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Food and Drink / Column

Insisting upon itself

The nebbiolo grape refuses to conform, producing a challenging varietal for wine makers and wine drinkers alike

Copy Chief Abe Loomis’s education in wine began at the Big Y Liquor Supermarket in Northampton, Mass., picked up speed at Astor Wines in Manhattan, and continues in western Massachusetts, southern Vermont, and occasional expeditions to vineyards farther afield.

BRATTLEBORO—The meek may inherit the earth, but it is the patient who will see the glory of the wines of Piedmont.

Set into the Langhe foothills of northwestern Italy, the treasures of this region, Barolo and Barbaresco, are guarded by the glittering watchtowers of the alps and by another gatekeeper: time.

Nebbiolo is a reticent grape, with an unusually long growing season, and its suppleness and generosity emerge only gradually. Uncorked too soon, the wines it makes will show a tannic edge that can feel harsh. Even if you wait, you may find these wines austere.

But they do soften eventually, and at their best achieve a bewitching balance of elegance and power.

Paired with the right foods — which can range from lamb with chimichurri (nebbiolo is a high-acid grape) to braised beef (a classic pairing) to a soft, pungent cheese such as Taleggio that will smooth the sharp, tarry, tannic angles and complement the grape’s delicate aromas of violets and earth and rose petals — they can be transcendent.

* * *

A recent find, the Negro Lorenzo “San Francesco” Roero Riserva 2009, is one of these. True to its varietal roots, it has some structural tight-fistedness. But it also has a flash of ripe fruit; along with the ink and ash comes a blast of fresh black cherry.

In the universe of northern Italian nebbiolos — a universe that is often spartan in its flavor profile — this is a relatively ripe wine.

Still, it is far from “Parkerized” (a term sometimes used to characterize the widespread softening of European wines attributed by many to the extraordinary influence of wine critic Robert Parker and his American palate). Like many nebbiolos, this is a demanding wine, a wine with teeth.

* * *

The word piedmont literally means “foot of the mountain,” and Piedmont is among Italy’s coldest regions, with a yearly climate comparable to that of much of central Europe.

The nebbiolo grape is widely thought to take its name from the Italian word nebbia, meaning mist or haze, and the slow-ripening grape benefits from the autumn fog that blankets the Langhe valley and reaches into the hills, where it cools the rolling vineyards and imparts an unyielding acidity to the grapes that grow there.

There may also be some magic in that mist, as nebbiolo has yet to be cultivated with consistent success anywhere else in the world.

The grape has proved more challenging to adopt away from its home region even than Burgundy’s finicky pinot noir, to which it is often compared and to which it is similar in weight and color.

But this is part of its charm. Born of restless vines that demand frequent pruning to focus their creative energies on the grapes they bear, nebbiolo can be a challenging varietal for wine makers and wine drinkers alike.

It speaks stubbornly, as fewer and fewer things seem to do, of a particular place in the world. And it has not yet been coaxed into relinquishing or tempering its nature — as many other grapes have — to enter the mainstream.

Small wonder, then, that it often carries an edge. And a small price to pay for the experience of its originality.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #462 (Wednesday, June 6, 2018). This story appeared on page B2.

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