Not many winemakers in Washington are crazy enough to even try to produce nebbiolo. Recently, though, a few have found success making this maddening, complex variety.
THOSE WHO GROW and make pinot noir know it to be a fickle mistress, a maddening grape that prefers a region on the distant edge of viticultural viability. It barely ripens and only rarely results in a wine that exudes greatness and makes it all worthwhile.
Nebbiolo is for those who find pinot noir a little too easy to work with.
You want maddening? Try growing nebbiolo. Too much hair on your head? Try making nebbiolo. Want a wine with a light red color backed by tannins that would just as soon rip your tongue out? Open a bottle of nebbiolo.
Two to try
Cavatappi 2012 Maddalena nebbiolo, Columbia Valley, $30: This expressive Washington nebbiolo reveals aromas of cherry, cinnamon and sweet pipe tobacco, followed by gorgeous cherry and pomegranate fruit. The elegant fruit is backed by classic sturdy tannins.
Wilridge Winery 2012 estate nebbiolo, Naches Heights, $30: Aromas of cocoa powder, Bing cherry and raspberry give way to flavors of bright red fruit, including Rainier cherry and pomegranate. The tannins are solid without overwhelming the fruit.
But when it’s right, oh my. Nebbiolo can become one of the greatest wines in the world. That’s why an intrepid few winemakers follow a quixotic quest for perfection.
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Even Timothy Egan’s novel “The Winemaker’s Daughter” makes Washington nebbiolo a centerpiece of the plot.
Nebbiolo originates in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy. While such grapes as barbera and dolcetto are grown there, nebbiolo is the star. And the two most famous wines made from nebbiolo are Barolo and Barbaresco.
In fact, these are among the world’s greatest and most expensive wines, rightly referred to as “the wine of kings and the king of wines.”
Nebbiolo is a crazy wine. It’s light in color, not unlike pinot noir. Its flavors tend toward red fruits that lead to unfathomable complexity. Then the tannins come out of nowhere, beating on your palate like a thousand jackhammers.
Which means nebbiolo will age for an incredible number of years. Thirty? Forty? A half-century? No problem.
Like many European wine grapes, nebbiolo has been brought to the New World. But unlike cabernet sauvignon, merlot, riesling, chardonnay and even pinot noir, nebbiolo is rarely tamed here on the West Coast, not like it is in Piedmont.
Yet those tangled up in their pursuit for nebbiolo Nirvana continue to try — and are beginning to succeed. Small amounts of nebbiolo are grown throughout the Columbia Valley, from the hot benchland of Red Mountain to the cool plateau of Naches Heights.
These heroic efforts intrigue me and require me to taste and collect Northwest nebbiolos. Wineries such as Lost River in Winthrop, Cascade Cliffs in Wishram, Cavatappi and Wilridge in Seattle, Wind Rose Cellars in Sequim, Côtes de Ciel on Red Mountain and Kitzke Cellars in Richland all aspire to craft truly magnificent nebbiolo.
It’s an infuriating crusade that I am only happy to join, if only to savor the possibilities.