Last month, I attended Nebbiolo Day – a celebration of one of Italy’s most admired grape varieties. With 92 producers on hand and over 500 wines available, the second edition of Nebbiolo Day was coined ‘the greatest Nebbiolo show on earth’, by the event organiser, Speller & Hunt.
In Nebbiolo’s most typical fashion, it produces pale coloured wines, often translucent with a brick-orange rim in youth. It can be immensely perfumed displaying aromas including rose, violet, cherry, anise, truffle, earth and tar. On the palate, it presents high acidity and mouth puckering tannins
I relished the chance to taste and learn about the wines on display but couldn’t help feeling that the event was missing something. Whilst walking around the tables and flicking through the guide, I realised that all the wines were from northern Italy. To me, this seemed like a missed opportunity to showcase examples from other regions as the intention of the event, or at least as the name suggested, was supposed to be about the variety rather than north Italian wines. This would have been the ideal platform to introduce New World Nebbiolo to the consumer market, whose wines are not yet widely recognised.
Whilst Nebbiolo continues to dominate in its native homeland of Italy, it’s now being cultivated in cooler parts of California and a little in Argentina. However, one country that is beginning to develop a reputation for its Nebbiolo is Australia, most notably Yarra Valley in the state of Victoria.
The Yarra Valley
Located approximately 40km to the north east of Melbourne, the Yarra Valley has a long history of winemaking spanning 170 years. After the decline of still wines in favour of fortified wines during the 1920s, traditional grape varieties made a return to the region in the late 1960s. This was started by a second wave of pioneer winemakers that led the Yarra Valley to become recognised as one of Australia’s prominent winemaking regions.
More recently, the Yarra Valley has recently become home to several revolutionary winemakers who are pushing the boundaries of grape growing and winemaking to create exemplary styles. A region renowned for growing traditional cool climate varieties including Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo has emerged showing great promise despite being a finicky and difficult variety to cultivate.
The increase in Nebbiolo plantings can be attributed to its excellent terroir. The Yarra Valley is one of Australia’s coolest wine growing regions located at 37o latitude. Rainfall is common in the winter and spring, with cool, dry and humid summers. During the growing season the average rainfall is around 550mm, and temperature is just below 19 degrees C. The topography of the region also varies enormously between 50-1000m and encompasses a wide range of soil types. The variety is early flowering and late ripening making the Yarra Valley ideal for growing Nebbiolo. The soils provide good drainage whilst the climate and altitude provide the right level of sunshine and warmth, without excessive heat, to help extend the growing season.
I’m intrigued to sample a selection of wines from this new wave of cult winemakers to understand why Nebbiolo is developing a reputation for itself in the Yarra Valley. Are there any direct comparisons with northern Italian Nebbiolo or have they ripped up the method book and adopted their own approach? The wines I’ve chosen are from three different producers – Mac Forbes, Timo Mayer and Luke Lambert.
Mac Forbes EB30 Still Waters 2016
Mac Forbes found himself in vineyards at an early age whilst travelling through the south of France. Having fallen for the thrill of winemaking, Mac returned to Australia and pursued a degree in winemaking. This eventually led him into a career spanning wine marketing, education and consultancy at home and abroad.
Whilst working away, Mac realised just how little was understood about the terroir of his own land. Equipped with knowledge about Old World traditions where the wines begin in the soil, rather than in the winery, Mac returned to Yarra Valley in 2004. He set up his own label with an aim to create authentic wines that reflect the sites where the grapes are grown. 15 years later, Mac tends six vineyards where he creates a range of wines focusing primarily on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernets.
Mac also enjoys experimenting with the Yarra Valley’s climate and soil diversity and creates occasional, small batch wines. These are the EB range (Experimental Batch) and help Mac trial what works and what doesn’t. I’ve managed to source one of 1,500 bottles of the 2016 EB30 Still Waters Nebbiolo. Mac doesn’t release much information about his EB wines but the bottle label notes that he uses grapes grown in the Yarra Glen and places them into large old oak barrels with a few stalks to create rustic structure.
On the nose, the wine has a floral and wild ferment character to it, whilst on the palate, there is a deceptive flavour intensity which shows a wide red fruit spectrum including Christmas cranberry and strawberry coulis. It certainly packs a punch with a slight fizz, mouth-watering acidity and chewy tannins. It has good length for a light red and would benefit from some refrigeration before serving. Drink young. Very quaffable indeed.
Timo Mayer Nebbiolo 2017
Born in Germany to a traditional winemaking family, Timo Mayer grew up around wine, later moving to the Yarra Valley in the 1990s. Following a formal wide education and a stint at De Bortoli Wines, he set up his own label in 2000.
In 2004, Timo began making innovative styles of wine using 100% whole bunch fermentation; an old-school method widely used in Beaujolais and Burgundy, and previously in Australia, to create fresh and fruit forward styles of wine. At the time, hardly any winemaker was making wines in this way, but the method has since seen a resurgence across Australia.
Timo is regarded as an enigmatic and eccentric winemaker. His philosophy is to bring back the funkof wines – in other words, to create styles that challenge the status quo and have a unique taste profile. Since beginning to use whole bunch fermentation, Timo has begun experimenting with new varieties including Nebbiolo.
His Nebbiolo grapes are sourced from vineyards at his former workplace, De Bortoli, in the northern Yarra Valley. The fruit is handpicked and fermented 100% whole bunch with wild yeast in old oak. The wines are left on their lees for a year with only a single handling into the blending tank before being bottled unfined and unfiltered with a small amount of sulphur.
The expression of his Nebbiolo is just remarkable and unique. Like the EB30, the nose also presents this wild character but also portrays intense and beautifully perfumed aromas of violet, raspberry, black cherry and a herbaceous quality. On the palate, there is a perception of smoothness on first sip, but this opens up immediately to reveal fresh acidity, well-structured tannins and an excellent concentration of fresh black fruit flavours. There’s superb length with a lingering aftertaste of what I can only describe as Black Jack sweets. A wine that begs you to keep going back for more. Drink young to capture all of this.
Luke Lambert Nebbiolo 2015
After finishing high school in Brisbane, Luke Lambert headed to Europe for two years where he immersed himself in the wine culture and developed a passion for wines that told a story about their environment. Whilst travelling through northern Italy, he developed an interest in Nebbiolo, describing the variety as producing the best wines in the world
Luke returned to Australia and completed an oenology degree, before moving to the Yarra Valley and beginning work as a winemaker at Coldstream Hills. At the same time, he set up his own wine label in 2003 creating savoury expressions of Syrah, complex Chardonnay and perfumed Nebbiolo. His Nebbiolo is probably his most renowned wine which has helped ignite the conversation about the potential for the variety in the Yarra Valley.
Luke sources his Nebbiolo from rocky and granitic vineyards at 120m altitude. The grapes are fermented using wild yeast and macerated on their skins without temperature control for 40 days before being pressed and aged in large 30-year old barrels for two years. The wines are then bottled without fining or filtration. His method appears to draw inspiration from the traditionalist winemaking approach in Barolo, demonstrating his admiration for the region.
It’s clear from his Nebbiolo that this is most similar to the Barolo style but like the other two wines, has this clean and wild character about it. The 2015 has an amazing, intense nose presenting the classic tar and rose character of Nebbiolo. This is accompanied by a complex array of aromas including fresh red cherry and black plum alongside wild herbs and sweet spice. On the palate, it reveals grippy tannins and flavour depth combined with sheer elegance. It’s approachable now but certainly has the ability to develop in the bottle.
Luke’s passion for Nebbiolo is so commendable that he has recently indicated in an interview with the New York Times that he intends to give up all his other wines to focus solely on the variety. Starting this October, Luke plans to plant only Nebbiolo at a new 6-acre vineyard called Sparkletown. He confirms that the first wines won’t be ready for about a decade so his Syrah and Chardonnay will continue to be made until then.
Planting Nebbiolo, which he describes as the ultimate challenge in wine, will allow Luke to devote all his attention and be his best effort. If they are anything to go by his current Nebbiolo, I can only begin to imagine the quality that Luke will bring to the table in years to come. He added that they may not be amazing or rival the quality of Barolo, but there is no doubt he will give it his all in an attempt to do so.
It’s clear from these examples that the quality of Nebbiolo being produced in the Yarra Valley is exceptional. They’re elegant, beautifully crafted and wonderfully flavoursome.
Not only is the terroir well suited for growing this tricky variety, it’s also the people behind these wines. Mac, Timo and Luke have spent time learning about traditional methods of viticulture and winemaking in the Old World where the focus is on the terroir rather than in the winery.
They’re not trying to emulate the great Nebbiolos of northern Italy, they’re simply utilising fool proof, Old World methods and applying them to the freedom of New World winemaking, which just so happens to have created a modern style of Nebbiolo that clearly depicts its marvel from this cooler part of Australia. A very different style indeed to the rich and opulent styles the country is widely known for.
If the excellent work continues amongst these producers and others, I hope that it won’t be too long before we begin to see these wonderful wines showcased at Nebbiolo Day. Maybe next time, Speller & Hunt?