A little California Nebbiolo revelation

I tried a new California Nebbiolo last week and I was totally ready get on here and start dogging it but … well I had a revelation. And so did the wine.

So a couple weeks ago Jeff invited me to his annual company party, telling me that this year it was going to be held at Domenico Winery in San Carlos, “Had I heard of it?” Oh, yes, this winery did sound familiar.

I discovered it for this first time about six years ago at a small, local tasting, close to my home. It was while I was working for Bonny Doon Vineyard and at that time they were producing a lot of wines from Italian grapes grown on California soil. I don’t remember exactly what Domenico Winery poured that night but I do know it was mostly Italian. I was moved by the Cal-Ital wine making wave and was eager to discover other wineries making Sangiovese, Barbera, Montepulciano, and the like, right on my home turf. After that I have kept an eye peeled for this label in hopes of discovering more — but never again have I been able to find any of their Italian stuff! (They also make the usual California wines: Cabernet, Pinot noir, Syrah, etc.)

So when Jeff told me his company party was going to be at Domenico Winery, I did not hold my breath in anticipation that the events coordinator at a medical technology company would feel any inkling to add an Aglianico (“AGLEE-what!?”) to the beverage options for the evening.

I was right! The wine options were Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Syrah, and Petite Sirah. (Actually not a bad selection but not what I wanted.) So I sweet-talked one of the staff members to pour us a glass of their Barbera, which was actually pretty good! (It has a good acidity with well-developed fruit and while not a layered, or particularly thought-provoking wine, it is enjoyable. It’s actually a blend of Barbera 75%, Syrah 20%, Zinfandel 5%. I don’t know the vintage.) After that I had a glass of Petite Sirah and just as I was about to get a glass of Syrah to have with dinner, Jeff surprised me with a bottle of their Nebbiolo since he knew I was really only interested in the Italian stuff.

He popped the cork out and poured two glasses. I took a smell, took a sip, and thought, “Hm, kind of rosy, decent light red fruit, a little bit of tannins, hm, something is weird, something is too peppery…” So I looked at the back label and saw 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Merlot. “Damn it! Why do they always have to screw it up like this!? Why can’t more California winemakers just pay attention to the way they do things in Italy — and do it right!? ”

As a vehement traditionalist when it comes to blending and a fierce believer in preserving grape diversity throughout the world wine growing regions, I get really irritated when people just start adding Cabernet or Syrah or Zinfandel to random other varieties.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I refused to drink the dang wine. That would have been totally rude and disrespectful of the gift in the first place. No I enjoyed it with my food but honestly I wasn’t impressed. After dinner we decided to cork up the half-finished bottle and take it home with us (since we’d already had a couple of pre-dinner drinks and we weren’t going to just leave it there for someone else who didn’t know what it was).

The whole way home I pondered my annoyance. To be frank, I’m an American who has an (arguably nutty) desire to be Italian. This is rare. What is common are Italians, or people with at least some Italian ancestry, who are here in the U.S. and who have become American. They identify with being American and so logically, they will think like an American and do American things. Americans blaze new trails, do what they want, and mix up old stuff to make new stuff. So of course! They want to mix Cabernet and Merlot with Nebbiolo. Why not? They’re American; that’s what Americans do. (Granted there are Italians in Piemonte who mix these varieties too but they are not the majority and their wines make up a very tiny selection of specialty, experimental blends. The wines are not a fundamental part of the definition of a classic Nebbiolo.)

So the next night I reopened the bottle and poured a glass to drink while I made dinner. I’d been planning on trying out a new gnocchi recipe I’d seen in my La Cucina Italiana magazine and opening my bottle of Gatto Pierfrancesco Ruchè, which I discovered and purchased in Asti in the fall of 2010.

I wasn’t expecting anything out of the Nebbiolo so thought I’d just warm up with it while I cooked.

Well slap me in the face! Whoa! What happened? This wine was actually really good now! I don’t know if I changed or it did, but either way, this first glass was going to go down quickly.

Domenico Winery Nebbiolo 2006. Amador County. Nebbiolo 80%, Cabernet Sauvignon 15%, Merlot 5%. (Notes from day 2 of being opened.) The color is garnet-ruby, getting some deep red from the Cabernet and Merlot. The bouquet balances a chalky minerality with rose, fresh grass, figs, and cherries. With an unctuous texture and a bit of grip on the palate, the wine finishes elegantly with a few ostensibly Cabernet characters: cedar-cherry and a good deal of Nebbiolo traits: milk chocolate and smoke, along with flexible tannins. ★ ★

Somehow I always tend to situate a Ruchè after a California Nebbiolo experience. (In my July 2011 blog entry entitled California Nebbiolo, I also review a Ruchè from Luca Ferraris.)

This one is my prized Ruchè — my very favorite in the whole wide world — and one I’ve been holding for about a year and a half, waiting for the right moment. When I saw the gnocchi recipe below, I figured it could be a good time.

Gatto Pierfrancesco Caresana Ruchè 2009. Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato DOC. Ruchè 100%. Awesome!!! It is just as I remember it! An ephemeral bouquet of mint, orange, raspberry pie with a buttery crust, roses, coffee, and wet forest. The flavors (cherry liqueur, licorice, orange zest) and texture of this wine are richer and denser than most Ruchè I’ve ever experienced. A wine with true integrity and balance, all the flavors culminate into a beam of chocolate-coffee, rose, red and black licorice, and the slightest touch of leather. ★ ★ ★

Actually the Gatto Pierfrancesco Ruchè was a perfect match with the
Gnocchi di pane e prugne con maiale e slivovitz recipe I tried! (Oh! I appreciate these synergistic moments!) The Domenico Winery Nebbiolo paired well too.

7 thoughts on “A little California Nebbiolo revelation

  1. funny read! i am californian and live in piemonte.. must say i am beginning to think like you .. always more skeptical of cali wines!:) glad i found your blog! love it!

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