Brilliant organisation and wines that were firing on all cylinders made this year’s Nebbiolo Day the best and most educational one yet, argues Justin Keay. Fearing the worst from over 500 young, highly tannic wines, Keay came away enthusing about the potential of Nebbiolo’s lesser known regions of Valtellina, Alto Piemonte and Carema where higher altitudes mean crisper, lower alcoholic reds. Keay picks his favourites as well as shares his tips on what to buy from Barolo and Barbaresco.
Walter Speller delivered a brilliant masterclass that demonstrated how Valtellina and the other regions have the ability with Nebbiolo to “transfer different terroirs into the glass.”
Nebbiolo Day was never going to be an easy tasting – 92 producers from 18 denominations showing over 500 wines, (almost all) red, made from one grape variety… this was going to be a bit of a toughie…. particularly as most of the wines on show were the latest vintages and young Nebbiolo can be famously tannic and overly acidic; as Walter Speller, organiser of the event puts it, “tasting them can be a chore similar to that of young Bordeaux and vintage port”.
But, after a few minutes in the very familiar confines of London’s Royal Horticultural Halls, I relaxed. Not only did this prove to be one of the best and most educational tastings I have attended – even more than the first Nebbiolo Day tasting, held in Autumn 2017 – it was one of the most enjoyable, thanks to the brilliant organisation (take a bow, Jane Hunt and Walter Speller) but also because of the sheer quality of most of the wines. And did I mention the diversity? Turns out tasting wines made from one variety wasn’t so bad after all, if that variety is Nebbiolo.
Exploring was made easier by the layout, mercifully by region, with the Lombardy wines of Valtellina in one corner, adjacent to the Nebbiolos from Carema, the various Alto Piemonte denominations and Roero (more usually associated with white Arneis) with the rest of the hall taken up by the more famous wines of the Langhe (Barbaresco and Barolo).
Speller says the UK trade is now more open than ever to Nebbiolo, a fickle variety from which it is easy to make indifferent wines but not so easy to make beautiful wines, and which because of low yields, high land prices and the need for good viticulture, are usually on the pricey side.
“Knowledge here is definitely growing. 15 years ago people didn’t get it and were drinking wines too young and then finding them too tannic or acidic. Now there is much more understanding,” says Speller.
Part of the change has come about because of fashion. Leading Italian wine writer Alessando Masnaghetti – one of the world’s leading scholars on Nebbiolo and the different soils in which it is grown – says the variety’s fortunes have changed dramatically.
“35 years ago no one really wanted Nebbiolo; most of the demand in Piemonte was for Dolcetto and Barbera. That is of course, no longer the case.”
Indeed. Recognising Nebbiolo’s growing international popularity, growers have pulled up hectares of the other traditional Langhe varieties Dolcetto and Barbera to plant more Nebbiolo. Much is made into Langhe Nebbiolo, which is made rounder and smoother for earlier consumption. Its cheaper price tag is encouraging consumers to try it and then take a look at Nebbiolos from other denominations, notably Alto Piemonte where the altitude enables fresher, higher acid wines and Valtelina, where vineyards planted on steep narrow terraces makes for “heroic wine-making” with everything done by hand.
Comparing the Nebbiolo from Valtellina and the other key Italian regions
Speller gave a fascinating masterclass looking at the wines of Alto Piemonte, Carema and Valtellina and comparing them to wines from Roero and of course, Barbaresco and Barolo. The purpose was to demonstrate what the variety is capable of and its ability to “transfer different terroirs into the glass.”
What a world of difference showed between the light, acidic wines of Carema – up near the border with Val d’Aosta, with just two producers – and, for example, the fuller, more alcoholic fruit-driven wines of Gattinara or Ghemme, where Nebbiolo is known as Spanna and often blended with two other local varieties, Uva Rara and the wonderful-sounding Vespolina.
Valtellina was different again, with the wines showing good acidity but lower alcohol, reflecting the cooler climate. It was easy to share Speller’s enthusiasm for these regions which, in the case of Alto Piemonte in particular, were once much more revered than Barolo – particularly in pre-phyloxera days. Even today, with much fewer vines than in its 18th century heyday, Alto Piemonte’s ten denominations show greater diversity than Langhe, with Ghemme and Gattinara at the forefront.
“The potential here is huge. With land prices rising so much in the Langhe there is a huge opportunity for younger winemakers to come here,” he says.
As if determined not to be left behind by the current Italian craze for sparkling wines, some producers are also turning their hand towards making Nebbiolo by both the classic and charmat method. Two of the best at this tasting were Casina Bric (the Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC Spumante Cuvee NV was a particularly fresh example) and Angelo Negro, based in Roero, whose VSQ Rose Brut Metoda Classico Maria Elisa 2010 (imported by Enotria) was one of the tasting’s stand-outs, lots of bright strawberry flavours with amazing depth thanks to the wine spending 60 months on the lees and then six years ageing in bottle. Given the current popularity for both Nebbiolo and alternative sparklers, expect to see more of these wines in the UK trade.
Another Nebbiolo style new to me was Sforzato, a dry passito with a long historical lineage in Valtellina. Although alcohol levels can reach 15% these wines are more food friendly, less heavy – and – dare I say it – a bit less sweet than Amarone, although some of the wines I tried were also pretty forceful.
So what were my favorite producers/wines from the tasting?
Dirupi (Passione Vino) had a great range with the Superiore DOCG Grumello Dossi Salati Riserva 2015 and the Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG Vino Sbagliato 2016 both particularly impressive; both fruit forward, these wines have great ageing potential.
Nino Negri (GIV UK Ltd) is another great producer from this region although the Sforzato DOCG Sfursat Cinque Stelle 2015 is almost too full-on; at 16%, this is a real ‘Marmite wine’ that won’t appeal to everyone.
Also well worth trying are the wines from Casa Vinicola Pietri Nera (Alivini); the Valtellina Superiore DOCG Inferno Riserva 2010 is delicious, wonderfully rounded but still with lots of freshness on the palate.
From Alto Piemonte:
Rovellotti from Ghemme (Mondial Wines) was singing, especially the DOCG Riserva 2013; a blend of 90% Nebbiolo and 10% Uva Rara and Vespolina and grown in red clay soil this was for me one of the outstanding wines of the tasting.
Nervi’s DOCG Vigna Molsino 2014 from Gattinara (Corney and Barrow) was also delicious, well-integrated tannins supported by wonderful freshness and acidity;
whilst Le Piane’s DOC 2015 from Boca (Lea and Sandeman) and the slightly rustic Coste della Sesia DOC 2014 from Antoniotti Odilio in Bramaterra (DGB Italia) was also intriguing, though still too youthful.
And from Barolo and Barberesco?
My focus was unashamedly on Alto Piemonte and Valtellina – but producers worth a special mention were old favourites:
Marchesi di Gresy (Boutinot) whose Barbaresco DOCG Gaiun Martinenga 2008 and 2014 were both wonderful but my money would go on the 2009 which ten years on was still showing remarkable freshness and vitality;
Antinori’s Prunotto (Berkmann);
Sordi Giovanni (Carnevale & Carson);
Giacomo Fenocchio (Armit);
Sottimano (Lea & Sandeman)
And, of course, the incomparable Vajra (Liberty) who never disappoints.
I could go on; there were frankly too many good wines to taste, and not enough time. At least I’ll have an excuse to go to the next Nebbiolo Day.
Lead photo courtesy Edwina Watson.