When I was a wine snob fledgling, I was trying all kinds of wines. I had finally left the world of Boone’s Farm, Sutter Home White Zin, Manischewitz, Mogen David, and anything in a box. It was time to strike out to new, “good wine,” frontiers.
Naturally, I was eager to try different wines. That’s when I tasted my first real Chardonnay, a Napa Chard no doubt, because it had oak and subtlety and butter, and it was so very different from the prosaic “white wine” that I had gotten used to drinking. Usually from a box.
I tasted real Cabernet Sauvignon, filled with nuance, deep fruit, cassis, and leather. Once again, it was very different from the cheap stuff which was almost always overly astringent and with an odd tinniness that I can still detect in cheaply made wines. It was then that I began to realize why people sometimes didn’t like a particular wine – “I hate red wine. It’s so bitter!” – was because they’d only had the dreck and not the good stuff.
I happily tasted everything and became enthralled with the differences in each varietal. I was on my way to becoming the wine expert I longed to be.
And then I tasted a Barolo. It was the first wine to hurt me.
The tannins made my tooth enamel hurt and the acidity brought me, and my salivary glands, to my knees. And not in a good way.
I immediately thought that this was a wine I could not drink. How could something that looked so much like my beloved Pinot Noir cause so much pain? I swore that I’d never drink this wine again. That would be purely masochistic, don’t you think?
A Brief History
Nebbiolo, particularly when vinified in its hometowns of Barolo and Barbaresco, is hauntingly seductive. A well-made Piedmont Barolo is as translucent as a fine Burgundy; however, its colors – in my opinion, at least – have a touch more violet and sometimes slashes of fuschia, particularly if it’s swirled in the sun. Mesmerizing.
Piedmont Nebbiolo has a storied history. It’s more finicky than Pinot Noir when it comes to places it will grow. It flowers early and ripens late, but still needs a cool climate in order to thrive. The region of Langhe, where Nebbiolo grows well, plants the grape on SW facing slopes. The golden region of Nebbiolo is in Barolo, where the finished wines fetch hundreds of dollars. And aficionados and collectors gladly pay the price. A well-aged Barolo from a good vintage can be as magical as a Pinot Noir.
In “the old days” Nebbiolo was made in giant oak barrels, and once fermented and slightly aged, was bottled and allowed to age. Many Barolos were expected to be ready in ten, twenty, and even thirty years. Why? For the reasons I gave – the high acidity and mouth-torturing tannins. Apparently, I was not alone in my initial assessment of the grape.
But wait! There’s more!
Nebbiolo in California
It was many years before I tackled Nebbiolo again, and surprisingly enough, it was while I was visiting Santa Barbara with the Wine Bloggers conference way back in 2014. I had stepped into the tasting room of Au Bon Climat, which makes some of my favorite Pinot Noirs. I noted while scanning the shelves (and carefully ignoring the screams of The Budget™.) that there was Nebbiolo on the shelves, and it had the family label, Clendenen Family Vineyards. While they didn’t have it available for tasting, I listened to the little voice that told me to buy it, and I purchased (I think) three bottles of 1998 Clendenen Family Vineyards Nebbiolo.
The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve been a Nebbiolo cognoscente ever since.
It doesn’t hurt that since the 2010 vintage, Italian winemakers have updated practices in order to make Barolo and Barbaresco more accessible so that multi-decade aging is no longer necessary. Even Barolos!
California Nebbiolo. Really?!?
With the singular exception of the Clendenen Family, some Nebbiolos I’ve had from California have been mediocre at best. Many were awful, but it’s because the winemakers were still struggling with a grape that for all intents and purposes, was having tantrums because it wasn’t home. The resultant wines have had little character – they were nice red wines, but not good Nebbiolos.
And then, along with the Clendenen Family, I began to find Nebbiolos that were not only good, but amazingly delicious. Adelaida (Paso Robles) and Palmina (Central Coast) are two that I enjoy as much as Clendenen or any Nebbiolo from the Langhe.
Wind Gap, Paso Robles
If you’ve spent more than a minute on this site, you know that I’m quite the Paso Robles fan. I’ve been to every festival that they’ve had, in different years, of course. I don’t ever remember seeing Wind Gap, but when I found that they had a highly-rated Nebbiolo for FIFTEEN DOLLARS A BOTTLE on Vivino, I couldn’t resist.
Instead of waiting the usual two or so weeks after receiving a shipment, I only waited a couple of days before I decided to share a bottle with my Sunday afternoon group, and they were floored. This wine, especially for the price, is a miracle.
It has the nuances that you would expect from a Piedmont/Langhe Nebbiolo. The colors in the glass, the tar, violets, and hints of rose petals on the nose, and cherries, violets, and a touch of tobacco on the palate. The acidity and the tannins were quite assertive, albeit less so than an Italian Nebbiolo. This is definitely a Nebbiolo for the American palate. Oh! And all of the bottles are numbered. Mine are in the 3800-region.
This wine is easy to drink, and just to be sure, I opened up another bottle at home to confirm it. The notes that I’d taken while the group tasted had not changed and were consistent across the board. What is even better is that it survived an evening in the fridge (I just can’t drink whole bottles of red wine!) and didn’t lose anything when paired with leftover beef cheeks the next evening.
Could Nebbiolo be my secret affair wine? Am I cheating on Pinot Noir?
I have to think about that!
Wind Gap Vineyards
2007 Wind Gap Luna Matta Vineyard Nebbiolo
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