State of Play: Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo is the revered wine grape of Piedmont. It could be argued that it is the most revered of Italy, from an international standpoint at the very least. As a variety, it is held in the highest regard by wine makers and drinkers across the world and would only be rivalled by Pinot Noir in its ability to express the most subtle nuances of various terroirs.

A big difference, though, is that Nebbiolo hasn’t much escaped from its northern Italian confines. To this day, approximately 75 percent of the world’s plantings of the variety are still in Piedmont.

Nebbiolo

As a variety, Nebbiolo has a very long history, with its first mention in 1266 and repeated mentions throughout 13th and 14th century literature. Its age and DNA testing draw the conclusion that its parents are extinct, though it is impossible to determine whether it was originally from Piedmont or Valtellina.

The Australian history of the grape is a far shorter affair. Small plantings were made in the Hunter Valley in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until the Pizzini family started planting it in the King Valley during the late 1980s that the variety started to make itself known. The first single varietal Nebbiolo produced by the Pizzini family was the 1991 vintage.

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THE RIGHT TIMING

Nebbiolo is a challenging variety to grow successfully, with budburst occurring very early, but only coming to full ripeness late, often weeks after everything else has been picked. This opens up a huge window of time where things can go wrong.

When everything comes together, though, you have wines of amazing aromatics, and great fruit intensity without weight, mostly due to Nebbiolo’s traditional characters of bright acidity and distinct tannins. The crux of acidity and tannin drives the winemaking and viticulture. With such distinct structural elements, the fruit has to be of the utmost quality to remain in balance.

Joel Pizzini of Pizzini Wines tells me that it took their family many years to really understand what makes the variety tick. Their initial plantings were over undulating land, but it became apparent that the best fruit they got was from the higher ridges. Over time, they replanted most of their Nebbiolo onto higher sites that showed a more consistent quality over multiple vintages.

This quest for altitude was mirrored in my discussions with Peter Saturno, managing director of his family’s Longview Vineyard in the Adelaide Hills. His experience in this location has brought him to the conclusion that the variety needs a good diurnal shift (warm days and cool nights) to show its best.

But site selection is just one small cog in the complex wheel that makes up successful Nebbiolo production.

Both Saturno and Simon Grant of Traviarti raised the fact that it is a variety that’s thirsty. Peter says, “it’s a bit of a sook when it comes to needing water, especially with our shallow iron stone/quartz soils in Macclesfield.”

Bunch size was another challenge that was discussed with every winemaker. Steven Worley of Hairy Arm grows Nebbiolo both in Heathcote and the Yarra Valley. Distinctly different regions, but both offering large diurnal shifts, however, Worley notes that as young vines, they “throw a few enormous bunches up to the size of a small footy,” but as the vines age, this settles.

Pizzini also commented that they often need to trim the wings of the bunches and in warmer years, even the lower part of the bunch. They see big differences in ripening across a single bunch without this ongoing maintenance in the vineyard.

CAREFUL HANDLING

Once all the work that has gone into the vineyard comes to fruition, the final step is how Nebbiolo is treated in the winery. Fermentation is managed in a variety of vessels, some favouring whole bunches whilst others destemming, very much dependant on bunch sizing. Wild ferments at relatively cool temperatures seem to be the favoured method so as to release flavour and aromatics as gently as possible.

The vast majority of the wines produced by the winemakers I spoke with are aged in seasoned oak barrels that often lean to the larger formats. Post ferment maceration is always significant, from four weeks to 90 days, depending on site and vintage. As a variety, it doesn’t tend to offer a great deal of colour, but maceration is also a method of tannin extraction, so a fine balance and gentle hand is required.

A big feature of all the discussions I had with the winemakers was that patience is critical in quality Nebbiolo production. Vine age is hugely important in getting consistent fruit quality that balances intensity, aromatics and structure.

Clonal variety is always a factor, though Worley thinks “vine maturity will overshadow any clonal diversity.” That patience is also translated into both post ferment barrel maturation and further bottle maturity. Pizzini tells me their first Nebbiolo, 1991, was released five years later to ensure the wine was ready as it builds its vinosity in the bottle. Worley also discussed upcoming cellar releases of bottle aged wines that show the variety’s inherent ageability.

AUSTRALIAN ALLURE

With such a revered variety in its home soil, yet very minimal production outside Italy, all these wine growers speak with a huge passion for Nebbiolo’s viability in Australia.

Each of them have an intimate connection with the variety and an experience that leads them to planting it and persevering in a market that hadn’t yet embraced it.

Pizzini told me about his father Fred sharing bottles of Barolo and Barbaresco with Mark Walpole of Fighting Gully Road (but working for Brown Brothers at the time) and deciding this variety had a place in the Australian vinous landscape.

Worley was drawn to the enigma of Nebbiolo. While the bulk of Victoria chased that other holy grail, Pinot Noir, he followed a less trodden path. Saturno was introduced to it early in Adelaide, but time working in New York and seeing the great Piedmont examples really cemented its place in his psyche.

Grant was introduced to the multiple sites of Barolo during the late 1990s by the winemaker of Marcarini and chased suitable sites for many years until finally settling on Beechworth in 2011.

This truly noble variety has very passionate supporters and this Selector magazine panel tasting certainly inducted me into that category as well. With a notable shift in the market from big reds to wines of a lightness I can see a gap that Nebbiolo can fill, sitting between big, tannic varieties like Shiraz, and lighter Pinot Noir.

I’ve seen a lot of Australian Nebbiolo over the 15 years of operating Fix Wine Bar + Restaurant; in the early days there was a simplicity and brightness of fruit, but they lacked a sense of character and place. As vineyards have grown older and the wine growers have gained further experience with the variety, I have found some excellent examples in recent years. Having said that, the quality of wines tasted together in this panel was a revelation with all of the wines offering a distinct Nebbiolo character.

Aside from the outstanding wines made by the producers I talked to, I was also very impressed by the character from Henschke in the Eden Valley. But probably the best surprise was how good the wines from the Hilltops in New South Wales were, of particular note was the Freeman Altura. Beechworth also showed very strongly, as was to be expected. The most consistent examples I’ve seen were grown there, understandable when made by such skilled hands as Giaconda and Castagna.

What has really hooked me is that I found a uniqueness to the individual terroirs, a similarity across each region, and most remarkable for me is that they all carried a line that spoke to me of Australian Nebbiolo, not attempting to replicate the wines of Piedmont. That level of maturity and intelligence in the making of a variety that is still in its infancy gives me great confidence that Nebbiolo’s future is very bright.

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Freeman Altura Vineyard Nebbiolo 2017
Hilltops, RRP $40

Freeman Vineyards has an enviable reputation for its portfolio of wines made from Italian varieties. Brian Freeman makes his Nebbiolo with minimal intervention in the winery, allowing the terroir to shine. The resulting wine illustrates how wonderfully the variety is thriving in the Hilltops region.  It’s medium garnet in the glass with a brick tint. Concentrated graphite, spice, wood smoke, liquorice and amaro aromas introduce a focussed palate with a vibrant yet brooding mix of cherry, field mushroom and bitter chocolate, tightly-wound earthy tannins and plenty of oak to finish.

Pike & Joyce Innesti Nebbiolo 2019
Adelaide Hills, RRP $40

Each with generations of history in
the region, the Pike and Joyce families joined forces 23 years ago to make fine wines in the Adelaide Hills. Their 2019 Nebbiolo is a great example of the quality they are famous for with its gorgeous aromas of cherry, lavender and orange peel, and its light, clean and tight palate. Quite tightly wound with layers of red berry, cedar and crushed herb characters, it has an earthy mid-palate and a lovely delicate finish.

Longview Saturnus Nebbiolo 2019
Adelaide HIlls, RRP $50

The Saturno family pay homage to their northern Italian roots by focussing on the grapes of this region in their Adelaide Hills vineyard. Their namesake Nebbiolo is vibrant pale garnet with a brick hue with white strawberry, sour cherry, rose petal and orange zest aromas. Light to medium weight, dry and fine with fragrant red fruit, raspberry compote and tea leaf, tight acidity and wood smoke to finish.

Varney Wines Limited Release Nebbiolo 2019
Adelaide Hills, RRP $65

The fruit for this Nebbiolo is sourced from one of Australia’s oldest plantings of the variety. Mid ruby with a pale brick tint, it features a very lifted nose of sour cherry, cranberry, black tea and tar aromas. The palate is quite bold and very tight with an equal mix of acid and tannins making for an unmistakeably varietal wine, with white strawberry and cherry, and a bright yet dusty tannin finish.

La Prova Colpevole Nebbiolo 2018
Adelaide Hills, RRP $45

The Colpevole is part of La Prova’s ‘Uno’ collection, which represents the perfect union of grower, vineyard site and variety. In this case, that trio is Mark and Peter Saturno, Macclesfield and Nebbiolo. Lifted cranberry, field mushroom, black tea and cedar oak aromas lead to a light to medium-bodied palate in a savoury and earthy style with notes of earth and crushed dried herbs lingering on the fine finish.

Henschke The Rose Grower Nebbiolo 2016
Eden Valley, RRP $50

Nebbiolo is said to be derived from the Italian word for ‘fog’ and Henschke’s plantings of the variety are on an elevated north facing slope that sees its share of fog. This wine is named after the Roesler, meaning ‘rose grower’, family who managed the property for generations. It’s light to medium garnet with a brick hue and has a lovely, fragrant nose of crushed red petals, truffle, tar, charcuterie and strawberry. Fine, delicate and developing well, with a bright mix of tart red fruit, wisps of undergrowth and crushed bay leaf, velvet tannin harmony and a silken exit.

Adelina Nebbiolo 2017
Adelaide Hills, RRP $40

This wine is one of the final releases from the Bowe-Lees vineyard, which was sadly destroyed during the 2020 bushfires. It’s pale ruby to garnet in appearance with a brooding nose of smoked charcuterie, rose petal, mushroom and cedar. The palate is light and elegant, almost ethereal, with a clean and vibrant mix of cherry and strawberry characters, firm tannins, mouth-watering acidity and light touches of earth and white mushroom to finish.

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