State of Play: Nebbiolo
A new generation red
With a history in its home region of Piedmont of over 700 years, Nebbiolo is Italy’s greatest of reds. In Australia, while its history is much shorter, it’s proving to be a promising variety with a beautiful ability to express its terroir.
Nebbiolo is the revered wine grape of Piedmont. It could be argued that it is the most revered of Italy, from an international standpoint at the very least. As a variety, it is held in the highest regard by wine makers and drinkers across the world and would only be rivalled by Pinot Noir in its ability to express the most subtle nuances of various terroirs.
A big difference, though, is that Nebbiolo hasn’t much escaped from its northern Italian confines. To this day, approximately 75 percent of the world’s plantings of the variety are still in Piedmont.
As a variety, Nebbiolo has a very long history, with its first mention in 1266 and repeated mentions throughout 13th and 14th century literature. Its age and DNA testing draw the conclusion that its parents are extinct, though it is impossible to determine whether it was originally from Piedmont or Valtellina.
The Australian history of the grape is a far shorter affair. Small plantings were made in the Hunter Valley in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until the Pizzini family started planting it in the King Valley during the late 1980s that the variety started to make itself known. The first single varietal Nebbiolo produced by the Pizzini family was the 1991 vintage.
The right timing
Nebbiolo is a challenging variety to grow successfully, with budburst occurring very early, but only coming to full ripeness late, often weeks after everything else has been picked. This opens up a huge window of time where things can go wrong.
When everything comes together, though, you have wines of amazing aromatics, and great fruit intensity without weight, mostly due to Nebbiolo’s traditional characters of bright acidity and distinct tannins. The crux of acidity and tannin drives the winemaking and viticulture. With such distinct structural elements, the fruit has to be of the utmost quality to remain in balance.
Joel Pizzini of Pizzini Wines tells me that it took their family many years to really understand what makes the variety tick. Their initial plantings were over undulating land, but it became apparent that the best fruit they got was from the higher ridges. Over time, they replanted most of their Nebbiolo onto higher sites that showed a more consistent quality over multiple vintages.
This quest for altitude was mirrored in my discussions with Peter Saturno, managing director of his family’s Longview Vineyard in the Adelaide Hills. His experience in this location has brought him to the conclusion that the variety needs a good diurnal shift (warm days and cool nights) to show its best.
But site selection is just one small cog in the complex wheel that makes up successful Nebbiolo production.
Both Saturno and Simon Grant of Traviarti raised the fact that it is a variety that’s thirsty. Peter says, “it’s a bit of a sook when it comes to needing water, especially with our shallow iron stone/quartz soils in Macclesfield.”
Bunch size was another challenge that was discussed with every winemaker. Steven Worley of Hairy Arm grows Nebbiolo both in Heathcote and the Yarra Valley. Distinctly different regions, but both offering large diurnal shifts, however, Worley notes that as young vines, they “throw a few enormous bunches up to the size of a small footy,” but as the vines age, this settles.
Pizzini also commented that they often need to trim the wings of the bunches and in warmer years, even the lower part of the bunch. They see big differences in ripening across a single bunch without this ongoing maintenance in the vineyard.
Once all the work that has gone into the vineyard comes to fruition, the final step is how Nebbiolo is treated in the winery. Fermentation is managed in a variety of vessels, some favouring whole bunches whilst others destemming, very much dependant on bunch sizing. Wild ferments at relatively cool temperatures seem to be the favoured method so as to release flavour and aromatics as gently as possible.
The vast majority of the wines produced by the winemakers I spoke with are aged in seasoned oak barrels that often lean to the larger formats. Post ferment maceration is always significant, from four weeks to 90 days, depending on site and vintage. As a variety, it doesn’t tend to offer a great deal of colour, but maceration is also a method of tannin extraction, so a fine balance and gentle hand is required.
A big feature of all the discussions I had with the winemakers was that patience is critical in quality Nebbiolo production. Vine age is hugely important in getting consistent fruit quality that balances intensity, aromatics and structure.
Clonal variety is always a factor, though Worley thinks “vine maturity will overshadow any clonal diversity.” That patience is also translated into both post ferment barrel maturation and further bottle maturity. Pizzini tells me their first Nebbiolo, 1991, was released five years later to ensure the wine was ready as it builds its vinosity in the bottle. Worley also discussed upcoming cellar releases of bottle aged wines that show the variety’s inherent ageability.
With such a revered variety in its home soil, yet very minimal production outside Italy, all these wine growers speak with a huge passion for Nebbiolo’s viability in Australia.
Each of them have an intimate connection with the variety and an experience that leads them to planting it and persevering in a market that hadn’t yet embraced it.
Pizzini told me about his father Fred sharing bottles of Barolo and Barbaresco with Mark Walpole of Fighting Gully Road (but working for Brown Brothers at the time) and deciding this variety had a place in the Australian vinous landscape.
Worley was drawn to the enigma of Nebbiolo. While the bulk of Victoria chased that other holy grail, Pinot Noir, he followed a less trodden path. Saturno was introduced to it early in Adelaide, but time working in New York and seeing the great Piedmont examples really cemented its place in his psyche.
Grant was introduced to the multiple sites of Barolo during the late 1990s by the winemaker of Marcarini and chased suitable sites for many years until finally settling on Beechworth in 2011.
This truly noble variety has very passionate supporters and this Selector magazine panel tasting certainly inducted me into that category as well. With a notable shift in the market from big reds to wines of a lightness I can see a gap that Nebbiolo can fill, sitting between big, tannic varieties like Shiraz, and lighter Pinot Noir.
I’ve seen a lot of Australian Nebbiolo over the 15 years of operating Fix Wine Bar + Restaurant; in the early days there was a simplicity and brightness of fruit, but they lacked a sense of character and place. As vineyards have grown older and the wine growers have gained further experience with the variety, I have found some excellent examples in recent years. Having said that, the quality of wines tasted together in this panel was a revelation with all of the wines offering a distinct Nebbiolo character.
Aside from the outstanding wines made by the producers I talked to, I was also very impressed by the character from Henschke in the Eden Valley. But probably the best surprise was how good the wines from the Hilltops in New South Wales were, of particular note was the Freeman Altura. Beechworth also showed very strongly, as was to be expected. The most consistent examples I’ve seen were grown there, understandable when made by such skilled hands as Giaconda and Castagna.
What has really hooked me is that I found a uniqueness to the individual terroirs, a similarity across each region, and most remarkable for me is that they all carried a line that spoke to me of Australian Nebbiolo, not attempting to replicate the wines of Piedmont. That level of maturity and intelligence in the making of a variety that is still in its infancy gives me great confidence that Nebbiolo’s future is very bright.
Freeman Altura Vineyard Nebbiolo 2017
Hilltops, RRP $40
Freeman Vineyards has an enviable reputation for its portfolio of wines made from Italian varieties. Brian Freeman makes his Nebbiolo with minimal intervention in the winery, allowing the terroir to shine. The resulting wine illustrates how wonderfully the variety is thriving in the Hilltops region. It’s medium garnet in the glass with a brick tint. Concentrated graphite, spice, wood smoke, liquorice and amaro aromas introduce a focussed palate with a vibrant yet brooding mix of cherry, field mushroom and bitter chocolate, tightly-wound earthy tannins and plenty of oak to finish.
Pike & Joyce Innesti Nebbiolo 2019
Adelaide Hills, RRP $40
Each with generations of history in
the region, the Pike and Joyce families joined forces 23 years ago to make fine wines in the Adelaide Hills. Their 2019 Nebbiolo is a great example of the quality they are famous for with its gorgeous aromas of cherry, lavender and orange peel, and its light, clean and tight palate. Quite tightly wound with layers of red berry, cedar and crushed herb characters, it has an earthy mid-palate and a lovely delicate finish.
Longview Saturnus Nebbiolo 2019
Adelaide HIlls, RRP $50
The Saturno family pay homage to their northern Italian roots by focussing on the grapes of this region in their Adelaide Hills vineyard. Their namesake Nebbiolo is vibrant pale garnet with a brick hue with white strawberry, sour cherry, rose petal and orange zest aromas. Light to medium weight, dry and fine with fragrant red fruit, raspberry compote and tea leaf, tight acidity and wood smoke to finish.
Varney Wines Limited Release Nebbiolo 2019
Adelaide Hills, RRP $65
The fruit for this Nebbiolo is sourced from one of Australia’s oldest plantings of the variety. Mid ruby with a pale brick tint, it features a very lifted nose of sour cherry, cranberry, black tea and tar aromas. The palate is quite bold and very tight with an equal mix of acid and tannins making for an unmistakeably varietal wine, with white strawberry and cherry, and a bright yet dusty tannin finish.
La Prova Colpevole Nebbiolo 2018
Adelaide Hills, RRP $45
The Colpevole is part of La Prova’s ‘Uno’ collection, which represents the perfect union of grower, vineyard site and variety. In this case, that trio is Mark and Peter Saturno, Macclesfield and Nebbiolo. Lifted cranberry, field mushroom, black tea and cedar oak aromas lead to a light to medium-bodied palate in a savoury and earthy style with notes of earth and crushed dried herbs lingering on the fine finish.
Henschke The Rose Grower Nebbiolo 2016
Eden Valley, RRP $50
Nebbiolo is said to be derived from the Italian word for ‘fog’ and Henschke’s plantings of the variety are on an elevated north facing slope that sees its share of fog. This wine is named after the Roesler, meaning ‘rose grower’, family who managed the property for generations. It’s light to medium garnet with a brick hue and has a lovely, fragrant nose of crushed red petals, truffle, tar, charcuterie and strawberry. Fine, delicate and developing well, with a bright mix of tart red fruit, wisps of undergrowth and crushed bay leaf, velvet tannin harmony and a silken exit.
Adelina Nebbiolo 2017
Adelaide Hills, RRP $40
This wine is one of the final releases from the Bowe-Lees vineyard, which was sadly destroyed during the 2020 bushfires. It’s pale ruby to garnet in appearance with a brooding nose of smoked charcuterie, rose petal, mushroom and cedar. The palate is light and elegant, almost ethereal, with a clean and vibrant mix of cherry and strawberry characters, firm tannins, mouth-watering acidity and light touches of earth and white mushroom to finish.
Tumblong Hills Table of Plenty Nebbiolo 2019
Gundagai, RRP $22
Winner of a Gold medal at the Riverina Winemakers 2020 Open Show, this wine, despite the name, came from a vintage where yield was down, but quality remained impressive. It has very pretty blueberry, dark chocolate and pot pourri lift on the nose. A juicy entry of bright red and blue fruit with gentle dark cherry acidity, surprisingly soft tannins and excellent easy-drinking appeal.
David Hook Central Ranges Nebbiolo 2019
Hilltops, RRP $42
While David Hook is a Hunter Valley winemaker, he sourced the fruit for this Nebbiolo from the Central Ranges, mainly the Hilltops region. Clean and bright red with a purple hue, it has a delicate and elegant nose of blackberry compote, cherry crumble and crushed violet. Clean, elegant, bright and vibrant, the palate has layers of red and blue fruit, touches of cocoa and bergamot, and hints of tobacco on the juicy finish.
Ravensworth Nebbiolo 2019
Hilltops, RRP $42
The Ravensworth crew have only been working with Nebbiolo for a short time, but their success with it so far points to a long-term relationship. Pale garnet in colour, this expression shows cigar box, chinotto, dark cherry and truffle aromas. It has a soft, gentle palate entry, bursting with red fruit and attractive savoury elements, elevated varietal acidity and fine tannins driving the lingering Italian bitters and black tea finish.
Giaconda Nebbiolo 2017
Beechworth, RRP $120
Giaconda owner Rick Kinzbrunner has described this 2017 vintage as the “very best release” of their Nebbiolo, stating it is “an essay in how Nebbiolo is ideally grown at altitude to ensure varietal authenticity and depth of flavour.” It was the highest scoring wine of this tasting, with universal praise. Vibrant mid garnet in the glass with an amber hue, it exudes aromas of cola, strawberry, leather, damp earth and incense. The palate is powerful and juicy, yet elegant and refined, with a tense undertow of fine varietal tannins and tight acidity driving the earthy red fruit core. It has beautiful structure and an ethereal finish.
Bimbadgen Nebbiolo 2018
HIlltops, RRP $32
Bimbadgen has looked beyond their Hunter Valley home to the Hilltops region to source the fruit for their Nebbiolo. The resulting wine is a mid garnet colour with aromas of dark cherry, crushed petals, pot pourri and black pepper. The palate is spicy, crunchy and vibrant with lashings of red fruit flavours along with mouth-watering acids, prominent varietal tannins and a spice-laden, peppery finish. Overall, a lovely Nebbiolo.
Serafino Bellissimo Nebbiolo 2019
McLaren Vale, RRP $25
This Nebbiolo comes from Serafino’s range that’s inspired by the Maglieri family’s Italian origins. It’s mid garnet in the glass with aromas of black olive, black fruit, Christmas spices and warm herbs. The palate is medium bodied yet packed with flavours of dried cherry, orange zest and Italian bitters, with savoury al-dente tannins and crisp acidity. Drinking well already.
Arlewood Villaggio Nebbiolo 2018
Margaret River, RRP $40
Using fruit grown at Happs vineyard in southern Margaret River, Arlewood produce only 67 cases of this standout wine. It’s a medium ruby red colour
with a nose of dark chocolate, toasted vanilla pod, bay leaf and black cherry aromas. Bright, ripe and very varietal, the palate has a silken mouthfeel, layers of sour cherry and briar characters, tight acidity and assertive tannins driving the savoury finish.
Traviarti Nebbiolo 2019
Beechworth, RRP $65
Traviarti’s Red Hill vineyard is 100 per cent planted to Nebbiolo, reflecting the family’s dedication to this noble grape. Their 2019 vintage is light to medium garnet with an orange fleck. Very complex aromas of blood plum, bergamot, crushed herbs and tobacco. Dry, savoury and earthy with a juicy mix of red fruit and savoury elements, tightly-wound acidity, very fine tannins and excellent line and length.
Castagna Barbarossa Nebbiolo 2017/18
Beechworth, RRP $100
Julian Castagna is no stranger to the road less travelled, having chosen to plant vines in Beechworth when it was not yet recognised as a major viticultural area. It’s no surprise then that when he was looking for a way to create an exciting expression of Nebbiolo, he chose to bring together the fruit of two separate vintages. It's a light garnet-coloured wine with aromas of cola, earth, sage, charcuterie and black olive. Medium weight yet muscular and tightly-wound, the palate shows a mix of cola, tar and cranberry, crushed red petals and white pepper complexity, and a very dry finish.
Domenica Nebbiolo 2018
Beechworth RRP $55
The Domenica Nebbiolo vineyard is only a single acre and the yields are tiny, but the depth of flavour that results is deliciously impressive. This 2018 vintage is bright pale ruby in the glass. Cranberry, mushroom, oregano and tar aromas introduce a palate that's medium-bodied yet saturated with red berry fruit, very tight acidity and fine, almost chalky tannins, and hints of black tea and sandalwood extending the fine finish. A charming example of the variety.
Company Wine Nebbiolo 2017
Beechworth, RRP $60
This Nebbiolo features fruit sourced from Peter Graham's Domenica Vineyard. It's a medium red colour with a blue fleck. From the nose exude aromas of lifted cherry, blueberry, tar, brown mushroom and milk chocolate. The palate is bright, fleshy and very well balanced with masses of red berry fruit at its core, touches of white pepper, liquorice and vanilla, leading to a long, classy finish.
Trentham The Family Nebbiolo 2019
Murray Darling, RRP $18
From their first vintage produced 37 years ago from just six tonnes of fruit, Trentham have gone on to forge an award-winning reputation. Their Nebbiolo is testament to their talents with its vibrant mid red colour and its soft and elegant aromatic mix of red and black cherry and pot pourri. The palate is juicy and finely weighted with delicate layers of tannin, earth, blueberry and cherry, soft acidity and a supple finish.
Soumah Hexham Nebbiolo 2017
Yarra Valley, RRP $50
With its hot but short summers tempered by cool nights, the Yarra Valley has proved a great choice for Nebbiolo. This expression has very lifted and perfumed aromas of sarsaparilla, black cherry, bay leaf, bergamot and toasty oak. It shows fabulous concentration yet remains elegant, with fleshy red berry core depth, notes of earth, dried herb and rooibos tea, crunchy tannins and savoury oak to finish.
The Hairy Arm Nebbiolo 2017
Heathcote, RRP $45
The hairy arm is that of winemaker Steven Worley who, along with his wife Natalie, has been making small parcels of Nebbiolo from Heathcote vines since 2003. This 2017 vintage is pale garnet in the glass with aromas of dried herbs, tar, cranberry, bay leaf and leather. Medium weight yet ripe, the palate features a mouth-filling mix of soft red fruit flavours, lovely game and earth complexity, and touches of orange rind and cedar to finish.
Tar & Roses Nebbiolo 2017
Heathcote, RRP $50
This Nebbiolo was the final vintage of Tar & Roses co-founder Don Lewis. It's a pale ruby coloured expression with a soft orange hue. Aromas of cherry, raspberry, white strawberry, thyme and crushed herbs introduce a light, dry and elegant palate with very clean layers of delicate red fruit, alongside notes of tobacco, bay leaf, pepper and mocha, attractive savoury textural elements and a spice-laden finish.
Pizzini La Volpe Nebbiolo 2019
King Valley, RRP $26
From the family who really put Australian Nebbiolo on the map comes
a very bright pale red coloured expression that delivers beautiful lift on the nose of rose petal, sweet cherry, amaro and pot pourri. Light, bright, vibrant and unmistakeably varietal, the palate is showing excellent balance of fruit, tannin, oak and acidity from start to finish. Although this is not the top-tier Nebbiolo from Pizzini,
it punches way above its weight!
Billy Button The Elusive Nebbiolo 2018
Alpine Valleys RRP $32
Named after the variety's notoriously tricky nature in the vineyard, this cool climate beauty is pale ruby red in appearance. On the nose there's a brooding mix of braised mushroom, sage, cherry, black tea and charry oak. Very tightly-wound with the variety's signature elevated acid and tannin frame, and an earthy amalgam of red fruit, and background herb and undergrowth.
Pizzini Nebbiolo 2016
King Valley, RRP $55
Another gorgeous drop from Pizzini that shows this producer's great affinity with the variety. Pale red in the glass with brick and orange flecks, it has fine and delicate lift of charcuterie, shiitake, cranberry, pot pourri and tar on the nose. The palate has a mouth-watering entry of earthy red fruit flavours in a savoury style that's ageing well. Shows secondary notes of old leather, cigar and undergrowth, and a deliciously layered finish.
Sam Miranda Myrrhee Nebbiolo 2015
King Valley, RRP $65
Sam Miranda says he embraces the Italian lifestyle in everything he makes and does. This philosophy shows in this perfumed and concentrated Nebbiolo with its aromas of blood plum, wild strawberry, violet and Italian bitters. Developing well with good balance and structure, dark layers of liquorice, amaro, herbs and black cherry, and a tight acid and tannin frame.