Lifting the fog
Nebbiolo is a bitch of a grape—if I may be so blunt. Temperamental, picky and unpredictable, this little fruit has big attitude, and I don’t mean in the diva way. This grape makes a manly wine that'll have his way with you and then leave you feeling violated but wanting more.
Nebbiolo is named either for the fog, nebbia, which blankets the Piedmont during harvest or for the foggy bloom that develops on the grape as it reaches maturity.
Barolo and Barbaresco are the most legendary wines made solely from Nebbiolo. Of the two, Barolo wears the pants. Big, beefy and no-nonsense, Barolo is not for sissies. Barbaresco, by no means delicate, is a bit more elegant. Both are powerful and challenging, displaying massive tannins and a heartiness that can only be born in the Alps. These wines always require aging, in both barrel and bottle, to mellow the tannins and allow their structure to be realized.
When grown and aged under optimal conditions, nebbiolo yields a highly structured wine with aromas and flavors of tar, truffles, smoke and leather. The most intriguing attribute of this grape is its ability to produce wines with a rose bouquet.
This difficult vine is most cooperative when grown in Italy’s Piedmont region. Home to white truffles, the Shroud of Turin and the 2006 winter Olympics, Piedmont is a cold, mountainous region with soil made up of limestone, clay and sand. Terroir is very important to Nebbiolo. Grown anywhere else this berry becomes stubborn and unyielding. California, Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa have planted nebbiolo but have yet to produce wines worth mentioning.
Then I found out New Mexico was growing this fickle fruit. If I recall correctly, I laughed hysterically as I imagined some crazed, egocentric New Mexican winemaker telling himself, “Oh yeah. I am so good I can make Nebbiolo my bitch.”
Paolo D’Andrea, from Luna Rossa Winery in Deming, was neither crazed nor egocentric. In fact, he was rather realistic about what could be achieved with Nebbiolo grown in New Mexico.
“I’m pretty sure it is impossible to produce a Nebbiolo like the Piedmont in New Mexico.”
D’Andrea has yet to bottle Nebbiolo as a varietal. Citing a five-year minimum of barrel aging for Nebbiolo, he doesn’t have a concrete idea of what the quality will be. His Nebbiolo still has a few more years in the barrel before it will be even close to ready.
He has used Nebbiolo to bolster the body of his 2001 Nini. This Italian blend brings together spicy Sangiovese and sweet Dolcetto with the ballsy Nebbiolo resulting in a passive-aggressive wine that is both pleasing and amusing to the palate.
St. Clair Vineyards, also of Deming, has thrown caution to the wind and bottled their Nebbiolo on its own. The result is a sweet wine with a honeyed quality that lacks the complexity traditional Nebbiolos are cherished for. I would venture to say that the honeyed mouthfeel is a result of being grown in such a warm climate.
It would be fair to say that St. Clair’s Nebbiolo is not a good varietal example, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it for yourself. While I don't subscribe to the school of thought that "a good wine is a wine you like," I do think it’s OK to enjoy a bad wine. Those who enjoy a sweeter wine that doesn’t require a lot of contemplation may find the St. Clair Nebbiolo right up their ally.
Before you buy a bottle of either of New Mexico’s Nebbiolos, stop by one of several wine festivals taking place across the state this weekend and have a sip or two.