California Nebbiolo Producers Compare Notes

Booster club for Italian winegrape meets to discuss challenges, taste results

by Jon Tourney
Italian wine expert and retailer Darrell Corti, and winemaker Ken Musso of Due Vigne di Famiglia, gave presentations about Nebbiolo at the NEB meeting at Karmère Winery in Amador County last week. 
Plymouth, Calif.—Meeting under the informal name NEB (Nebbiolo Enthusiasts and Believers), a group of 20 California winemakers and grapegrowers met at Karmère Vineyards & Winery in Amador County on June 21 to compare notes about their experiences growing and producing wine with the notoriously challenging Italian grape variety Nebbiolo. The gathering included a wine tasting with 14 brands represented. 

California vintners have had variable success with Nebbiolo, as production and quality levels can be inconsistent from year to year. In the vineyard, vines can have high vigor but low crop. The variety tends to bud early but is still a moderate to late ripener, making it prone to frost at both ends of the growing season. Most growers reported typical harvest times of mid-October, and some as late as November. Some growers reported vintages when the vine did not ripen enough to harvest. It also has a reputation for needing well-established vineyards. In Italy, the traditional view is that vineyards must be at least 40 years old to produce quality wine.

As a wine, Nebbiolo is known for being low in color, often with an orange hue, while being high in acid and tannin. Due to tannin levels, wines are commonly barrel aged for two or more years with additional time in bottle before release, but bottled wines hold up well for long-term cellaring and can improve with age.

Corti gives international perspective
Sacramento grocer, wine merchant and Vintner’s Hall of Fame member Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers provided a short history of Nebbiolo in California along with observations and comparisons of its production in Italy. As a wine importer and retailer who has visited Italy numerous times, Corti is an expert on Italian wines and California-produced Italian variety wines. During the 1970s, Corti Brothers even produced its own label Nebbiolo from Amador County grapes.

Although Nebbiolo has long been considered “a noble grape,” Corti explained, “In Barolo and Barbaresco (in Italy’s Piedmont area) where it is traditionally made and has the highest reputation, they have problems making it. If it’s problematic at its home, it will be problematic in other places.” Corti added, “Even in Italy they say perhaps we shouldn’t make wine every year,” and he noted that the 1972 Barolo vintage was declassified due to poor quality. Nebbiolo is also grown in less well-known Italian locations such as Campania and Sardinia.

Corti said Nebbiolo has a long, albeit minor, history in California, probably originally brought from Europe by Agoston Haraszthy in the 1860s. One of the earliest wine awards given at the State Agricultural Show (predecessor to the California State Fair) was for a Charles Krug Nebbiolo. In the 20th century, availability of clean plant material and more imported Nebbiolo clones saw renewed interest with projects such as the planting of Nebbiolo and other Italian varieties by Amador’s Montevina Winery in the 1970s.

Corti summarized, “I don’t think we will ever make a Barolo or Barbaresco style wine in California, but we may be able to make a good quality Nebbiolo.” He advised producers to find a style that works in California rather than trying to imitate Italy’s products. However, in terms of basic reference material for Nebbiolo viticulture and enology, Corti advised, “Learn to read Italian. There is not much literature in English, but there is a lot of material written in Italian.”

Wines from diverse locations
The tasting included both red and rose Nebbiolos, with recent vintages and library wines. Wine brands and appellations represented included August Ridge Vineyards, Paso Robles; Castelli Vineyards, Sonoma County; Due Vigne di Famiglia, El Dorado County; Harrington Wine, Paso Robles; Karmère Vineyards & Winery, Amador County; Madroña Vineyards, El Dorado County; Mahoney Vineyards, Carneros; Montevina Winery, Amador County; Renwood Winery, Amador County; Novy Family Wines, Santa Ynez Valley; Rosa D’Oro Vineyards, Lake County; Toccata Wines, Santa Barbara County; Urban Legend Cellars, Lake County; and Wind Gap Wines, Paso Robles.

Wines ranged in retail price from $15 to $45, with most from $20 to $35. Corti also brought some Italian wines to taste for comparison.

A 1975 Montevina Amador County Nebbiolo in the lineup demonstrated that Nebbiolo can’t be judged by its looks. After more than 35 years, it almost resembled a rosé in color, but the wine held up very well for its age thanks to the variety’s inherent tannin structure.

More clones available
Nine Nebbiolo clones are now available for U.S. growers, with eight at Foundation Plant Services (FPS) at UC Davis. Nebbiolo FPS 01, and Nebbiolo FPS 09 (formerly called Nebbiolo fino) are from UC sources, six selections are sourced from Italy, and one is from Stimson Lane Vineyards in Washington. The “Lampia clone” from Torino, Italy, is Nebbiolo FPS 10 (formerly called Nebbiolo Lampia FPS 01 until 2005.) The “Michet clone” is Nebbiolo FPS 12. More information is available at the National Grape Registry website.

NEB history
The first California NEB meeting was held in 2009 at Wind Gap Vineyards in Sonoma County. The second meeting was held at Silenus Vintners in Napa in 2011. The informal group is led by Ken Musso, winemaker/partner with Due Vigne di familia, a winery with estate vineyards in Napa Valley and El Dorado County. Due Vigne wines are sold at the Silenus tasting room in Napa Valley, and the winery recently opened a tasting room at the Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg.

Musso has a 2.5-acre Nebbiolo vineyard at 2,400 feet elevation in the Garden Valley area of El Dorado County planted in 1996, where he squeezes out yields of ¾ ton per acre. Musso is one of the more successful Nebbiolo producers, with the 2008 Due Vigne Musso Family Vineyard Nebbiolo winning a gold medal at the 2012 California State Fair Wine Competition.

Musso usually harvests within the first two weeks of October. “I harvest based on acid level, waiting until it reaches 3.25 pH, the level I like it,” Musso said. Accompanying Brix levels have ranged from 24° to 30° in different years. Musso ferments in bins with punch down by hand, and the wines always go through malolactic fermentation. Barrel aging is for 24 months with 30% in new Hungarian oak and 70% in neutral French oak. The 2008 Due Vigne Nebbiolo was blended with 8% Barbera, had a final alcohol of 14.4%, and 180 cases were produced. 

Tom Hill works with Musso to organize the NEB meetings and has participated since the beginning. Hill, a long-time wine enthusiast based in Los Alamos, New Mexico, regularly contributes tasting notes to the website grape-nutz.com, including notes from each NEB meeting.

Marketing and growth challenges
With just 166 acres planted statewide, based on the 2011 California Grape Acreage Report, and a total 2011 crush of 380 tons, the volume and availability of Nebbiolo limits the ability to increase the market for the variety, and to introduce it to potential customers. Inconsistency in the quantity and quality of production from vintage to vintage can also affect consumer perception. Production by individual wineries is very small, and some only have it as a wine club offering. Emilio Castelli produces only Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir at his Green Valley AVA Castelli Vineyards in Sonoma County. He has two acres of estate Nebbiolo, planted in 1997, and buys grapes from two vineyards in Santa Barbara County. He is one of the few Nebbiolo producers in a growth mode, working at “ramping up production to 400 cases.”

Karmère winemaker Dawn Martella noted, “It has challenges in the tasting room when people try it for the first time. They look at the orange color and think it’s light, and ask if it’s oxidized. It can take a little more time to educate people who are unfamiliar with it.” Nevertheless, like many of the winemakers present, Martella enjoys the challenges of working with Nebbiolo. “As a winemaker, it’s a wine that can get your passion for winemaking reignited,” she said. Karmère has a 1-acre estate Nebbiolo block. Earlier vintages were part of a blend, but a stand-alone varietal has been produced since 2007.  “We now have a small, but loyal following,” Martella said. 

The next NEB meeting is tentatively planned in the Paso Robles area in 2013. Nebbiolo producers and aspiring producers who wish to join the group’s mailing list for future information should contact Musso by e-mail at kmusso@comcast.net.

Posted on 01.18.2013 - 18:32:36 PST
Dr. Oz is recommending wines with the cannonau grapes or Nebbiolo grapes has having antioxidents that help aging, although he stated that often wines from Italy or France, Argentina or Chile, but as a native Californian and wine enthusiast, looking for the healthiest choices, I am interested in finding reasonably priced wines with these grapes. Chardonnay and Sauvignin blanc are on the good list as well. Thank you for this online article it is very informative.
Susan Brunkhorst

Posted on 02.08.2018 - 10:39:22 PST
One can not compare Nebbiolo notes without comparing the clones of Nebbiolo. The Nebbiolo clones offered in North America are of lower quality than those of Italy or Australia. The only semi-good clone in North America is Nebbiolo VCR 430, but there are better ones available abroad. Nebbiolo in North America will not compete until better clones arrive here. Earlier ripening clones like CVT C2, CVT 71 or MAT 10, which ripen with Cabernet Sauvignon, need to be utilized for better wine. The FPS clones need to be greatly diversified as "old school junk" was sent there other than FPS 11.