A small but dedicated group of California Nebbiolo producers picks one day every couple of years to get together and explore one of their own Nebbiolo vineyards, compare each others’ wines, and discuss the future of the grape in this state. On the second day, they hold a small public tasting; this year Domenico Winery offered to host. I had to miss the first day’s activities but made it to the tasting. With almost ten winemakers present as well as almost a dozen other bottles donated from producers who didn’t attend, I was able to get a good snapshot of the present state of California Nebbiolo.
My takeaway is still the same. California Nebbiolo has a long way to go before it can compete with those from Italy in a general sense. Even putting Barolo and Barbaresco aside, Nebbiolo from Roero, Ghemme, Gattinara, and Valtellina are categorically more robust, interesting, consistent, and age-worthy on the whole, than the ones from California. But even with that said, there are a few superstar California producers out there who could impress anyone with theirs. While I’ve covered California Nebbiolo in many ways in the past,† here I focus on the ones that, in my opinion, deserve the highest accolades. These are the wines to get your hands on now!
The Castelli wines impressed me in 2013, and it was no different this time. On top of that, Emilio Castelli reminds me of Italy; not all winemakers are as amicable and cheerful as he is. But it’s no wonder. He only just moved to the Sonoma area from Lake Como back in 1995. I guess that’s long enough for an Italian to figure out how to make great Nebbiolo here in California!His estate is in Green Valley, an AVA in the southwestern section of the Russian River Valley AVA. Gold Ridge soil, formed from very deep, weakly consolidated sandstone, dominates Green Valley, one of the smallest appellations in Sonoma County. This type of soil allows moderate drainage and is ideal for deep root penetration. The area is relatively cool and sees a lot of coastal fog, making it an ideal spot for growing Pinot noir and according to Emilio, Nebbiolo. He grows both.
Castelli uses dry-farming techniques on the estate in order to force deeper root penetration and create intense and flavorful wines. Emilio Castelli‘s Estate Nebbiolo was indeed quite remarkable.
The Castelli 2009 Estate Nebbiolo is a charmer. Pretty aromas of fresh red cherries and rose buds come forward. Fresh, balanced, and well-structured, it finishes with chalky tannins and a touch of warmth.★★ I also enjoyed his bottling from the Luna Matta Vineyard, 2011 vintage, characterized by mint, herbs, dried red fruits, and spice,★ as well as his 2009 Sisquoc from the east side of Santa Barbara, which shows a darker side of Nebbiolo: juicy and dark with stewed fruits, a hint of caramel, lifted by fresh herb aromas.
Harrington is another favorite producer of California Nebbiolo. For this tasting, Bryan Harrington brought not only a new vintage of Nebbiolo, but his Terrane version as well! The Harrington 2012 Nebbiolo from Paso Robles offers lovely floral notes and brightness. It is Barbaresco-esque with its tart red cherry fruit balanced by licorice, herbs, and an overall elegance.★★ The 2012 Terrane Nebbiolo expresses a more masculine side of Nebbiolo with dark tones of smoke and black plum.★
Of course Due Vigne makes the cut, as usual. Ken’s Cinnamon Hill Vineyard Nebbiolo 2011 is pretty, balanced, and expressive with sweet scents of red licorice and substantial, but well integrated, chalky tannins.★★
I also enjoyed the 2012 Nebbiolo from Giornata, as well as their 2011 Aglianico—I received a taste from their secretly-stashed bottle. :) The 2009 Domenico Nebbiolo was enjoyable too. One of my favorite California Nebbiolo producers, Palmina, never seems to make themselves present at this gathering.
There is one more point in closing that I’d like to bring up, which I just realized after finishing this article. My standout California Nebbioli are not coming from one general zone; there are good ones popping up from a lot of spots. Does that mean success is more related to winemaking? Or does it mean California may have a few little pockets tucked away in a our diverse zones with just the right soils, sun light and fog patterns, as well as cycles of temperatures to make a note-worthy Nebbiolo? We’ll just have to wait it out and see!
† My past articles about California Nebbiolo: