available (compared to 15 in one New York shop). They are worth seeking out despite the fact that a number of bad bottles, indlucing two in our tasting, have turned up. If you get a bad one, take it back to the retailer.
Italians must regard carema as their Hope Diamond. This rare gem only occasionally leaves it native soil, and when it does it all to often gathers dust in wine shops, where people look but don't touch. This should not be. At its mature best it is beautifully balanced, flavorful and has the kind of lingering finish 19th-century writers spent a paragraph describing.
The 1964 from Ferrando is expensive ( $12), a mature wine for a special occasion, but the 1973 has all the character of big brother, save age, and is a very good buy (under $5). The 71, a promising vintage, has been available here, but I could find none recently. The Valle d-Aosta, a French-speaking cubbyhole in the far northwest of Italy, produces carema from 100 percent nebbiolo. It is aged like gattinara, two years in barrel, two in bottle. Its only rival in our tastings was the 1967 ghemme.
In northern Lombardy, just below the Swiss border, lies the Valtellina, since early Roman days an area of fine wine production.
The three best today - grumello, sassella and inferno (the latter a wine of infinitely more charm than its name might suggest) - are household words in Italy.
The English writer Hugh Johnson once asked one of the area producers, Nino Negri, what was the difference among them. "None," he replied, "they're all the same."
They're not, of course. Similar, maybe, but not identical. They are lighter and less intense than barolo and some of the others, though they are 95 percent nebbiolo, but they exhibit a charm all their own.And they are inexpensive.
Most curious of the Valtenninas is sfursat. Its individual taste is created by first hanging up the grapes indoors until the January after the vintage and then making wine in the normal way.
This creates a raisiny, burnt flavor that you'll either love or hate.
Like the wines from Valtellina (except sfursat), the nebbiolo d'Alba might best be described by the Italian word beverino, easy to drink.
The d'Albas come from a classified growing area near Barolo and Barbaresco. They are excellent examples of the nebbiolo as an inexpensive, early maturing, yet very well made everyday wine. CAPTION: Chart 1, Bad bottles eliminated 1964 Spanna, Campi Raudii, Valana and 1969 Spanna, San Lorenzo, Vallana. Chart 2, no caption