Nebbiolo the wine, the purest expression of the grape that shares the same name, affords wine drinkers wonderful opportunities to learn about producers as well as vintages. These wines tend to be less influenced by winemaking, and the lengthy ageing that is required for wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco, allowing one to see more of the vintage traits and skill of the winemaker in question. They;re also damn fine wine in their own right and often great values to boot.
I tasted the wines that follow on visits that I organized, mostly because I knew the producers and anticipated that I would enjoy their wines so this list is a bit of a self-selected best of list. The result is a bevy of fine wines and a range of styles, all of which can give you insight into the coming vintages for a modest price. 2010 and 2011 promise to be very exciting vintages in Piedmont, continuing a lucky streak that sees the even years being more traditionally styled and the odd vintages being more marked by a warm growing season. I am very excited by both vintages and found wines to recommend in both though most of the wines I tasted were in fact from 2011.
It’s too early to really say how 2011 is going to turn out for Barolo and Barbaresco but my gut tells me this might be the most successful warm vintage we’ve seen, eclipsing 2003, 2007, and 2009. The wines are big and bold, and probably will offer fairly immediate enjoyment but at the same time they are perfumed and rich with fresh fruit flavors. To a large extent the improvement over previous vintages lies with the winemaker’s growing familiarity with these conditions. Having experience with warm vintages and knowing what to do in the vineyard and in the cellar can make a world of difference.
2009 is the current reigning champ of warm vintages, and rightly so. While 2009 enjoyed plenty of warmth during the growing season temperatures cooled down late in the year, affording growers the leisure of a more relaxed harvest. In 2011 they had no such luck as temperatures remained above normal late into the season, particularly at night when the region usually experience the great diurnal shift that keeps their late harvested varieties fresh and bright. And yet still the Nebbiolo seems to have done quite well, exceptionally well in spots. Certainly this is a great vintage for Barbera, which usually means that it’s less good for Nebbiolo, but I have the feeling that some people just got everything right in 2011 and were able to produce spectacular wines.
Time will tell of course. It’s been said that in 2009 man made the difference, whether in vineyard or in cellar, it was a vintage decided by man. This is likely to be even more applicable in 2011, but judging from the Nebbiolos I tried a lot of people seem to be making the right decisions.
One note worth discussing here is that you’ll see that I tasted both Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d’Alba, and even a Langhe Rosso or two. While for the purposes of this discussion these wines are almost interchangeable it’s worth noting that differences do exist.
To begin with there is a geographical distinction to be made. Langhe Nebbiolo can be produced from vineyards in any of over 100 communes in the province of Cuneo while fruit destined for Nebbiolo d’Alba can only come from a fraction of these, in particular those that surround the commune of Alba and the adjacent communes. In addition there is the question of varietal composition that differs. With Nebbiolo d’Alba we’re talking 100% nebbiolo while with Langhe Nebbiolo the wine must be at least 85% Nebbiolo, the remaining 15% can be any other allowed non-aromatic black grapes. A Langhe Rosso must be at least 85% Barbera, Dolcetto, or Nebbiolo with the same requirements for the remaining 15%.
In reality the vast majority of the wines I’ve tasted are pure nebbiolo, and the other distinctions that can be made between the two wine Langhe nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d’Alba, such as minimum alcohol content (11.5% versus 12%) or the requirement for dry extract simply do not enter the calculus of the wines at this high level. At this level the wines are indeed to a large extent interchangeable , geographical limitations not withstanding.