Some say it’s a macho and a heavy-to-handle variety while some seat it next to Pinot Noir in its appeal. It’s still a matter of gray where this grape, responsible for putting Piedmont on the wine world map, is poised. Nebbiolo has kept the tasters’ circles baffled and in arguments for decades now without arriving at any mature conclusions with regards to its definition of style, character, and true identity. It may have given forth the legendary red wine-styles of Barolo and Barbaresco but has also posed an equally challenging question – What is the true style of Nebbiolo? Perhaps the history of the region holds the key to that dilemma.
For centuries earlier and even now, British markets were the focal point of all wine trade. French, fast holding on to their repute, were the most demanded producers and were supplying Bordeaux and Burgundy reds to almost entire Europe. However, with the turn of the 18th century, British-French trade slumped with warfare on the horizon lasting for decades. Brits started seeking wines from other European countries and Portugal was their next bet now with Ports becoming a big thing. Spaniards joint hands with the French and thus that market was ruled out too as a buying market for the British palates. Till now, 1880s to early 1900s, Piedmont was unpopular and Nebbiolo less known. Finally the wars ended in the early 1900s and the trades opened and the curious connoisseurs from around the world made their journeys to the snow-kissed mountains of Gattinara, Langhe, and Alba in Piedmont and found the grape. Since then the following of this solo varietal of these majestic DOCGs of Barolo and Barbaresco has only grown.
There’s a reason why Nebbiolo and Piedmont are almost synonymous. It’s one of the few varieties that chose its homes than the other way round. The sun exposure of the Piedmontese hillocks grace Nebbiolo with long sun-hours and thus it always captures the warmest spots in the area. It’s amongst the first to bud but the last to ripen. So much so that the other two grapes in the region, Barbera and Dolcetto, would finish fermenting and Nebbiolo would still be days away from complete maturity hanging on the vines. Like a stubborn teenager vexing her parents, the grape can really challenge the viticulturist in finding the right balance between sugar and phenolic ripeness. This is where the cool winds of the snowy mountains come to calm the heat waves and assure the vintage difference is minimal from year to year. Having said that, getting the climate wrong for its growth is still the single biggest reason why New World countries haven’t found the grape its second home on their turfs.
With all this amazing past and complications that the grape is wrapped with comes the immaculate question dividing avid connoisseurs into two realms – Traditionalist or Modernist? This is where the grape’s natural approach ends and winemaker’s influences take over. There exist two philosophically different schools of Barolos, even Barbarescos for that matter. There was an era when this thought strongly existed and actually divided families who knew only how to turn grape to wine. Today it’s said, and observed too, that the modernists have taken over and traditionalists are fewer in number which once was the other way around. The difference in the two approaches has its roots in the past.
As Nebbiolo is a late ripening varietal, the harvest would end on the cusp of winters and vinification took place mostly in weather too cold making it a herculean task for the fermentation to initiate. So much so that the must would rest in the tanks for up to three weeks without the sight of first act by the yeast on sugar. Fermentation would drag on for over two to three months in old gigantic oak barrels allowing chances for bacterial infections. Such long processes also ensured that the natural fruit character of the grape was shadowed by oak, as the wines slowly soak in the woody characters too, and there developed heady aromas of musty hints, tar, smoke, mushrooms, and the likes. This prolonged skin contact also steeped rough tannins into the resultant wine and acidity turned a tad volatile, tasting like varnish!! Final impact of this weather-driven practice was a harsh, tannic, alcoholic red wine that now needed long ageing, breathing, and maturing before the tannins would mellow enough for drinking, which was often up to a decade, minimum! Eventually as technology spread its wings over the area, it brought along a new style: that of producing cleaner wines with natural fruity characters, absence of unfavourable musty aromas, lively restrained play of oak, and affability of refreshing supple tannins. This was well received as a breath of fresh air and attracted those who couldn’t come to a consensus with the traditionalist style. Large botti (1,000 to 150,000 litres) are being replaced by barriques (225 litres) at some houses however it is impossible to find a cellar in Piedmont without the former being steadily present. While some believe that traditionalists would hide the flaws created by lack of temperature control and less technological advancements in their wines by generous use of oak some also believe that the love for barriques by the modernists makes the more subtle aromas of Nebbiolo die under the sweet vanilla flavours (from fresher barriques) and creates rather tamed uni-dimensional wines as the aging is quick and more smaller barrels deliver more flavours of their own rapidly. Which theory is correct? That’s subjective and is still keeping the scene stirred.
During my recent visit to Piedmont, I swung from one end of this scale to the other as I hopped from one winery to the next. While the praiseworthy philosophies of some winemakers was almost enticing to taste in their wines some failed to create verbal magic but their wines spoke for themselves, and well. While you have houses like Bartolo Mascarello, Giacomo Conterno, and Luigi Baudana sticking to their grand Traditionalist discern, there are houses like Elio Altare that break these shackles and create simpler fruit-forward wines with limited complicated characters upon maturity. And then there are houses having the best of both worlds. Palladino, and Vajra, have now started creating wines that are more open and expressive than what they made two decades ago. Giuseppe, the head winemaker and new generation owner, at Vajra maintains that he is 51% farmer and only then 49% artist and his idea is to let the grapes speak while he only moulds them to what they wish to be. It’s the personal connection with his vineyards that he wishes to bring in the wines he makes and it shows that the grapes were nurtured well to yield such wines with structure, definition, and precision. What catches the thought at Palladino is the panorama they created in a private tasting of over 30 years – from their 1979 vintage to 2008. The vintages older than 1991 were made by the previous generation which shows in their wines as they carry flexes of the Traditionalist style and that is probably the reason why they were still astute and held their pride. Post ’91 the new winemaker has tried to capture that style and maintain it but has also drifted towards partial Modernist approach. Montaribaldi and Nada Giuseppe are two houses focusing towards their Barbarescos and have a similar philosophy with the wine-style. Montaribaldi reserves their love for what transpires in the vineyards and passionately follow how the wines have aged and still are. Although the wines are not heavily lined with oak and are far from being crusted with musty and dense tar characters they do have the older thought influences that touch and go. Nada Giuseppe being a mid–sized winery has the benefit of restricted growth and concentration of efforts in the winery. Their wines have a punch of Nebbiolo’s natural flavours and are distinctively forward and pleasing.
The region has played under a balance of the three wine styles and they have their own followers standing in their side of the court to defend the philosophy and question the other. While the traditionalist approach still is a matter of discussion amongst many for several reasons it also has a large band of connoisseurs keeping close track of their evolution. Modernists have become the new favourites amongst the tasters who appreciate simpler drinking wines and allowance of the land and fruit to speak for them. However, they’re frequently under the hammer for being not complex and jacketed in their presentation with the doubt of retaining their charm through decades of aging. The real question these two schools of thought pose is what is regarded a stronger force? With a fixed recipe and solo grape, is it the expression of fruit to speak through or is it the craftsmanship of the winemaker to utilize its skills and influences to create something that can last for decades? Whoever may win this battle, it will still keep turning discussions into arguments, and great Barolos and Barbarescos being made and tasted for pleasure.