Posted by Adam Lee
Let’s talk about California Nebbiolo. Yes, I really mean it, California Nebbiolo.
Nebbiolo in California certainly isn’t a burning topic of conversation on anybody’s mind. A search of WineSpectator.com's wine ratings database only shows 38 reviews of Nebbiolo-labeled wines from California. (Compare that with 326 Sangioveses, 103 Mourvedres, and 102 Barberas). And yet Nebbiolo has become an important, albeit small, part of the wines we are making at our Novy Family Winery.
What is the draw of Nebbiolo? Certainly, it all begins with the wines of Barbaresco and Barolo. To our tastes, these are some of the most remarkable wines in the world. I first became a fan back in the late 1980s, as the retail store where I worked brought in the fantastic selection of importer Marco de Grazia. When Dianna and I started to produce Pinot Noir in the mid-1990s, we read every wine book we could lay our hands on. One of the most influential in some of the winemaking techniques we adopted and adapted was The Making of a Great Wine: Gaja and Sori San Lorenzo by Edward Steinberg. But we never considered actually producing Nebbiolo, not until 2005.
In 2005, we asked one of our growers, Gary Pisoni, about the possibility of planting a bit of Nebbiolo in his famed Pisoni vineyard. It was a bit of a whim, and a long shot, but planting Pinot Noir on his land in the first place was considered crazy at the time, so we thought he might be willing to take the chance. Gary’s reaction was boisterous and typical Gary, “Sure, whatever you want!! An acre? Two acres? You just need to convince my sons to go along with it!”
We knew that convincing Mark and Jeff would be a bit more of a task, but after several tastings of great wines from Piedmont, we thought we were just about there. That is, until we were all attending a dinner with a famous wine writer and the topic of planting Nebbiolo at the Pisoni Vineyard came up. The conversation was all positive, and it looked like it might happen, until the wine writer spoke up: “Stupidest idea I’ve ever heard of. You shouldn’t plant Nebbiolo at the Pisoni Vineyard. More Pinot, more Syrah, even more Chardonnay, but not Nebbiolo.” And thus our dreams of Pisoni Nebbiolo disappeared forever.
When we related this story to Steve Clifton, owner of Palmina winery and, in our opinion, California’s premier producer of Italian varietals, he laughed. He’s much further down the Nebbiolo path than we are, and undoubtedly he has had many people tell him that producing Nebbiolo in California is a stupid idea. But after Steve finished laughing, he did something else—he offered to sell us a ton of his Nebbiolo, at cost, from the Stolpman Vineyard in Santa Barbara County. And thus our Nebbiolo journey began. We now contract for almost 3 acres of Nebbiolo from Stolpman, purchasing the fruit by the acre and thus having the opportunity to control yields and be involved in the farming practices.
Nebbiolo is remarkably fickle. From our few years of experience at Stolpman, we see that Nebbiolo ripens late and ripens unevenly. It is very sensitive to yields. Too high a yield and it lacks concentration. If the yields are too low, sugars race ahead of tannin ripeness. In the winery, the juice is light-colored and fiercely tannic. There’s wonderful fruit there, and the famed “tar and roses” character that often defines Nebbiolo—but, ugh, those tannins.
Unlike most lightly pigmented varietals, Nebbiolo seems to respond well to racking. We’ve taken to fermenting Nebbiolo in wide, shallow vessels, doing very frequent punchdowns during the pre-fermentation cold soak (6 to 10 times a day) and very few punchdowns during the fermentation process (one very gentle mix per day, up until the juice is down to about 7 Brix and then no more). The goal here is to extract as much flavor and color as possible during the cold soak (when tannins are not as easily extracted), but very little in the presence of alcohol. Time in the barrel also seems to be on Nebbiolo’s side, although we have been cautious in this regard for fear of drying out the wine.
Are we happy with the Nebbiolo we have produced thus far? Optimistic might be the best phrase for our feelings to date. The 2005 was a good beginning but, with only a ton of fruit, there was very little opportunity to learn from differing winemaking techniques. The 2006 is in bottle, not yet released yet, but we are extremely happy with how it is developing. The 2007 tastes good from barrel, and 2008 was, without doubt, the finest Nebbiolo fruit we’ve brought in from the Stolpman Vineyard.
Interestingly enough, it seems that Nebbiolo is also winning over the hearts of other California winemakers. Pax Mahle (formerly of Pax Wine Cellars and now starting his own winery, Nom de Plume Wines) is making Nebbiolo. There’s a new label called Giornata that is producing a tiny amount of impressive Nebbiolo. There are other producers with longer track records as well, such as Enotria, Caparone and others that I am undoubtedly forgetting. And, of course, Steve Clifton, who got us started in Nebbiolo, is making huge strides. We had the opportunity to barrel taste some of his Nebbiolos (yes, he is making several), and the upcoming vintages look to be the best ever—some of the newer plantings are producing wines that are truly stunning. I don’t know that Nebbiolo is the next Pinot Noir, but there will be more opportunities for those of you who love Nebbiolo to see what can be done with the grape in California.
Oh, and by the way, we do have a pet name for the Nebbiolo here at the winery. In honor of that first vintage and the idea that planting Nebbiolo at Pisoni was “the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard of,” we call the wine “Schemo.” Schemo is Italian shorthand for “stupid” or “dumb.” The name seemed even more appropriate (and more American) when we discovered in the Urban Dictionary that Schemo is “Any person male or female who partakes in terrorizing the public by drinking on street corners.” Funny how these things all seem to fit.
Jonathan Rezabek — Chandler, AZ — November 20, 2008 3:18pm ET
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