Nebbiolo, the Tough

“Quick, I have $100,000 to spend! What can you get me in, say, big-name Bordeaux? My plane is waiting …”

This was the essence of a telephone conversation one of the tasters at the latest Omniboire panel had as we were coming to the end of our investigation of Northern Italy’s nebbiolo grape. And it strikes at the heart of the big-bucks envy felt by many wine drinkers — and wine writers: If only I had the scratch, I’d be filling my cellar (in fact, I’d actually have a cellar) with Bordeaux, Barolos, Burgundies … all the best vintages, all the best producers. There’s a subtext, however: What if I don’t like any of these fancy wines? Does that just mean I have to keep tasting (and spending) until I get it — sort of like learning to love anchovies? Or is my palate simply deficient? Omniboire to the rescue. Sort of.

Nebbiolo has never been thought of as a “fun” grape; rather, it’s considered tough and even brooding. “In nebbiolo you get tar, leather and spice … it’s more about complexities revealed over time,” say Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch in Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. Translation: they’re expensive and maybe even difficult. Which is why we haven’t attempted a tasting of the pride of Piedmont until now. That and the fear we might not like Barolos, the major wine made from nebbiolo, as much as we think we should.

Recklessly plunging right ahead, we prevailed on Jason Dady and Tre Trattoria, a restaurant with both Barolos and Barbarescos (another Piedmontese wine made from nebbiolo). Ari Wheeler, Tre’s general manager and wine buyer, agreed to taste, as did Felicia Gonzales, wine consultant for Serendipity Wine Imports (some of the wines were hers), and Dale Blankenship of Avante beverages, who also contributed a wine. We tasted blind as usual, and wines were poured in order of age, from youngest to most mature.

Three out of eight wines didn’t make the required 13/20 scoring cut, perhaps testimony to the fact that at the lower end of Barolo’s price range (the priciest wine was, however, $65, more than normal for Omniboire) the wines struggle to express the grape’s potential. In order to give them as much of a chance as possible, Tre’s bartender did open them four hours before the tasting — yes, some could have used more. And they were poured through an aerating device — which can exaggerate both virtues and flaws. And the Wino goes to …

The 2004 Marchesi di Barolo Barolo DOCG, a wine made from 100 percent nebbiolo grapes. This is a wine similar to one on Tre’s list, and Wheeler was relieved to have picked it out of the lineup. Gonzales wasn’t as impressed as many of us, saying that it did have incense and tea leaf qualities, yet “the finish cut off and there wasn’t enough meat and depth.” But Blankenship countered, claiming, “It hits all the old-school notes you’d expect … perfect as a foil for meats with marbling … like a laser cutting through it.” And in fact, we had tasted through all eight wines once before attacking a plate of Tre’s salami and cheeses; they made a big difference in our appreciation of some of the wines. These are not settin’ and sippin’ wines, and most really need food, was the conclusion.

Close behind at Number 2 was the 2006 Renato Ratti Marcenesco Barolo DOCG. “It reminds me of being in an old Italian duomo,” said Gonzales, likely thinking incense and candle wax — not to mention dust. “It has a beautiful, floral nose that jumps out of the glass, `then I get` earth, tea, tobacco,” enthused Blankenship. “It’s very rich.” (All of those qualities were even more apparent the next day, by the way.) “It was approachable, and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t really click for me until I tasted it with the cheese,” said Wheeler.

There’s a fairly wide point gap between the top two and the remaining three, and not all of it can be explained by age alone. The Number 3 wine was a youthful 2007 La Spinetta Langhe Nebbiolo DOC Vigneto Starderi. Langhe DOC wines are made from the same grapes as the Barolos and Barbarescos, but are subject to less-stringent maturation constraints, and are thought to be more “approachable” Was this the case? Yes and no. Gonzales detected licorice and stewed fruit notes, along with a rose component. “It’s more fleshy than most,” she thought, adding that it was one of the few that didn’t improve with food. Omniboire also found the wine meaty — in a tannic, tough-steak sense, however. “A light nose with tobacco, tea and cedar … but a short finish,” opined Blankenship. “Italian wine can intimidate people,” offered Wheeler,” but I can see people embracing this.” Presumably with some active hand-selling.

The 2004 Damilano Lecinquevigne Barolo DOCG is a blend of grapes from five vineyards as the name suggests. “Bitter cough syrup,” sniffed Gonzales. “It’s tannic, drying, and my least favorite of the true Barolos we tasted.” Blankenship was a tad more charitable, finding sweet raisin, light earth and “firm” tannins, along with a lingering finish. And Omniboire dubbed it “sophisticated,” with dark fruit and light smoke but a very suppressed nose.

We love it when this happens: there was a split into two opposing camps on the final wine. (A nebbiolo from California was deficient in every way, and a “ringer,” Barbera d’Asti — same Italian region, different grape — failed to impress anyone.) At $21, the 2008 Renatto Ratti Nebbiolo d’Alba Ochetti was both the youngest and cheapest wine we tasted. Proving a plebian palate, Omniboire really liked this one, finding coffee, dried cherry, smoke, and bacon … especially the next day when it had opened up beautifully. “It’s so, so pretty. Bellissima,” raved Gonzales. (It turned out to be from her portfolio.) “Cigar box, tea leaf, almond liqueur (who knew you could find this?), and a little strawberry jam” concluded her evaluation — oh, and a touch of tar. In the other corner, “I didn’t care for it at all,” pronounced Blankenship, who found it grapey and flabby. Ouch. “Not interesting, bland,” agreed Wheeler.

Though not our absolute favorite (that was actually the Number One wine — we also love it when that happens), we will stand by the Nebbiolo d’Alba and point to it as an affordable introduction into the world of Barolos, often called “the king of wines, the wine of kings,” and other nebbiolo-based wines. It’s a world than can become obsessive, so one might as well start at the serf level.

2004 Marchesi di Barolo Barolo DOCG, $50 (approx.)

2006 Renato Ratti Marcenasco Barolo DOCG, $65

2007 La Spinetta Langhe Nebbiolo Vigneto Starderi DOC, $30

2004 Damilano Lecinquevigne Barolo DOCG, $54

2008 Renato Ratti Ochetti Nebbiolo d’Alba, $21

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