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An Olympian grape, at affordable prices

Nebbiolo brought Piedmont fame long before the Winter Games arrived. But it's not just about Barolo and Barbaresco, writes Jon Bonné

The Olympics don’t have an official wine. But if they did, the Winter Games’ home in Torino this year would leave just one grape in the running: nebbiolo.

Gourmands go gaga in Torino’s home region of Piedmont, both for its dizzying array of delicacies like white truffles and its — from friendly dolcetto and barbera to stately Barolos and Barbarescos.

Barolo and Barbaresco, which easily vie for gold-medal status among the world’s greatest wines, hail from the notoriously finicky nebbiolo grape. Late ripening, hard to control in the vineyard and resistant to being transplanted anywhere but its native northwest Italian terroir, this is a grape whose reputation puts Bode Miller to shame. Forget pinot noir’s “Sideways”-fueled reputation as a hard case; nebbiolo can make pinot look like a choir boy.

There’s a silver lining. Though the most famous nebbiolo wines are often intimidating and expensive, lesser-known versions are routinely found on tables in and around Torino – affordable, pleasing alternatives to their stately cousins. The best pull off a Sasha Cohen: They achieve that elusive balance of power and elegance. Filled with deliriously intricate aromas of roses, tobacco, saddle leather, dry earth and perfumed cherries, they have the right balance of acidity and tannins to stand up to hearty winter meals.

Many Barolo and Barbareso vintners also produce entry-level nebbiolos. The virtue of these wines, notes Jamie Wolff, co-owner of Chambers Street Wines in New York, “is that it can give you an idea of the producer's style without spending a lot.”

While more expensive nebbiolos are often aged three years or more before being released, these everyday wines are rarely aged for over a year. They can make for a great value, compared to their big-name relatives, whose price tags start at $40 and quickly soar toward $100. 

But in difficult years (like 2002, when most crops were wiped out by late-season hail storms) many winemakers refuse to make Barolo or Barbaresco at all, instead using their grapes in lesser-quality wines.

Others can be simple or harsh, with jarring finishes that scrape your cheeks or one-note flavors that signal a winemaker determined to jam the square peg that is nebbiolo into the round hole of a generic “international” style.

That's not all. Because nebbiolo from one part of Piedmont can be completely unlike another, understanding the grape’s geography is essential. And yet parsing it can be as frustrating as trying to remember the difference between a triple Lutz and a double salchow. For instance:

Langhe: The Langhe hills outside the Piedmontese city of Alba, home to the villages of Barolo and Barbaresco, are nebbiolo’s heartland. Their fog-draped, south-facing vineyards have been cautiously tailored over the decades to help sunlight-hungry nebbiolo grapes thrive. Pride of place is everything here, so the rather generic Langhe nebbiolo label is often a sign of “declassified” grapes: fruit that otherwise would go into a more rarified wine like Barbaresco, but didn’t quite meet quality standards.

Nebbiolo d'Alba: The Alba DOC (denominazione di origine controllata, or regulated wine region) covers territory in 32 different towns surrounding Alba. These sites specifically exclude village appellations like Barbaresco, so they can’t be used to make the most expensive nebbiolos. At the same time, declassified Barolo and Barbaresco can’t be labeled as nebbiolo d’Alba. Because these wines are intended to be drunk young, they often are fresher and more approachable than the Langhe wines. Many famous Barolo producers, like Prunotto and Bruno Giacosa, also produce a nebbiolo d’Alba as an affordable everyday wine.

Gattinara and Ghemme: Alba is hardly Italy’s only home for nebbiolo. Clear across Piedmont lies the town of Gattinara, some 60 miles northeast of Turin near the banks of Lake Maggiore and another longtime home for the grape. The wines of Gattinara aren’t quite as expansive as the best of those from the Langhe; a cooler climate, slightly higher elevation (900-1,300 feet) and more acidic soils than the Langhe further complicate the difficulties inherent in growing nebbiolo, which is known locally as spanna. Good Gattinara is marked by a distinct minerality, and a hot year can produce wines with impressive structure and elegance — helped by a required four years aging. Across the Sesia River is the town of Ghemme, whose nebbiolos have similar qualities, though they’re usually meant to be drunk younger than Gattinaras.

Valtellina: Wandering even farther afield from Torino, this narrow zone northeast of Milan winds through Lombardy near the Swiss border, and is generally considered Italy’s northernmost nebbiolo-producing region. Nebbiolo, which locals here call chiavennasca, ripens at altitudes up to 2,300 feet thanks to a warming effect from nearby Lake Como, plus the extensive use of terraced vineyards on the Alpine foothill slopes. Usually lighter than their southern cousins, these wines can be beautifully aromatic and light on the palate when young, then complex and meaty when aged.

TASTING NOTESWe assembled a range of 20 nebbiolos from various regions, including several suggestions from Chambers Street’s Jamie Wolff. A few were standouts; severalmore were decent, solid wines. But others were faulty or lacked flavor. Nebbiolo can be an unforgiving wine, so shop wisely. My seven picks:

Bruno Giacosa 2003 nebbiolo d’Alba (Winebow, $32): A quintessential effort from one of the masters of Barolo. Perfectly concentrated, with a powerful punch of dried raspberry, roasted cherry, sweet herbs and mint, a leathery middle and a long, slightly tarry finish. Slow to open up, but then it’s graceful and strong.

Pasquero Bruno 2001 nebbiolo d’Alba “Vignadogna” (PGM Wines, $20): Rich and focused, with dark fruit and hints of chamomile and hazelnut skin. A bit tannic up front, and meant for food, but tapers to a smooth, tactile finish. Hard to find, but worth it.

Sandro Fay 2001 Valtellina Superiore “Ca Moréi” (Vitis Imports, $30): This patriarch winemaker, a former mayor of his native town of San Giacomo di Teglio, has ushered his son and daughter into the family business.  Heady and aromatic, with violets, dried herbs, sour strawberry and a slightly tart, tinny quality. It’s got a lovely richness in its core, though, with strong mineral undertones and a warm caramel note at the end.

Poderi Colla 2002 nebbiolo d’Alba (Empson, $18): An interesting effort from a relative newcomer to the region, that makes the best of the horrid 2002 vintage. Up front, it’s delicate and finely earthy, with lush cherry and tart strawberry, all leading to a slightly tannic, acrid finish. Another bottle revealed vegetal off notes on the nose, though.

Travaglini 2000 Gattinara (Palm Bay Imports, $22): Giancarlo Travaglini may be Gattinara’s biggest booster, with a keen eye for marketing — right down to his odd-shaped bottle, which vaguely resembles a molten trapezoid with a neck. This basic effort is balanced and smooth, with a firm backbone and a solid mineral finish. A good example of northern Piedmont nebbiolo.

Andrea Oberto 2003 nebbiolo Langhe (Domaine Select, $24): From a family-run winery with vineyard holdings in the towns of Barolo and nearby La Morra. This declassified effort is punchy and dense, with pleasing floral overtones and a rounded finish.

Vietti 2001 nebbiolo Langhe “Perbacco” (Remy Cointreau, $20): One of the region’s preeminent Barolo producers, the Vietti family’s winemaking splits the difference between modern and traditional. They produce this affordable second label nearly every year. This hot vintage brings ripe red fruit woven with hints of dry earth, and fine tannins on the finish.