“It grows like a weed,” Randall Grahm said to me first when I asked him to describe his experience with Nebbiolo in California. This is ironic because Nebbiolo is supposed to be one of the most difficult varieties to grow in the world. The point is that the vine does grow like a weed. But to get it to produce grapes of satisfactory quality, according to Randall, the grower must adhere to Nebbiolo’s long list of requirements. It won’t just grow anywhere; it’s not really “adaptable.”
A few weeks ago I asked Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard if I could interview him about his knowledge, experience, and opinions about Nebbiolo in California. He, himself, grew Nebbiolo in his Ca’ del Solo vineyard for over 13 years — the first vintage was 1996 and the last, 2009, when he sold the property. (He’ll plant more on his new property.) For the opportunity to talk “Nebbiolo,” he graciously invited me to the Community Table dinner at the Cellar Door. Alongside a wonderful dinner of locally produced vegetables, sauces, fruit, cheese, and meat, put together that very day by his chef, Ottley, we tried his 2007 and 2009 Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo,* which I’ll review at the end of this entry.
Originally I asked Randall to speak to me about Nebbiolo production in California because I wanted to gather some background knowledge before writing about a blind tasting I helped organize in Barbaresco last year of international Nebbiolo wines.
“International” Nebbiolo is not really something people think too much about. This grape is uncommon outside of Italy.† It’s even unique in Italy, growing only in carefully prescribed regions of Piemonte in northwest Italy (Langhe, Roero, Gattinara, Ghemme), the Valtellina region of Lombardia in the far north, and a little bit here and there in Valle d’Aosta. I learned a couple years ago that many Barolo and Barbaresco producers had no idea that Nebbiolo was produced anywhere besides Italy. But everyone I talked to was interested to try it — or perhaps just worried that their monopoly on this high-class wine could be at stake and wanted to check out what other people can do with Nebbiolo! Well I don’t think they have anything to worry about, however, at least not for many, many years.
Actually to be totally fair, I am not bad-mouthing California Nebbiolo at all. If a grower has done their research on the vine, picked out a spot for the vineyard that he or she thinks is fitting, and goes about producing the wine in ways that have proven to work for the grape (not just throwing it alongside their Cab or Zin production), I think that’s fabulous. I think Nebbiolo has a highly probable chance of making it in California for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve had some California Nebbi that taste really good! Second, I believe this because of a handful of facts I gathered from my interview with Randall, many of which I’d learned already, or at least surmised, from my many visits to producers and vineyards in Barolo, Barbaresco, Roero, and even Valtellina and Valle d ‘Aosta.
First, you have to work to manage the Nebbiolo vine’s vigorous canopy. This is where the irony comes in because the foliage of the vine will grow like a weed, but the viticulturist must manage the green stuff in order to let the plant invest in growing good grape clusters. It now makes sense to me why the vineyards in Piemonte are built like walls. The growers are managing the foliage (for just the right amount of photosynthesis to take place), while creating as much open space for airflow and sunlight to the berries.
Speaking of the berries, the Nebbiolo grapes are fairly small and the clusters are relatively tight, creating some challenge with moisture management.
In order to get truly great quality, the clusters have to be thinned so the plant can invest its resources in only a few clusters. This is done normally in two ways: the bottom half of all clusters are cut off, or about half of all of the clusters on each vine are cut off. In Piemonte cluster management typically occurs in two major rounds: one around July, called the Green Harvest, and then again during the last weeks of ripening. Randall explained to me that cluster management with Nebbiolo is necessary but time consuming and it must be done over and over in order to yield excellent grapes.
Nebbiolo also needs a long growing season. It has an early budbreak and ripens late. This is one of the reasons Randall said he thinks it certainly has potential in California. It needs a mild spring for its early buds, a warm summer (but not too hot or the grapes will shrivel), and does best when conditions are dry before harvest. But obviously, a long growing season requirement gives Mother Nature more opportunity to screw up the vineyard with extreme temperatures, hail, frost, rain, or drought. And so Nebbiolo production is risky.
On top of foliage control, cluster management, and a long ripening time, Nebbiolo wants to be in unviable, less fertile soil, with water-retaining capabilities. It wants its roots in mainly clay and limestone. Sand is okay too. This type of soil exists in California, especially along coastal regions.
From this basic review, it seems probable that, in my opinion, Nebbiolo could find some California spots where it might grow happily. (I am evidently not the only one who believes this!) But I am certainly no expert on growing the vine; my specialty is knowledge of wine once it has already become wine. However, my love affair with Nebbiolo has possessed me into a lifelong quest of endless searching and I want to know everything there is to know. That is why I go to Piemonte every year. That’s why I’m learning Italian. That is why I called up Randall and asked him for an interview.
And that is why I lug bottles of wine with me across the globe all the time. Last fall, with the help of my friend Renato Vacca of Cantina del Pino, we organized a dinner and blind tasting at Arsivoli‡ in Barbaresco with some local producers interested to see what foreign producers are creating with Nebbiolo outside of Piemonte. I carried six bottles of California Nebbiolo with me from my favorite California Nebbiolo producers — among them are Bonny Doon Vineyard, Martin and Weyrich, Palmina, Adelaida, and Novy Family. We ended up with 14 wines total — only a couple from Barolo and Barbaresco, which were actually great for the comparison.
Following are the wines in the order that we tasted them blindly at the dinner. My guess of what the wine was follows the description, in brackets. (You can judge for yourself how successful I was.) The wines that I brought are noted by a “§.” The ones Renato brought are marked by “§§.” Before the tasting I wrapped them all in newspaper so I knew these noted bottles were in the mix. The rest I had no idea about. All were unveiled simultaneously at the end of the dinner. My two favorites are marked.
Cascina Ebreo Torbido 2001. Vino da Tavola Rosso. Novello (a commune of Barolo but this is unclassified Nebbiolo). On the nose concrete and spice with lots of raspberry. It seemed older but still hot with lots of tannins in the middle and a pronounced acidity in the finish. [My guess: Switzerland, 7-10 years old]
§Palmina Nebbiolo 2005. Santa Barbara County, California. Sisquoc Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley AVA and Stolpman Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley AVA. Three years aging in 3,500-7,000L upright oak barrels, plus one more year aging in bottle. More magenta in color than the others. Aromas of sweet cherry pie (reminding me of Paso Robles terroir). In Italian I think this would be marmelatosa. Fruity flavors, lots of berries, framed nicely by a tartness and acidity. Made me think of limes. [My guess: Palmina, mine]
§Bonny Doon Vineyard Ca’ del Solo Vineyard Nebbiolo 2004. Monterey County, California (near the town of Soledad). The wine is aged in 45HL wooden uprights. Smells of figs, grape jam, and ruby port (like Zinfandel). In the mouth, it is rich and spicy and in the finish I wrote, “at least the tannins are high.” [My guess: California something, probably Bonny Doon Vineyard 2001]
§Novy Stolpman Vineyard Nebbiolo 2006. Santa Ynez Valley AVA, California. Cold soak for 14 days with frequent and gentle punch downs. Once fermentation began, punch downs occurred once per day. Aged in older French oak barrels for 22 months. Light ruby in color, smelling like strawberries, tequila, and jasmine. A well-integrated mouth feel with ripe raspberry and nutty tannins. Reminded me of a Langhe Nebbiolo. [My guess: California something, probably Novy 2006]
§Bonny Doon Vineyard Ca’ del Solo Vineyard Nebbiolo 2001/2002. Monterey County, California (near the town of Soledad). The wine is aged in 45HL wooden uprights. Clear and ruby color. On the nose: concrete, cologne, raspberry pie. Very fruity; not much grip in the finish. [My guess: Barbaresco 1999]
§§Andre Mabillard Saillon 2001. Valais AOC, Switzerland. Dark purple; perfumy like Lagrein. Very concentrated red and black cherries and herbs. If I could describe taste with a color, this one is purple. Juicy finish. [My guess: something from northwest or northeast Italy, not very old]
§§Le Piane Boca 2006. Boca DOC. Situated between Lago d’Orta and the Ghemme and Gattinara regions. Nebbiolo 85%, Vespolina 15%. Porphyr (volcanic) soil; southern exposure. Aged 3-4 years in large barrels. Magenta pink with aromas of raspberries, rosemary, lavender, and other herbs. Good tannins and dry in the finish with the fruit well-integrated into a high acidity. [My guess: Palmina? (I don’t know why I guessed that; I should have guessed from all the herb qualities that it was northern Italy.)]
§§Cascina Vano Canova Barbaresco 1999. Barbaresco DOCG. Brick red with a lot of clarity. The nose is all leather and a red berry mix with concrete and minerals. Very concentrated red berry fruit and lots of tannins. [My guess: northern Piemonte or possibly the Corsini]
Palmina Nebbiolo 2004. Stolpman Vineyard. Santa Ynez Valley AVA, California. Clear, brick red color. A lot of mineral on this one, ripe strawberry jam, and dark spices. Striking balance of mineral, jammy fruit, spice, and tannins. [My guess: Poderi Ruggeri Corsini Barolo] A favorite!
Novy Stolpman Vineyard Nebbiolo 2005. Santa Ynez Valley AVA, California. Dark purple color. Really sweet and grapey scents come forth with a little fig. Juniper and cologne follow second. Concentrated/extracted fruit with tannins but no harmony. (Prefer 2006) [My guess: Palmina]
§Adelaida Glenrose Vineyard Nebbiolo 2005. Paso Robles AVA, California. Mostly limestone soil on the west side (cooler side) of Paso Robles. The vineyard spot sees warm days and cool nights. Following destemming, the grapes soaked on skins for 3 days until fermentation started on native yeast. Hand punch downs kept the cap wet. After initial fermentation (18 days), ML fermentation followed in neutral French oak barrels. The wine remained in neutral barrique on the lees for 30 months before bottling. Orange-brick in color; semi-transparent. There’s a special wild strawberry in Piemonte called a fragolina, which is really small (the size of a blackberry) and really sweet. This wine smells like those taste. Jammy with an essence of mint and whiff of smoke. Pretty hot wine with candied red fruit flavors but somehow well-integrated tannins. [My guess: Palmina]
§Martin & Weyrich Nebbiolo 2004. Paso Robles AVA, California. I could never figure out where their vineyard was. No one could ever tell me if it was on their estate or not. (I’ve visited a handful of times.) This was my favorite California Nebbiolo for a few years. It ranged in price from $12-$18/bottle. Unfortunately, I think all they’re making these days is Moscato. It’s too bad. Ruby red in color and dark; darker than the previous wine. Fig jam, salumi, mineral — rich and nice in the mouth. Good tannins and the finish is more complex than many others. It tastes like it was aged in small French oak barrels. [My guess: Martin & Weyrich]
Malvirà Trinità Riserva 2006. Roero DOCG. Dark purple in the glass. Sweet with ruby port spices. Dark fruit. Nice tannins, however, but very rich. [My guess: Novy]
§Poderi Ruggeri Corsini Corsini 2006. Barolo DOCG. Monforte d’Alba. Clear ruby red in color. Complex bouquet of cologne, pine, raspberry pie, vanilla. Really great structure and bold tannins compared to all the rest. Reminds me of Correggia Roche d’Ampsej. [My guess: something Italian for sure; not new world] A favorite!
* From June 29, 2011 at the Cellar Door, Bonny Doon Vineyard, with Randall Grahm.
The planned pairing with the main course was, to my surprise, the very first Ruchè I had ever had: the Luca Ferraris Ruchè 2005. Randall used to import this directly from Italy. I remember it rich in dark fruit with a deep scent of fresh roses. At this point in time it gave an ethereal mix of mineral, dark spice, and dried rose essences. Unfortunately it has begun to show its age, giving off fragmented fruit, ruby port like characteristics, and tons of rocky minerals. I still enjoyed it, however!
As for the Nebbiolo:
Bonny Doon Vineyard Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo. Monterey County. 2007. Ruby to brick red. Quite floral with roses and other dried flowers, bright red fruit, mainly strawberries. Very bright acidity with some citrus notes in the finish.
Bonny Doon Vineyard Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo. Monterey County. 2009. Plums and smoke on the nose. Kirsch & licorice. Rich and spicy on the mid-palate. Impressive structure. This wine has a fairly high alcohol but I found that to be in balance with its intense structure. Radically different than the 2007. Conditions were hotter. Normally they add some small proportion of dried grapes during the fermentation process. This year just happened to have a higher proportion, for a “semi-sforzato” style, the style common in Valtellina.
† Outside of Italy, Nebbiolo is grown in very small amounts in Switzerland, Austria, Australia, Mexico, Washington, Oregon, and of course, California. If anyone knows of any other places, or even better, any notable producers from any of these spots, please tell me about them.
‡ Arsivoli is a great spot behind the Enoteca Barbaresco, owned by Emilio (who used to own La Salita in Monforte d’Alba) and his wife, who will serve you up a mean helping of wasabi next to your maiale, if you ask for it.
If anyone reading this has any other experiences with international Nebbiolo, please tell me about them! I’m going to venture into the Washington state stuff next and am also wondering about LA Cetto Nebbiolo from Baja, Mexico.