Wine notes

Thursday 30 September 2010


Nebbiolo Prima is a four-day immersion in what is arguably Italy's most enigmatic red wine grape, staged in pretty Alba, the vinous centre of the region, and gateway to the famous vineyards of Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero, this last a relative newcomer trying to join their ranks, of which more later.

Nebbiolo Prima was the last in a series of presentations of great Italian wines. My tasting notes on hundreds of wines from Roero, Barbaresco and Barolo, tasted blind, will be published subsequently here in the next couple of days. These tastings differ distinctly from the classic Bordeaux en primeur tastings in that the wines have been bottled and are ready to go onto the market without any of the price release game that characterises the Bordeaux primeurs season.

Alba, with its pink-brick cathedral and elegant shops, incidentally, seems to have fallen under a spell of postmodernism and its grand Cafe Savona has fallen victim to a cold, hard Milanese design facelift. Unfortunately, many establishments seem to have followed this example. The city is also the home town of Ferrero (of Nutella fame), with its factory just across from the hotel where I was staying. It meant waking up to whiffs of chocolate coming through the window, having fallen asleep to the sound of the local fairground, which had set up camp just in front of it.

Alba has become shorthand for culinary treasures, including the revered white truffle, hazelnuts - which compete for land with Chardonnay now that hazelnut growers have figured out that this variety also thrives on their cooler plots - and, of course, wine. The newly created Alba DOC seems the logical consequence of capitalising on the town's fame with foodies and wine lovers alike, and has been created to accommodate the allegedly classic blend of Nebbiolo (min 70% - max 85%) and Barbera (max 30% - min 15%).

Nebbiolo Prima is the annual presentation of the latest vintages of Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero under the auspice of Albeisa, the Unione di Produttori Vini Albesi, a group of producers loosely grouped together under the banner of a single bottle shape, the Albeisa, and presided over by Enzo Brezza as well as the Consorzio di Tutela Barolo, Barbaresco, Alba, Langhe e Roero guided by Pietro Ratti, son of the late Renato. In shape somewhat reminiscent of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape bottle, the Albeisa was allegedly produced as early as the 18th century, but with the invasion of Napoleon, according to its website, the Bordelais and Burgundy shape became the norm as their perfect cylindrical shape was easier, and hence more cost effective, to mass produce.
In 1973 16 producers decided to come together to reintroduce the Albeisa to heighten the exposure and recognition of Alba wines. It is a non-profit organisation whose primary mission is the development and promotion of the wine production of the region by means of events, the most important being to showcase Nebbiolo Prima.

And so I found myself on the first morning in the Palazzo Mostre e Congressi in Alba, a functional building with white, airy rooms, looking for a socket for my laptop. It was thus that I had the great good fortune to sit for the following four mornings next to fellow socket sharer and Australian wine critic Huon Hooke. Each morning under blind conditions we were served 80 mostly embryonic Nebbiolo wines. Being under such time constraints and with such a large number of samples, even the most experienced tasters found it a tough exercise.

Under these circumstances I always consider the taster as much as the wines to be on test, and I did exchange thoughts with Huon on several of the samples, especially in the case of wines showing poorly. Surprises, good and bad, are inevitable. To paraphrase Huon, blind tastings can be a very sobering exercise, and I must say I have great respect for the producers who had the courage to put their wines in to such fierce test. After the second morning of our 'tour de force', I could not help but envy the buyers who, in a separate room, were served the same wines, but uncovered. The lingering doubt remains that, hard as we tasters may try, the last wine may not get the same attention as the first. The build up of tannins and relatively high level of alcohol take their toll on the taster's concentration, which is why I think it is so important to reduce the risk of overlooking or underscoring particular wines by discussing wines with fellow tasters.

The origin of Nebbiolo

Before we started our second morning's tasting of another 80 Nebbiolos, Anna Schneider, professor in ampelography at the Institute of Plant Virology at the University of Turin, gave us a concise and crystal-clear overview of Nebbiolo, dubbing it a 'tough, complicated, but fascinating grape variety'. It is an ancient grape, which remains much less understood than, say, Cabernet Sauvignon. Already mentioned in 1266, it does not seem to have travelled far from the original regions in which it was found: Piemonte, Valle d'Aosta and Lombardy's Valtellina.

The grape variety is a reluctant traveller, even within Italy. What until recently was considered 52 ha of Nebbiolo on Sardinia, proved to be Dolcetto, and practically all of Italy's total 6,300 ha of the variety is in the north west, with 5,000 ha in Piemonte, 900 ha in Valtellina and a meagre 26 ha in Aosta. Therefore, and unsurprisingly, Nebbiolo is not a global force. Schneider noted only 627 ha outside its natural shelter in the lee of the alps: 260 ha in Argentina, 160 ha in the United States, 120 ha in Australia and 100 ha in Mexico.

What little is known about its origins has only recently been discovered. DNA analysis has shed some light on Nebbiolo's parentage, and it appears that there are 12 varieties in the frame, almost all of which are either Piemontese or from nearby Valtellina. From those 12 only three could have been one of the parents: Nebbiolo Rosé, Freisa and Vespolina. But it could also be the other way around, with Nebbiolo being a tentative parent of any of the three. Schneider's conclusion is that so far we do not know how and where Nebbiolo originated. Although the grape is genetically close to quite a few varieties from Italy's north west, it may well be that its origins will never be fully revealed, if one of the parents is now extinct.

She also dealt a blow to another favourite myth, the one that claims that the disease-ridden Michet produces the superior wine. Although Nebbiolo is prone to mutation, there are only two genotypes: Lampia and Rosé, whereas Michet is more or less identical to Lampia. Schneider explained that Michet is the least vigorous of the types with low fertility, but this is primarily caused by the fact that all Michet is virus infected. According to Schneider, this virus results in low yields and, more importantly, low sugar and phenolic accumulation in the berries and lower general bunch weight. As this affects the overall quality of the wine, she considers healthy plant material of the utmost importance, and favours the security offered by clonal selection over mass selection. Pictures of healthy Nebbiolo vines next to virus-infected Michet showed us dramatically how very little colour material the latter has in the skins, and seemed to prove her point. Schneider concluded, however, that diversity is the key to complexity and therefore recommended planting several different clones.