In Search of Nebbiolo

“The Elusive Soul of a Grape”

The Wine – The taste of a well-aged Barolo is hard to explain. These older wines display a floral (think roses) and fruity aroma which completely belies the taste that soon follows...rather than a nice juicy wine that you’d expect, you are smacked with bracing tannins and crisp acidity, under which you’ll find hints of cherry and raspberry flavours along with tar or leather undertones, and even a touch of licorice. It’s a tricky wine to describe and even trickier to make because the Nebbiolo is a difficult grape to grow. One must go to northern Italy to find its finest expressions. This grape is often compared to Pinot Noir in one facet: it does not travel well – meaning that the flavours and aromas are rarely found when the grape is grown outside of its “home” territory in Italy. (FYI – Pinot Noir grapes hail from Burgundy, France).


My journey to the home of Nebbiolo started in a golf club near Biella. The course, ‘Golf Club Biella – Le Betulle’ had been named the best track in Italy by “Il Mondo del Golf” magazine 18 out of 27 years! The course did not disappoint. I, however, was in the Piemonte (Piedmont) area of Italy to find the best of the best wine made from the Nebbiolo grape. Funnily enough, at dinner one night (I was sitting with a group of Swiss characters), a wine maker was at the next table. He heard us discussing the merits of our red wine and, as it turned out, it was his 2010 Nebbiolo based wine. Soon he joined us and told the story of his vineyard and history in the wine trade. His name was Massimo Clerico and he only had a small parcel of vines (2 hectares). Massimo’s production amounted to only 10,000 bottles per year. The wine itself was a bit peppery due to the addition of vespolina grapes (3%) to the predominately Nebbiolo based wine. (The wine was from Lessona and classified DOC). The evening was a tantalizing entry into the wonders of this important grape variety. Sitting and drinking copiously, with the “maker”, enhanced the whole experience.


My next stop was in the Ghemme region which is located on the river Sesia, north east of Turin. Our group met up with wine maker Dr. Alberto Arlunno at Antichi Vignetti di Cantalupo winery. He described the unusual soil composition found in the region. Over millions of years of volcanic activity and techtonic plates crashing into one another (especially Africa hitting parts of southern Europe) caused an igneous mix of granitic rocks, and sand. The result is a more elegant style of Nebbiolo wine. We were very impressed with the Signore di Bayard 2005 (DOCG). Dr. Alberto was a very generous host and extremely well-informed man. The tasting and ambience of his winery made the visit a real pleasure.


From Ghemme we headed to the Gattinara to visit the Travaglini winery. This region only consists of 99 hectares of which Travaglini owns over half! I briefly met wine maker Massimo Collauto who was looking rather harried in the midst of production thoughts and demands. His wife Cinzia Travaglini took us on a full tour of the facility and then led us on a magnificent tasting. As in Ghemme, the Nebbiolo grapes grow in light granite soils rich in iron, which gives the land a reddish colour. These sedimentary rocks provide a complex, and acidic influence. The wines are austere like Bordeaux while being ‘fresh’ and quite fragrant. The famous writer and film director, Mario Soldati refers to Gattinara as “the worthiest and most aristocratic of Italian wines. “ (Well, we haven’t visited Barolo yet…have we). We tasted a few wines and were more than impressed. I left with a bottle of their Reserva which is packaged in their unique “arty” bottle (BTW: These wines are available in the LCBO stores in Ontario).

I personally looked at the above visits as a preliminary kind of “warm up” for the vineyards and wines of Barolo. One member of our group, Roland (the brother of my business partner Jean-Pierre) knew a local winemaker, Sergio Germano. So off we went to visit him! After a short tour of his winery, which was under renovation, we gathered in the tasting room. I was ready…and our gracious host’s wine delivered. We started with the lighter wines from Langhe and then moved into four different Barolos. I liked them all but especially fell in love with his Barolo (DOCG) – Lazzarito Riserva 2009. Wow, what a great wine! The vineyard had been planted in 1931 resulting in Nebbiolo grapes far more complex than what younger vines would produce. I smelled floral notes and red fruit. On the palate I tasted black cherries and tar. The wine was seemingly dry and fruity at the same time?! The taste lingered for a long time. It was definitely the best wine I tasted while traveling in the Piedmont. I bought a bottle for my trip back to Canada.


An Interlude – My Locavores Digest is mostly about food so I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my excursion to Bra, the home of the Slow Food movement (nearby in Pollenzo is the first university devoted to Gastronomic Sciences…sounds like a foodie mecca!). We had a five course lunch at the Osteria dell’ Arco restaurant where the founder of Slow Food, Carlo Petrini, once worked. The meal was outsanding: Beef Tartare; Zucchini Mousse with a cheese sauce; something called Tajarin “40 worli” al burro o al sugo di salsiccia di Bra (a pasta specialty of the region); partridge in jus and buttery mash potatoes; and, for dessert, 3 sorbets made from tangerines, lemon and wild strawberries. Exquisite! ...not to mention the wines, including Barolo with the partridge.


Sad ending – I arrived home with a bottle from each winery we visited. I planned to drink the Ghemme and Gattinara with family and friends relatively soon. As for the Barolo, my intention was to lay it down for a few more years. Just one problem: after safely unpacking the first two I forgot that the Barolo Riserva was wrapped in my laundry. Being tired from my flight, I casually took my dirty clothes to the washing machine to only see my beautiful Barolo fall onto the tile floor and break into hundreds of pieces. I couldn’t even save a drop…pretty elusive stuff!